To the woman who sat next to me at the eating disorders clinic

Obviously I noticed your daughter before I noticed you. I expect you are used to that. Legs so thin, how could it be any other way? I tried not to stare but it’s so hard not to. People used to stare at me in much the same way, or so I’ve been told (I never noticed at the time). Once you’d both signed in, you came and sat next to me, with her on the other side of you. I noticed you then but only because I couldn’t see her any more.

Your face didn’t give away a single thing. I thought, “if I were you, I’d cry”. I wouldn’t be brave but then what do I know? Perhaps you do cry. I don’t know how long you’ve been living with this. You must be used to it. It must take quite some time for a girl to starve herself down to the size of your daughter. You have had time to watch in horror and prepare for whatever it is that you need to prepare for. I don’t know how much longer it will be like this, whether it will get worse or better, or stay the same, year in, year out. Alas, nor do you.

When I first became ill people – lots of people, doctors, nurses, relatives, anyone really – would ask me if I’d thought about what I was putting my parents through. As though somehow I’d planned it but hadn’t quite considered the implications. There isn’t really an answer you can give to this. Deep down, people are saying “you’re not really ill”. After all, you wouldn’t tell someone with a proper illness to hurry up and recover because it was making their parents sad. And yet it is a proper illness all the same; I’ve seen people die of it (but wouldn’t want to admit that to you). It’s not a choice, nor is it a punishment reserved especially for you. Life would be much simpler if it was. We could all say sorry and then go home.

I have thought about what my illness did to my mother, in fearful, intermittent bursts. If anything, such thoughts make recovery harder, not easier. I’ve burned with resentment at the accusations of others, turned back in on myself, seen those who cared for me pushed far back, onto the side of those who think I’m plotting against them. There has been so much bitterness and shame. Blame is such a useless thing.

I wanted to talk to you, to tell you tell you it wasn’t your fault. To tell you that now I’m a mother I almost understand just how agonizing it must be for you and that I don’t think “well, why don’t you just force her?” (we both know other people do). I wanted to hug you. I felt so, so bad for you. I know that doesn’t mean anything, but I think you are courageous just being there with your child. Don’t ever be ashamed of her or yourself. No one else can possibly know all that exists between you and all the goodness that remains.

I saw my mum this evening. We never talk about the days when we were once as you are now. Flesh or lack of it is not the thing that matters. I wish you both well.

12 thoughts on “To the woman who sat next to me at the eating disorders clinic

  1. Beautiful, I hope everyone learns to feel this compassionately about mental illness and the journey it takes everyone on, not just the diagnosed.

  2. This is very moving. I look back now and, as a mother, can appreciate how tough it must have been for my parents when they first recognised I had a problem and took me to the doctor. I hope I never have to go through the same with my children.

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