The ups and downs of a single mother caring for a child with anorexia

Treating my daughter like she is worthless won’t help her

The ups and downs of a single mother caring for a child with anorexia

The ups and downs of a single mother caring for a child with anorexia

Our journey in the terrifying world of anorexia nervosa continues. We have roller-coasted over the past few months, and my daughter, Summer*, has turned 11. We have made some giant steps forward and a few small ones backward. The biggest one backward is being hospitalised again. Summer had been making some huge steps in her recovery psychologically, but her weight did not follow at the same pace. However, she continues to face her fears and is adamant about getting better, even though she struggles sometimes.

Small improvements include increasing her food intake by her own suggestion, asking to change some of her meals to include foods she feared more, like oatmeal instead of yogurt, eating a snack with a friend while not at home, and sending me a video while she ate it.

The past few months have been hard work. I haven’t found a remote control to fast-forward to better times, but we are moving forward. We still have meltdowns, fights, and outbursts, but mealtimes are becoming more pleasant for all of us, and we are finding balance in our everyday lives.

Unfortunately, the paediatrician said my daughter’s weight had dropped too much, so hospitalisation was inevitable to restore her weight. Even though Summer was trying hard every day to fight her eating disorder (ED), our timing didn’t quite work out; it took us longer than we’d anticipated to reach an increased food intake, so her weight didn’t return to the healthy level we had hoped for. However, the positive side is that my daughter feels that being hospitalised a second time is not a bad thing but has increased her willpower to beat her ED and make sure she doesn’t return to the hospital.

In a hospital without a meal plan or supervision

We are now in the same hospital where we were the first time. However, for the first three days, we were admitted to a different one while waiting for a bed; the paediatrician said we needed to go to the hospital sooner rather than later. I am unsure if I agree because those first three days were disastrous, and my daughter would have been much better off at home. The hospital we were sent to didn’t have a ward with ED-trained staff; it was a hospital where people go for emergencies.

We felt we were ‘parked’ there for a few days without a meal plan or supervision. If at home, Summer would have had regular meals and felt less confused. Her weight had dropped gradually over the previous months but plummeted during our three days there. We shared a room with another lady and her special-needs daughter. They were both lovely; we were fortunate because we managed to make new friends. I also had to share a bed with Summer, and meals for the parents weren’t included. So, I lived off the snacks from the vending machine for a few days while my daughter hardly ate because she didn’t understand what was expected, and everything was confusing.

Then, we transferred to the hospital where we are now, which is the opposite of chaos. It is well organised; it is the main hospital where children with eating disorders are referred to in our general area, as the paediatric ward’s staff works together with several local ED centres. My experience with these centres and their staff may not have been as good as others; nevertheless, these treatment centres are highly acclaimed nationally.

When we arrived at the hospital for admission, around noon, they’d set aside lunch for us. Summer ate what she felt comfortable with under the circumstances, which the doctors had told her to do; I didn’t insist on eating all of this meal as the previous days had been trying for both of us. After lunch, the head nurse of the nearby centre for eating disorders – whom we had met during our first admission to the hospital at the end of October and, for simplicity’s sake, I will call “Mrs F” – came to see us. Summer hadn’t finished her lunch, and without asking how she was doing, Mrs F sat down and forced Summer to eat her lunch, which had gone cold in the meantime; she ate it all but was trembling and crying throughout.

People with an eating disorder need encouragement

Then, Mrs F turned around with a smug look, stating that she had ‘unblocked’ my daughter, now she could eat, and she had saved her life; as she put it, over the previous months, we had tried and obviously failed. She told Summer that she had failed. I was appalled; from my personal experience and from what I have learned about this illness, if anything, people with an eating disorder need encouragement; we need to emphasise the positive. I tried to explain that Summer had been eating at home and had faced more than one fear, but talking to Mrs F was like addressing a brick wall. She insisted that she’d saved my daughter. I was so tired I didn’t put up much of a fight, but as the days passed, I noticed that Summer was starting to have panic attacks when she thought she heard Mrs F’s voice.

When, a few days later, Mrs F visited us again, I decided it was time to chat with her. Not only did Mrs F assert she did the right thing, but she kept repeating how she’d saved my daughter because now she could eat, thanks to her. She said Summer was incredibly ill and had physical problems – something to do with her kidneys – she threw fancy words in my face – due to malnutrition. The doctors had told me only a few days before how surprised they were that all her blood tests had come back okay. And the doctors were pleased to see she had been eating every meal she had been given.

A vigilant mother speaks up for her daughter

I told Mrs F that I did not want to continue my daughter’s therapy through her guidance or centre and that I preferred to continue with our private therapist, with whom my daughter had established a good relationship based on trust. Our talk ended with Mrs F saying she would not see us anymore because she felt I was too “thick” to understand. I then arranged to speak to the hospital’s head physician about Summer’s situation. I also expressed doubts about Mrs F’s tactics and explained Summer’s reaction to her approach.

I learnt that even though Mrs F is very experienced, I wasn’t the first parent to object to her methods. The physician gave assurance that my daughter was not facing serious physical issues. I had already guessed this, not only because of what the doctors said regarding the blood test results, an ECG, and abdominal ultrasound, but also because no nasogastric tube had been placed, nor was she receiving special medication or nutritional supplements, just regular meals.

Since this talk, Mrs F has stopped visiting us, and Summer’s panic attacks have subsided.

I know Summer needs help, but I doubt that treating her like a worthless individual or lying to my face will help anybody. I am incredibly grateful for the help we receive in this hospital; the nurses and doctors are fantastic. Besides being highly professional, they are incredibly friendly; they try to make the children feel at ease, joke a lot, and often chat. I am just as grateful that Mrs F has stopped visiting us.

Now, I hope we can go home soon and resume normality. I look forward to relaxing at home. I look forward to the return of good times. When we get there, we’ll pause and savour the moment.

*Summer is a pseudonym

Pauline Ninck Blok

About Pauline Ninck Blok

All articles by Pauline Ninck Blok

I moved to Italy in 2001, am originally Dutch, but was born in Africa and then lived in the Caribbean; as a child, my family moved around a lot. I have a degree in Italian language and literature. I freelance as an estate agent and as a translator. I am 46 years old and have two daughters. We love doing things together, like going to concerts, and travelling when possible. We have two dogs and a hamster. Even though I like living here, moving around is in my nature, so once my daughters are older, we might decide to move somewhere else. My youngest already says she can’t wait to move abroad, so we’ll just have to wait and see!

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