Why women who starve themselves MUST be force-fed: Liz Jones backs the judge who ruled an anorexic girl must be kept
alive against her will
22:53 GMT, 20 June 2012
Skin and bone: A young woman with anorexia
Sitting at my kitchen table with a piece of toast in front of me, I feel stressed, tired and unhappy, so I don’t want to eat it.
I have to eat it, because if I don’t, I’ll be ill. I put it in my mouth. I want to gag, but I chew. I swallow hard. It’s a tiny square of wholemeal bread. I give the crust to my dog.
I force-feed myself — not every day, but often, when life becomes too much to bear. It’s hard, but it saves my life.
A debate is raging about whether Mr
Justice Peter Jackson was right to order an anorexic 32-year-old woman
in Wales to be force-fed to keep her alive — against not just her
wishes, but those of her parents.
‘It upsets us greatly to advocate for our daughter’s right to die,’ her parents said in a statement. ‘We
love her dearly, but feel our role should be to fight for her best
interests, which, at this time, we strongly feel should be the right to
choose her own path, free from restraint and fear of enforced re-feed.
‘We feel she has suffered enough. She
stands no hope of achieving the things she would value in her life and
shows no signs of revising these aspirations.’
While they might be well-intentioned,
they are terribly misguided. Their daughter is not, like my mother, in
her 90s, in pain, trapped in her bed and begging for release. She is not
a quadriplegic nor does she have locked-in syndrome.
Unlike them, she could get better, but not if she is allowed to starve herself to death while in the grip of a mental illness.
As someone who has battled with anorexia nervosa since I was 11, I
believe the judge’s decision is the equivalent of giving a cancer
patient chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy.
With treatment, this young woman
could go on to lead, if not a normal life, then a good life, a valuable
life. She is in the grip of an illness over which she has no control.
She needs help. There were many
times when I would not have said that. This woman was a medical student
and anorexia seems most often to afflict introspective, intelligent
girls, who think they know better than the doctors.
When my anorexia was at its worst, in my early 20s, I certainly thought I knew better. My consultant at St Barts Hospital sat me down and told me what I was doing to my body. I
was destroying the balance of my hormones. My periods had never really
started, and nor would they. My skin, hair and bones were desiccated. I
would never have children. I was starting to consume not just my own
muscles, but my organs.
My immunity was low, and I was in danger of contracting pneumonia. I was told to start eating or I’d die. Poppycock, I thought! I have the strength of 50 lions! I was so clever that I tricked them. I sewed plastic bottles filled with water into the lining of my coat before I was weighed. I lied and told them I would eat. And then I went away and ate even less than before, to show them I was right.
Happier times: Liz Jones and Rachael Johnston share a laugh as they met to talk over shared issues
I wasn’t fed through a tube, but I was given steroids to make me hungry, and oestrogen to protect my bones and kick-start my periods. These drugs made my breasts grow. I retaliated, aged 30, by having breast reduction surgery. There! I showed them! The anorexic does not know what is best for her, whether she is a child or an adult. She is trapped in a parallel universe where her body is a battleground and she must starve it into submission.
The causes are myriad and complex, but the result is the same: slow suicide. I don’t know that I wanted to die, but I did know, with every fibre of my being, that I couldn’t live fat. I am not ‘cured’ of my illness, but I would still rather be here, coping, than be dead. I’d hope that if I had been in a coma, my parents would have done everything they could to save me.
I don’t know that I wanted to die, but I did know, with every fibre of my being, that I couldn’t live fat.
What drives me is alerting others — girls in school, mums, editors of glossy magazines, movie stars who refuse to admit they live on air and exercise — to the dangers. But other recovering anorexics disagree with me. Rachael Johnston, 20, who I interviewed for the Mail earlier this year, was in the Priory for two years. As soon as she was discharged, she plummeted to 4 stone.
‘I’d had years of therapy, but I thought: “I don’t want your help. I don’t want to get better,” ’ she says. Rachael was in a coma and her parents were told she would not survive. I ask her about the woman in the right-to-die legal ruling.
‘She should have the right to die. No, she does not have locked-in syndrome, but isn’t anorexia being trapped in a body and mind that you don’t know or recognise’ she says. Rachael was force-fed with a nasal tube at the age of 15. 'I was told if I pulled it out I would be sectioned and that would mean my life would be over and I would never get a job or have a proper life.'
Rachael now: The 20-year-old is now campaigning with her mother to change the way glossy magazines use airbrushed pictures of models
Emaciated: Rachael's spine and ribs can be clearly seen in these worrying shots of her at her skinniest
‘But being force-fed has left me with massive fears: it was the worst part of the entire journey. I still have nightmares about when the tube coiled while being rammed down my throat. There were times the back of my throat bled. I have severe acid reflux and am on medication. I blame it on the nasal feed.’
Like me and that slice of toast, I think Rachael is still battling the disease — but at least she’s still alive. Unlike the legal ruling woman’s parents, Rachael’s mum was adamant her daughter be force-fed. If she had died, the doctors said her heart would have been weighed to compare it to a normal one, to learn more about how the illness ravages the body.
‘I am glad to be alive, but I suppose in a way I do wish my mum had let me die,’ says Rachael. ‘But I can’t resent her for keeping me alive — I didn’t know myself at the time. Looking at it from her point of view, that tube saved my life. She would have lost her only daughter to anorexia.’
My periods had never really
started, and nor would they. My skin, hair and bones were desiccated. I
would never have children.
One solution to this devastating illness is to catch sufferers early. As you continue into your 20s and 30s, the disease does more damage, physical and mental. I think part of the reason I got divorced was because I hated seeing my fridge filled with food. Instead of accepting the disease, parents need to be vigilant, interfere and ask questions. My parents, shy and old-fashioned, never did.
Yes, I know I sound like a broken record, but let’s see women of all shapes and sizes in magazines, on catwalks and in advertisements. Rachael and I and many others live with anorexia: it is like being in remission. It lies in wait for us, ready to strike. The truth is that even if the woman in Wales is brought back from the brink, her recovery will be lifelong and hard. But I still think it’s worth it. I ask the mother of a recovering anorexic whether she agrees with the ruling.
‘The judge was right. People with anorexia are mentally ill,’ she says. ‘Their capacity to make rational judgments is non-existent and they are unable to conceive of what life could be like on the far side of their illness. They have to be saved from themselves. That’s what makes it so harrowing for those who love them.’
I call Rachael to check her age. ‘I turn 21 in August. I’m already planning my party!’ she says. You see, where there’s breath, there’s hope.