WARNING: Distressing content.
Lockdown was mentally hard for many people but studies show that people with eating disorders saw their symptoms escalate. A Melbourne mum recounts how she found herself feeling helpless as her teen daughter spiralled. She tells her story in her own words.
When my sons called to me, panic pulsing through their vocal cords like emergency sirens, I dragged myself up from sleep and ran.
My tiny teenage daughter lay shivering and sobbing after attempting to take her life.
I’d been so positive, so confident, during the 112 days of being at home – without routine, school, friends, sport – so sure we were all OK. I thought we were doing well.
We were not.
In fact, my daughter had deteriorated so much that our lives would never be the same again.
Her insidious disease, anorexia nervosa, a result of months and months of lockdowns leading to her poor mental health, had taken control.
This time of global disease, fear, isolation and loneliness had amplified the effects of social media and society’s clear message that to be thin is to be attractive, desirable, worthy.
She was so sad and overwhelmed by life, its traumas and a lack of anything to look forward to, that she didn’t want to live.
You always imagine that, if the worst ever happened, an ambulance would appear within moments to whisk your child to the emergency department and save her, but on this night they were too busy; the pandemic had overrun the service.
Two young police officers arrived instead, guns on hips, and strode through my house to where my baby lay. It took three hours for them to convince her to let them take her to hospital.
So, the Covid lockdowns were different for me. While the rest of society lamented, I begged my daughter to eat, not to harm herself, to take her medicine. While everyone else was trapped inside their homes for 23 hours a day, I drove to hospitals far across the city.
The 5km rule didn’t apply, but the ‘only one visitor per day’ rule did. It was me, and only me, who could see her; me and only me who was there to witness the moment her eyes glazed over and she tried to make her escape.
It was me, trying to calm her, who was hit in the eye by a flailing arm. It was me who watched as a code grey was called and four burly security guards appeared to restrain my birdlike girl; a child with a BMI so low as to be life-threatening.
In these bizarre days of riot police at freedom rallies, mandated medical intervention, closed borders, mask-wearing and the potential end of life as we know it due to the climate crisis, I had but one wish – for my girl to eat her dinner.
After 14 years of feeding this child, she now asks me not to speak of food, not to look at her while she eats, not to praise her when she finishes a meal. After ensuring her satiation for her whole life, I now watch her body fighting starvation.
With less food, her mood dips, lower and lower. Sadness overwhelms her but she won’t accept the cure because the same food that is her medicine will make her ‘fat’ and that is the worst of outcomes for her. She would rather be thin than stable, happy, alive.
My daughter is a feminist and a socialist. She abhors racism, homophobia and inequality. She worries about the climate crisis. She’s the very last person I thought would ever care about being skinny to conform to society’s ideal of what is beautiful.
People with anorexia have an inordinate capacity for self-control. To restrict your eating to the point of starvation takes as much willpower as a marathon runner needs to force their feet to keep running. They’re headstrong but they’re so much more than their illness. They love crafts, knitting, crochet, but they also self-harm, scream abuse and cry incessantly. They’re so conflicted, so afflicted.
Towards the end of lockdown her doctors sent us to the seaside to convalesce. Even there, in a town which was so familiar to us after years of visits, everything was abnormal. The beach was empty, the cafe closed down, and the supermarket under new ownership.
Locals, fearful of catching the virus or becoming the carrier who would infect others in a town of only 200 people, adhered strictly to the lockdown rules. Masks remained tightly affixed to their faces, and they gave each other, and us, a wide berth on the streets and on the sand.
On the first night, a huge storm blew over, ravaging the trees that lined the streets. We woke to a scrambled mess of rubbish and seaweed in the gardens and along the usually pristine beach. The electricity supply for the whole town was cut and the water pumps disabled. We had no plumbing, no power, and frighteningly for me, no way to cook.
The once comforting town took on a post-apocalyptic quality. The grey drizzle of rain pattered down upon quiet, empty streets and not a soul stirred. I had half a mind to pack the car full of everything we owned and hit the highway in search of other human survivors.
We ate apples and rice cakes with peanut butter, and drank from pre-filled water bottles, huddled inside together, wrapped in blankets, protected from the whipping winds by the four walls of the house we’d rented, hoping that we’d endure.
Within a day the sun reappeared, the wind died down and we emerged from our refuge to a brand new version of the old world. A little battered, a lot more messy, but ultimately the same old town.
Today, the world feels a lot brighter.
It took many months of therapy, meal-prepping, tears and tiny wins but, finally, our family has emerged too.
We’re still on tenterhooks at times, but the episode of serious illness and misery is over and we are starting to see my daughter’s brightness again. Her skin bears the scars, but she laughs again now, and she eats at the table with the family and her friends.
She is blossoming into the woman she was meant to be, leaving the storm far behind her.