My whole 4 years at university have been marked by one constant question: “How is she?” It has been one constant worry – would today be the day I got the phone call saying she was in hospital? Would today be the day she became another statistic? A third of anorexia sufferers die from their disease – and my biggest fear is my sister becoming one of them.
Ironically the time I worried least is when she was at her sickest, because at least then she was getting the help she so desperately needed. She spent 8 months at a specialist adolescent eating disorder unit with girls varying in age from 7-17, and I truly believe the time she spent here saved her life. But to this day she still has nightmares about this place.
The hospital was fortunately close to us, only a 30-40 minute drive, but there were girls here from all over the country. I cannot imagine the pain their families must have been in – knowing their child, sister, or cousin was suffering so much and they couldn’t be there or driving 3 hours to see their child cry and scream. We were permitted one phone call a day – alarms would, and still do, go off around our house at 5:30 every day. The fear of missing a phone call and letting her down on what could have been her worst day meant that everything else stopped for those 15 minutes.
I feel lucky that for most of Ellie’s illness I was at university – it was rarely something I had to come face-to-face with. However, when holidays came around it was a shock to the system and still it tears me apart to see my sister hurting that much. I will never forget Christmas 2013. Ellie was still an in-patient, very much in the thralls of anorexia nervosa. We spent Christmas Eve in hospital with her playing air hockey and for those few moments we forgot where we were, but having to leave her there that night knowing she would wake up alone on Christmas day brings tears to my eyes two years later. On Christmas Day we had our Christmas dinner at 8pm, because we couldn’t eat during the 4 hours she was allowed home for. We’re yet to have a Christmas that feels ‘normal’ again.
Mental illness is something that has long plagued my family. The shadow that lurks behind every corner. Insidious and sly. Creeping until all of a sudden – it consumes. It worms its way into every action, every thought. It’s not only the sufferer, you can see the aftershock echo through the family etching itself into them as worry lines, tears, panicked phone calls, and even manifesting itself as mental illnesses in them. It’s not my sister I worry most about now – my dad previously someone who was, in my eyes, indestructible, a superhero in many ways, I now see as painfully human. Someone who suffers so much because of how this illness has torn my family apart and I wish more than anything that I could put it back together.
I wish more than anything that she could be better. There is nothing I would not trade for that. But, my god, I am so proud of her for trying.