Anorexia: Agony of having an anorexic mother

2:44 PM on 12th May 2011

No one knows exactly how early I was born. I weighed 5lb, and until just a few weeks before my arrival, I was assumed to be a tumour in my mother’s stomach.

Her belly, which had been painfully concave for as long as anyone could remember, had swollen like a balloon, while her arms and legs remained stick-like.

Pregnancy might sound like the obvious diagnosis — but my mother was anorexic, and, as far as anyone knew, infertile. And as I would soon learn, when it comes to anorexia, things are rarely as they seem.

Happy and healthy: Unlike her mother, Marianne was able to beat anorexia

Happy and healthy: Unlike her mother, Marianne was able to beat anorexia

Jackie, my mum, died almost two years ago, at the age of 56, after decades of self-destruction. I know, without doubt, that she loved me and my father to the end. But when your mother would rather die than put on a pound in weight, when she would use what little energy she had to resist your efforts to keep her alive, it doesn’t always seem that way.

On the day I knew that she really was dying (just one month before she actually did), I screamed: ‘You’ll never see me married, you’ll never hold your grandchild! Don’t you love me enough to try’

Mum had no answer.

But I knew then, as I do now, that she did love me. The trouble was she didn’t love life enough to keep fighting. She’d had enough. We all had.

She was frail and bloated, almost blind, and, above all, trapped by a condition that had conspired to wreck her health and ruin memories that other families get to treasure.

Every day, for more than 40 years, it had her in its clutches.

When something has always been in your life, it is hard to remember when you first noticed it. Anorexia loomed large at every mealtime and family occasion. And, as I got older, I realised it was the thing my parents whispered angrily about in the kitchen, thinking I couldn’t hear.

For a time, a dark period in my teenage years, it threatened to consume me, too.

Was it a genetic curse — a fault in the female family wiring Is it possible to inherit anorexia — like an ugly painting passed down through the generations

Janet Treasure, head of the Eating Disorders Unit at the Maudsley Hospital, London, says scientists increasingly believe this is true for some (but not all) cases. Although no single ‘anorexia gene’ has yet been identified, several that seem to be connected to an anorexia gene have come to the attention of researchers.

My mum had been anorexic since the age of 15 — a reaction, she said, to being bullied at school. Throughout her 20s she was in and out of clinics, which offered nothing like the kind of understanding of the condition that they do today.

In her early 30s, she met Mike, my father, who was a quality control manager in the manufacturing industry. It was love at first sight, and they were immediately devoted to one another.

Dad wasn’t unaware of her problems, but he was optimistic about their future. In their early years of marriage, she was happy and had gained a little weight, which might explain how her seemingly miraculous pregnancy occurred.

My mother had never had a period in her entire life. She had weighed so little from such a young age that she had never been fertile. Except, it seems, in the month I was conceived.

As her tummy grew, the idea of pregnancy never crossed her mind. But cancer did. She smoked and drank, and expected the worst as doctors subjected her to a series of investigatory scans. The pregnancy test was merely an afterthought.

To learn she was expecting was a surprise, to put it mildly. No two ways about it, my mother was horrified. For someone for whom physical control was so important, pregnancy was her worst nightmare.

But it was too late now: she was just weeks from delivery.

Weight battle: Marianne, aged eight, with her mother Jackie

Weight battle: Marianne, aged eight, with her mother Jackie

If the news caught her off guard, then the shock of the birth itself took a terrible toll on her body. Her Debbie Harry hair fell out in clumps, and one of her kidneys failed because of the stress.

As a baby I was never very big, but in the few photos that exist of Mum and me from that time, the contrast between my chubby little limbs and her skeletal frame is painfully obvious. In her first months of motherhood, she was at one of her lowest ebbs.

Her kidneys had been critically weakened by years of starvation and laxative abuse — a behaviour that is so often part and parcel of anorexia, and which she refused to stop no matter how ill she became.

I was only four or five when I first became conscious that my mum’s behaviour was strange. I know now she hid jars of laxative pills in the airing cupboard of our house. But back then, I thought they were jars of sweeties she refused to share with me, no matter how much I pleaded.

The truth dawned on me slowly. If I was already piecing it together from conversations I’d overheard, it really sunk in when I started to spend time at my friends’ houses.

Their mothers, I noticed, not only made dinner, but they sat down and ate it, too. They didn’t dish up and leave, or push their food around their plate before getting distracted by something more important.

But it was when I was eight and Mum’s second kidney failed and she had to go on dialysis that the extent of her illness was laid bare.

She was swollen and jaundiced, and by then I was familiar with the peculiar smell that clung to her skin. I’d also learned that when she kept one hand on her rattling handbag, she was hiding a stash of pills in there. You might wonder why my father couldn’t do more to stop her, but that is to underestimate the cunning of an anorexic.

There were always two sides to Mum. She was a loving, caring wife and mother, with a cheeky sense of humour and a shopaholic streak. But on the flip side, she was iron-willed, deceitful, argumentative and manipulative. She was whatever it took to maintain her sense of control.

Control is a word you hear a lot when it comes to eating disorders. Their seed is often sown when a person feels they have no control over anything in their life. They fixate on their weight, restrict their food, and find comfort — on some level — in knowing they have an absolute grip on one small aspect of their existence.

The irony is, of course, that it’s not long before the condition controls them completely — physically, mentally and emotionally. Sadly, that’s something I know from first-hand experience.

For when I was old enough to understand the role my birth had played in my mother’s deteriorating condition, I became racked with guilt. I dealt with it in the only way I knew: I stopped eating, too.

For me, that need for control first struck when I was 12. Mum was on dialysis and I became her main carer while Dad was out at work. I’d get her up and out of bed in the mornings, shower with her and help her dress. I’d make sure she had all 46 of her medications lined up before I left for school each morning. (Not that I could trust her to take them. Nor could I make her eat.)

On top of these worries, and the guilt I felt for having ‘caused’ her first kidney failure, came the news that Dad had a new job in a different city. We were leaving Darlington in Co. Durham, and the friends and family we had there, and moving to Burnley in Lancashire.

My insecurities were magnified at my new school, where gossip quickly spread about the new girl’s anorexic mother. Other girls taunted me about Mum’s illness, saying that if she loved me, she wouldn’t be trying to starve herself to death.

At the same time, I became extremely self-conscious about my appearance. I’d been an early developer, but Mum had no idea what that awkward stage of life was like and so couldn’t help me get through it.

My weight became my control — just as it was for Mum. Every mealtime became a battle, as I used the tricks I’d learned from her to avoid, conceal or dispose of the food in front of me. I would hide food in napkins or distract others while I put it in the bin.

At night, while my parents were sleeping, I’d let myself out of the house and go running for hours and hours to burn calories. Soon it was apparent to everyone — in particular, my exasperated father — that I, too, was anorexic.

Mum wasn’t blind to what was happening. But, even when my weight dropped under 5st, she couldn’t bring herself to talk to me about it. To acknowledge my illness was to acknowledge the damage she was doing to us all.

Instead, it was left to Dad, who believed at first that it was nothing more than a cry for attention. ‘You’ve proved your point now, Marianne,’ he said, in the futile hope that I could simply stop.

But he had only to look at Mum to know how hard it was to break free. His love and loyalty to her was unconditional, which at times, perhaps, stopped him telling her what she needed to hear.

Thankfully, he realised I needed more help than he could give, and insisted I saw my GP, who referred me to a psychologist.

It was only through intensive psychotherapy I realised the future that lay in store for me. I didn’t want to live like Mum did. I didn’t want to wind up in hospital, or dead, because of the hold anorexia had over me.

Above all, I didn’t want to subject my future children — if I was lucky enough to have any — to the heartache Mum had put me through. The determination I’d used to trap myself into anorexia was the key to setting myself free.

At 18, I had gone some way to getting over my anorexia. I met a boyfriend, Robert, and moved in with him. His love cemented my recovery. With some distance between us, Mum and I were able to enjoy a healthier relationship.

But just months before Robert and I were due to marry, he died suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep. I was devastated — and it was at that point I unleashed all of my pent-up anger on Mum.

In the ensuing years it took for me to put myself back together, we endured what seemed a lifetime of screaming rows.

But eventually I emerged on the other side stronger and even more determined to shake off the ghosts that had stalked me from childhood.

I got a great job in the police, I bought my own house, I travelled and I fell in love with Chris, my boyfriend, whom Mum absolutely adored. Chris is 22 — four years younger than me — and we now live together in a lovely semi-detached house with a garden and a garage for our campervan.

But while I managed to set myself free from anorexia, it was consuming the last parts of my mother. Her heart was under enormous strain, and she was suffering regular panic attacks.

Even then, we tried to keep up the pretence of normality. We shopped together and went the hairdressers, gossiping as we sat side-by-side in the salon. We were best friends.

I didn’t know at the time, but she had refused the last lifeline that might have saved her — a feeding tube that would pump precious nutrients into her body whether she liked it or not.

Her weight became dangerously low again and she was admitted to hospital — but it was far too late. She died in November 2009 from septicaemia complicated by malnutrition. She weighed just 4st.

My grief was immense. But so too was the relief I felt at knowing her suffering had ended, and that I had fought for and won a better life for myself.

Anorexia might have stolen my mother and my childhood, but it hadn’t stolen my future.

For help on eating disorders, visit Beat at or call 0845 634 1414

Interview by Rachel Porter