(The article below is an excerpt from my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)
It’s not as if you wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be anorexic. I’m going to shrink away and dwindle down to nothing.” The disorder takes hold with Svengali power, and it steals the very life out of you. Oddly enough, it’s as if the disorder consumes you even though you are consuming next to nothing.
I realize now that I was anorexic by age 14. I remember walking home from high school and thinking, “All I had to eat today was an apple. That’s 60 calories.” I felt confident I could keep my calorie count low for the day. I was in an almost-trance as I walked past the school. I was there, but somehow outside of myself at the same time.
Another day, I was walking home along a busy avenue. Most people never commented on my emaciation. But three girls on the opposite side of the street started pointing at me and laughing. For a fleeting moment, I felt freakish, but I shrugged them off.
As I became thinner and thinner, I became immersed in a world of escapism. I insulated myself from my mother’s beatings and put-downs. I continued to go to school and do homework, but the switch had been thrown to automatic. I was functioning, yet detached. I shut down. Emotionally, I flatlined. Anorexia was my way of dealing with the insanity around me.
I exercised compulsively. I would ride my bike up and down a steep hill in the neighborhood. I pushed myself. I was tired, but I kept pedaling like a hyperactive hamster spinning a wheel in its cage.
Back then—some 50 years ago–people didn’t know much about anorexia. I don’t think most doctors were trained to recognize it.
Eventually, I was hospitalized because of my weight loss. I had dwindled down to 72 pounds on my 5′4″ frame. Little did I know the damage the disease was wreaking on my developing body. I wasn’t menstruating, and I was completely flat-chested. Physically, the disease ravaged me.
Every morning I was weighed by the nurses. My doctor visited every couple of days. Other than that, not much happened.
All of a sudden one afternoon, I realized I couldn’t talk. I was slurring my words. I don’t remember who I was talking to—a nurse or an aide, but she didn’t seem to notice. When I was alone, I tried to talk, and my slurring got worse. I couldn’t enunciate, and my tongue felt thick and large like a slow-moving slug.
Something was wrong. Was I losing my mind?
I decided to call my mother because I had no one else to turn to. I believe I developed anorexia as a result of the abuse inflicted by my mentally ill mother.
Numerous studies have found that children of parents with mental illness are at greater risk for psychiatric disorders compared to children whose parents are not mentally ill. Research shows that between 25-50% of these children will experience some level of psychiatric disorder in their lifetimes.
There was no phone in my room. I managed to sneak down the hallway to the payphone. I made the call. “Mom,” I said, “I can’t talk. Thomething’th wrong.” All the words came out like mush.
I don’t remember her response. I shuffled furtively back to my room.
As it turned out, I had been given a sedative overdose. Apparently, my body weight hadn’t been correctly factored into the dosage. I had no idea I was being sedated.
For a frightening period, I had thought I was going mad. On the other hand, I wouldn’t concede to insanity. In a way, anorexia is a sane response to crazy surroundings when life is out of control – in my case, an environment where a mother is incapable of loving and the only constant is the unpredictability of her behavior and her propensity for unprovoked rages.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Most experts now believe that eating disorders are caused by people attempting to cope with overwhelming feelings and painful emotions by controlling food. Unfortunately, this will eventually damage a person’s physical and emotional health, self-esteem and sense of control.”
Somehow, I already knew this. Nonetheless, I must have been quite an oddity. I remember a gawking group of medical students surrounding my hospital bed as the doctor used the term “anorexia” to describe my condition. I had never heard the term before.
At one point, I managed to read my chart. In actuality, the chart didn’t reveal all that much. I was starving myself. That much I already knew.
My brother Alec saved my life. He came to visit me one day in the hospital. He took my hand and walked me over to the mirror in my room. “Look at you. You’re a skeleton. You’re going to die if you don’t eat.” I knew he loved me and didn’t want me to die. At that moment, I realized I didn’t want to either.
It never occurred to me that I should have received therapy or psychiatric treatment. I was on my own once I was released from the hospital.
Lisa J. Slominski, “The Effects of Parental Mental Illness on Children: Pathways to Risk to Resilience from Infancy to Adulthood,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 2010). Slominski cited research from: W. Beardslee, E.M. Versage, and T.R.G. Gladstone, “Children of Affectively Ill Parents: A Review of the Past 10 Years,” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 37 no. 11 (1998): 1134–1141.
“Eating Disorders,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, accessed January 7, 2019, http://nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/eating-disorders
About the Author:
Alice M. Kenny
My pen name is Alice M. Kenny. I am a Philadelphia-born journalist. I’ve contributed freelance articles to a Philadelphia newspaper on medical, family, social, and psychological issues. Early in my writing career, I was an editor of a daily newspaper in Atlantic City. I live near a small seaside town in New Jersey with my husband Jack and our rescue dog, Maxie. My book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids, is available on Amazon. You can reach me at www.alicekenny.com
I am the author of Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. My book combines memoir with research. My credentials include contributing articles to a Philadelphia daily newspaper on psychological, medical, family, and career issues. I was also an editor at a daily newspaper in Atlantic City. I live near a small seaside town in New Jersey with my husband Jack and our rescue dog, Maxie.