Kathryn’s story: Recovering from anorexia
30 Jan 17 - 01 Jan 01
It was the summer of 2009 and life was good for Jane and Len Tompsett. Their 14-year-old daughter Kathryn was excelling at school, learning to play guitar and they were all happily looking forward to a holiday. Weeks later, everything was different.
“I remember seeing Kathryn walking along the street towards me and thinking she was turning into a lovely attractive young lady and the picture of health,” recalled retired building society manager Len, 69. “Within months she’d gone the exact opposite.”
“She said she just wanted to lose a little bit of fat for the summer and I wasn’t worried. I said to Len “oh that’s normal, don’t worry’ even though she’s slim already,” said website designer Jane, 55.
“It started with turning down McDonald’s treats and having grilled chicken salad and it just got worse as she lost more and more weight. She said later that she just wanted to look a bit better and when she started losing a bit of weight she found she couldn’t stop.”
Cat-lover Kathryn, a pupil at a high-achieving Hertfordshire girls’ school, was losing 2lb a week when her parents saw their GP who agreed she needed help. Within weeks, she weighed less than 6½ stone and was very unwell.
“She would hide away in her room, shout at me and thump me on the chest,” said Len. “She didn’t want to talk to me and wouldn’t eat if I was at the table.”
Starting to feel desperate, the Tompsetts got Kathryn referred to the specialist eating disorders team at Hertfordshire’s Child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) – an NHS service.
“I was saying: ‘I’m watching my daughter die before my eyes’,” said Len.
Penny Smith, an advanced practitioner in eating disorders, visited. She said Kathryn was too ill to go to school and supported the family through the dark months that followed.
“It was the worst time,” remembered Len. “Kathryn was about 42kg (under six and a half stone) and losing her hair and mornings were awful. Jane used to go across the landing to wake her and we’d be thinking ‘please God let her still be alive’.”
Jane continued: “We were scared stiff. She would weigh out all her food and it would take hours to get her to eat or drink a tiny amount; we had to check her pockets, and she would punish herself walking miles after every meal and the exercise bike was out every day.
“There was a particular day that was a turning point, our black Thursday. We were exhausted, emotionally and physically. One of us had to be with her all the time and we were scared all the time. We thought we couldn’t cope anymore and rang Penny to get her admitted but when the time came, Kathryn sobbed and begged and Penny gave her the weekend to follow five rules, like eating an extra 30 or 50 calories a day, only having 15 minutes on the exercise bike and gaining ½ kg (1.1lb) a week.”
Penny told them Kathryn was the most ill patient that she had allowed to stay at home. Gradually Kathryn’s condition improved, to a point – she still controlled her calorie intake and exercised daily.
After a year of home tutoring, Kathryn returned to school, passed her GCSEs, including an A* in psychology which she self-taught using distance learning. Her recovery continued and she did well at her A-levels and won a place at York University to study psychology. With a lack of routine in her life, she became ill again and had to leave in her second year.
Kathryn, now 21, is healthy and happy, working as a waitress and living in Cheltenham with her partner Pip. “She’s been fully well for a year now,” said Jane.
Grateful to Penny and her team, the London Colney couple now regularly talk to parents whose children are battling an eating disorder.
“Penny saved our daughter’s life, there’s no doubt about it,” said Len. “Things were heading downhill so rapidly and we are so thankful. We say to other families facing it now, ’there’s always hope and it does get better’ and ‘it’s not you, don’t take it personally. It’s not your daughter or son talking, it’s the illness. I used to think that when Kathryn was thumping me on the chest and shouting go away – she looked like our Kathryn, she sounded like her, but it wasn’t her.”
Jane added: “Lots of people think young girls, and boys, choose to do it, but they genuinely don’t. Anorexia is an evil, devious illness, not a choice. We’re lucky the bedrock of our marriage and our family was strong and we got through it together as some relationships can’t take the strain.”
Kathryn said: “Penny gave me confidence in myself. She always believed that I would get better and never judged me or was disappointed in me when things didn’t go well. She fought the illness with me and made me feel that we were a team fighting an enemy. She was strong for me when I wasn’t able to fight. Mum and dad were great but it was very hard for them so having Penny gave me someone who could help us all through.”
We have received funding to expand our eating disorders service so we can continue to help people like Kathryn. For more information click here.
If you’re worried about a young relative or yourself, you can visit your GP or go online for information at www.youngminds.org.uk You can also speak to CAMHS’ mental health helpline on 0300 777 0707 from 8am-7pm or 01438 843322 from 5pm-8am. Young people aged 10-25 in Hertfordshire can get free online counselling support at www.Kooth.com and the Samaritans helpline is 08457 909090. In an emergency, dial 999.