Amberleigh Jack is in recovery from a youth spent in the grips of an eating disorder. Here she talks about signs parents can look out for to protect and support their children.
I was about nine when I learned if I put my fingers down my throat I could make myself vomit.
At 14, I did it to get rid of food I regretted eating. I felt almost a high at having “purified” myself. But I hated myself for overeating in the first place. I told myself I never would again.
Time went by. I sank deeper. By 16, I’d avoid food until I couldn’t control my hunger. Then I’d lose control and binge. I’d feel an indescribable panic so I’d retreat and purge. I’d go to bed dehydrated, burst blood vessels in my eyes, my throat raw and swollen – often bleeding – tingling teeth and a terrible headache. But my stomach was empty, so none of that mattered.
Bulimia became my life. And almost my death. As an adult I was hospitalised with potassium so low I wasn’t allowed out of bed, in case I went into cardiac arrest. Later, while trying to recover, I spent a night with seizures and a team of doctors with crash carts fighting to keep me alive following a suicide attempt.
I imagine I’ll never have a normal relationship with food. I still relapse when life gets hard. Nutrition is still a full-time battle with my brain. Being in recovery is like being an alcoholic who has to go to the pub and have a beer, three times a day, for the rest of your life.
Eating disorders have little to do with food. Or aesthetics. They’re about control. About perfection. About trying desperately to be good enough when you feel like you never are. Your mind convinces you that your world will implode around you if you eat too much. The only way to stop the voices in your head insisting you’re entirely worthless is to purge.
It’s exhausting. It’s frightening. And it’s maddening.
I firmly believe that disordered eating is something you’re either predisposed to or not, but one thing that is almost always the case is that it starts young. And eating disorders can be easy to hide: people with bulimia tend to be average or overweight; people with anorexia can take a little time for a bit of weight loss to be obvious.
And eating disorders thrive on secrecy.
There are subtle signs parents can look for, though. Things that a person with an eating disorder doesn’t want you to know.
If your child is purging, there’s no way to hide the rounding effect on the face. It puffs and swells with regular purging. Bloodshot eyes are common when purging, and blood vessels in the eyes tend to burst on occasion as well. Someone with bulimia may suffer from tingly and numb limbs and ringing ears. Thinning hair, mood swings, exhaustion, insomnia, sensitivity to cold and hair growth on arms and legs are all signs of being undernourished. If food disappears regularly from the cupboards or you notice that your child seems to be able to eat large amounts and never gain weight, they could be purging.
They could be taking long showers or walks immediately after meals in attempt to hide purging. They might be anxious over changes to meal times or plans. They’ll cover their lack of appetite with stories of how much food they ate when you weren’t around or make excuses to eat in their room.
So what do you do if you discover your child has developed disordered eating habits? I’d love to say I have the perfect answer. But I flat-out refused help for a long time. A therapist told my mum I’d grow out of it. Which gave me the perfect excuse to keep going. So I remained in my private food hell for far too long.
What I can say is trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. If you know something is wrong, get them professional help. If the person or people you find don’t work, find someone else. Know that your child will probably fight you and deny any problem.
If possible, check what they’re doing online. “Thinspiration” support networks are filled with advice on how to avoid hunger pangs and dangerous tips on purging, including “flushing” (a cycle of drinking water and purging to ensure the stomach is empty, which depletes the body of electrolytes even further) and punching yourself hard in the stomach (and when you’re desperate, you’ll try anything). These sites are being closed down regularly, but not as quickly as they’re showing up.
Get your child checked out with regular blood tests. Eating disorders can wreak havoc on electrolytes – which can be dangerous as hell. If they’re out of whack, get the right supplementation and enforce it. Coconut water, bone broth and bananas are great sources of potassium, which depletes significantly when you purge. Try and get your child to replenish with any of these when you know they’ve slipped up.
Find a dentist. This may be the last thing on your mind, but take it from someone who has the teeth of someone who looks like they’ve been on a meth bender for about five years. Get your child’s teeth checked often.
Be prepared for meal times to be draining for both of you. Celebrate the victories – no matter how minor – and get professional support to help guide you through meal times.
If possible, get them to a nutritionist that they trust. The best thing I ever did was find a fantastic nutritionist. He used science, logic and patience to teach me how to put a plate of food together, and answered my neurosis with science, which the over-analytical perfectionist in me appreciated.
Finding the right sport, community and exercise helped me switch my mindset to one of training for fun and strength, and eating to fuel exercise, rather than a cycle of starvation and punishment through exercise. Let coaches know what the issue is, though. They can watch out for obsessive behaviour when it comes to exercise. (Editor’s note: Exercise can be extremely dangerous in recovery – please speak to a professional about this if you are going down this path).
I don’t have the answers for how to prevent disordered eating habits emerging. But try not to use food as a reward or punishment. To those of us predisposed, this quickly becomes a form of self-punishment: good people deserve food. Bad people don’t. In the same way, try to avoid the labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food. Teach healthy habits, but focus on health over aesthetics.
Focus as a family on a healthy, balanced lifestyle rather than diets and ‘cheating’. Let your child see you thriving without diets and restriction. Allow treats and don’t demonise them. Remove scales. Avoid compliments based around your child’s weight. They may be well-meaning, but they become addictive. If I was ever told I was thin, I’d feel an immense amount of pride. If I was told I looked healthy, I’d assume the person meant I was fat.
Try to make meals a family thing. And make them fun. Don’t make a huge deal if they eat a big meal, and equally don’t make a huge deal if they don’t empty their plate. Let them learn what their body naturally wants.
And know that if your child develops disordered eating habits you’re not to blame, and neither are they. Know that the road ahead will be a frightening and difficult battle, but one that can be won.
Know that eating disorders aren’t a phase or a cry for attention. They’re not glamourous. They’re terrifying. They’re all-consuming.
And they’re deadly.