Jo Fitzsimmons shares her experiences of supporting her child through an eating disorder.

Self -harm takes many forms: many of us might over indulge in something we know isn’t good for us; we might over exercise; under exercise; not eat enough; eat too much; hurt ourselves physically; punish ourselves emotionally.

As a parent I have watched my teenager go through a series of self-harming behaviour: drinking, smoking (cigarettes and weed), over exercise, cutting, promiscuous behaviour and anorexia.

I have often wondered how one leads straight into another; many teenagers drink alcohol or smoke (as do many adults!) and these are seen as ‘sociably acceptable’ forms of self harm. Having looked around the gym recently I think over exercise is another form of ‘sociably acceptable’, and one the media greatly encourages. But what might these lead on to?

What happens when your child finds drinking with mates on a Friday night isn’t enough, or exercising until you feel sick no longer makes you feel ‘good’? They then progress along to the next ‘thing’ that gives them that same feeling of control, or the need to loose control, which may last for a short time until they move on again…and again..and again…

Once we found out that our daughter was cutting herself, she moved on…by taking control in another area – food. Now we can see the link: cutting was her way of taking control,  calming herself and relieving emotional pain however, once we found out about it, she didn’t feel she had control of it and she found another area that gave the same feeling.

In hindsight (a gift or curse I wonder?!), it was a slow progression. We recognised our child no longer had a great appetite but figured, due to the self-harm, that depression was most probably the cause, so we didn’t worry too much. When she didn’t want to eat out we didn’t worry too much (it coincided with a fear of germs so made sense); when she became a vegetarian we didn’t worry too much (ethics and values are important in our family, if that was a value she choose, we supported it); when she was late for every meal, we didn’t worry too much (I got pretty cheesed off but not worried).

The point we finally did get worried: one day she eat a small bag of Haribo sweets and then started hitting herself around the head, she was writhing on the floor cry and shouting at herself in a voice that didn’t sound like hers. She was begging us to stop her eating, punching herself all over her body and screaming with anger at herself for having eaten sweets.

Even now, 4 years on, the memory scares me. In my head we had ‘dealt with’ the self-harm as she was no longer cutting. It never ever entered my head she was still self-harming but in a different way.

After that moment, life unravelled very fast. Occaisonal meals moved only eating ice lollies and drinking a little water every day. The GP called CAMHS who sent us to an Eating Disorder Specialist; who then in turn sent our lovely, very ill daughter to a Mental Health unit for young people with anorexia.

10 months later, after a long emotional rollercoaster ride, we got our daughter back: a lively, lovely, bright child who is well emotionally, physically and spiritually. And she got us back: wiser, worn out, fraught but less fragile, less controlling, more emotionally aware, more able to talk about everything and anything our kids wants to chat about. We are fully ‘available’ 24/7 – whatever else is happening in our world, our kids come first. Our kids come and tell us if they are having a bad day, they ask for help, we tell our kids we aren’t perfect but want to be better at being a parent, they forgive us and we forgive them.

Each time I get to a Friday evening and I reach for my wine glass – I stop and think: am I harming myself? Each time I go for a long run, I stop and think: am I doing this to relax or take control? Each time I try to ‘control’ my kids I stop and think: how can I work with them so they make good choices about their bodies, minds and spirits?

Loving someone with any form of self-harming behaviour, really hurts. We hurt for them, we hurt for ourselves. But, as you journey together, you are changed, and so are they by your love, acceptance, availability, emotionally support, each text you send, each post it note you leave.

Healing takes many forms.

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