By Hanaan Kambo, Sierra Leone
As a mother of a child who suffered from Anorexia Nervosa, I know all too well the frustrations, anxiety, anticipation, fall-backs, disappointments, blaming and complete chaos that a family experiences when a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder. Nothing prepares you for how to manage and control this deadly disease. It is like fighting with some invisible demonic force that completely engulfs its wrath on the patient, caregivers and their families. It is a massive force to be reckoned with!
No diagnosis, no help
Our unforgettable bout with Anorexia manifested itself on our daughter in 2009 after we relocated with our kids to West Africa from the United States. Initially we suspected our daughter was suffering from a culture shock and as she settled all will be well. In hindsight, our daughter had displayed some compulsive behaviors around age five when she was in kindergarten. She was always a stickler for perfection in anything she did; homework and projects took longer to complete, but they were done right. She would ask permission to go to the restroom numerous times just because she was terrified she would pee on herself in class! Amid a slew of medical tests, my daughter looked extremely emaciated.
All hope of getting a diagnosis in Sierra Leone where we lived, or even a cause for this silent killer, was starting to dissipate. Doctors and other medical personnel in my country were scratching their heads as to why a child would simply refuse all foods and liquids when all tests have proven she was “healthy.” Despite all the torment she was experiencing inside, our daughter was steadfast in her studies and performed excellently in all her exams. No one had answers for us, nowhere to turn for help; our country had nothing by way of psychotherapists or social workers, no facilities, not even the awareness of such an illness, especially not food refusal when hundreds of people were going hungry because of lack of food. Completely lacking in any sort of expertise in any sort of therapy or counseling. Our daughter was slowly disappearing and we could do nothing about it!
This disease has a name!
Help came when we eventually sent our daughter out to Toronto, Canada to her grandparents for Spring Break. This was a desperate move by us to seek help for our daughter. After a couple of days of unchanged behavior with continued refusal for food and liquid intake, an urgent trip to the emergency room proved worthy and life-saving. Our daughter was finally diagnosed with acute Anorexia Nervosa!
My daughter was hospitalized at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto (SickKids), one of the best treatment facilities in the world for eating disorders, and underwent intensive therapy including: psychological counseling, psychotherapy, anti-depression medication and painstaking attention to medical and nutritional needs. Continuous Outpatient therapy followed with two weeks of Multi- Family Group Therapy (Based on the Maudsley Method). Family involvement was always highly encouraged, and it helped give parents control of their child’s feeding.
Early detection, awareness and persistence is key!
There seems to be no known method of preventing this devastating mental disease, however early recognition and awareness of its wrath can make a world of difference in treating patients successfully; full recovery is possible!
My country, Sierra Leone, like so many other African nations, is in dire need for trained expertise in the recognition, awareness and early treatment of eating disorders. Our daughter could have died save for our good fortune in having family members that cared enough to help send her out where she eventually got the treatment that saved her life. Persistence is paramount– do not give up on your loved one! If sometimes takes hours of cajoling at meal time, constant encouragement will be needed to get them to take that one life saving bite.
Eating disorders are not just prevalent in the western world or biased against any one sector of society; this is a universal crisis that needs to be fully understood.
According to a leading doctor at SickKids Hospital, 90 per cent of the people who develop eating disorders are female. The death rate is high. According to experts in the field, eating disorders have a higher mortality rate in children than all mental diseases. I thank God we noticed a change in our daughter’s behavior and eating pattern early on to have sort help, albeit a world away.
First World Eating Disorder Day, June 2!
Contributing to the First World Eating Disorder Day is quite an honor and a privilege! What better platform to share our experiences with a global audience on this devastatingly serious but highly underrated mental condition? We now have a forum where we can share tips and give hope to all caregivers that 100% recovery is quite attainable when armed with the right information and tools.
We are very lucky our daughter got the best treatment at SickKids Hospital’s Eating Disorders Unit, and are thankful that she now has a brighter outlook on life and is a freshman in university studying sciences.
My daughter’s recovery from anorexia nervosa was not an overnight success story. There were days when my family almost gave up trying. It puts undue strain and drains the energy out of caregivers; but persistence is the enemy of this disorder. Due to the severity of her condition, the whole family often got frustrated at each other for even forcing something that seems so natural to mankind–eating and drinking. But then, who else would have gone the extra mile; encouraged each other and cried together, promising to never ever give up fighting to bring our daughter back from this dark abyss? We remain very grateful to all our daughter’s caregivers.
Hanaan is a married mother of four. She currently lives in Sierra Leone with her husband and son. Her experience with anorexia nervosa and its potential destruction to vital organs in the human body drives her to reach out to those affected, and has a keen interest in encouraging families to pay attention to each other and notice subtle changes in behavior, especially in young children.
Join Hanaan in supporting World Eating Disorders Action Day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter @WorldEDDay and hashtag #WeDoAct, #WorldEDActionDay, @WorldEatingDisordersAction on Instagram and World Eating Disorders Action Day on Facebook.