Laxative abuse may be difficult to police, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try...

Georgia Willson-Pemberton's tragic death should allow us to talk more openly about laxative abuse. I know from experience how difficult it can be

Ilona Burton
Friday 05 April 2013 12:08 BST

This week, a coroner recorded a narrative verdict following the death of 26 year-old Georgia Willson-Pemberton who died in December as the result of multiple organ damage caused by long-term laxative abuse.

The overdose that killed her was not a suicide bid, but another tragic loss of life to an illness that attacks the body and mind in equal measure, forcing its victims to take potentially fatal risks, simply because they feel they have no choice. Another statistic, another life.

Georgia's parents found after her death that their daughter had ordered over 6,000 laxatives online, becoming addicted to them during a long battle with anorexia nervosa. It seems they had tried everything they could to help their daughter, supporting her emotionally and financially; she came from a privileged background and sought help from some of the UK and America's top Eating Disorder treatment facilities.

This is where some news reports on the inquest have lost their way. Sadly, some 'journalists' made the decision to focus almost entirely on the wealth of the family rather than write a sensitive, respectful piece on a life lost too soon.

It's important to offer readers a picture of Georgia, her family and her background, but nobody needs to know how much her school costs, what her home is worth or which cookery school her brother may have attended – how on earth does that matter?

Painted as 'the girl who had everything', Georgia was victim to an immensely powerful illness which encouraged her to go to extreme lengths in order to lose weight. There's no doubt that she was young, intelligent and beautiful, but there is so much more that we should take from this than what she left behind. The emphasis should not be on private schools and appearances in Tatler's society lists, but on this: what can we learn from this tragic loss and what can be done to hopefully prevent further deaths as the result of long-term laxative abuse?

The coroner has said that he will write to the MHRA, who regulate medicines sold in the UK, to warn them of the dangers of laxative abuse following the death of Miss Pemberton. Currently, they offer guidance to emphasise the fact that laxatives should not be taken over a long period of time and warn that they do not help with long-term weight loss and that taking them regularly over a long period of time may harm your health. As it stands, though, this is merely guidance and in supplying thousands of laxatives to a person over the internet or even over the counter and straight off the shelves, nobody is breaking any laws or regulations – they simply don't exist.

Policing laxative abuse isn't straight-forward or easy. It could be argued that a person driven by anorexia or bulimia will find a way to obtain them anyway and so what's the point in trying, but that kind of attitude is neither constructive nor helpful. I do, however, have personal experience of laxative abuse and know for a fact that if one shop had have stopped me in my desperate, manic tracks, I would have made damn sure someone, somewhere would supply me with what I 'needed'.

Pharmacists are advised to look out for people who they may believe to be purchasing laxatives for reasons other than the obvious, but it isn't hard to tell someone “they're for my nan”. Eating disorders make people very good, sharp liars; if something comes in between anorexia or bulimia and a treadmill, diet pill, laxative or swimming pool, there'll be hell to pay and quite often, the person getting in the way will back down and the eating disorder will get its own way, through deception, manipulation or brute force.

Again, this is no reason NOT to introduce regulation. In 1998, the government restricted paracetamol pack sizes and the number of deaths following overdoses has since reduced dramatically as a result. Of course, the enforced regulations haven't put an end to the problem, but they've certainly helped – why not do the same for laxatives?

Restrictions alone aren't enough. Bringing in laws, regulations and hopefully training for those who sell laxatives is all good and needs to happen, but the other thing we need to do is TALK. I wonder if this is why news reports have played it 'safe' and stuck with the story of the rich girl who died. Nobody discusses laxative abuse, not even when it's that, not anorexia, that is the cause of death. There is so much shame attached to laxative abuse that it barely gets a mention, so there's no wonder why it is so often shrouded in secrecy and therefore impossible to pick up or treat.

I didn't mention my own laxative abuse to anyone until I was in hospital for the second time. My parents and boyfriend knew everything else; I was open and honest about almost every other aspect of my eating disorders and prided myself on that. I wasn't ashamed to be mentally ill, I wasn't ashamed to be anorexic or bulimic, but I was unbearably ashamed that I felt it necessary to abuse laxatives and live with the not-so-pretty consequences.

I kept it quiet and was devious in hiding my new-found method of achieving that desired feeling of emptiness. I'd go to different shops and chemists so that nobody started to recognise me. I was only ever asked once whether the three boxes of pills were for me or someone else and even then, they accepted my muttered response. It was all too easy and despite the embarrassing dashes to public toilets, library toilets and debilitating abdominal pains, I couldn't tell anyone. Laxative abusers suffer alone and, aside from the sounds of stomachs tied in knots, silently.

Sadly, I think it's highly unlikely that Georgia's death will encourage enough people to speak out about their own laxative abuse, but I hope that it will increase awareness that it does happen and all too often, it goes unnoticed. If there is something that can be done to potentially reduce the risk of more laxative-related deaths, then it should be done.

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