A battle against loss

10th May 2013 at 01:00

I don't often write about my children. In real life, they hover at a distance in case I humiliate them by insisting that they wear hats, scarves or woolly things to ward off the thousand natural chills that flesh is heir to. In my writing I maintain a similar distance, apart from having the odd pop at my eldest son, who is tough enough to take it, or at my youngest, who's immune because he has the reading age of a bee. But the child I never write about is my beautiful daughter. Now that she's in recovery, I think it's safe to talk.

My daughter has anorexia. I first began to worry at Christmas, when she came home from university looking terribly thin. But because we are a lardy, pie-eating lot, we saw her slightness as an accomplishment rather than a concern. Along with her changing accent, her Californian friends and her choice of medical degree, it was simply another indication that she was turning middle-class. But when she threw away her Advent calendar with every door unopened and every chocolate intact, I suspected that something was up.

She waved away my concern with a lecture on healthy eating. I was easily persuaded. After all, what do I know about nutrition? I snack on sweets and teach commas for a living. Besides which, the evidence backed her up. "Look how healthily I'm eating, Mum," she would say, pointing at the piles of vegetables on her plate. I voiced my fears to my husband, who shrugged. When T.S. Eliot wrote "Humankind cannot bear very much reality", he was obviously thinking about dads.

She returned to university and her weight continued to drop. Finally, my niggling anxiety exploded after a late-night phone call. It was her godfather; he had seen a photograph of her on Facebook. It was time to raise the alarm.

The next day she came home and all our cosy illusions fell away. Once her emperor's new clothes were peeled off - the padded gilets, the thick woolly jumpers, the hot-water bottles stuffed down her trousers to fend off the slow chill of starvation - there wasn't very much left. I hugged her and was shocked at how loosely my arms draped around her tiny frame; they could have circled her twice. It struck me then how easily she could just slip away.

What made my anxiety worse was the story of 18-year-old student Laura Willmott, who starved herself to death as her parents stood by, unable to intervene because the UK health authorities did not recognise her as a child. The prospect of such impotence terrified me. I wanted to scoop my daughter up, snap my fingers like Iron Man and cover her fragile bones with a suit of impenetrable flesh. But she has to make this armour on her own.

So I observe from a distance as she fights her way back to health. Most days, I am overwhelmed by guilt and am berated for this by a friend, who long ago ticked the opt-out box on the self-flagellating emotions preference scheme. He urges me to do the same. "If you no longer wish to receive unwanted guilty thoughts please text STOP now." I resist. Until my daughter is better, I need to suffer, too.

Last week, we turned a corner. My brave and beautiful daughter regained half a kilogram. It may seem negligible but as educationalists know, children's lives are often saved by small, marginal gains.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

Daughter of Thrope will write next week's column. @AnnethropeMs

HOW TO HELP

School staff can play an important role in supporting students affected by eating disorders. Find guidance at: bit.lyEatingDisordersPolicy.

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