We don’t want to make your life hell, even if it is and it feels like we are, I promise you we don’t. Let me say that first. I don’t want to make excuses here. I know that we have to take some responsibility, but I think I’m doing that in a way just by writing this. It’s complex, but I’ll try to explain the best I can.
Back in 2017, journalist and presenter Mark Austin ‘bravely admitted’ to the press that he had once told his anorexic daughter to ‘starve herself to death’ whilst she was in the grips of a potentially fatal mental illness. I couldn’t read the full account because the original piece is behind a pay wall, but if you’re able, it’s here. If you’re not able, you can read bits of it here, here, here, here and here (it’s probably in the Mail and The Sun too, but y’know, not sharing that shit). He also appeared on ‘This Morning’ but I didn’t see that either because I can’t stand it. It was kind of unavoidable though, especially if you, like me and probably most people who have had or do have eating disorders, have this kind of stuff on your radar.
I’m glad that Mark decided to share his feelings; as much as I often think there’s a suffocating amount of emphasis on men opening up about their feelings, I think this is the first time I have ever read such a real and raw account of a father speaking about his child’s eating disorder. For me, it reminded me of my own dad and certain things he’d said or expressed, even just looks he had given me whilst I was at my worst, and even now, 10 years on from being treated in hospital for both anorexia and bulimia. He never said that I should go ahead and starve myself to death, but I can completely understand the amount of frustration that led to those words being said, as harsh as they may seem.
What got me about this revelation, or whatever you want to call it, is that Mark Austin made the decision to speak out so that he could call for “improved mental health provision to deal with the crisis of more than 850,000 young sufferers, predominantly girls, in the UK.” But my first thought was, ‘What about those parents? What about the carers? What about anyone who loves someone with an eating disorder but who doesn’t fully understand what that means?’ Yes, there is a disgustingly outrageous lack of support for people with eating disorders – that’s nothing new – and yes that needs to change, but if parents and carers don’t have a basic level of understanding, then how can they provide the support that’s needed during and after treatment, if that’s available at all?
I guess there are pamphlets and books and helplines available for parents and carers that could help, but only if they know they are there. Many people don’t, or they don’t want to read or listen to someone else telling them how they should best look after their own child.
I think I just want to say a few things, for myself but also for other people who are struggling to understand what someone they love is going through. I can’t speak for every eating disordered person; we are all as different as anyone else, but I think there are some things we probably have in common and I just hope that this can help some people, even if it’s just a little.
We’re Sorry – Honestly. We feel awful for putting you through this. It may seem selfish and it may seem like this is our thing and that sometimes we even revel in the fact that it worries and upsets you, but we’re not that evil, honestly. We may behave as though we hate you and do everything possible to stop you trying to care for us, but that’s because we’re in self-destruct mode and the last thing we want is to be looked after. We know you care, but it hurts us and when we are consumed by eating disordered thoughts, we will push anything else away. We’re sorry.
We’re Not Vain – Even now I think some people think eating disorders are the direct result of women being told that they have to look a certain way, especially younger teenager obsessed with perfecting their pouts for Instagram. But as someone close to us, if you love us, please try to see beyond that. Societal pressures don’t help, but eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and should be treated as such. Nobody starves themselves half to death or spends half their day bent double over a toilet because an advert in Vogue made them think they’d be a better person. Yes, our brains tell us lies; that not eating will make us feel better, that we’ll be happier when we are 5lbs lighter or that we’re not worthy of food or love or treatment or anything… but please don’t ever think that this self-torture is the result of something only skin deep.
We Don’t Hate Food – This might surprise you. Most people who have eating disorders actually love food, or at least have a love/hate relationship with food. This of course differs massively from case to case, but generally what seems to be the case is that when you deprive yourself of food, or the enjoyment of food in a physical sense, you tend to obsess with it in some other sense. We’ll watch every food programme that’s made, follow every restaurant on Twitter, scroll through #foodporn on Instagram and watch our family and friends as they devour the calories that we won’t or can’t allow ourselves. We don’t hate food. We hate what it does to us, how it makes us feel. We’ve trained ourselves (with or without the help of the diet industry) to feel guilty, indulgent and undeserving of anything that isn’t on our ‘safe list’. And we act on those feelings, desperately. We starve or binge and purge or over-exercise or chew and spit or take laxatives or diet pills – none fun, all addictive and destructive and dangerous. We have all kinds of unhealthy relationships with food, but they are complex things, so please try not to use what we eat or how we eat as a weapon. Little steps to you are huge to us, try not to belittle that. I’m kind of asking you to understand that you’ll never understand – but that brings me to my next point.
We Know You’re Treading On Eggshells – and believe me, we hate that almost as much as you. It’s horrible to know that someone who loves you is scared to say anything in case it’s the ‘wrong’ thing. You don’t know what is right or wrong and it’s quite likely that we don’t either. Everything is unpredictable. I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating this must be for you, and again, I’m sorry. I don’t really know what to say about this one – I’m certainly guilty of making my parents tread on eggshells for years. Quite early on in my illness, if they said the slightest thing that didn’t agree, I’d yell at them and slam doors and scream and make them feel like they’d done something unforgivable. In time, they said less and less, and I know why. I honestly don’t know the answer to this one. I think that sometimes there is no getting through to someone with an eating disorder, no matter how hard you try or how many different ways you try to approach it; it will always fight back. All I can say on this one is, please don’t see this as a flaw on your part. It’s an impossible situation and all you can do is your best. And we don’t really hate you.
We’re Probably Just As Scared As You – This is what it all comes down to really. You are scared for us and it might look or feel as thought we are set on destroying ourselves completely, but most of the time, we don’t really want to die. We might say that and we might pretend that we’re not scared, but when a bit too much hair falls out in our hands, when we cry because we just can’t get warm, when our heart skips a beat and we get dizzy standing, when we can’t sleep because it’s too painful to lie down, when we physically can’t drag ourselves out of bed… the list goes on and the truth is that we are not as big and powerful as our eating disorders – we are just scared, like you.