My son had anorexia. I felt helpless, but now see he is stronger for surviving it

Did you know that around 25% of people with eating disorders are boys and young men? I didn’t, until my son Joe developed one.

We noticed he was losing weight and then it became clear he had a significant problem. There was a major change in his personality and behaviour. The outgoing, bubbly boy we had known for 13 years became moody, argumentative and secretive.

As a logical person, you try and understand, asking yourself what is happening and why, but in reality you just have to deal with what’s in front of you. At times it was difficult to remain calm. I’d query whether I was doing the right thing while trying to manage Joe’s extreme emotional outbursts, his anguish and the fact that he was malnourished. Eating as a family became impossible. We had to restrict his physical activity because his weight was so low, and support him emotionally as his friends couldn’t cope with behaviours they simply didn’t understand.

I watched as loneliness crept up on my son as he struggled at the things he used to enjoy, like playing football. He stopped developing physically while his twin brother and friends grew into young men. I watched him being rejected by others as clearly different and supported him through his mood swings and tears, while feeling frustrated that he wasn’t eating enough. I got angry, and was fearful about his wellbeing and future.

We stopped the family skiing holiday and eating out; we even missed wider family gatherings and visits from friends as they became too awkward for all concerned. I desperately hoped for the old Joe to return rather than this depressed and unhappy imposter. People wanted to help but didn’t know how.

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The overriding issue, however, was seeing my son failing and struggling, desperately unhappy and stuck as he was unable to engage with things and others that would make him happy.

As a parent, I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do. We had to focus on finding the right help for Joe and the system was baffling, even for someone like me who had worked as an approved social worker, had managed mental health services and knew some of the ins and outs of the health service.

Joe’s weight loss eventually became life-threatening. He was admitted to intensive care for three months. Afterwards he went to a mental health unit for a short time. But he needed help seven days a week and it only opened Monday-Friday over lunchtimes. The staff there were not geared up to meet his needs. In fact, it turned out they knew little about eating disorders.

I found the lack of support tailored to his situation frustrating and disappointing; I felt angry and ashamed as I could see a system that was failing Joe and us as a family, as well as many others. I was also appalled at the lack of engagement; our views were not requested or sought.

During this time, work was a refuge for me. Life there was relatively normal. My son’s anorexia wasn’t something I went around telling people in work about endlessly, but I did let them know and they were there for me if I needed it. Friends and family were my main support.

Group family therapy sessions also helped. They took the focus off Joe and supported us all to work together to help him. And he had a psychiatrist who invested time in building up his self-worth, helping him to set goals and take steps towards recovery. We gave him unconditional love, but balanced that with setting firm boundaries. We supported and challenged him to address his behaviour.

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I know there will be many people who are going through the same thing with a loved one, or those dealing with an eating disorder themselves. Please know that you are not alone; that things can – and do – get better, but it’s hard work.

Many people don’t understand eating disorders or mental health issues, and don’t know what to say or how to help. As a society, we struggle to tell people when we’ve got a problem. It can be seen as a sign of weakness. We cover it up. But people are often willing to help and listen.

Joe is doing really well now, but it’s taken a long time and he’s slipped back a few times. He understands what he needs to do to keep himself well. He eats really well, really healthily. In many ways, his relationship with food is very positive – he is in control. He loves to cook and has an Instagram account with loads of followers, where he shares images of the dishes he’s created. And he’s just finished an engineering degree.

He is living proof you can have a debilitating mental health issue and come out the other end.

While I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on anybody, my son is stronger today because of his experiences. He has learned how to live and have a successful life. I, meanwhile, have a close relationship with my son where I can challenge and support him, as well as an understanding of how to address mental health issues.

Martin Farran is director of adult services and health at Liverpool city council

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