'I hated eating around the anorexics'

A Family Affair
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Eight years ago Dr Dee Dawson, 52, a mother of five, needed money urgently when her husband's business crashed. So she opened up her home to 20 children suffering from anorexia nervosa. For her, it meant almost endless work. For her own children, including her daughter Joanna, 19, it brought plenty of friends - but mealtimes were a nightmare

Eight years ago Dr Dee Dawson, 52, a mother of five, needed money urgently when her husband's business crashed. So she opened up her home to 20 children suffering from anorexia nervosa. For her, it meant almost endless work. For her own children, including her daughter Joanna, 19, it brought plenty of friends - but mealtimes were a nightmare

Dee

When I was expecting my fifth child, my husband's company went bankrupt and he became so depressed that he couldn't work. I'd planned to give up my job when the baby was born, so it was a nightmare. I had to find something immediately that would be lucrative and that I could do from home. That's when I decided to turn our home into a clinic for anorexic children.

I didn't even have time to discuss it with my kids. One day, these extra children were just "there" acting like part of our family. But anorexics are basically non-confrontational and "good" children, so I was sure my kids wouldn't suffer.

Within weeks, requests were flooding in and I had to move my children to make more room. We had wall-to-wall beds in my bedroom for a long time. That's when I arranged an extension. My children thought it was great fun being able to whisper in the night every night. And it wasn't as if they minded the anorexics being there. Joanna, in particular, managed to make friends with most of them.

People used to ask if food became an issue for my kids. I didn't think it would because I believe anorexia is in the genes. But there were problems. Mealtimes were awful. I thought it would be good for the anorexics to eat with my kids. But they'd throw food, hide it up their sleeves and refuse to eat. It greatly upset my children. I separated them after that.

One little girl asked Joanna, who was 11 at the time, to eat endless chocolate bars because it stopped her guilt feelings if she knew Joanna was eating more than her. Anorexics can be very secretive so I didn't find out until Joanna had put on a lot of weight and was very distressed.

It must have been hard for my children to share me. The clinic was working because the patients were among like-minded people, but also because they knew they were genuinely cared for. That meant I was their mum too. And since they were far more needy than my own kids, it was they who got the cuddles in the middle of the night and hours of my time when they were upset.

It took three years for the guilt to set in. I'm not sure guilt is the right word. I was proud of what I'd done. We had 20 anorexics and it was working really well. But suddenly I realised I never read to my kids, went to their school plays or asked them how they felt about it all. I also started to wonder if it was a healthy environment for my kids. The anorexics talked of feeling fat and worthless and of wanting to die. I guess it must have been when we were in America, on our first holiday alone, that this suddenly sank in. Whether we were at Thorpe Park, out for Sunday lunch or on our holiday, the anorexics were usually in tow.

We moved into a rented house immediately. It was a huge relief. I could actually "leave" work at the end of the day. Before, if I'd heard crying upstairs, I felt that I had to go up even though one of the nurses was dealing with it. Now I had time for my own family. My kids were sad about leaving, though. Their family suddenly seemed very small and they still tell me they they can't bear being alone and couldn't imagine anything worse than being an only child.

Joanna

The evening that the first anorexic arrived was horrible. I didn't understand why a girl was in our house, bawling her eyes out about having to eat something so minimal as a sandwich. I didn't understand why mum was so adamant to make her eat it either. I cried and hid upstairs.

But she became my friend after a while. The others did, too. I began to see the exciting side of always having people to play with. Then, when mum offered me and my brothers and sisters extra pocket money for "renting" our bedrooms off us, I couldn't believe my luck.

I wouldn't say that I "lost" mum when the anorexics came. She'd never been the kind of mother to pick us up from school or anything and in any case, we got to sleep in the same room as her. But I did sometimes wish she didn't devote quite so much time to them. I remember her sitting with one girl in front of a milk-shake all night and thinking, "She never sits down with us like that". I think I felt more sad about it than angry.

I could have blamed the anorexics but I only felt sorry for them. When they said, "Ooh I'm so fat, aren't I?" and were all depressed, I just used to joke about and say: "Yes, I can't believe how fat you are. I just can't think why you're here." They'd laugh at that. I think that they liked it that I wasn't so serious about it as the adults were, and that made us have a special relationship.

But I didn't like it at all when they got really depressed or manipulative. One girl told me it would make her better if I took her chocolates to school and ate them all. I believed her and I used to make myself ill.

Another time, she put masses of sugar in the morning juice. I put on about six or seven kilos at that time and felt really used. I also hated eating around them. They used to stare at me putting food into my mouth and constantly ask questions like, "What do you weigh?" and "God, that's a lot of butter to put on toast!" Things never went too far, though, because I could count on mum to stop it. That was important to me.

Mum always says that she let go of Rhodes Farm for the first time when we went to America, but I don't remember it like that. It became a family joke on that holiday that the phone kept ringing and she'd be shouting, "No, no, she's not to leave the table!" It was like that for the first few holidays without the anorexics.

In fact, Mum seemed to be there less for us when we first moved out. She might have devoted herself to the anorexics more before that, but at least we always knew she was in the same house. Now, she'd go to Rhodes Farm long before we went to school for the morning weigh-ins, so we could never shout "Goodbye" or anything. I missed the anorexics, too. My life had become like an endless summer camp. Five years on, my brothers and sisters and I still miss it.

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