I grieve that I didn't act much earlier: A father's insight into his daughter's anorexia offers hope for sufferers and those who care for them

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I am a single father, and my daughter, Lucy, is anorexic. I have seen her change in the course of four years from a beautiful and bubbly 15-year-old to a tragic skeletal figure - 5ft 7in tall and weighing less than 5st. Now, thankfully, she is on the road to recovery.

I want to describe the background to my daughter's condition, and the pain, anguish and frustration of coping with an anorexic girl. The story, I believe, offers insights and hope to both sufferers and carers.

Anorexics have an overwhelming desire to take control of their lives in obsessive and destructive ways and, as I look back at Lucy's childhood, I can see why she started to behave in this way. As a young girl she was loved very much, but suffered triple jeopardy: a father (I admit) with high expectations for his children; a talented elder brother, and an over-protective mother. The apparent pressure, a lack of independence, and living in the shadow of an elder sibling seems to have proved too much for her feelings of self-worth and confidence and her ability to control events.

My wife and I separated when Lucy was 12, a year after she started at a Catholic boarding school. The separation may have contributed to Lucy's condition, although she says not. More likely it was the excessive controls imposed by the school, reinforcing the feelings of powerlessness stemming from her early upbringing. Yet a lack of confidence and self-esteem were not immediately apparent at school. She was popular, clever and sporty, and had a wonderful voice. She was both form captain and house captain and she passed 10 GCSEs and four A-levels.

It was at 15 that her eating pattern began to change. Initially, she became vegetarian. That was fine; many girls are, and it is perfectly healthy. I was not worried. She then started, however, to exclude potatoes, bread and pasta from her diet. Eventually she was eating only fruit and vegetables - big plates of them for breakfast, lunch and dinner - in order, as she put it, 'to cleanse her body'. Exercise also became an obsession in different bizarre forms. A thousand skips before bed and before breakfast became a ritual; then it was swimming every day at set times, plus a six-mile run after dinner.

In her last year at school Lucy lost weight dramatically - she was about 7st - but she was not skeletal and she would not admit to being ill or to needing any advice or treatment. I thought that once the pressure of school and exams had eased and she had embarked on her year off before going to university, she would see sense and recover. Instead, she deteriorated further.

She went to France to follow an art course, and I did not see her for six months. There was no indication from telephone calls that her condition was worsening. Then came the shock.

I met her off the plane at Gatwick airport, and she was barely recognisable. There was a bedraggled figure, weighed down by a rucksack, pallid and painfully thin, with cheekbones protruding, eyes bulging and legs and arms like matchsticks, reminiscent of the famine victims of Africa. It was a frightening sight. I wanted to cry, and did so that night. I could not comprehend how my daughter could have abused her body in this way, and reduced herself to a virtual skeleton.

I had long talks with Lucy before she insisted on returning to France to complete her course. I tried to probe her motives, but she volunteered very little except that she felt exhilarated by pushing herself to the limits. She promised to increase her calorie intake and to control her exercise, but she didn't do so.

I went to France to try to take control of the situation. Weighing less than 6st, she was now in a life-threatening state with the possibility of vital organs failing and sudden cardiac arrest. I managed to stop the running (at least temporarily) and to induce her to eat small quantities of rice and potatoes. She began to realise that she might be threatening her own life, but still seemed to take a perverse pride in her emaciated body which she displayed in shorts and T-shirt, apparently oblivious to the stares of those around her.

I tried to reason with Lucy about her condition, but I got nowhere. 'Why are you doing this to your body?' I asked. 'I didn't realise I was so thin,' she replied. 'Why can't you eat bread?' I asked. 'Because it contains yeast, and yeast is living.' 'Why can't you eat pasta?' 'Because it contains preservatives.' She believed that all foods containing preservatives were contaminated, and would poison her. 'Where did you get that idea?' I asked. No reply. 'Why can't you drink milk?' 'Because it comes from a cow,' she replied. After conversations such as this, the frustration and feeling of helplessness becomes unbearable. She said she wanted to be a vegan, but still resisted the types and quantities of food that would increase her weight. I asked myself whether it was the desire to be thin that dictated (and justified) the pattern of food intake, or whether it was the blockage over certain foods that had caused her to be (inadvertently) thin. Whatever the cause and effect, if only the roots of these obsessions could be uncovered.

Lucy returned with me to England in a seriously emaciated state, but still resisted treatment. She was still beautiful in my eyes, yet pathetic and child-

like. The sight of her in her pyjamas at night, with bones protruding, curled up like a foetus on the bed, gnawed at the heart. She said to me: 'I love you, Dad,' and I said to her: 'I love you, too,' but there was nothing I could do, and I waited for another day, praying for a breakthrough. It came quite suddenly when she started for the first time to binge - in small doses at first, but then uncontrollably at home and in shops where she would buy foods like nuts and dried fruit and consume whole packets on the spot. One day she hugged me, crying and pleading for help. She finally realised that she could no longer live at peace with her starved body craving sustenance. I referred her immediately to a specialist hospital where she is now recovering, physically and psychologically.

I am hopeful that the dedicated staff can unlock the door to this dreadful, debilitating condition that devastates the individuals affected and those who love and care for them. It will take a long time, but I make myself believe that Lucy will one day recover and lead a normal and fulfilling life, no longer imprisoned by a preoccupation with food and the body.

There would appear to be no common cause of anorexia, but anorexics all seem to suffer from low self-esteem and lack of confidence, and all use food as a weapon of control. I would draw several morals from Lucy's story that parents might usefully heed. First, over-protective love is dangerous; from an early age children must be given a sense of power and independence. Second, children with successful elder brothers and sisters need special attention to avoid them feeling second rate and undervalued. Third, beware of schools with excessive moral and physical discipline. Finally, get help early for children who go beyond the stage of vegetarianism and who ignore the balance required between energy and input. I grieve for my daughter, but I grieve even more over the fact that I did not act earlier.

The author, whose daughter's name has been changed here, wishes to remain anonymous.