Eating Disorders Awareness Week starts today – read an extract from Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown

Eating Disorders Awareness Week starts today – read an extract from Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown

Posted by in Book Extracts, Book News, Non-Fiction, Recommended Reading

Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2012 will be taking place from today, 20th February, to Sunday 26th. This year, BEAT (Beating Eating Disorders) is running a 'Break the Silence' campaign that aims to encourage communication between eating disorder sufferers and their friends, parents and carers.

In 2011 Piatkus published Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown – the true story of how Harriet's family helped her daughter Kitty to recover from anorexia using a family-based treatment developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Since publication, the book has received praise across the board from healthcare professionals, writers, eating disorders campaigners and families going through the same struggle and won the prestigious Books for a Better Life award in the parenting category.

In the extract below, Harriet remembers the moment that she and her husband Jamie realised their daughter had developed an eating disorder:

On Mother’s Day we planned a family bike ride. Emma had recently gotten good enough on a twowheeler to keep up with the rest of us. And so we set out after lunch on a warm Sunday afternoon. Our route was an easy eight-mile ride; even with lots of water breaks, it shouldn’t have taken more than two hours. But almost as soon as we hit the bike trail, half a mile from our house, Kitty began to cry. Not a few sniffles, either, but full-out hysterical sobbing.

We stopped right away. “What happened?” I asked. She’d been fine at home, ten minutes earlier. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know!” she wailed. She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell Jamie or me what was wrong.

After twenty minutes of sitting by the side of the trail, Jamie asked, “Should we go home?”

“I don’t want to ruin Mother’s Day!” sobbed Kitty, getting back on her bike. Off we pedaled. Five minutes later, the same thing happened again. On and on Kitty wept, and we watched helplessly.

After an hour, we’d made it to a small concrete gazebo in the middle of a playground in a subdivision of McMansions. The gazebo offered the only shade in sight, and we huddled under its small roof, rubbing Kitty’s back, trying to get her to drink (she insisted she wasn’t thirsty), trying to figure out what had gone so suddenly and bewilderingly wrong. “I don’t know,” she said, over and over, as tears literally squirted from her eyes and down her cheeks. “I don’t know! I’m sorry!”

She didn’t want to go home, but she couldn’t ride. And so we sat in the gazebo. And sat. The rest of us ate our snacks and drained our water bottles and still Kitty cried. Ten-year-old Emma lay on her back on the picnic table, shredding the season’s first dandelion, kicking the top of the table in frustration. I could feel my empathy begin to wane. By now all I wanted for Mother’s Day was to be sitting in air-conditioning with a book and a glass of ice water. Preferably alone.

Eventually we persuaded Kitty onto her bike and began to pedal home slowly. As soon as we got there Emma disappeared into the house, slamming her bedroom door behind her. I would have loved to do the same thing. Instead, I wheeled my bike into the garage. “Tell me what’s wrong,” I said to Kitty, propping the kickstand. “What’s going on?”

We sat down on the garage floor, surrounded by stacks of skis and bikes, garden tools, piles of the boards Jamie used to make furniture. Kitty laid her head in my lap the way she used to when she was a toddler. Lately she’d been both insecure and clingy. She reached for my hand constantly, wanting to link arms, walk in step. She hovered when I cooked dinner. Was this normal, I wondered? Weren’t fourteen-year-olds supposed to be pulling away? She did spend a lot of time alone in her room, where she’d created a rigorous gymnastics training regimen that involved doing hundreds of push-ups, V-ups, and chin-ups a day. And she was out of the house four or five nights a week at the gym, practicing with her team from six to nine, eating dinner by herself every night around fi ve. When she got home at 9:30, she did homework or fell into bed.

Kitty had always been wired for action. She hadn’t slept through the night until she was four. Maybe this was just more of who she was—wide awake, sensitive, tuned in. Sitting on the cool cement floor of the garage, I stroked her hair, noticing that her skin was chilled and dry, even in the heat.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong? You can tell me, you know. No matter what it is.”

Her eyes were squeezed tight, as if in pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I’m afraid, Mommy,” she whispered.

“Afraid of what?” I asked.

She raised one arm and laid it across her eyes. “Remember I told you that my Spanish teacher has OCD?” she asked. I nodded; the Spanish teacher was Kitty’s favourite this year, and we’d been hearing a lot about her idiosyncrasies.

“And remember I told you she has to rearrange the chairs and desks so they’re lined up exactly?” Kitty continued. “She says if things aren’t lined up, she gets really worried and she can’t stop thinking about it until she fixes it.”

“Yes,” I said, wondering where this was going.

“I think I have OCD, too,” she whispered.

This was . . . unexpected. “Why?” I asked.

“Because I can’t stop worrying!”

“Worrying about what?”

She shook her head, her eyes still hidden from me, and said no more.

I told her I’d noticed she seemed a little worried lately. And I had noticed, because Kitty had never seemed fearful or anxious before. Cautious, yes; she was the kind of toddler who watched and waited rather than throwing herself into a new activity, who studied the stairs for weeks and then one day walked down them carefully, perfectly, one step at a time. But she loved travel, meeting new people, going places. She wasn’t shy or nervous; she’d never been afraid of the dark, or burglars, or dogs. I would never have described Kitty as anxious, and anxiety is something I know a lot about, because I’ve had panic disorder my whole life. But Kitty was nothing like I’d been as a child. At age eight, she insisted on going to overnight camp for two weeks and wasn’t homesick at all.

“How about if we go talk to someone?” I asked her now. “About the OCD thing.”

Kitty was shaking her head before I finished. “I’m not crazy!” she insisted.

“Of course you’re not crazy,” I said. “It’s not about crazy. Everyone needs a little help at some point.”

She said she wouldn’t talk to anyone and she didn’t need any help. She just needed more Mommy time, that was all. I didn’t point out that we’d just spent four hours together and she’d done nothing but cry. Instead I handed her a tissue and said, “If you change your mind—”

She blinked. “I just want to talk to you about it,” she said. “Only you. Promise me.”

“Of course,” I said. I hardly knew what I was saying.

She scrambled out of my lap and ran into the house.

That night Jamie and I went over the conversation again and again. What was really going on with Kitty? He hadn’t noticed her counting or arranging things, or showing other symptoms of OCD, and neither had I. But something was making her worry.

Maybe we’d never know. After all, we told each other, she was fourteen, an age one friend described as “the lost year.” Her daughter spent most of her fifteenth year in her room, coming out only to snap at the rest of the family. Then one day she simply reappeared, her earlier personality restored, and resumed the civilities of family life.

I remembered fourteen. You couldn’t pay me enough to be that age again.

Was Kitty going through the kind of adolescent angst that’s triggered by hormones? Maybe. She barely had breasts; she hadn’t gotten her period yet. Late bloomers are the norm in both our families. Then, too, the kind of intense gymnastics training Kitty was involved in could delay development. But that could be a good thing, couldn’t it? I’d written an article years earlier for Health magazine on research showing that teenage girl athletes who delay menstruation have a lower than normal lifetime risk of breast cancer, which runs in our family.

In the end, Jamie and I decided, we weren’t that worried. Kitty was smart, savvy in ways I certainly hadn’t been at her age. She was growing up, that was all. We agreed we’d keep an eye on her, though we had no idea what we were looking for.

And yet. Most parents of an anorexic child can look back on a day when they should have done something but didn’t. A day when they first realized something was very wrong but still had no words for it, just a feeling—a prickle at the base of the neck, the hairs on their arms standing up, something in them recognizing danger. For me it was the next day, the Monday after Mother’s Day, when Kitty called me at work to ask what we were having for dinner on Friday night, five days later. She’d never done anything like that before, and I was, frankly, flabbergasted.

“I don’t even know what we’re having tonight,” I said, laughing. Maybe she was joking.

“I have to know,” she said. “Why can’t you just tell me?”

I wish, now, that I’d paid attention to the frantic tone in her voice, to the anxiety driving this odd and insistent questioning. What if I’d made an appointment that day to see “someone”? Would that “someone” have seen what we couldn’t, yet?

I’ll never know, because instead of making a call, I got annoyed. I’ve never been good at meal planning; I’m the kind of parent who rummages in the fridge and throws something together on the spot. When Kitty wouldn’t stop pressing me, when she didn’t back down, I said in exasperation, “Spaghetti, OK? We’ll have spaghetti on Friday night.” And when that calmed her down enough to get off the phone, I forgot about it.

Only I didn’t. A few days later I stopped at the library on my way home from work and checked out a video called Dying to Be Thin. I didn’t go looking for it, and I couldn’t have told you why I checked it out. I brought it home and put it on my desk in the living room, where it was quickly covered by a pile of papers. It sat there for weeks, long past its due date, but I never watched it.

Much later, Emma told me that when she saw that video on my desk, she knew Kitty had anorexia. “Why else would you have taken it out of the library?” she asked, with incontrovertible ten-year-old logic.

If only I’d paid attention to my own signals.

As May wore on, Kitty’s mood continued to deteriorate. She cried more; she was testy one moment, clingy the next. She kept up with her homework, as usual; she’d always been disciplined about school. Too disciplined; anything less than an A on the smallest assignment could send her into a spiral of anxiety about college and law school. In her chipper moments she couldn’t stop talking about her new passion for cooking. “I want to make a dinner party for your birthday, Mom!” she announced one day. My birthday is in October, but that didn’t stop her from making elaborate plans—dinner for thirty, place cards, fancy dress. She spent hours reading cookbooks, marking pages with yellow Post-its, making lists of ingredients—lobster, Cornish game hens, heavy cream, tarragon, butter. She called me at the office where I was editor in chief of a magazine to read me menus for the kind of four course meals you could cook only with a kitchen full of Williams-Sonoma equipment. She flopped down on my bed at night to debate the relative merits of scallops versus shrimp, sweet butter versus French butter. She begged for a subscription to Gourmet magazine.

I’d been trying to get Kitty to cook with me since she was three years old, to no avail. Was it possible for a child who had never shown the slightest interest in baking chocolate chip cookies to suddenly care about making a roux? Maybe I’d simply been boring her all these years with my pedestrian suggestions for brownies or spaghetti, and now her gourmet abilities were making themselves known. That didn’t exactly feel like the right explanation. But then what was going on?

I grew suspicious—of what, exactly, I couldn’t say—and then questioned my own suspicions. I’d always been a practical cook, more apt to produce a one-pot casserole than an elaborate menu.

Was I threatened by Kitty’s new expertise in the kitchen? What kind of mother was I, to be wary of my daughter’s new interest? Why couldn’t I just support it? Talking about food was the only thing that made her eyes light up. Even gymnastics, which she’d loved for years, seemed more of a chore than a pleasure these days.

The thing was, she didn’t actually eat what she cooked. A bite here, a nibble there, that’s all. She always had a reason: this dish upset her stomach, she wasn’t in the mood for that one. Jamie and Emma and I ate what she cooked, and it was delicious. But still Kitty’s behavior left a bitter aftertaste.

I started watching her. Watching what she ate, and didn’t eat. Watching the way goose bumps ran up her arms on a sunny afternoon. How her head suddenly looked too big for her body.

At her eighth-grade graduation in early June, Kitty wore a blazeorange halter dress she’d borrowed from a neighbour. From across the crowded gymnasium, I saw my daughter with different eyes, away from the usual context of our lives, and what I saw made my heart begin to pound. In an auditorium crowded with fourteen-year-olds, she was by far the thinnest girl in the room.

Brave Girl Eating is essential reading for families and professionals alike. It is available to buy now from Piatkus priced at £12.99. It is also available to download as an ebook from all of the major ebook retailers, so you can add this title to your Kindle, iPad, Kobo or Sony Reader.

To find out more about Harriet Brown, visit

Share this

Tags for this Article:

, , ,