The Wilson family used to look forward to sitting around the dinner table at their Wellington home.
Then, as if a switch had been flicked, eldest daughter Emma developed a paralysing fear of eating. Anorexia had taken its grip and meal times became terrifying ordeals.
"Our really close, fun happy meal times turned into the most frightening time of the day," her mother, Nicki Wilson, said.
"I'm happy to say it is now once again one of the great pleasures that our family enjoys together."
It took a couple of years, but Emma, 18, has overcome the all-consuming illness and is now in her first year of study at Otago University, but the journey was long and difficult.
"It was Emma's courage and strength that got her through," Mrs Wilson said. "We were just there to support her, and what was lacking was the health system did not provide us the skills, did not arm us with what we needed to take her home and do the work.
"At the end of the day, the people that get the patients through are the family."
Online support groups and books by experts were crucial for the Wilsons, who said that, though the care Emma received at Wellington Hospital was comprehensive, the support afterwards was not.
Mrs Wilson started a support group for Wellington families about a year ago, which is part of the Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand.
The Wilsons were open about Emma's illness from the start and hope sharing their story will help whittle away the stigma that creates barriers to recovery.
"I guess, for us, it came out of the blue, because she had been a really healthy active person and she became ill very quickly and very seriously," Mrs Wilson said.
"That's the story I hear from everyone. It comes out of left-field." The family had to learn to gauge when it was Emma speaking and when it was the anorexia.
"It feels as though you've lost your child to a force so powerful, and it's learning to stand up to that force calmly and confidently."
Dad Dave said a major challenge was "recognising your daughter is still there and trying to find a way of communicating with her and seeing the illness for what it is".
"I think typically people think about - and it's sort of natural - weight, but the thing that we picked up is it's a state, not a weight."
Not wanting to eat in front of people. Eating slowly or doing abnormal things with food. Wanting to cook their own food or suddenly becoming vegetarian or requesting fat-free food. Weight loss and wearing extra layers of clothes. Depressed, irritable, argumentative. Becoming rigid in their approach to everyday activities and taking longer to finish them. Talking about weight and size more. Excessive exercising.
Contact Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand on 0800 233 269 or go to www.ed.org.nz for more information and details about support groups.
- The Dominion Post
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