Supporting My Daughter Through Anorexia:
A Father's Perspective
I should start by saying that I often feel very ignorant of many things. Parenting is certainly the hardest job in the world and it is true that we get little training for it except our own experience. In my case, I was fortunate to have two amazing parents. However, this did not teach me much about my own parenting experiences beyond the most important one: it really is all about love. I have however tried very hard to be a learning, listening, guiding parent, and even if I am certain I have mostly failed I have read and sought advice widely (I have tried!).
Even though my [ex] wife had been anorexic, I remained very unaware of the illness. However, I was very conscious, always, of never commenting on how much any of my four daughters ate. By this I mean I never knowingly said anything about their size and weight as a very deliberate parenting policy. I felt aware of the damage of that kind of thinking, and encouraged eating ice cream and sweets (probably in excess).
However, it became clear in her last year at University my oldest daughter was not eating properly, and had lost a lot of weight. It took me quite a while to register this, as I did not live with the family at this time. However, gradually it became clear, through her discussions with her mother, and then me (and sometimes her sisters) that she had a severe case of anorexia.
For my part I really did not know what to do. In the end, we persuaded my daughter that she really needed to seek help, and with this we were introduced to Orri, a specialist clinic in London which specialises in eating disorders. Here I found very empathetic people who really cared for her so well. We had family therapy around our separation, and how it made her feel. I read a number of books which gave both hope, and despair, depending on how I felt. ‘Hope with eating disorders’ is one I would recommend, as it has a hopeful message and is very touchingly written. Most helpful for me was the monthly parental meetings where we heard from other parents just how debilitating for an individual and a family this illness can be – and how prevalent it has become. Despite the pain and the heartache, I felt so glad that my daughter has always been honest with me about these issues, once they became apparent.
After 3 months off work, my daughter started working again but still at the bank that works long hours. Over time, she decided to find a new job and to try to put herself first. She was doing better at eating but now was made keen on exercise and determined to qualify in triathlon. Which, although brilliant, is a very frustrating follow on to witness. Simple advice like if you want to exercise, why don’t you give your body fuel, is very challenging for her to listen to and does not help her. This kind of thing is really difficult for a simple person to understand. The whole question is so complicated. There is so much to understand about how to help and most importantly to help her help herself and how to change your own perceptions and behaviour.
When this becomes clear to a parent it is a profoundly shocking experience. Inevitably, there are searching questions: how, why, why her? And then a frantic search for more information, books and knowledge. By this time my daughter acknowledged that she has an issue with food, and was too thin. Her periods stopped. She was working in London (very hard, in a bank, with long days and little empathy). But she is very focussed and stalwart. She carried on. It was a difficult situation because she clearly understood she had a problem. However, she did not do enough to change her situation. Despite trying (without putting my foot in it too often, which I am sure I probably did) no real progress was made. She has an amazingly strong mind and huge will power.
During the summer of 2019 we went on holiday with me and my 4 daughters. My oldest daughter spoke more about how she felt and how we needed to change to help her. I realised how hopeless I was as a Dad, despite really caring and really trying and it was a difficult situation to adapt to and learn from [her sisters also talked openly about how they felt – I recommend an RV holiday in Canada for family bonding!]
After 6+ years of struggling I would say finally she is on the mend, and is getting better.
My introduction to Orri, and through them to Beat, were incredibly helpful to assist me in understanding better the illness, how patients felt and specifically what would help, and what would not. The variety of cases, and the fact that no one really seems to know what causes this or how to treat it, is both frustrating but also – in an odd way – quite enlightening. BEAT’s courses both in London and online at Christmas helped me stay aware and try to help more.
I am certain there is a great deal more I could do, but it is hard to help. Only by reading widely, meeting people and listening to my daughter, and many parents, does one start to understand just how difficult anorexia is to treat. And to recover from.
How difficult it is to be a parent, somehow responsible for a situation that is so complex to solve and largely unable to help – is probably the most painful experience of my life (which includes a separation). However, I do now believe my daughter is finally on the path to recovery but it is a long, tough road for her. All we can do is listen, and learn, and try to help and try to change in the right way (all of which in itself is very hard to do).
Chris is nearly 60, half Italian and lives in Bristol. He is father of four girls (all now in their 20s) whom he adores. He qualified as a solicitor and then became an accidental entrepreneur who now runs g-volution, a company whose mission is to help the heavy transport world evolve to a zero carbon economy. He is also a Trustee of the Warrior Programme and the Health and Wellbeing Trust.