I am sitting on the side of a mountain on the step of our rented holiday home, thinking about our return to England. L has done so well while she has been away, but it’s not enough. She is still thin, of course, but anorexia also controls her all the time. She hovers and watches every meal preparation. She wants to know what she needs to eat each day. She has fear foods that still cannot be touched. I think she needs to be admitted to hospital to make the progress she needs.
I have been thinking a great deal this holiday about my best friend, Julie. We met on our first day at junior school and became friends at first meeting. We survived teenage years, universities 250 miles apart. We had our first babies within a year of each other. We talked in ways no one else understood and while we were quite different, we had that wonderful easy intimacy of the truly close.
In June 2000, Julie was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, at the age of 34. She had two young sons, the youngest only a year old. An acute illness like that comes from nowhere, it bangs on your door in the middle of the night without warning. It is never expected and there are very few signs. In our shocked state. Julie’s doctors reassured us, it was the “best” leukaemia, with a survival rate of over 90%.
The treatment started, a cure much worse than the illness. Chemotherapy poisons the patient, hoping to kill the cancer, but save the patient. It doesn’t always work. Four months of hairloss, vomiting, infections and institutionalisation. Then a bone marrow transplant, a treatment which leaves internal organs intact, but is nonetheless invasive and takes the patient to a precipice of life and death. The leukaemia returned in six months and the cycle of treatment continued, with options falling by the wayside each time. Remission was shorter and shorter and two years after diagnosis, Julie opted for palliative low dose chemotherapy. Within six weeks, septicaemia set in and Julie spent her last few months in an oncology ward, with daily blood transplants to keep her alive. Pneumonia saw her off in the end, on November 9 2002. She was 37 and her sons 6 and 3. She left birthday cards and gifts for each major birthday. She left me earrings and a request to speak at her funeral, which I did even though I felt my life had fallen apart.
What does this have to do with L. The mortality rates for ALL and anorexia are about the same. The cure for L is not poison in the form of chemotherapy or the body blasting radiotherapy. It is food and therapy. And it will be difficult and hard in the beginning, but it will.work. Unlike cancer, there are more guarantees with anorexia. If L achieves and maintains a healthy body weight she will stand a chance of getting better. If she works with the therapists trying to help her, she will be cured. Julie had no such guarantees, but she endured treatment which was dreadful and ultimately unsuccessful. This makes me angry, at anorexia, not L. She is losing a present, possibly a future and she still doesnt see how serious it is. Anorexia lures her into believing she isn’t really ill and pulls her away from a cure which essentially is just food, love and a helping hand.