Eating Disorder Awareness Week – A Mother’s story

Debbie’s mother Pat McLarnon spent years feeling terrified and helpless as she watched her daughter fight her anorexia. Here is her story…

We found out something was wrong with Debbie when her screams woke us in the middle of the night, when she was 17. We found her on the bathroom floor writhing in agony. She wouldn’t tell us what was wrong but when I checked her school bag I found laxatives. She refused to tell me how many she had taken so when I started to guess one, two, three, she nodded her head at 44.

We didn’t fully understand what was going on but we just knew something was very wrong. From that moment our lives were thrown into turmoil. Her younger brother went into her room that night and hugged her and said “Debbie, please don’t die”.

Her whole personality changed. Our daughter had been very bubbly, outgoing and loving but it was almost like our daughter was a stranger. She became very depressed and sad, argumentative and manipulative and we had literally no idea how to help her.

We went to our GP because we wanted to know how we could fix her, but Debbie had hit her self-destruct button and was basically starving herself to death.

Meal times were a battlefield and we tried everything, from punishment to grounding but if we had known then what we know now we could have helped her so much more. We didn’t realise that we were pushing her into the arms of the eating disorder.

When she did eat she would go to the bathroom and make herself sick because not only was she anorexic she also became bulimic. As she became weaker we, as parents, felt powerless and helpless. Every morning my husband Paul and I woke up with a knot in the pit of our stomachs. We were terrified.

In the meantime, she was able to keep up her rhythmic gymnastics and she even competed at the Commonwealth Games when she was  16. It’s part of the sport that you have to be slim and we did talk to her coaches about it, and they were very good, speaking to all the girls about staying healthy, not isolating her on her own, but still, her struggle with anorexia continued. We never knew what weight she got to because she would never let anyone weigh her.

We have come to learn that the longer the illness lasts, the more entrenched it gets and the more negative the sufferer becomes. It’s a very illogical and irrational illness and it got to the point where Debbie said it would be easier for her not to be here at all. Debbie later told us it was like fighting with yourself all the time, with a voice in her head, 24 hours a day, telling her she was disgusting and worthless.

As far as treatment, there was none here in Northern Ireland so we had to battle the services. We wrote to every MP and MLA and got two compliment slips and one letter back. Debbie had to go to London for help, where she saw a therapist for four years.  However, it came to the point where the counsellor told us to bring her home: she was so weak she was on the brink of heart failure.

In the end Debbie suffered until her early 20s. Now she would say that it wasn’t about the eating, it was an emotional issue. Not eating, for her, was a symptom and when the problem begins to go away the eating will naturally come back.

Years later my son did a fundraising cycle in America when he read a story on Amy Winehouse’s eating disorder, written by her brother and he was so upset we nearly flew out to be with him. It upset him very much and it was then we realised he still had issues to deal with after watching his sister experience anorexia.

It doesn’t just affect the sufferer, it affects the whole family but thankfully Debbie survived but there was a time when we feared the very worst for her.

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