I was five years old when I visited my mum on the hospital ward where she was being treated for her eating disorder. The memory is blurry — more an impression of white sheets and a long corridor. I didn’t understand why mum was sick. Of course I didn’t. When you’re a child, you tend to accept your family’s life as the norm. I didn’t question why mum’s dinners were always different to mine. Why I had a plate of food, and she had a small, dry potato. Why I ate a main course, and she ordered a side. As a kid, you just take things the way they are. Everyone else’s mothers ate smaller portions, determined to diet, hoping to reduce. Mum’s was a more extreme version, that’s all.
When I hit my teens, I started to understand. Mum had a diagnosis to explain her eating habits. I got to know her triggers — whispered to me at the times she didn’t feel able to eat. I found the diaries: dull lists of foods and their calorie content alongside notes about how she’d felt when eating or not eating.
Growing up with a parent with any mental health issue is hard to come to terms with. It feels like an inversion — when you’re a teenager you’re the one who is supposed to act out self-destructive habits. You’re supposed to be the crisis that prompts tears and handwringing. Of course, that happened too. I was often badly behaved as a teenager. But as any child of an unwell parent will attest to, you feel like the carer as well as the cared-for. I felt a responsibility towards mum and her attitude to food that’s never gone away.
As a teenager, that sense of responsibility meant panic that the whisper in my ear as mum responded to a trigger would mean a return to hospital. I remember one family holiday when mum struggled with eating out with the in-laws. My heart was racing with the familiar fear that she would get ill. That she wasn’t coping, and this would escalate.
Nowadays it’s an awareness of how she behaves around food. I attempt subtle gestures to try and minimise any stress she might be under. But I’ve also come to terms with the fact that, even as her daughter, there’s not a huge amount I can do. Mum was never one to allow her issues with food impact on my own diet — this was no horror story of a severely ill mother feeding her children tiny portions. But it’s not easy to escape certain messages about food when they’re such an overpowering issue at home.
If diets or dieting comes up in conversation, I walk away. I can’t listen to conversations about calories without being reminded of that list of pencilled numbers in my mother’s handwriting
I remember mum wincing whenever someone told her she was looking “well”. Her response, and her hatred of the term, lived with me for years. Only recently have I been able to accept the word as a compliment. It doesn’t mean, contrary to her belief, that I’m looking fat.
Having grown up so close to an eating disorder, I feel hyper-aware of how simple it can be to adopt a controlling relationship with food. For that reason, I refuse to have healthy eating recipe books in my house. That obsession with what you put into your body to be ‘good’ feels far too raw. Similarly, if diets or dieting comes up in conversation, I walk away. I can’t listen to conversations about calories without being reminded of that list of pencilled numbers in my mother’s handwriting, her notes alongside, hidden in my cupboard.
Hidden. I keep coming back to that word. Because those hidden scribbles tell us so much about our attitudes to older women who have lived with eating disorders for years – if not decades. On the one hand, eating disorders are very visible in our culture. At the same time, the causes and consequences of this disease remain locked behind closed doors. For older women like mum, already marginalised and silenced in our media and cultural landscape, this invisibility is even more glaring.
For families like mine, this can lead to frustration with faux-outraged headlines that fail to acknowledge that the causes of eating disorders are more complex than social media and and skinny models. And it can also lead to a sense of isolation. Because there’s a sense of disbelief that women my mum’s age could suffer from an eating disorder. It’s still seen as a daughter’s disease, not a mother’s one. Cultural narratives that pin the blame for this illness on trends that are less than 20 years old compound that incredulity. How could a woman approaching retirement have an eating disorder, the question goes, when she wasn’t exposed to catwalk heroin chic as a teenager?
I want to try and break that isolation and disbelief. I know there will be other daughters my age, painfully conscious of their mum’s weight and mental health. Women who might feel alone with their mother’s secret. I want you to know you’re not alone.