I look into your eyes briefly, before they dart away again around the room as if they are looking for some haven to land. They are wide, terrified, glassy blue. At that moment I see the madness behind them. You hold your hands in front of you. Your bony fingers grasp each other turning and twisting, trying to find comfort through touch that doesn’t come. Nothing can comfort you now.
I speak to you in a low voice, aiming to calm you. In these moments you are more like a wild animal than my dearest, my youngest, my baby. At these moments, you can explode in volatile fireworks, springing and shouting and flinging things around with astonishing strength for someone so small and thin; you can collapse, wilt, like the undernourished flower that you clearly are.
I’d love to take you in my arms and cuddle you as we used to only a few months ago, but mostly you will not let me now and on the rare occasions that you do, it takes all of my maternal strength not to break down in tears at your fragile angularity. Your hands are always chilled, even on these hot Spanish summer days.
I know you do not see what I see. I have watched you looking at yourself in the full-length mirror, arching your back, inverting your knuckly vertebrae to puff out your concave stomach; proving to yourself that you still have more to lose. I have nothing more to lose. I understand that this is not something we can handle as a family any longer. As others have urged, I engage a psychiatrist.
You were never overweight. You were a competitive gymnast. In six weeks you have managed to lose a third of your body weight. You have always been goal orientated and driven, but you have over-reached yourself this time. You only wanted to lose and sculpt a few pounds, to be the best shape in your gym class, to mimic the influencers that you follow, those digitally enhanced, impossible bodies.
How has this happened? Just two months ago you were full of joy and anticipation at our New Adventure. You filled our home with giggly conversation. We practised Spanish together at breakfast. Now you drift around spacey and unfocused. A pale wisp of smoke, you barely seem to hear me when I speak to you.
The psychiatrist tells me that all of your energy is focused on ignoring the voice in your head that tells you to eat less, whispering to you that you deserve to die. The voice rules you.
I don’t understand how you are still losing weight. I feed you three good meals a day and snacks. Snacks are normal here; with dinner served so late, mid-morning Almuerzo of tomato tostadas and afternoon tea with pretty, Merienda pastries, are part of the Valencian culture. I want you to feel normal and at home in this country that we have moved our life to, but you don’t.
The psychiatrist explains the awful magic of it. Now I find almonds in the piano stool cavity, cashews stuffed between the sofa arms and cushions. Your sleight of hand is amazing; if you come through this you could have a promising career as a close-up magician. Now that I am looking for signs, I can find them. We go out to family dinner and all of your meal finds its way onto the floor or tucked inside your napkin. But I don’t see it happen at the time, only afterwards, in the crumb trail to the bathroom. The psychiatrist tells me to watch you closer, to go into the bathroom with you. That is too much, it would offend your strongly developed sense of modesty. Two months ago you were a young adolescent with your favourite pop stars and aspirations. You took your make-up and dress tips from YouTube and shared them with your friends. Even now that you are a medical case number, you deserve to have your dignity protected. I want to continue to treat you as normal, even though I know you are anything but.
One day as I make my way out to the apartment terrace with a cold cola for you, I stop at the window and watch, dismayed, as you throw over the balcony rail, handfuls of the nutritionally balanced snack I have carefully prepared. It scatters like calorific confetti from the seventh floor. I know it will fall onto the city street and balconies below, that people may get cubes of Manchego or membrillo on their heads or in their purses. I know that means that you have consumed three hundred and twenty-eight calories less this afternoon and I worry about how I can make that up again by the end of the day.
The psychiatrist says that you are adrift. Your older siblings to whom you are so close, are at university and we have moved countries for our New Adventure. This has set you apart from your friends and other family members. Your father and I hold hands whilst we are frowned upon by the psychiatrist. I’m so grateful that we’ve found someone English-speaking for you in this country, but feel blamed for what has happened to you as if we should have had the clairvoyance to see that it might.
You do not want to be here. You are physically removing yourself from this place, kilo by kilo.
I get you a puppy so that you will have someone to cuddle and talk to. A family outside of the city is selling a litter. The mother brings them to us, arriving at the weekend with a box of tiny trembling cotton wool balls and sets each down on our warm terracotta tiles. One golden ball, one white and one grey with miniature black ears and a bandit stripe of black across the eyes. The pups look around themselves, blinking myopically under the sun, and continue to tremble. Their little round tummies touch the floor. You and I kneel close by. Then, the black and grey one sets off at a trot, tiny tail wagging in a direct, waddling line towards you. With effort, she scrambles up onto your bony lap, turns around once and curls up. You pick her up and lift her to your neck and she licks your ear with her tiny pink tongue. It is the first time I have heard your sweet laugh in months. “Dora” joins our family immediately. Over the weeks, I often find her in bed with you at night, her bright, knowing eyes looking out at me, her fur damp with your tears.
The psychiatrist tells you that you will die. Right out like that, over and over when you are in the room alone with her. You are furious with her, furious with us, furious and frightened. We are furious with her. You won’t speak to us for taking you to her. We name her “The Dragon,” partly because we can’t pronounce her unfamiliar name, partly because she scares both us and you and it’s good to have something we can bond over again.
The bounty of our new land mocks us; the branches of the orange trees in the streets droop with the weight of the succulent globes, the market stalls are piled high with all colours and sizes of shiny tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and spiky artichokes. Their scent is fresh and enticing. The layers of savoury aromas from “menus del dia” spill out from clattering, chattering cafes as we walk by them to the hospital every week.
We go to see a paediatrician. She gives us a meal plan from the hospital dietician. I stare at it in disbelief. Rice dishes feature at every sitting. This city is the proud home of Paella. I know I don’t stand a chance of persuading you to consume this much of the locally grown grain. Besides, my understanding of nutrition is not the problem. The doctor tells me fiercely that we must follow the food plan to the letter. I feel the implication is, that if we’d eaten meals prepared in this way all the time, we wouldn’t have had our problem. I nod weakly and say we’ll try. We are suspicious of each others’ cultural differences these doctors and me, in a way that is not helpful to our situation.
The Dragon tells us that we should give a name to your madness voice, and treat it as a separate person. I worry about you becoming schizophrenic, she says that won’t happen, that the voice in your head is a function of lack of nutrition reaching your brain. We have to trust her, we have no one else here with whom to discuss your illness. We call the voice “Fluffy”; a benign pet name for something so menacing that it is destroying you physically and mentally from the inside and pulling the stitches of our family apart. Your father frequently has to work away in London. When he is here my anguish and pent-up pain spill out like a lanced boil after you’ve gone to bed.
You are still going to school; anything to keep your life normal. I ask the teachers to watch you at lunch and to stop you from doing sports. They call me in. You are running up and down the stairs between lessons, at break time you run up and down the playground. Some teachers have noticed you hovering in a squat, rather than sitting on your chair, for entire fifty-minute lessons. They feel strongly that you should stay at home for a while. The dragon concurs. She wants you to expend as little energy as possible. She wants you in bed, she offers drugs for your anxiety. I say no gracias.
Often, you scream at me that I should let you die. At our worst depths, after months of setbacks and relentless sabotage by “Fluffy the madness voice”, I sink so low that a tiny, dark part of me thinks fleetingly that it might be easier if you got on with it.
I’m so alone. I don’t have the strength to keep on without the support network we left behind in Sussex. I stand on the edge of the balcony. The sun is setting on another day. There is a ledge. I close my eyes. I feel the warm breeze on my face and arms and think, ‘if I just leaned forward a bit more…’ I fill the ledge with plants so that no one can stand on it.
The Dragon tells me that you will have to be admitted to hospital; that you could drop dead at any time from a lack of electrolytes. She says a person can look superficially pink and healthy, if thin, but then the heart can just stop. The heart can stop dead without warning.
I think she is scaremongering, so I look it up on the internet and find out it’s true.
Still, I also find a UK Health Service Protocol. I find that over there you would already have been compulsorily admitted to the hospital and submitted to force-feeding. I look up the details of force-feeding regimes in hospitals. It’s like a gothic horror story in a Victorian asylum; descriptions full of restraining straps and tubes into orifices. I don’t know whether they do that here but I am determined to do anything to protect you from that. I know your stubbornness and determination. I know that as much as they would fight to keep you alive, you would fight back. I know that away from us in this strange land, you would surely be adrift.
So, I say no again to The Dragon and cross my fingers. She tells me I’m naive, that we can’t do this alone. She gives me a very short time to make a difference before compulsory hospitalisation. I’m so grateful I could kiss her.
The one thing I have going for me is that you are a very young adolescent, pre-pubescent. I know you love me and you know that I love you. I believe you trust me, even though Fluffy tells you that I am working against you.
You won’t and can’t eat large meals, so I make you daily supplementary juices, for the vitamins, I tell you. I know you like them, you have internet pinboards with pastel-toned pictures of perfect, mouthwatering smoothies. They sit in amongst the algorithm supplied videos of obsessive exercise regimes and digitally enhanced bodies (that we keep deleting). The difference is that our smoothies are not just fruit, vegetables and water. Invisibly to you, they are energy super-packs worth a thousand calories. Every day I tumble jewel-like berries and a banana into a jug then add a translucent blob of coconut oil, knubbly peanut butter, protein powder, full-cream yoghurt and honey. I also add ice. I tell you they are like healthy ice cream, ideal for cooling off at the end of a long day; perfect teatime Merienda. The iciness of the smoothies and the taste of the fruit and vegetables disguise the intense calorific content. We can both play at sleight of hand.
I have to buy you a smaller school skirt as your other one is falling off you. The new skirt is for age ten. You are fourteen. My time with you is trickling away.
Then, gradually, there is change. The scale stops its relentless move downwards. Some weeks you gain a kilo, only to lose it the following week, some weeks you gain a hundred grams, then another hundred. You twist your hands in anxiety. The paediatrician and I cling on to these small gains as if to life-rafts in a stormy sea. We try not to show our excitement. We don’t want to frighten you away. You gain. You lose. You gain. Slowly, painfully slowly, you start to come back to me. As The Dragon patiently explained to me months ago, it turns out that once the brain receives enough nutrients to function, the inner voice and the madness go. In the end, it is a matter of chemical rebalancing, a functional thing, as The Dragon said it would be.
It seems miraculous to me that it can be such an easy equation. That food in equals madness out. The difficulty is that whilst the equilibrium is disturbed, achieving the first part of the equation is almost impossible.
I know I have you back, that your inner voice is gone, when the haunted look finally goes out of your eyes and Dora, though still curled close to you at night, is less often damp.
Sometimes you get frightened about the weight you are putting on, and we have a setback as you panic and try to lose it again, pushing against the eating, doing short, intense bursts of exercise when we are not watching.
Now, after twenty-two months I feel the earth beneath our feet become firmer. I can trust you to eat on your own, to take snacks from the fridge, to ask for ice cream. It has been the hardest two years of our lives, but The Dragon tells us it is the quickest recovery that she has seen in twenty-five years of practice. She says that teenagers like you can be lost in a hazy, twilight zone of gaining and losing for years, ultimately even decades, that it becomes a habit they don’t know how to break. The longer it goes on, the harder to find a way back.
Another year further on, your physical symptoms have finally receded. Your beautiful golden hair, which came out in clumps, is growing again. The deep hollows, in your cheeks, under your eyes and above your collarbones have filled. Your face no longer looks like a death mask. You have a tan. You have local and international friends. You can speak Spanish fluently now. I can speak it haltingly, but I have a startlingly comprehensive vocabulary of medical terms. The doctors have let you go, with smiles, kisses on both cheeks and hugs. People are very tactile here. They stroke your hair and call you guapa - beautiful. You laugh, your sea-coloured eyes shining, and I wrap you in my arms, breathing in the warm healthy smell of you, before letting you join your friends on the beach.
Working in cosmetics and travel marketing, Suze wrote many thousands of words of copy over the years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic struck and she had to return to London from living in Valencia, Spain, that she finally had the time to set down on paper the novel that had been knocking around in her head, very loosely based on her upbringing in Borneo.
She is now preparing that novel for submission to agents and writing short stories, both real and imagined to keep her creative writing muscle moving. She recently won her first short story writing competition. She also volunteers as a gardener for a local charity.