It takes a lot to reduce me to tears. And lately, I’ve been crying all over the place.
The culprit has been a book – The Boy Who Loved Apples, by Amanda Webster.
This book is one mother’s story of her battle with anorexia – her young son Riche’s anorexia. It’s a reminder that eating disorders do not discriminate, and that they can overpower their victims lives incredibly fast and devastatingly so. And it’s the story of a mother and doctor who once believed all the usual myths about eating disorders and those who get them – until her own son became one of the hundreds of children – as young as 3 years old – who suffer from an eating disorder.
Amanda Webster trained as a doctor, and yet her knowledge and medical expertise were no match for her son’s illness. (Can you imagine just how helpless you would feel, being a doctor and still not able to help your child?) She did her best to give her kids the best childhood that she could – they wanted for nothing – and yet she still found herself engulfed in self blame and searching for what it was she had done ‘wrong’ to cause this. Her story reinforces that nobody is at fault for someone developing an eating disorder, and how wrong it is to automatically blame the parents or the family as a whole. Her son Riche is the last kid we would expect to care about his weight or willingly starve himself – fitting none of the common (highly inaccurate) expectations such as female, appearance obsessed, vain, a brat, etc. He was just 11 years old.
One of the most fascinating parts of this book is reading about the onset of Riche’s anorexia. Since Amanda is telling this story from her point of view, the reader gains a bit of insight into the onset of the illness and how it might be triggered. The first inkling that anything was really wrong, was Riche one day becoming inappropriately worried that he would contract the plague, because his dog had caught a rat and then licked him. This from a boy intelligent and gifted beyond his years, a virtual walking encyclopaedia of knowledge. Very soon after that – days or weeks – it seems that this had developed into OCD-like obsessions – with food, calories, and being ‘contaminated’ by them, and being ‘overweight’ and ‘fat’ being ‘bad’.
Riche’s illness meant that he would walk around an entire playing field so as not to have to step over an empty food wrapper on the ground. It meant he would not enter a room in which food might have been. He tried to strangle himself in a shopping centre lift because someone got in holding food. He would not drink even water – and then when he agreed to, nothing but bottled water with an unbroken seal. He exercised continuously, would not sit down, and washed his hands until they bled. He would not allow anyone close to him for fear of contamination – no hair cuts, no human contact, no HUGS. Not even from his pet dog, or his family. Remember, this is a child. Completely isolated from anyone who might give him comfort.
It is frightening how fast Riche went from strong and healthy to dangerously ill from dehydration and starvation within a matter of just weeks. The deterioration physically of children with anorexia is often extremely rapid and dangerous – as they are small to begin with. Amanda found herself fighting to keep Riche alive – and fighting just as huge a battle to keep her son from ending up imprisoned in a hospital, being force-fed, traumatised, and possibly doomed to become a chronic sufferer. As I myself have experienced the trauma of treatment that punishes the sufferer for being sick, I can understand her wanting to spare her son this torment.
Her search leads them to the Bronte Foundation, an offshoot of the clinic in Melbourne started by a mother whose daughter received treatment at Peggy Claude-Pierre’s Montreaux Clinic in Canada. (And hello, hello – this is me!!! (hugging Bronte) ) (A follow up documentary, Beyond Bronte, was shot while we were clients there, Riche was also involved.)
I met Amanda, Riche, and his brother Andy at the Bronte Foundation – the clinic that all of us were attending in 2002 and 2003. At the time, I knew pretty much nothing about their story – only what I saw – and I was very wrapped up in my own problems, too. I knew that it was a horrible time for them, but I had no idea just the extent of the hell they were all living then.
I became very close to Andy, a quiet and shy but brilliant (both brothers were extremely intelligent) kid who attended the day program despite not having anorexia – reading now how hard it was for him to live with his brother starving to death and his family having no time for him is really hard, and I’m touched that our friendship – which was precious to me – was actually special to him too, enough so that Amanda mentions it in her book. I used to have epic conversations with Andy every day – we were both bookworms, at that time, I was heavily enjoying fantasy fiction and science fiction, and both of us had vivid imaginations – I’ve always cherished those afternoons talking about dinosaurs and outer space and every other thing you wouldn’t expect! I also had fun playing chess mostly with both boys. Both of them were masters at the game despite their age, and in Riche’s case, his proximity from the actual game he was part of. He wouldn’t sit down, and he couldn’t go near people, so he hovered halfway up a set of spiral steps nearby and called out his moves. He won every single time – his recall and ability to picture the game in his mind must have been astounding – especially as he was in the grips of starvation at the time.
I’d always wondered what became of the boys – and was SO overjoyed to hear that they are now well and happy. I have heard that Riche is now studying at university, something scientific I believe.
The reason for my tears was both grief, knowing what they were about to go through, and joy, to know that Riche had not only survived but was doing well today. Also, so much was brought back from all those years ago. My own time at the clinic was both wonderful and awful – the paradox of trying to treat eating disorders was alive and well there – that what might work brilliantly for one person, could actually make things worse for another. All of us are so different and so there is no one treatment that works for all. The philosophy at the clinic was based on the Confirmed Negativity Condition theory that Peggy Claude-Pierre saw as being a constant in all sufferers. I do relate to CNC, but it could be called a thousand other things too – many of the traits are behaviours identified in CBT for example. They meant well, and a lot of clients went on to totally recover, but I was one of those who didn’t respond well, and perhaps I wasn’t ready at that point in time, to properly use their help. They also were not equipped to help with much beyond the actual ED – my trauma and abuse problems left them at a loss as to how to help me. But apart from this last two years, the 18 months I was a client there were the most ‘well’ of the whole 15 years of being constantly in and out of hospital. I was truly privileged to have the oppotunity to attend – I was the guest of a lady who bought the house for the clinic to set up in, after her daughter died from anorexia. I was one of her daughter’s friends and she insisted that I too, would go there. She was also the amazing, wonderful person who brought a little kitten into my life – Shalimar
I feel that The Boy Who Loved Apples is a valuable resource due to the insight it gives the reader into eating disorders and the battle it wages with the mind. It demonstrates that it’s not just adolescent girls who are appearance-obsessed who suffer, that it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, and happy kids from happy families can get it. It illustrates how people with eating disorders face so many dead ends in their fight to just get help and that even medical professionals can be dangerously unfamiliar with them – something that can be fatal.
The best part about this book is that we know Riche has gotten better – completely. I’m really grateful to Amanda for sharing their story, and I wish them only the very best in everything. It’s also a reminder that people CAN get better from an eating disorder.
I highly recommend this book.
Have you ever wondered where someone you met who was very unwell or struggling at that time ended up and how they are doing? Have you ever found out?