“I never considered my daughter Mimi fat. She was fleshy, maybe, as all growing kids tend to be, but not overweight. However, Mimi felt she wasn’t as thin as her schoolmates, even though she was 33kg, a healthy weight for a 10-year-old. And so began her journey into anorexia nervosa – a potentially life-threatening eating disorder.

It all started when Mimi’s team lost a race in school. Mimi was a slow runner and her teammates blamed her for their loss, saying she needed to lose weight if they were ever going to win any competition. 

That remark affected her greatly and she began comparing herself to her ‘skinny’ friends. She started cutting down on meals, sometimes skipping them altogether, and munching on bits of biscuits or bread if she felt hungry. When we went out for meals, she would drink a glass of water and not order anything – she always claimed that her tummy wasn’t feeling good, and would simply eat morsels off my plate.

At first, I scolded her when she refused to eat, but over time, I gave up as we always ended up arguing – and whenever that happened, Mimi would lock herself in her room and ignore me for days. To keep the peace, I stopped getting on her case. I figured she was just watching her weight – after all, she was about to hit puberty and like any other pre-teen, was starting to be aware of her figure.

Little did I know then that her habit of barely eating would go on for two more years. I didn’t notice because I got busier at work and Mimi gradually grew distant. We barely communicated – she was always in a bad mood and I was too tired to deal with her when I got home. Mimi’s father and I had divorced and I found it tough to raise our daughter on my own. If only I had taken the time to try to connect with her, I probably would have been able to see that she was in trouble.

One day, when I was recovering from the flu at home, I asked Mimi to come to my room so we could have a chat. As she walked towards me in her tank top and shorts, I realised how thin my 11-year-old daughter had become. Her collarbones were protruding sharply and her limbs were almost stick-thin. She looked so fragile and light, it seemed as if a gust of wind could blow her away.

I relayed my concerns to her, asking her if she was eating well. She just nodded, saying that she was on a constant diet as she puts on weight easily. She told me not to worry, that she was still eating three meals a day, and had never felt better. I suspected that she wasn’t being entirely truthful, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Half a year later, three weeks after Mimi turned 12, I stumbled on a television documentary about anorexia. As the show progressed, I began to hyperventilate. I saw so many of the symptoms in Mimi – she almost resembled the anorexic woman being interviewed.

Not wanting to panic without proof, I called my sister, Karen*, to ask for advice. After all, Karen saw more of Mimi than I did – she helped me keep an eye on Mimi when I was busy at work. My sister would be able to tell me if I was imagining things.

That phone call changed my life. My sister asked to meet me at a nearby cafe, saying she had something very important to tell me. I remember how my hands shook as I tried not to drop my cup of coffee when Karen revealed that Mimi had been anorexic for two years.

How could I have been so blind to her condition? Why did I ignore my instincts all those months ago when I first noticed how thin she was? What kind of a mother was I that my own daughter couldn’t come to me with her problems? Mostly, I blamed Karen for hiding Mimi’s eating disorder from me for so long.

In her defence, Karen said keeping Mimi’s secret tore her apart. But she felt she didn’t have a choice. ‘Mimi threatened to run away if I told you about it. That’s why I kept mum all this while,’ Karen explained.

Karen said she had first suspected something was wrong when Mimi stopped asking her for her favourite cheeseburgers. She also noticed that the snacks she usually kept in the cupboard for Mimi went untouched for months.

When Mimi’s weight kept plummeting, Karen decided to confront her about it. My daughter broke down and told her everything – how that one remark in school had made her think that she was the odd one out, so she was determined to lose weight. She started by cutting down on meal portions and avoiding fatty foods, but when her weight didn’t go down as fast and as much as she wanted it to, she decided to stop eating altogether. At her thinnest, she weighed no more than 30kg – more than 10kg less than the average 12-year-old girl of her height.

As Karen related the story, my heart sank. I felt so guilty that I started blubbering like a baby. I was angry with myself for neglecting my daughter – if I had been a more dependable mother, Mimi would have trusted me enough to ask for help.

As furious as I was with my sister for helping Mimi to cover up her illness, I knew I needed her support to get Mimi to seek help. So we headed home and waited for my daughter to return.

When she walked through the door, I gave her a big hug and told her I knew of her anorexia. I quickly reassured her that I wasn’t upset with her; I was just sad that she didn’t have enough faith in me to share her secret. I apologised for not spending enough time with her and pleaded with her to let me help her.

Mimi denied everything – she was indignant that I would assume the worst about her. She screamed at me and stormed into her room. Karen stopped me from going after her, saying she might have a better chance of getting through to Mimi.

She was right – an hour later, Mimi came out of the room, cried in my arms and confessed that she was tired of living with her secret. I tried to soothe her and promised to get her the best help possible. I assured her that I would support her through her ordeal.

It’s been four years since the intervention. Mimi still goes for counselling for her eating disorder, but she’s no longer skipping her meals, although her appetite remains small. She obsessively weighs herself every day, and freaks out when her weight goes up by even a kilogram. But at least, she isn’t starving herself anymore and is back to a healthy weight of 53kg – some 20kg more than what she had weighed four years ago.

It took me a long time to patch things up with Karen. Mimi could have died, said her doctor, and that made me blame Karen even more for hiding things from me. But eventually, I came to forgive my sister – deep down inside, I knew she had done it with Mimi’s wellbeing in mind.

However, I’m still struggling with my own guilt. I can’t forgive myself for being so caught up with work that I couldn’t even see how emotionally distraught my child had become or how gaunt she looked. I should have listened to my inner voice and paid more attention to Mimi. I’ve learnt a huge lesson and I’m glad that I have a second chance at building a relationship with my daughter.”

* Names have been changed.

These are some symptoms that can help you identify if your child is anorexic.
* A sudden change in eating habits – consumes less and not as frequently as before, and constantly throws away food.
* Shows excessive concern about food by reading each food label and counting fat frequently; always feels anxious about eating.
* Avoids eating with others.
* Suffers excessive weight loss, is bony and physically weak, falls sick regularly, and has dry skin and/or hair.
* Experiences constant mood swings and prefers to keep to himself or herself.
* Exercises excessively, is competitive and always needs to be in control.

“First, your child needs to admit that he or she has a problem and wants to seek help. An anorexic is usually in denial. Sometimes, parents think that the problem can be solved once the child ‘snaps out of it.’ That’s not true.

Parents need to help the child deal with his or her insecurities by showing a lot of understanding and support, and there has to be constant communication. Most importantly, seek help from medical professionals. You cannot handle anorexia alone – you need professional support and medical stability.

If your child is medically unfit, he or she needs to be hospitalised. Your family should also talk to experts to find out more about the condition and get counselled.” – Daniel Koh, psychologist, Insights Mind Centre

This article was originally published in Simply Her July 2014.