Friday, 17 April 2009

Once an Anorexic

There is an old saying, “Once an anorexic, always an anorexic” but I would like to think that it does not have to be true.

I had wonderful parents who loved me dearly, and who I loved in return. Unfortunately, they had huge issues with weight - both their own and other peoples’ – and with food. It was to affect them both for their whole lives, and it would change the course of mine.

In our house, descriptions of people generally involved their size. “He needs to lose weight” or “She’s looking lovely and thin” were things I heard often. My parents were always watching their weight, although my Dad did love nuts and chocolate.

Mom was incredibly thin but she had not always been that way. She was a heavy child. However, once she hit her late teens, all that was over. Her hips were small, her bones were tiny and she had the body to match. She watched her weight like a hawk. Everyone always described my Mom as slim, so much so that I developed a huge fascination with the idea of being slimmer than her. Dad’s weight used to go up and down, but it never stayed up for long, mostly because my Mom hated it when, as she said, “Your father has put on weight again!” The seeds of obsession were planted very young.

I wasn’t like my Mom. My bones were anything but tiny. However like her, I developed early. The plump “puppy fat” phase that hits many girls around puberty happened to me before the age of ten. My parents panicked.

I went on my first diet with my Mom when I was eight years old. The instructions for The Seven Day Milk Diet were contained in a booklet from the Canadian Milk Board, along with recipes. I remember that the recipes were delicious, and to my memory, the diet was quite nutritious, although the calorie count was a bit low for an eight year old. (In fairness to the Milk Board, I don’t think it was meant for children.) Our next diet was the Stewardess Diet - a three-day, very low calorie diet apparently used by stewardesses to keep within the weight restrictions demanded by the airlines in the early 1970’s. Then there was a diet my Mom had used in the past that involved either a glass of skim milk or a glass of orange juice every hour and a nutritious meal in the evening. Now, I feel is important to mention that we ate well in our house. Food was plentiful and my parents were known for their generous entertaining. These diets were always short-lived as I had trouble sticking to them. I do not remember ever actually feeling hungry and I most certainly was never deprived of food, but I did feel a bit of a failure when I fell off the diet wagon.

My parents really believed they were working in my best interests by trying to help me lose weight. They desperately wanted me to be slim as they were sure it would make me healthy and happy. I was being bullied at school because I was walking around in a woman’s body at less than ten years old, and I felt that if only I could lose weight, perhaps that would stop. So for the next few years I did everything I could to reach 110 pounds. Ironically, at this time I was not much over the ideal weight for a person of my height. One hundred and ten pounds was about ten pounds too light for me. I’d get weighed every morning and how I felt during the day depended on what number I saw. From the age of eight, I thought about my weight constantly.

My weight went up and down with every diet – fluctuating between 136 pounds and 110 pounds. Then one day, I finally ended up well below the magic number. I was sixteen and in the throes of full-blown anorexia.

Despite the fact I was very thin indeed by this point, I desperate to get even thinner. My parents were, I think, secretly pleased for me. I was not exhorted to eat (although there was always plenty of very tempting food to be had in our home) and my Dad used to tell me that I was “doing great” and to “keep it up.” Of course, the issues my parents had with food were affecting their own behaviour. They wanted the best for me and had no wish to see me ill or unhealthy; they truly believed you could not be too thin. I know now that my Mom was definitely anorexic, in fact I have reason to believe she may also have been bulimic, although she kept it very well hidden. My Dad had been brought up to believe that women should be slim.

In the end, I was fasting every other day, and eating very little on alternate days. During this time I was obsessed with food. I read about it, studied it, copied out recipes from cookbooks I had borrowed from the library – I did everything except eat it. Strangely enough, I think that was when my love of cooking was born, but I would not know that until much later.

My weight stabilised at about 96 pounds, and I couldn’t manage to lose anymore. One night I considered trying to throw up in order to be able to budge some more pounds. Literally the minute I was about to make myself vomit, I had a huge sense of knowing that if I carried on, I was likely to die. So I got up off my knees and decided to get better.

It took a long time to recover, and at one point I actually gained more weight than I would have liked to. But eventually I managed to regulate my weight to a more normal level and felt better about myself. Some time later, I left home and met my husband who thank heaven, likes his women to look womanly. Having someone love my curves went a long way to making me well again.

You see the biggest myth about anorexic people is that they are all thin. Actually, those who have really learned to cope with the disease may even be slightly overweight. We don't hate food either - most of us are fascinated by it. Many are accomplished cooks or even study food sciences. Both my parents were wonderful cooks, and my Mom got a degree in nutrition at university in the 1950's. I write about food and lifestyle issues for a living. While I recovered from the serious affects of anorexia twenty years ago and am now a normal weight, I still have a distorted body image and up until very recently a relationship with food that could only be described as dysfunctional. But then something happened that would change the way I felt about food forever.

About seven years ago, my wonderful Mom, who had never eaten very much anyway, began to refuse to eat altogether. She said her tastes had changed and that she could not swallow the food. My poor Dad took her to doctor after doctor, all of whom searched for the cause of her inability to eat. Scans, swallowing surveys and just about every test imaginable was performed. No reason for her inability to eat properly could be found. Dad tried so hard to get Mom to eat, cooking her every tempting dish he could think of. Anorexia was never mentioned by the doctors nor by my father, and I did not dare. It was like a terrible secret. Gradually, anorexia combined with dementia. It was a lethal duo. At one point, Mom had to have a tube inserted into her stomach so she could be fed through it. Once she reached a healthier weight, she promised faithfully to eat and the tube was removed. Of course, she never kept her promise.

It was a constant battle to get her to eat, and by the time my much loved Dad himself was ill she would only eat broth. As for Dad, who suffered from congestive heart failure, the last two years of his life were one long struggle to balance his salt, liquid and potassium levels. Unable to eat most of the foods he enjoyed, even the amount of water he could consume was restricted. When my Dad died, my Mom was so bereft that she literally starved herself to death, refusing any form of nutrition and all her medication. She was too weak to have a tube put back in her stomach, and no amount of pleading or medical intervention could help her. It was horrendous.

Watching what happened to my Dad made me promise myself I would never taken a glass of iced water for granted ever again. Watching what happened to my Mom made me promise myself to stop obsessing about calories and weight. Life is far too short to refuse to enjoy one of the greatest pleasures it offers – nourishing yourself with good food. While I can understand why she would not want to live in a world without her beloved, the way in which she went about leaving it will haunt me forever.

A healthy, balanced diet coupled with lot of exercise keeps me at a pretty healthy weight. Yes, I would still love to be model thin, but when I look at what it would mean to me in terms of my physical and mental health, I know the cost is far too high.

My parents were wonderful people, and neither one of them deserved the suffering their issues with food and weight brought them. The thing that breaks my heart is that there are thousands of women out there like my Mom. Way too many of them end up like her, and not very many of them end up like me.

Once an anorexic, always an anorexic? It certainly was the case for my much loved Mom, but I’m going to make damn sure it isn’t for me.

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