Mark Austin has admitted to The Guardian that he told his daughter, who was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa, to “starve yourself to death.”
Undoubtedly it was not an easy thing to admit to, but the reality is that when you are a parent with a child who is quite literally starving themselves to death, you get desperate. I can recite the desperation of my parents when I was destroying myself. What do you do when your 15 year old daughter is laid up in bed, and has not eaten or drunk for the last week? We all say things in anger, but more than it being in anger, it is pure desperation to get a reaction, to change the situation. It is hoping that she will get up and eat.
The problem is, she won’t.
People close to me went to some shockingly desperate extremes that make me want to reach out to Mark Austin and say “it’s ok, really it is ok”. Some of the extremes people around me went to were not ok.
This admission from Mark is to make people see that eating disorders are a serious illness that cannot be ignored. People suffering with eating disorders are not selfish, they are not attention seeking, and neither are they vain. In order to help someone get better it is important, vital in fact, that we realise that this is a serious, life-threatening condition, that is going to require much more than anger, threats, or “just eat” comments to treat. It is a mental illness that requires treatment. It is a mental illness that carries the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, a fact, that even today still shocks and terrifies me.
There is no easy fix to an eating disorder. There was nothing my parents could do, not really. They could love me unconditionally, they could get me the help I needed, but this was something that was going to take a lot of time, and professional help.
At 15, I spent a year on a child and adolescent psychiatric ward being fed, some time of which was spent sectioned under the Mental Health Act because I could not see that I was ill. Life consisted of breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, tea, supper. I was fed all of the foods we are told not to eat. Doctors were forcing me to do the opposite of what most GP’s are telling their patients to do. Sponge and custard after lunch and tea, toast and cereal for breakfast. Insane amounts of milk (full fat of course!) and fruit juice. No exercise. Meals were followed by observations where we would have to sit in the lounge, watched by staff, being told off for so much as tapping our fingers. Bi-weekly weigh-ins where we were woken up, taken to the toilet where we would have to prove we had been, and were not water-loading, followed by the dreaded stepping on the scales.
It was a strange time of my life. I forgot the real world existed, I almost thought the real world was on pause, waiting for me. But it was not, and when I was finally discharged I had gained 37lbs which I lost in a matter of weeks.
I was not prepared for life outside of the hospital. It was a bleak time. I started giving up on the idea of ‘recovery’. I thought at best I would manage to survive.
Here we are, nearly a decade later. I underwent further treatment; I had outpatient treatment in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), plus outpatient and day patient treatment in the local adult Anorexia Nervosa Service including some time on a gastroenterology ward in a general hospital following a bad relapse…and here we are! (I make it sound simple, ta-dah! It was not.)
Am I 100% fully recovered? Nah. Am I surviving? Yes. But more to the point, I am doing more than that. My eating disorder does not have a devastating impact upon me anymore. I can go out for lunch, eat in front of people, have cake on my birthday and roll my eyes when people tell me how they no longer eat chocolate (more fool them!). Most importantly I have the energy to live my life. I will admit that my eating disorder still lingers there, constantly. I still do not get a day free of it, which is sad. Ten years of not a single anorexia free day. However, it is not loud any more. Yes it is always there, but it is floating in the background. I control it, it does not control me.
How did I get here? Time and professional help, plus support from the people around me.
This is not the sort of illness that can be easily fixed. There is no magic wand. There is no overnight transformation. It requires a lot of patience, specialist care and baby steps – but it is possible.
Mark Austin did not get it perfect. No parent gets it perfect. I do not read his account to The Guardian and feel shocked. I do not think anything negative of him, in fact I applaud him for speaking up. I know what it is like to go through this kind of illness. It is arguably harder for the family than the sufferer when the person is at the worst stage of being unwell, with no sign of wanting to get better in sight.
What is not acceptable is to have professionals that do not take it seriously, like the GP who met me aged 14 and said I would be fine after my exams, and who never saw me again because I was sectioned in hospital; this is what is not forgivable. It will not be “fine.” It is not a problem that will go away however hard you try to ignore it.
We need to be willing to face up to the reality of eating disorders, and the support that people need. Recovery is not easy or quick, but it is possible.