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Interview: Jane Smith, director of Anorexia and Bulimia Care

16 February 2011

‘My daughter had been very ill with anorexia, and I wanted to give something back’

These disorders are driven by anxiety (hence the word “nervosa” in both the full titles of anorexia and bulimia), stress, poor coping strat­egies, poor support, and pressure. Young people are very vulnerable, particularly nowadays, and their support can be poor. Of course, many people develop an eating disorder in their adult years. We have enquiries from and about people aged from four to 70.

Anorexia and Bulimia Care was established in 1989. I also oversee and help run its parent helpline. I write books and give seminars when asked.

We run helplines for family mem­bers and for sufferers of eating disorders. We have a befriending service for adult sufferers which has run successfully for 20 years, and we have just established a new joint befriending service with Care for the Family for parents whose children are receiving treatment for an eating disorder. Children may be adults, of course, and may be living at home or independently.

We aim to raise awareness and understanding of eating-related issues, and, therefore, we work with other organisations, such as the fitness industry, the Dental Health Foundation, and Christian organisa­tions such as Urban Saints.

I volunteered my help as a parent in 2004, just as Anorexia and Bulimia Care was looking for someone to help them establish a parent help­line. My daughter had been very ill with anorexia, and had come through to recovery with God’s help. I wanted to give something back.

Actually, I was anointed at New Wine for this ministry, a funny story involving the wrong tent and David Pytches.

I was a full-time mum, and before that a primary-school teacher and head­teacher.

We are working on our annual cam­paign to churches for national Eating Disorders Awareness Week [21-28 February]. And we’re pro­duc­ing more books: A Dad’s Guide to Eating Disorders (at this stage we’re collecting parent narratives); a leaflet for the dental in­dustry; a new DVD for use in parent­ing seminars; to­gether with talks around the country for parents, counsellors, pastoral carers, teachers, and youth leaders.

Key elements in recovery? God! And early intervention, good treatment, medical monitoring, motivation, stead­fast support, patience, courage, and informed and supported carers.

When the Church is compassion­ate, understanding, and informed, then, yes, it can be helpful. Of course, church should be the place where people struggling with all kinds of issues find good help and support, but, at worst, leaders and congre­gations can be thoughtless, ignorant, and judgemental.

Church is also so often a place where food and drink abounds, which can present problems for those struggling with food. Even communion can be difficult for those with eating disorders.

Without Jesus we struggle, and have a finite, pointless, colourless life, and often a disconnected and unresolved life. Our work at Anorexia and Bulimia Care is based on acceptance and a shared walk. We are all sinners, but some of us know we are forgiven, accepted, and free.

In giving our support to everyone, regardless of faith (or anything else), we hope to convey acceptance and care. When you walk with some­one and befriend them, they might see the love of God in action. When you have this secure base, coping strategies that people develop (such as eating disorders, alcoholism, anxiety disorders) can gradually be replaced.

For those who have been abused, and who have been damaged and bruised, even by the Church, it can be a long journey of attitude-change, and then behaviour-change, and a lot of wisdom, patience, and the right approach. God’s healing, of course, has all of these elements and more, which is why his desired out­come is so much greater than a secular view of recovery. This is largely about good physical and psy­chological restoration, but God wants and can provide so much more.

We pray for all those who call on us, privately and without them even knowing. We hope that those with no or little faith might ask more about faith when they ask questions like “How did you get through it?” If they are a Christian, then they will often talk about their faith and the dent this ordeal has perhaps made in it; and they may want prayer over the phone or via our prayer team.

I have a wonderful long-suffering husband and three lovely daughters. They were very much longed for.

As a child, I wanted to work in Tesco and join the Communists, partly to annoy my mother, who had great ambitions for me and was a member of the local Conservative party, and partly as a strategy for dealing with aunties who always asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I’ve found that God has helped me avoid major regrets, particularly with relationships, because of his ability to reconcile, and also his perfect timing and love. Minor re­grets would be not listening to my mother talking about family history, and not putting facts on the back of photographs.

Caravaggio influenced me most. I sat forever under The Supper at Emmaus in the National Gallery in my lunch breaks. I was young, in my gap year, working in Pall Mall, and not then a born-again Christian, but Christ’s hands mesmerised me.

My godmother was inspirational, and my parents were very lovely and influential — very supportive and with the right mixture of fun, work ethic, support, motivation with great kindness, and an ability to listen and to relate — a great role- model for my own parenting. My dad was a church organist, his father and brother both vicars. My mum was a lawyer, and I grew up in a Christian home.

I love good detective novels; so anything new out, but also old favour­ites, like P. D. James, Stella Rim­ington, John Grisham, John le Carré. I also love anything to do with gardens and gardening.

My favourite place is St Ives in Cornwall, and the South of France — for the light, I think, the warmth, and because I love art and I’m a keen gardener and love plants.

I love the Psalms and Romans. I’m a little hesitant when it comes to Revelation. . .

I love to hear my girls laughing. Hearing them say: “I’m hungry,” and “That was great, Mum. Can I have some more?” Also, the sound of the central heating coming on.

Cruelty to the weak and vulnerable makes me very angry. Recently, a relative of a young man with Down syndrome told me of how this man was led away by someone in a position of authority and trust, raped, and left abandoned, not knowing where he was and how to get home. He stopped eating as a result, and developed anorexia.

I’m happiest knowing that my work is up to date, and having my family all home and around me. Eating out together is now always fun, and a stark contrast to the dark eating-disorder days. I never take these times for granted, and thank God for them.

I think we’re all on a continuum of mental health: some people have so many knocks and find it hard to recover and cope. We need to change attitudes towards those struggling with mental health, and I’m sure we can. After all, it was only in my grandmother’s day that women were sent to mental institutions for what we now know as post-natal de­pression.

Churches are usually very cold, drafty places, and even with a good pipe organ for me to play — not always available nowadays — I would want to be home in the warm. If I had to stay, I’d choose Prince Charles. I’d want to talk to him about faith and the Church under his reign, and the Prince’s Trust, and I’d do my bit for Anorexia and Bulimia Care and eating disorders, asking him about Diana’s bulimia — once we were on relaxed terms, of course.

Jane Smith was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders is pub­lished by Lion on 18 March.


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