A long time ago, people believed the cycles of the moon induced madness – giving birth to the word lunatic. The cures for most illnesses were poultices, leeches or just prayer. None of them worked. People believed illness and disability was caused by God as a punishment for our sinful lives.
But progress is made. Antibiotics appear, when scientists understand the nature of bacterial infections. Cancer is treated once doctors understand how the malign cells can sometimes be destroyed through judicious use of poison. But in the field if mental health, we haven’t moved on to the same extent. The findings of wise old men and occasionally women prevail. Freud’s outlandish theories, where all ills are caused by loving your mother too much, hating your mother or guilt about early masturbation. For boys obviously. We don’t talk about girls ‘in that way’.
I have lost count of the number of times people have asked me what caused L’s eating disorder. I imagine if she was HIV positive, I might be asked how she contracted it. But I can’t think of other illnesses. Like many parents, it feels as if our lives have been scrutinised, with every detail examined for signs of dysfunction. Politely and kindly, with heads to one side, emphasising that the therapist wasn’t seeking to blame, just understand. And the trouble is, when you closely examine any family where a child is desperately ill, where parents feel despairing, where siblings feel hopeless rage, they almost certainly will be bloody unhappy. So,the evidence may well be: In Every Case of Anorexia the Family Presents as Unhappy. No shit, Sherlock. Show me a family where a child is seriously ill and where everyone is cheerful, and I’ll show you a serious case of denial.
So what if the cause was genetic? What if it was a physical cause, like Downs Syndrome? People can suffer from extraordinary illnesses where they fail to recognise faces, speak in foreign accents or struggle to name everyday objects. So why not obsessive restriction of food?
Charlotte Bevan, a woman who has saved many lives, but cruelly we cannot return the debt, has established Charlotte’s Helix, a project to raise money for genetic research and to encourage people to donate a blood sample if they have suffered from anorexia. Carrie Arnold describes the project here:
Imagine a future where time wasn’t wasted scrutinising an already unhappy family with the aim of finding out whether they have made their child ill. Imagine a future where people laugh about the daft theories of Hilde Bruch and the idea that people develop anorexia because they weren’t loved or were abused. Although the laughter might subside when the realisation dawned that this was the cause of needless deaths. Charlotte has given so many other people a future and I can think of no better legacy for her.