It is now two weeks since L started sixth form college. She loves the freedom, the atmosphere and although her initial tests aren’t working out as well as she’d like, this is where she wants to be. At family therapy last week she told us how she felt torn at lunchtime when all her friends slope off to get pizza and chips, while she hovers over the salad bar. She is doing ok, at least some days, and chooses pesto and mozzarella baguettes, but she feels the difference. She is not one of the pizza and chips gang, not even on a special day or once in a while. Her boyfriend may well be a pizza and chips person, with CF he almost certainly has to eat more than average. But he doesn’t know about Ed, L’s first love. She doesn’t want to tell him or indeed any of her new friends. Because the strongest prejudice someone with a mental illness faces is in their own head. To say, “I suffer from depression or an eating disorder” is to change someone else’s view of who you are. It is a guilty secret, shameful and staining the image others have of us. You thought I was strong, but actually I am weak. It takes the desire we have to be normal, to live as others do, and strangles it.
But for her boyfriend, it must be even more difficult. He too must have gone through the trials of telling people he has Cystic Fibrosis. It is a life-shortening disease and he has to consider how that impacts on others as well as him. It affects his career choices and life choices equally and while he is trialling new drugs, there may be nothing he or anyone can do about it. Yet L can cure herself, with the help of us and the consumption of food. I wonder if he knows already, although he probably just thinks L is naturally thin and admires her healthy eating, her love of melon. He brought her a watermelon as a present. I saw it nestling in the fridge and felt a wave of sadness for the boy who doesn’t know and the girl who doesn’t want to admit. Tonight as L sobbed over dinner while the rest of us spurred her on, he called and she didn’t answer. He called again while she sobbed some more over dessert and again she ignored it. I thought of a boy calling his new girlfriend and feeling anxious that she doesn’t answer and the girl crying in my arms who still needs to learn it is ok to ask others for help.
I strongly believe that one day L will be cured and will be a former anorexic, someone who looks back in bewilderment at these times. But for now she is trying to live two lives, or more accurately, two halves of a life, neither of which is allowed to touch the other and I think it is tearing her apart inside..