He had just been diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. He was desperately ill, physically weak and mentally in turmoil. His decline was like that first terrifying plunge on a roller-coaster: he was tiny to start with, so when he stopped eating he became dangerously sick within weeks. I sat by his bed in A&E and watched the heart monitor as I waited for a doctor. We were in pieces.
Our family life had changed from "normal" to "crisis management" within the blink of an eye. My husband and I became full-time carers to our youngest son whilst our older son (only 13 years old) became necessarily independent. We lurched from one terrifying moment to the next, not daring to think about the future.
What followed was a turbulent tour through the depths of darkness. Our son kept getting worse, and every time we thought he'd hit the bottom, the floor fell away and he plunged further. He was initially treated in the community, then as a day patient in a specialist unit, and eventually was admitted to an inpatient unit. We saw our child suffer unimaginable horrors on a daily basis. NG fed, mute, sectioned: you would not wish that on your worst enemy.
This doesn't sound like much of an uplifting story, does it?
Bear with me. There is as much light as there is darkness.
Our son has recovered. He is now a fully fit, healthy, frighteningly tall teenager. He has shown superhuman resilience and bravery. He has risen further than he ever fell, and no small part of that is down to some incredible people we met along the way: nurses.
When our son was at his illest, a nurse at our local children's ward championed his case. She went above and beyond to show everyone that he was a frightened, desperately unwell child, and not just a "risky patient". When he was referred to a specialist hospital, our family therapist was an amazing nurse, who will stay in our hearts forever. Once admitted to the inpatient unit, a team of nurses helped to him to take back control from anorexia's grip. Once discharged, a nurse therapist supported us to get us back on our wobbly feet. The doctors were good. The nurses? The nurses were phenomenal.
Don't get me wrong, nurses aren't saints. Some are definitely better than others. But if I had to pick a profession that makes the most difference, I would pick nursing. And I did pick nursing: after the dust settled and our son was back home, at school, and the future was once again something to look forward to, I applied to return to university. I'm now a first year mental health nursing student.
Every day I think about the nurses we met on our son's journey. If I can become just a fraction of the nurses they are, I will be very happy. I can think of nothing better to aspire to.
The last two years has taught me a huge amount about anorexia. I, like so many, had assumed it was an illness that only teenage girls had*. I had a vague idea of it being a lifestyle choice that had got out of hand. Something to do with social media and thigh gap challenges. The reality, of course, is nothing like that.
Our son taught us about 'The Voice' that commanded and bullied him relentlessly. He showed us just how overwhelmingly powerful the illness is. We learned that our assumptions were completely wrong, and we started telling everyone we met about the reality of anorexia. Most importantly he taught us patience. You can't just take a magic pill or go a therapy session and be cured; recovery is slow, it's painful, it's far from a straight line. And recovery is worth it.
I want to use everything I've learned to help other families facing anorexia. My hope is to work in CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and to offer a knowledgeable ear to both the patients and the families, to share hope, and to support those living with uncertainty. Roll on 2021, qualification year!
*research suggests that up to 25% of those showing signs of an eating disorder were male - Beat
Beat is the UK's biggest eating disorder charity.
For information on men and eating disorders click here.
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For Beat's Support Services, which is open to those with eating disorders, carers, family members, friends and professionals. Support includes online chats, a telephone helpline and a directory of local services.