When your tiny, squashed up, new-born girl is placed in your arms for the first time, you suddenly have the biggest responsibility you have ever had in your life, you have to keep this new person alive. As you muddle your way through that first fumbling feed, you know that you will do whatever you have to do to nourish this perfect being. You will take the sleepless nights, the sore breasts and cracked nipples; through the years you will provide a variety of wholesome, home cooked meals, as well as the occasional fish fingers and chips. Because nourishing your child is so wrapped up in loving your child. You imagine there will be dislikes and perhaps some pickiness, but you don’t ever imagine that you might somehow fail in this most important task.
Here is what you don’t imagine, not that first brand new day of parenthood, nor later when she is a frustrating toddler, an inquisitive child or a stroppy pre-teen. You don’t imagine watching her starve herself until she is nothing more than a flesh covered skeleton. You don’t imagine that you will find it impossible to make her eat even a spoonful of breakfast cereal, that you will watch, in total bewilderment, as she sits at the table with tears running down her face. You don’t imagine putting her to bed at night frightened that she won’t wake up in the morning. You don’t imagine that you could ever feel so helpless.
You don’t imagine that you will feel relief when you are told that she has anorexia. Relief that the demon that holds your daughter in its grip has a name and there are people who can help.
As you drive home from hospital with your precious new-born safely cocooned in her car chair, you don’t imagine another drive to hospital – a different kind of hospital, a mental hospital. You don’t imagine passing through sets of locked doors to a ward where the blank faces of girls stare into nothing. You don’t imagine leaving your baby girl there, in a room more like a cell, so bare to reduce the risk of suicide. You knew you would wave her goodbye sometimes, to sleepovers, brownie camp, school camp, that sometimes you would have to trust another person to put her to bed, but you didn’t imagine this – mental health nurses with panic alarms on their key chains.
When you spend hours gazing at your tiny baby, you don’t imagine that one day you won’t recognize the face that looks back at you – spewing poison. You never imagine it will be easier to feel hate than love for this child, that you will be forced to love the unlovable.
As you register her birth and safely store away the shiny birth certificate that proudly proclaims this new life in the world belongs to you, you don’t imagine another certificate, a certificate that states your child is now sectioned under the mental health act so she can be fed through a tube without which she would surely die. You don’t imagine that one day she will sink to rock bottom and you will go with her, wallowing in its murky depths, unable to see a way out. You don’t imagine that the milestones you looked forward to won’t happen because of this illness that has robbed you of your child, and that you will have to fight harder than you have ever fought for anything to try to reclaim her.
You knew there would be sleepless nights, not just when she was a baby but later too, when she sought her independence. That you would lie awake, wondering if she was safe. You never imagined you would lie awake night after night, staring down a tunnel of hopelessness, wondering if she would ever be safe again or spend the rest of her life fighting this demon.
As you counted your baby’s fingers and toes and studied with wonder the softness of her skin, you never imagined that one day it would be lined with scars, forged in darkness and pain. So many horrors you could never have imagined, so much pain and sorrow you couldn’t protect her from.
You don’t imagine that one day you will sit in meetings where you will feel that you have to prove that you have loved, that you have fed, played, read, taught, bathed, parented to the very best of your abilities. That you will spend hours unpicking the stitches of the fabric of your lives, looking for clues where there are none. That you will have to choose daily not to blame yourself for this thing that is not your fault but that society may hold you accountable for anyway. That on the days that you are not strong enough, judgement and subsequent guilt will hit you with the force of a double decker bus and leave you immobilised in its wake.
You don’t imagine a road to recovery, a road marked with battles won and battles lost. That one day your life will be consumed with getting an increasing number of calories into your girl, that you won’t see food any more just weight gain or weight loss. That nourishment would have a transformed meaning for you. You don’t imagine how you will help your other children understand what has happened to their big sister, the one that has always walked before them. You don’t imagine the ways a family can be changed; the hundreds of ways living with this will affect your whole family.
In the midst of all this you will simply survive, find a way to keep going. You will live in the fragility of the moment, holding on to those precious memories of your tiny baby, your frustrating toddler, your inquisitive child, your stroppy pre-teen, the dynamics of your family and beating this illness second by second. You will rejoice in the small victories when they come. You will refuse to fail to nourish your child.