At the age of fourteen I was advised by my councillor to reach out to someone. I remember be completely confused by this suggestion: everyone in my family and all my close friends already knew. I wasn’t shy about hiding my personal life – I never properly understood how one could deal with anything alone. I talk. Talking, for me, helps. I mean, that is the reason why I actually found counselling beneficial: it allowed me an hour a week of indulgence to talk about the issues going on without doing any damage to those around me. It gave me an hour to be entirely selfish. And that’s one of the reasons that I am lucky; I have never been in a situation in which I felt truly isolated. As such, I was completely perplexed at this advice: whom else would I need to contact? Indeed, my councillor filled the role of the outsider.
In reply, she wrote the name ‘Harriet Brown’ down on a piece of paper, and told me to google this woman when I got back home – and then to email her. It turned out that this was one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me. Harriet Brown’s book Brave Girl Eating influenced me the same way that Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series did at the age of eight.
Brave Girl Eating chronicles the experiences of Kitty (Brown’s daughter) and how their family fought for her recovery:
I’ve never had anorexia, but I know it well. I see it on the street, in the gaunt and sunken face, the bony chest, the spindly arms of an emaciated woman. I’ve come to recognise the flat look of despair, the hopelessness that follows, inevitably, from years of starvation. I think: that could have been my daughter. It wasn’t. It’s not. If I have anything to say about it, it won’t be.
To anyone who has ever had a relative struggle with this disease, these words will instantly resonate with you. For eating disorders change the lives of the family and friends too, the loved ones who so desperately want to help but just cannot grasp how food can cause so much pain. How the fuel – for that is, essentially, what the intake of calories amounts to – that keeps you going can arouse such a horrendous amount of terror. How do you fight it? How can you fight something for someone else? How do you accept that this is something that you alone cannot fix for them?
My sister was diagnosed with EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) shortly after her twelfth birthday, and was in and out of hospital from the age of thirteen. I say in and out because there were times when she was considered dangerously skinny, but not harmfully thin and therefore the NHS “would be unable to provide further assistance at that moment in time”. So, okay, her heart rate was low and her BMI was even lower, but because she could still function on the small morsels of food she consumed – because she had not collapsed in a while – she was not quite ill enough to be helped. As a family we tried everything that was recommended to us: my mum went part-time at her job; my brother and I took turns spending break times at school in the pastoral care office, trying to get her to eat something, drink something. There was a point in which she was refusing water at school, in front of anyone. We tried. Anything was better than watching her disappear, pound by pound, obscured by the creature who spoke with her voice and looked out of her eyes. But it was hard, and it is still hard. Harriet Brown’s book helped us realise this, and accept this, and comforted in us in that it showed us that how we – as a family – were tackling the anorexia (I will forever disassociate ‘anorexia’ from Chloe, because I refuse to believe that she was and will ever be defined by the disease) could work; we kept going, and, indeed, it is working.
Conventional medical practice for a long time dictated the separation of parent from child, sibling from sibling, while at the same time asserting that an eating disorder is not about food. We agreed with this, but we did not understand how – if it was more than mere calorie counting – isolating Chloe would help her. My mum wanted her around, and Chloe wanted her around too. She still wanted to have the option of seeing friends. Being treated at the Maudsley hospital in London (incidentally, the treatment that Brown opines in her book) the approach we took focused on family.
Harriet Brown’s writing reveals how out-dated, and heartbreaking, other approaches are by telling her daughter’s story of anorexia. She describes how her family, with the support of an open-minded paediatrician and a therapist, helped her daughter recover using family-based treatment, also known as the Maudsley approach. Brown takes our hand into the middle of one family’s journey into the world of anorexia nervosa, where starvation threatened her daughter’s body and mind. Yet, hope, determination and the ordinary love of a family suffuse every decision her family took, and shows how important this is to recovery. Certainly, I can testify to it. And I can also attest that Brave Girl Eating is an essential read for anyone who needs guidance, who feels a little bit lost, as they try to help anyone they love defeat an eating disorder.