How Parents Can Support Their Child Through an Eating Disorder

Throughout her late teen years, Megan Ravenhall found herself in the grip of an eating disorder. Though she feels she has still not fully recovered, Megan reflects on how her parents' support led her to ultimately choose life.

The beautiful Florence Welch begins her song, Hunger, with the line:

‘At seventeen I started to starve myself.’

This simple statement, Florence’s truth, also captures a moment in my own life, where, all of a sudden, my desire to be thin became my obsession.

At seventeen, for some reason I still do not understand, I made a choice to make it my sole aim to be thin, but not just thin, skeletal. In stepping into that self-destructive cycle, the purity and innocence of my childhood vanished and, in its place, crippling self-hatred and self-obsession took to the stage.

At eighteen, a very different person stood staring back at me in the mirror.

My seventeenth year was one I struggle to remember nowadays, partially because of the trauma of inpatient care, wheelchairs, panic attacks and nutritional supplements, but also, in part, due to my brain being so malnourished that it now struggles to recall much of the time I spent unwell. What I do know, without a shadow of a doubt, is that there would not have even been a version of myself standing there or even typing this now, if it was not for the woman who held my hand every step of the way. The woman who, after seventeen years of watching me grow in independence and maturity, found herself spoon-feeding me again. The woman who slept next to me every night for fear I would stop breathing and the woman who came to every weighing, every blood test, every review, every appointment, without a second thought.

My mother is my best friend, but she is also the person who saved my life. It is why, this time last year, I dedicated my first ever book to her. Without a mother’s love, ‘My Friend Jane’ would and could never have been written.

My childhood was not traumatic. It was a perfect dream, but unfortunately my brain is wired a little differently to the average human’s. Something about the way I view my body and my lack of self-worth (totally independent of the love, kindness and pride that my parents blessed me with) rendered me an easy victim to Anorexia. My desire to possess control over something, anything, in the tempest of uncertainty that is adolescence, led to my obsession with my weight and appearance. Once the seed is planted, it is near impossible to save a person from their brain. The only person that can choose to get better is the one suffering. That choice, the choice to live, is still, to this day, nine years later, the hardest and yet best decision I have ever had to make.

I was one of the lucky ones. I had a family who were desperate to understand why it was I had suddenly stopped eating and started exercising excessively. My mother and father helplessly watched me tell lies, cry constantly, inflict self-harm and speak in a voice that was not my own. They wanted to know why I was spitting food into tissues and avoiding socialising with my friends or boyfriend. They knew why our dogs had suddenly gained a noticeable amount of weight in a very short space of time but, no matter how hard they tried to observe and monitor and ensure that food was entering my body, where there is a will, there is a way. All my parents wanted was to save me – to help me and to protect me from my own mind. However, at the time, there was very little material available to them that explained why it was I had morphed into a stranger. They desperately craved understanding, an insight into my mind, but, in 2013, very little literature, support or information could give them the answers they needed and that is why, in 2021, I published ‘My Friend Jane’.

Being anorexic was hell, but being a parent to an anorexic teen is significantly worse. Feelings of hopelessness, failure and fear clouded my parents’ vision every day. They had two other children to care for, but their eldest was dying and so she took priority. Ultimately, it was love for my family that made me eat a carrot and then an entire Christmas dinner and marked my lightbulb moment. And yet the battle for recovery does not end there. Mine is still ongoing and, consequently, so is theirs.

My mum did everything right. She massaged my aching joints and bruises when I was lying in the inpatient unit. She washed my hair when I did not have the energy to even stand in the shower, and she held my hand and took me out for long drives in the car to the seaside when the panic kicked in and life got a little too much. She spoon-fed me when the mere act of picking up cutlery was too much guilt to bear and she had her phone constantly on loud so that she could be there within seconds if ever I needed to hear her voice or sought reassurance. She listened, she advised, she held me tightly through fits of hysterics and when I punched myself as punishment for eating, she punched herself too – she knew that if I saw her mirroring my own self-harm, I would stop. Hurting her physically, as well as mentally, broke my heart, and the guilt for the pain I was inflicting superseded my guilt for eating. This is ultimately how I eventually came to choose life. But that is another story for another time.

Mum got it. She didn’t need telling. Her instinct kicked in. Dad, on the other hand, struggled a little bit more to understand and, because of the language barrier of mental health, we found ourselves drifting apart.

My father is the kindest, proudest man I have ever met. He will do anything for his children. So when his eldest stopped eating, he could only comprehend it as a conscious choice. Choosing not to eat is a choice, but there comes a point when that choice is no longer conscious and instead becomes forced obsession. When this shift occurs, the desire to possess control is replaced by an inherent, catastrophic, loss of control and the choice is no longer one’s own. This is the cruel nature of an eating disorder.

I lost control and remembering that is the most integral part of supporting and understanding a loved one with an eating disorder. Though, from the outside, it may appear as though I was exercising extreme self-control, I did, in fact, have none. I was spiralling. I was lost. I was anxious. I was depressed. I was hungry. So very, very hungry. I was hurting the people who loved me the most and I was a lying, manipulative, shadow of myself. How can one possibly save a person that does not want to be saved?

Dad tried shouting. He tried guilt-tripping. He tried observation. He tried crying. He tried begging. He tried reading. He tried the internet. He tried rewarding. He asked me why I was hurting the people that loved me. He asked me why I was choosing to starve myself. What he did not ask was what was going on inside my head to make me act this way? To be honest, at the time, I may have just told him to leave me alone. But, looking back now, perhaps that would have been the best way he could have helped me, asking me to explain why I thought the way I did rather than assuming to know. Dad could only comprehend was he saw in front of him. To him, I had nothing that needed changing. I wasn’t fat. I was smart. I was athletic and I was his little girl so he only ever saw me as beautiful. Why would a person who has it all throw it away to resemble a skeleton?

So many questions and so very few answers. No wonder it took four years to heal those wounds. But we did. Today, my relationship with my father is better than it has been in a very long time. He has grown to understand and I have grown to have patience.

Ms. Welch released a new album earlier on this year. There is a single on it called ‘Free’. In this song she explores how a certain feeling or emotion such as anxiety

‘…picks me up, puts me down. It picks me up, puts me down. Picks me up, puts me down. A hundred times a day’. This, for me today, is Body Dysmorphia.

I am not fully recovered, or fixed, or mended. I am not sure I ever will be. But there are moments of sheer euphoria and happiness that I experience, both now and when I was in the depths of my ED, where I feel alive and normal and myself. As a parent, it is so important to hold on to those moments and to treasure the joy of isolated happiness and peace. Be patient with your child – they are hurting in ways you could not possibly imagine. Be there for the highs and hold their hand through the lows. Listen, ask questions, but don’t be short with them, be patient. They will get there, eventually, for love conquers all. Even Anorexia.

– Megan Ravenhall

My Friend, Jane by Megan Ravenhall is out now, published by Small World – Big Imaginations Ltd.

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