How do you stop your child destroying herself?

Last week a couple took their daughter to court to force her to eat. Parents of anorexics say they cannot beat this illness alone.
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The Independent Culture
VICKI CARTER smiles for the camera as she raises her crop top several inches. Her combat trousers hang from her hips. The 16-year-old oozes all the confidence of a supermodel.

What the photograph actually reveals is a waist the size of a man's neck, a gaunt face and frighteningly protruding ribs. When this picture was taken, Vicki was suffering from anorexia nervosa and weighed only five stone. After her parents had convinced her to agree to get help, she repeatedly disconnected her feeding tube in hospital. Her parents David and Linda Carter from Offerton, Stockport, were desperate to get her eating again. Fearing that she would be stigmatised for the rest of her life if they had her sectioned under the Mental Health Act, they took her to the High Court.

In August the judge gave the hospital a six-week order to continue feeding Vicki by tube. Her father says it was a terrible time. ``Vicki had a solicitor appointed for her and she said, `I am going to fight you', but ... when you go down to five stone your brain ceases to function properly. All we wanted to do was to get her tube-fed so she would stay alive.''

Sarah Bassett, from Barton-upon-Humber, North Lincolnshire, knows all about the desperation parents feel when their child is in the grip of anorexia. ``It's the blackest, deepest, darkest, awful hell I have ever been in,'' she says.

In September 1995 Mrs Bassett, who is now 47, found that her 16-year- old daughter, Ella, was hiding her uneaten packed school lunches under her bed. At the time she had a "normal, pleasant, developed shape", says her mother. At 5ft 5, she weighed around 8st 7lbs.

``It went from her saying `I'm not hungry, I'm having a snack' to cottage cheese, to no-fat cottage cheese, to just vegetables or salad. There were huge rows about whether there was fat in food. A trout would have to be steamed or microwaved. If you could see fat, it precipitated utter hysteria.''

It took months for Mrs Bassett to come to terms with the fact that her daughter was ill. ``You never want to look at it in the face because everything is utterly rational. `I'm eating too much fat and you're the one who's always going on about healthy diets, mother'. The first thing that seems to go is gravy - anything that might add a calorie when you don't have to have it and it's not noticeable, and it progresses very, very fast to `I'm not going to eat and you can't make me'.''

Ella's illness nearly destroyed the family. ``There was no time for her brothers at all. All energies and agonies are concentrated on one child. The others have to fend for themselves. You have to protect the one who's trying to kill itself.''

There were also ``horrendous'' rows between Mrs Bassett and her husband, Paul, 49. ``I was trying to make her eat, which made her livid, and she would run to her dad saying `Mummy's being horrible'.''

The family gave up eating together because meal times became too stressful. ``There would be a dreadful black feeling of tension over all the family, which we as parents thought was less appetite-inducing.''

In November Mrs Bassett took her daughter shopping for a dress for the school ball. ``When she took her clothes off in the changing room I nearly passed out. She wanted a sleeveless and backless dress because she thought she looked magnificent.''

Mrs Bassett believed her daughter's pleas that she would get better on her own, and did not, at first, intervene. What prompted her to go to her GP was when she found clumps of Ella's hair on her carpet. Her daughter then weighed around 5st 7lbs. ``I waited too long. You should never believe what an anorexic says.''

In March 1996, after threatening to have her sectioned under the Mental Health Act, Mrs Bassett got Ella admitted into Rhodes Farm Clinic, north London, the largest unit for anorexic children in the country. The clinic is run in no-nonsense style by Dr Dee Dawson, who requires her patients to gain one kilo a week.

On the first day, under pressure from other patients sitting with her who were accustomed to the clinic's strict rules, within two hours - and much to her disgust - Ella had eaten chicken nuggets and chips. ``She looked like a zombie and it was very tempting to take her home," said her mother, "but I knew I couldn't win. You can't beat anorexia on your own.''

After a four-month stay, Ella made a full recovery. Currently studying animal science at Newcastle University, Ella, now 20, has never slipped back. ``I don't even bother calorie-counting now,'' she says. ``I'm nine- and-a-half stone and perfectly happy with my weight. I've no idea what caused it.''

While Mrs Bassett applauds the Carters for taking their daughter to court, Dr Dawson believes it was probably unnecessary. ``I wouldn't have gone to the High Court, I would have fed her [through a naso-gastric tube]. If she was 16 and we had her parents' permission I would have just done it, and I would have done it a long time before. If she had pulled out the tube, I would have sedated her. I think there are enough legal precedents to feed a 16-year-old, as long as we have her parents' permission.

``I don't sedate or tube-feed very many of my patients. We are firm and the children know we are not going to mess about going to the High Court. If you say to the child, `Either you are going to eat this now, or in an hour's time I'm going to put it down a tube,' they eat it.

``Because we have a big group, the peer pressure is strong, and they get on and eat. There has never been a child sent to us who we haven't been able to put a kilo on a week.''

Time will tell whether Vicki Carter makes a full and permanent recovery. ``As I'm 16, I'm old enough to make my own decisions about the treatment I receive," she says, "but they [her parents] took that right away from me. At the time I was angry, but they were doing it for my own good.''

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