Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
I Stopped Eating when I was Fourteen

I Stopped Eating when I was Fourteen

To understand anorexia nervosa you need to be or have been anorexic. Many anorexic children grow up and become anorexic adults. Here is how you can help us. Trigger Warning.

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Just that word - anorexic - sounds spikey and uncomfortable but we are not miserable actually. Most of us were just working through something in our own private way. The troubles come in waves and we battle through and we try to do it all alone.

I wrote this for you in case you might like to help us.

And the holiday season with its huge amounts of food prepared and consumed and wasted often makes me want to go to my slimmer food-free days. Which has resulted in this article for you to share with someone who needs to read it.

I stopped eating around the time my mother took to her bed due to illness when I was a tween. (Though tween was not a word in those days) but I only see this now, when I am looking backwards to work out the lessons from that time. Because there are lessons.

I was around my fourteenth year. I was at school of course, convent school, steaming along - the only problem I had was being 2nd in class - in those days they told you where you were academically in class and Ann Dennehy beat me for 1st place every time. Then Mum got sick and all of a sudden I had to be mother, too. We were a family of eight. And as the eldest girl I was the natural choice as chief cook and bottle-washer.

If you are living under the bridge of anorexia try to reach out. Share this with any other adult who still has difficulty with food so they can reach out too.

Tell them they are not alone. We are all here to stand close.

Anorexia is defined as: ‘an eating disorder characterized by restriction of food intake leading to low body weight, typically accompanied by intense fear of gaining weight and disturbed perception of body weight and image”.

I really hate that definition. I was not fearful or disturbed. Damn experts.

No two anorexics are the same. No two families are the same. No two teenagers are the same. We come to this crisis of food from different landscapes and muddle our way through it with different home-made tools. Some food crisis are severe. Some are unseen. Some only for a short time. But all have the potential to fall off that cliff leaving food behind.

My difficulty with food (thats what I called it in later life) crept up on me. In fact for years I did not know I was starving. I just thought I had a small stomach. And was slow to grow. Not a lot could fit in my stomach. I liked to be small and thin, I liked to be able to enter a room sliding around the door. I hated being recognised or noticed. Or waved at. Preferring the background spaces. The kitchen. The wash house. The choir. The schoolroom.

The tiny portions followed me through nursing my mother, going to America as an exchange student, and into my first teenage pregnancy when they sent me away from home to live with the nuns, my sons adoption, then into my second teenage pregnancy and that shotgun wedding, through my mothers early demise, my fathers abdication, my divorce and out into the delightful bright air of my single mother life with a whole bunch of kids.

You will think hearing all this that my life was dark and hard but it wasn’t - it was exciting and funny and full of light and laughter. And piles of children, and houses full of friends, with their light and laughter. Yet I had the difficulty with food.


I am not a medical professional nor have I studied this topic. I have lived it, denied it, accepted it, denied it again and lived with it and am only offering you my experience. It is wise to seek professional help. Though I never did.

We did not call is anorexia. To be fair, I never even knew the word. I never knew anyone like me when I was a teenager. In the 60’s and 70’s we were all pretty thin. Overeating was not a thing. Processed food was not a thing. We all biked or walked or ran to school. Most of us never ate breakfast because we hated porridge. One marmite sandwich was plenty for lunch. Vegetables took up the majority of an evening dinner plate and nothing ever came out of a box, not in New Zealand anyway. Every night either Mum when she was well or me when she was in bed made a full dinner from scratch, meat and three veg, plus pudding, for a family of eight, for a sit down meal at the big table. Think Thanksgiving every night but without the over-eating, just the gathering and plenty of food. I love the idea of Thanksgiving but I find it really hard to deal with that much food. Tables groaning with food make me feel most unwell.

To write this piece I tried asking Auntie Google to point me to some studies but I could not read them for long. The language and arrogant pontificating of doctors and therapists made me angry. These articles are not written by someone who lives with anorexia. Yes it is dangerous so be careful. One thing we are good at is pretending everything is alright. Go gently. At no time did I feel like I was out of control. At no time did I feel that my life was threatened. I was convinced that I was not really sick at all. Because I was not sick. I loved the feel of my bones. I loved having big pants that slipped down past my hips. I loved being hungry. It matched me in a way.

As a young adult I would wear mens clothing (I still do). My father’s boiler suits with his belt tied twice around my waist and my granddads wool trousers tied on with string. My uncles big woolen jerseys down to my knees. Big steel capped boots and tiny tops. When I was older, in my twenties and thirties, it was all about the skinniest dresses with big heavy doc martins and very long sleeved cardigans. My hands have always felt fragile, exposed, I still want them covered.

I ate so little while I was a teenager that the lining of my stomach developed ulcers. At 15.

So my Mum, who was ill, she sent me to live with a friend of mine from school whose mother was a nurse. To repair the ulcers in my stomach with diet I was told. I was told to go and live there for three weeks. My friends Mum put me on a white diet. White bread. White potatoes. White sauce with cauliflower. Fish. Everything white. Every evening after dinner we walked. For miles. Then it was hot milk and white cake. Now that I look back I wonder what they were up to but I did begin to eat her food. And after a while it did not hurt going down. I was in a different location. I was given time off school. Everything about my life was different for those weeks. But no-one mentioned once my difficulty with food.

They simply relocated me.

Then my Dad arranged that I go to the United States as a Field Scholar. As tiny and skinny as you can imagine. I emerged out into the world of pop and potato chips and ghosts. I left the States a year later at 88 pounds. Not too bad! The pop and potato chip diet put some weight on me!

But I think all this moving about saved me from plummeting into real trouble. This sideways approach. Keeping me busy.

My Dad used to say I was so skinny he should take me deer hunting, I could walk up to the deer sideways and just hit it on the head. It would not see me coming.

When I was in my late twenties, divorced and powering along, my doctor brought up the subject of my weight - he was a brave man - he said that if I did not put on some weight he would check me into the hospital, like it was a hotel - but who will look after my children, I asked him. By then my mother had died and my Dad had moved away. No husband, not in town anyway. The kids and I had fun but we were horribly poor, I actually went without food so the kids could eat, which fed right into my anorexia. I felt righteous. I felt good. I watched him. The doctor. He was one of the few men who knew me literally inside and out and did not judge. My Doctor had big brown eyes and a cap of curly white hair. I will, he said. I will look after your children. I was 28, I had been pregnant six times and had five live children. Most of whom my doctor had delivered.

I should have taken him up on his offer. I was very tempted to, so I could just sleep for a few days in the hospital. I was that tired. We are often tired; People who do not eat enough.

But a single mother has to be doubly careful to look strong and in control.

I kissed him on his wrinkly, smiling, gentle forehead and lead my brood back out into the day. I loved that man. He was like a father - I knew him that long. He was one of the few people who was brave enough to allow me my decisions and stand by me.

So I walked away into the fumey hot Hawkes Bay day again, where no-one could know me like he did. There is something about the trial of anorexia which makes us prefer to be unseen. Me anyway. Startling but then gone.

When my Dad died - I am sure I have told you that story - during the pandemic - he left me his kitchen knives and one big blue heavy cable knit home made woolen jersey that comes down mid-thigh with sleeves that need rolling up three times. I love it. Cooking and Covering up. Maybe he did know me after all.

Difficulty with food does not just go away. You don’t get over having a fraught relationship with food. We live with anorexia. Like some of us live with cancer. We cannot be survivors because that gives the impression that there is an end to this. That we will be better, one day. That we will survive against all odds. We live with it using our own odds. And we win. Again and again we win. We have created our own bridges to live with it. We know that we are living organisms that need nourishing food and plenty of good fluids to thrive. So we look at it that way. Every day we make sure to eat really good food often. I call it Feed The Beast. But not that much. It is still hard to eat enough. And when we are in the bad times - when food is difficult we don’t eat at all.

But generally as we find our plateau; we eat pretty well.

If you are leading a lost animal back to the barn you don’t shine the torch into the animals face. You shine the torch where you want the animal to step. You shine it ahead.

As a young Mum the kids and I would go visit my good friend Lynda in the school holidays. On her farm. She was a great baker and I would literally eat my way through cakes and cookie jars. She just kept filling them. She said not a word.

But if we think you are going to try and MAKE US EAT. Our mouths will close with a snap.

I did toy with bolemia but it just tasted nasty. Best to just eat a tiny bit and chew it well. Taste it. Love it. And a friend of mine had to get a full set of new teeth because years of bolemia had stripped her teeth of their enamel. That did not sound nice. So I gave up on that idea quickly.

So if you have a person who meeds help with their relationship with food. Approach them sideways. Shine the light where you want them to go, not into their faces. Don’t blind them with your demands.

Gently without any pressure at all - get a tiny spoon of a tiny something into your persons mouth, often. Trust them. Be gentle.

What won’t work.


Do not watch us eat and roll your eyes.

Do not say you should eat more.

Do not say you are looking SO THIN.

Do not leave us to eat alone.

“Oh my god you are so skinny, I wish I was slim like you. ”. Never say that. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that. No-one says “Oh my god you are so fat” to a person with a gorgeously rubenesque figure, so to point out our skinniness will only make us double down out of spite.

Eat more. Don’t say that either.

Eat up. Nope, not that either.

Can we talk about this food problem you have. Nope. Anorexics don’t talk. We will shout and slam doors and be walking house tornadoes but we are not going to talk about it. We don’t have the words. Not for the food. Not for wanting to disappear.

We need to be talking about something else. When I was fifteen Mum would make a date with me. She would get up out of bed, dress and I would drive her to a local healthy-food cafe on the other side of the hill. We would have a pot of tea and share cakes and slices. She believed that if we were in a safe space that belonged to neither of us we would communicate better. But we never talked about my bones. We drank tea and talked about nothing much. It worked. I ate with her.

Loading our plates up with a hearty serving. Yeah. Don’t do that.

Telling us to Eat more or EAT UP. I repeat - don’t say that.

Threatening us with dire warnings. If you don’t eat you will wind up in hospital with a tube down your throat. Never say that - I have heard that - we do not respond well to threats. We bite. We may not eat but we can bite.

Don’t think you are better than us because you can eat anytime you want to.

I never reached the really severe stage though there were months in a row where I only ate once a day and only the tiniest amount. I found I could easily go three days with no food at all. (I was an adult - no one noticed) I used to shake a lot. And feel nauseous all the time and had headaches every day. But I never felt in danger. And I was able to navigate myself out of the woods without help. Because my friends believed I could.

You need to trust us. We are moving through a thing. Trust us. Just Love us.

I know you want to help, and I know we make you feel like you can’t but that is because you can’t. Just stay. Stay with us. Trust that we will begin to eat again.

I have not eaten much for days writing this because even talking about it is a trigger. I know I am in trouble again when I fall asleep at night while counting up what I ate.

We open doors very slightly and slip through them.

We prefer to take up as little space as possible. We walk quietly. We curl small into big chairs.

We love winter because we get to wear more clothes. Long sleeves and big wooly socks. Jackets and heavy boots.

We avoid fasting diets like the plague. Those apps could kill us.

We love tiny bowls and plates.

We embrace that rumbly empty feeling in the belly. It is like a dialogue between my body and me. When my belly is empty I feel alive and light. And free.

We like being slim. We love the feel of our bones. We want this control over our appetites. But we love people with big breasts and soft bellies and strong hands and steady appetites. We want to lie down on you. Hug you.

If you can respect our struggle, and allow us the power of our struggle yet still find a way to tempt us with tiny bites; you are on the way to helping us recognise our difficulty with food. But you cannot fix us.

A few suggestions:


Take us out to dinner at our favourite restaurant often. Not once in a while - make it a routine. And eat small amounts while you are with us. Don’t talk with your mouth full - food in mouths needs to be - I don’t know - quiet.

Be like Lynda and fill the cake tins. Make salads with lots of protein. Leave food out.

DO serve tiny beautiful snacks often. Don’t ask. Just place them beside us then walk away. Even though we will ignore them for weeks; one day we will eat.

DO Give us your time. Lots of it. Keep us close and busy.

Do take us with you to anywhere where we will use our bodies and use up energy. It creates appetite. Climbing walls. Dancing. Sports. Walks through town or out into the country. Horse riding. Beach combing - all that stuff. Then hot chocolate and little cakes when we get back.

Place small portions on our plates while talking about something else.

Do sit down to eat with us but don’t sigh at the amount we eat, don’t make dinner time a battle, just eat yourself. We’ll get there.

Make it beautiful. The plate. Make the plate look beautiful. But tiny. Too much food feels like pressure. We do not respond well to pressure.

Eat together and if you are not at battle stations, pop a little of your food onto our plate - just a tiny bit - say; try this I love it. Then change the subject.

Do not overeat yourself just to TEACH US a lesson. Eat normally and healthily too. Lightly.

Carry food with you to share. I always have muesli bars in my purse for a tiny bite when I feel peckish. And bags of dried apricots and walnuts in the car. They can go days unopened but I know they are there for a tiny bite. If your person is young carry those things for them.

Don’t say do you want a dried apricot - just drop the tiny bag of exquisite snacks into our lap and start the car. If we do not eat them ignore that. We will soon.

Feed us something every few hours - maybe a hot drink while we are studying. Or a slice of apple in a perfect tiny plate while we read our book. Or half of a perfect peach. The smallest bowl of tomato soup with a tiny quarter of grilled cheese. A perfectly quartered boiled egg. Put the food beside us and walk away. Don’t comment on it.

Do you see? - You are retraining me to eat without pressure. Waking up my taste buds. WITHOUT words.

You don’t recover from anorexia. And no it is not like alcoholism. We are not tempted by a glass of food! We are tempted by three perfect peas on a plate. Anorexia is a beast we soothe and gentle back down.

I love food. I grow food. I make food. My history of difficulty with food has enabled a stunning repertoire of dishes. Because I love feeding people.

I am in my sixties now and quite happy with my body at last. Well, most times. I can still be triggered though. I went through a crisis with my Mother In Law a month or so ago and because of hospital visits and driving to and fro miles and miles I went a few days of missed mealtimes and snap I was back in the troubles and oh I loved it. I let it run, I went a few more days, embracing the emptiness, then I went for more days without food and lost almost 10 pounds in a few weeks.

I was in trouble. Which made me realise I needed to tell you so you can help someone like me. If you see them hit a bridge instead of crossing it.

And god knows I don’t want to be a scrawny old woman.

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Except I have been dodging food while I wrote this. Not to worry. I will eat properly again tomorrow. See what I did there? Deflecting your comment? “Don’t look at me. I am just fine. Move along. Nothing to see here”. I don’t know why - but I don’t want to talk about it. I find this really hard. Certainly I won’t talk about it face to face. I don’t want you to look at me too closely. I am ashamed I think. But I don’t want you to think I am weak. This is hard to write. Am I making sense?

But I do want you to hear this - in case you recognize these signs in someone you know and we can head off a lifetime of difficulties with food. And remember this is from my own experience - every family will be different.

People who live with anorexia are incredibly strong. Our will power is extraordinary. Don’t hit us head on. You will lose. Tempt us. Love us. Trust us. Walk with us. It will be hard. But when we are well fed and unleashed we will be magnificent.

Step. Step. Peck. Little chicken steps. Little bite sized plates.

You are magnificent.



I encourage you and thank you for Upgrading to Paid. If you are able to support my writing and these Sunday Podcasts I would be so grateful.

Having said that I am very frugal so I totally understand and love you even if you can’t. No worries at all.

Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
Cecilia from The Kitchens Garden reads about growing up in a Simpler Time.