An Honest Conversation With My Mum Looking Back At My Eating Disorder

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
I am a strong woman and it's all thanks to my mother, a staunch feminist who spent the majority of her 20s reclaiming the night and her 30s dressing her baby daughter in anything other than pink dresses. The first sentence I ever learned was "more food please". A little further down the line I learned how to ask (politely) for seconds, whenever I wanted them. Following the unwritten rule of feminism, the word 'diet' was forbidden. So when I developed a tormenting, tyrannical eating disorder at the age of 22 my mum was, understandably, shocked.
As was I – not to mention anyone who had ever shared a "shall we order one of everything?" meal with me. 
I was living in my north London family home at the time, having just landed my first job in fashion journalism as an intern. A combination of a mild identity crisis, slotting myself into the skinny model set and an anxious disposition led to me clutching for some sense of control, when all else felt uncontrollable.
The rise of clean eating was a convenient curse. Manipulating and later, restricting, my diet was the focus I’d been looking for.
It took all of two months for Mum to notice and march me to the doctor’s surgery. And it took her all of five months to come to the heartbreaking realisation that this was something she couldn’t fix.
Now, five years on, we’ve just completed my third Eating Disorders Awareness Week as a fully recovered and functioning adult.
It’s only now, after starting my own eating disorder support website and having written a book on the subject, that I’ve begun to read stories from parents, carers and other loved ones, and come to terms with what my disorder must have been like for my nearest and dearest.
Despite her unwavering love and support, I know that my mother – like every mother who has ever lived – still harbours a pernicious guilt. And given the enormous portion of pudding she now slops on my plate at family dinners, I know she’s terrified it’ll happen again.
Her words, spoken in one particularly poignant family therapy session, still linger. "It was my job to protect you. And I couldn’t. I’ll never forgive myself for that."
It’s been four years since we had that conversation and we haven’t spoken in great detail about it since. I’ve been petrified to bring it up – hearing her utter those words was hard enough the first time.
Now, I want to relieve her of those feelings. So last week, as we tucked into an apple tart, I attempted to do just that.
Eve: This tart is lovely. Remember when I never used to eat tart? 
Mum: Yes. I’d make your favourite crumble and you’d sit there for 10 minutes, forensically picking off the topping so you could nibble at the fruit underneath it. It broke my heart. I’ll always remember when it was your birthday and I went to five different supermarkets in search of three different cakes, praying you might eat them. I left them all out, subtly dotted around the kitchen in hope you might come home late one night, hungry. A week went by and you hadn’t opened any. Not one.
Eve: God yeah, I’m so sorry Mum. And then there was the time you bought me a collection of teeny tiny chocolate bars.
Mum: I was so petrified of overwhelming you. My approach was always 'slowly slowly', so I would collect little boxes of raisins and mini nuts and put them in your handbag, thinking, hoping, you might get tempted. Then a few weeks later I was putting your clothes away and found everything I’d bought unopened, stuffed at the back of your cupboard. I just sat on the stairs and cried.
Eve: Well that’s nice and depressing. Look at me now though! [said through mouthful of pastry]
Mum: Well exactly. The one thing I always said about both my children was that they loved their food. You both grew up with healthy appetites and adored your food. And I loved watching it. You’d eat wholeheartedly. Then suddenly, you didn’t.
Eve: And it’s especially weird considering I’m your child…and my brother’s sister.
Mum: Yes. I did wonder how on Earth it could happen to us…and where I went wrong. Obviously I blamed myself, because I always blame myself. 
Eve: [Teary] But you know Mum, from what I’ve learned in the past few years about this illness, sometimes there really is no explanation. It just happens, just like any other illness.
Mum: I know, I know. But while I know that I couldn’t have necessarily prevented it, as a mother what hurts is not being able to make it better. You grew up generally listening to what I said. I always hoped that I’d had a positive influence on what you thought and you’d come to me expecting answers. The worst moment was when I realised no matter what I did, I couldn’t make it better this time.
Eve: When did you realise that?
Mum: The day the doctors told us that you had to go into hospital. You were terrified. They said they were going to take you in and you just stared at me as if to say, Please, just make it better. And I knew if it were down to me, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I remember looking at you and saying, 'I think you have to do what they’re saying. You have to go into hospital.' It was heartbreaking.
Eve: Did you ever think about what would happen if…the…worst…
Mum: I didn’t let myself think about it. I couldn’t bear to. That’s why I knew you had to go to hospital – as scary as it was. Your brother was living in the US, my husband had been dead for a decade. You were my…everything. I wasn’t losing another person I loved.
Eve: I guess being in hospital sheltered me from whatever was going on at home – and how you were dealing with it.
Mum: I was absolutely frantic. Leaving you there was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I spent hours on end on the phone to the hospital, trying to find out what was going on and make sure you were seeing a professional, rather than being isolated in your room. I knew that few of the staff had professional training and a lot of them had actually come from working in prisons. And that’s how they treated you – like prisoners.
Eve: I couldn’t have got through it without that. But it wasn’t too bad in the end, food-wise. As soon as I started eating – because I didn’t have a choice – it became less scary and I was able to eat pretty much everything quite quickly.
Mum: Not from where I was sitting. You had good days and bad days. If you were ever stressed out or upset or worried, you wouldn’t eat much and then your weight would drop, just like that. I came to see you after you’d been in hospital for a month and you took off your jumper – and I could see all your bones. I was with your brother and he was so shocked, he couldn’t speak for an hour after we left.
Eve: That’s so weird because I remember feeling like I was getting better at that point – and that I looked okay.
Mum: [Raises eyebrows] You didn’t that day. But then I started to see that you still had fight in you. The hospital was so horrid that you pledged to do whatever you could to get out of there – and you did. You fought to escape so you could tell the story – like a true Simmons.
Eve: Here’s an uncomfortable question. Despite always teaching me that all food was good food, did my illness make you question your own eating habits?
Mum: Well, for the past 10 years I’ve lived with inflammatory bowel disease and have had to eat very small portions, otherwise I could be in agonising pain. And I know that’s something you picked up on. There were times when I’d force myself to eat a bigger meal to set a good example and end up awake all night, writhing in pain. But I was confident in the knowledge that I never had a problem with food. I never even worried about size growing up, like so many girls my age.
Eve: What? Never?
Mum: Nope. I was always quite curvy but didn’t ever obsess over it. I didn’t get on well [with my mother] so I rejected everything she did – including diets. Oh and [giggling] when it comes to exercise, I think I’ve done about five sit-ups in my whole life.
Eve: Yes, we never were [a family] for exercise, were we?
Mum: No, which is why I thought it was the weirdest thing when I saw you doing sit-ups on your bedroom floor when you became ill. It just wasn’t us – it wasn’t you.
Eve: See, how can you feel guilty when you couldn’t have possibly passed anything on to me?
Mum: Because mothers always blame themselves don’t they? And I’m convinced it’s something to do with the early death of your father – him being ill with cancer for so long – and I’ll always carry guilt that you didn’t have the carefree childhood I felt you should have had. Whether it was my fault or not. You were the good girl who never complained and I always felt that there would be a time when the anxiety would catch up with you. And I was right, it did.
Eve: Maybe. But who knows why it happened. It isn’t anyone’s fault. And at least there’s something good to come out of it – it’s given me a sense of purpose, of passion.
Mum: Absolutely. And for that I am immensely proud of you. I think the way you help other people is wonderful. You want to stop people going through what you did – what we all did.
Eve: But you were worried about me writing about it at first!
Mum: Yes, because I know how journalism works. And I knew that the moment you spoke out, you’d always be 'the girl with the eating disorder'. I worried that you’d become so consumed with it all, you wouldn’t have a chance to pursue other opportunities and experiences.
Eve: But if anything it’s given me more experiences.
Mum: You’re right. And – having been so private and not told anyone – I realised that my daughter had been so brave in speaking about it to help others, I ought to do the same too.
Eve: As I sit here shovelling spoonfuls of apple tart into my mouth, can you honestly, seriously tell me that you still worry about my relationship with food?
Mum: It’s something I’ll always think could rear its ugly head again. Just like any illness. As your mother, I don’t think I’ll ever stop worrying about that.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year.

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