L and I rarely argue. For a mother and a 15 year old girl I know this is unusual, bordering on plain weird. But a feature of her anorexia seems to be a meekness and compliance, with any resistance (to food, to changes,to treatment) being largely passive and silent. Our relationship is warm and affectionate. She comes into my bedroom in the morning and gets into bed for a snuggle. We hug endlessly. She seeks my opinion on clothes and listens to my views. I listen to other parents bemoaning their teenagers and wonder which of us is the lucky one? The other day, on a course, three colleagues talked in definitive terms about teenagers being ‘unbearable’, especially girls and the teenage years being like civil war. I offered the view that as a mother of three teenagers, I really liked them and enjoyed their company. I described how we all got on really well and they were great to be around. There was a puzzled silence from the others and quizzical, incredulous looks. I did think about pacifying them, by offering that one had a learning disability and one had spent nearly five months as a patient in an adolescent mental health unit. But that would have been provocative, in the game of “Which Parent has It Worst” poker, it would have been like throwing a hand down which led to everyone else folding and pushing their chips towards me, in a resigned, but slightly admiring way.
So, L and I had a row. Not a stand up screamer – we are such a long way from that – but a difficult extended exchange in which L was pissed off and her voice took on a typical teenager whiny tone. And my voice was that clipped, controlled, “step away from the ledge and climb back in through the window” tone. She wanted to spend time with her friend, a young woman from the unit. Another ED patient. The unit staff warn against this and I am ambivalent about this advice. Sure, I understand the dangers, but I also know how lonely it is for L, now no one else really understands. But I am still cautious. L is really struggling, even a yogurt provokes distress and I don’t think it is a good idea to allow her to have lunch with another anorexic, unsupervised. So, I suggest a compromise. L can see her for a few hours after lunch and before afternoon snack. L does not see this as reasonable – she really wants to have lunch with her. So, I offer to collect her friend and they can have lunch together. Here, with us. I can see the wheels in L’s anorexic mind whirring round – but they want to have lunch OUT! So, I offer to take them. Refused.
What L cannot see, and perhaps doesn’t even know, that what she wants is to be out of treatment for a while – and that her attachment of importance to having lunch means not having lunch. Or not having much lunch. Over and over she tells me that this IS NOT FAIR! Going out with friends is normal, why can’t she have lunch with her friend, why won’t I let her have just one lunch. It just isn’t fair, over and over again. I keep my voice light and use the same tone and the same reasonable phrases. But actually I want to cry. Or shout. Because it isn’t fair, it really bloody isn’t. It isn’t fair that I have to supervise her like this. It isn’t fair that seven months into treatment she still thinks losing weight will make her happy. It isn’t fair that when I offer K a bar of L’s chocolate, as L won’t eat it, I see K’s face look grief stricken and lost as she tries to work out why her sister won’t eat chocolate and wonders whether life will ever be the same again. It isn’t fair that at some stage I wonder if I should talk to L about her ambitions to be a doctor, because perhaps that is just too much pressure on her. None of this is fair, none of it. In a fair world, anorexia wouldn’t exist and no one would have to suffer it. In a fair world, a family like ours could sit down to a family meal without everyone’s stomach’s churning at how the meal will go. In a fair world, L would push herself more and grit her teeth and get through the seemingly insurmountable barrier of achieving a healthy weight.
I don’t say any of this. I do what L does. I say nothing. Eventually she storms upstairs. I watch the film we planned to watch together and I cry on my own. I feel bereft and alone. I wonder if I should go to her and try and make it all better, but know that I would probably give in to lunch and that would be wrong. This really is all so, so unfair.