All that I am, all that I ever was…

I am more than my mental health. I am more than my homelessness. I am more than any one aspect of me. I am Addy. And this is…


My Sister and Me: Anorexia Nervosa

Last year, a psychiatrist informed me that when I was twelve years old I should have understood the complexities of my sister’s mental illness, and thus it was my fault I allowed it to affect me the way it did.

I should have known that when she was screaming at me to fuck off and die it was her mental illness.

I should have known that when she refused to be in the same room as me it was her mental illness.

I should have known that when she was throwing a rock at my head it was her mental illness.

You know, when I was twelve.

Even though no-one really explained to me what was happening other than ‘Kathryn was unwell’.

Even though in the early 1990s discussion of mental illness just didn’t happen.

Even though I’d never even heard the term anorexia nervosa let alone know of how it affects someone.

But hey, I should totally have understood what was happening!

You know, when I was twelve.

So, for everyone under the age of twelve years old, here is a brief explainer of anorexia nervosa. Everyone else can just skip ahead, because according to a psychiatrist you should already know all there is to know about anorexia nervosa and how it affects someone.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by severe starvation and dramatic weight loss. People suffering from anorexia nervosa develop an intense fear of gaining weight and often experience high body image distortion, mistakenly believing that they are overweight no matter how underweight they actually are.

Physical warning signs of anorexia include: noticeable thinness and continued loss of weight, obsessive exercise, losing or thinning of hair and cessation of periods. Whilst behavioral and psychological warning signs include: wearing big or baggy clothes, making excuses to avoid meal times, obsessive measuring of body parts and weight checking.

~ For more comprehensive information on anorexia and eating disorders please see The Butterfly Foundation ~

Part 2: Anorexia Nervosa, cause and effect

“There is no magic cure, no making it all go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, a mirror that doesn’t matter anymore.”
~ Laurie Halse Anderson ~

Kathryn received an official multiple diagnosis of anorexia nervosa and obsessive compulsive disorder at the age of twelve. This diagnosis was made by psychiatrists at Great Ormond Street Hospital after my sister had been admitted to a local psychiatric children’s unit. At the time it was rare for someone so young to be diagnosed with this illness, especially as it had begun to manifest at the age of nine.

At the worst of her illness my sister’s weight was 4 stone. For those not familiar with this measurement, four stone is around 25kg (or 56 pounds). This was also her target weight, with a number of her OCD rituals having to occur in groups of four (twisting the door handle four times, opening and closing the door four times etc.) which she felt would assist in her reaching this goal weight.

My memories of this early period of my sister’s illness are few and far between, and what memories remain are on the negative end of the spectrum. I have often mentioned how I believe this period to have had an impact on the development of my own illnesses (especially the anxiety and self-harm) but like the psychiatrist said, this is impossible.

As my sister’s anorexia developed it became impossible for me to be in the same vicinity as her. If I entered a room that she was in she’d become uncomfortable and resort to screaming at me to leave. Similarly, if she entered a room I was in the reaction was much the same. She wouldn’t talk to me, she couldn’t cope with me talking to her and physical contact was an absolute no-go under any circumstance, including surface contact (e.g. if I had just opened a door she wouldn’t be able to open it until someone else had.)

The reason behind all of this was because I was overweight and she had decided my fat was contagious. Or rather her illness had decided.

When it came to going to Great Ormond Street Hospital I had to spend the night at my Aunt and Uncles who then drove me to London separately from sister as it would have been impossible for us to be in the same car.

On another occasion, when my parents took me to visit my sister at the psychiatric unit, Kathryn threw a stone at me as she was unaware they were bringing me along and wanted me to fuck off.

Whilst the verbal abuse still rings in my ears, especially the occasion she told me she wished I would just fuck off and die.

And writing all this back I find it completely reasonable that a twelve-year-old boy with no knowledge of mental health issues should have understood what was going on. I am of course being sarcastic. For even though specific memories of those years have been blocked, I can still remember the utter isolation, confusion and pain I felt as a result of how my sister was treating me.

She was my sister. I loved her. I was worried about her. I wanted her to be well. I wanted to help her.

I didn’t understand what was happening and why she was treating me like this. How could I have known?

After her diagnosis Kathryn remained at the local children’s unit with the psychiatrists from Great Ormond Street working hand-in-hand with the unit’s team in order to help my sister recover – or so we thought.

Even though my family and I didn’t know it at the time, the psychiatrists at the unit (you won’t have heard of it) had refused to work with Great Ormond Street (an internationally renowned children’s hospital) as they thought they knew the best way to treat her – even though they’d never treated someone with anorexia as young as my sister. They also refused to allow family therapy meetings as they thought this would bring no benefit whatsoever. What they did do to help my sister, I don’t know, all I can remember is that a few years after being admitted she was discharged and went to live with my Aunt and Uncle as she couldn’t cope being in the family home.

By this point in time I hadn’t seen my sister for nearly three years. I was coming on sixteen, struggling with being bullied at school, whether or not I should disclose I was self-harming, endlessly worrying about my sister, confused over what was happening to her and trying to study for my GCSEs whilst being so anxious I couldn’t talk to anyone or think straight. I had no friends to speak of and certainly no-one who knew of my sister’s condition – for want of a more original stereotype, releasing this information would have been like throwing kerosene on a bonfire!

One Sunday (I believe it was a Sunday) whilst I was studying for exams my parents received a phone call; my sister had taken an overdose of tablets and been rushed to hospital. For weeks I could think of nothing but this. School work was out. Studying was out.

My sister had tried to kill herself…but according to the psychiatrist I should have understood why she’d done this, and again, it was my fault at the tender age of fifteen that I’d allowed it to effect my thinking as much as I did.

It baffles me that, nearly twenty years later, I still cannot remember this period other than the pain and confusion I was feeling for my sister, yet according to a trained mental health professional, I had no reason to feel such pain and confusion in the first place so it has no consequence on anything that happened to me.

I remember my sister’s screaming sessions, sometimes going for hours. I remember her banging her head against the door at such force it shook the house. I remember her getting thinner and thinner until it looked like she would just disappear in front of me. I remember her turning on the charm and perfection whenever doctors or psychiatrists questioned her to make them think nothing was wrong, before flicking the switch back to chaos the moment they left. I don’t want to remember my sister’s pain, nor the pain it caused me, as it physically hurts to do so. In all honesty I’ve never really processed this period, and now I know it’s my fault, I don’t think I ever will.

Four years after I’d last seen her, my sister returned to live in the family home. She was a lot more stable than she’d been the last time she was living with us but it was obvious things would never be the same again. Although she could be in the same vicinity as me, even hold down conversations with me, it was difficult for me to get past all that had happened, although as always, I tried.

By now I was more aware of what was happening. I had read up on mental illness (focusing on anorexia, OCD, self-harm and depression) courtesy of the local library and my parents had established a charity called ‘MH Carers’ with assistance from National Lottery grants. Although I didn’t completely understand mental health, I was far more knowledgeable of it than I had been in my pre-pubescent youth; not only in terms of what was happening to me, but also in what was happening to Kathryn, and more importantly, how I could help.

For a year or so my sister and I would spend a lot of time with my brother and his girlfriend. The four of us would go on weekend breaks to visit relatives, take day-trips to Chessington World of Adventures (where my sister and I would reminisce over the robin incident) and just talk about things.

It was around this time that I began reading my sister’s writing, and vice-versa, reminding me of those long-ago homework sessions of our childhood. She would correct my grammar; I would give her plot advice. We’d talk novels, television shows and for a little while we almost became proper siblings again.

At the age of sixteen Kathryn moved out of the family home and took a flat in a nearby town. After work, I would often visit her, discussing everything from how my day had been to the latest Shakespeare play she’d been enjoying. I particularly remember a fiery debate about Hamlet; which we would go on to watch at the cinema together when Branagh’s version was released.

Following my decision to go backpacking Kathryn and I kept in regular contact; emails, letters and postcards were exchanged whilst lengthy phone calls were made from such random locations as the top of the Wallace monument, an isolated phone box on Mull and an even more isolated phone box in Glenfinnan.

By the time I traveled to Canada our phone calls would last upwards of two hours covering everything and anything we could think of; Eddie Izzard, the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how cute Oz was, what to do in the event of a bear attack and my questionable sanity were all fair game.

She seemed to have stabilised herself and was working toward a better future – educating herself with multiple courses from the Open University, having stories and articles published in various publications – whilst I was making headway in rectifying my own issues. In fact, for a while there, I thought the worst was behind us.

Then, in 2001, contact stopped; no phone calls, no emails, no letters, no nothing.

For six years I heard nothing from her other than snippets from my parents.

Then, in 2007, she attempted suicide…again.

Other entries in this series…
Part 1:
Childhood, the most beautiful of all life’s seasons


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My Sister and Me – Childhood; the most beautiful of all life’s seasons

“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,”
~ Jane Austen ~

Kathryn is a writer. She is a philosopher, an academic and witticist. She is a woman with a voracious appetite for literature, who dines on Shakespeare and Pynchon with a side salad of Homer before washing it down with a refreshing glass of Bronte.

Kathryn is an actress. She is an artist, an activist and a raconteur. She is a woman with an eidetic memory; who can recall grammatical mistakes from fifteen years past, quote passages from Dante and recite King Lear in perfect rhythm.

If you asked her who said: “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others”, or what book began with: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day”, she could tell you before your heart had the chance to beat.

If you asked her who said: “Everyone’s getting spanked but me,” she would tell you with a smirk on her face, a grin that would only get wider if you asked her what started with the line: “There’s moments in your life that make you, that set the course of who you’re gonna be.”

Kathryn is one of the most incredible women I’ve ever known.

She is homeless.

She is mentally ill.

She is a stranger.

And I’ve wanted to write about her since first beginning this blog in October 2007, but the words would never come. If I didn’t love Kathryn as much as I do perhaps it would be easier to write about her; of her achievements, of her life, of everything that makes her who she is. But I do love her, more than words can describe, for big brothers always love their little sisters, no matter what.

These are some of the hardest words I’ve ever had to write; this is the story of my sister and me.

1. The most beautiful of all life’s seasons

“Did you know that childhood is the only time in our lives when insanity is not only permitted to us, but expected?”
Louis de Bernières ~

When I was but an innocent child I saw it my duty as a big brother to educate my sister in the ways of the world. Whilst having a bath one cool summer’s evening I pointed at my sister and informed her that she shouldn’t worry, when she got older she would grow a penis too. Given I was four and oblivious to the field of anatomical studies I didn’t use the word penis, just the word ‘it’, and she nodded at me with a slight smile that seemed to say ‘you’re a blithering idiot’ before throwing a rubber duck at my head.

As first memories of your sister go this has it all; embarrassment, sibling love, humiliation, rubber ducks and a rather random anecdote that will bring head shakes to those who hear it. At the time we were just carefree, innocent children, unaware of the demons that existed in the world. We spent our days sitting around watching Saturday morning cartoons, playing in the park, throwing mud at each other and generally making our parent’s life as miserable as possible. We were kids; it was our job to be as mischievous and naughty as we could.

If we wanted to dig up the garden looking for buried treasure, we would, and if I wanted to cover my sister in worms to make her squeal while we searched, then I did. Just as she would throw mashed potato at me for no reason other than she felt like it. We were siblings, teasing goes with the territory.

But no matter how much I teased her, I was always there to protect her. Whether that was accompanying her to school because she was afraid of Moss Monsters or receiving lines in detention for hitting someone who dared insult her. She was my little sister; I would have done anything for her.

We were vacationing together, my sister and I. For the life of me I don’t remember why my parents and elder-brother weren’t with us, but for a week we hung out with our Nan and cousin. On one occasion we visited Chessington Zoo (in the days before it became the World of Adventures) where upon arrival our Nan became ecstatic about seeing a robin in a tree. With all the elephants, bears, penguins, giraffes and hippopotami that resided beyond the entrance our cousin cracked us up by saying “We haven’t come all this way to see a robin.”

Whilst later that same week my sister chose a book she wanted as our bedtime story. A rather cliché story of children enjoying a day on the beach became a confusing, David Lynch-esque nightmare when our Nan failed to grasp the concept of the ‘Choose your own adventure’ format. Instead of allowing us to choose the fate of these two children, our Nan simply read the book cover to cover and upon finishing declared to us that it was the worst book she’d ever read as it was complete nonsense.

This is how my sister and I were when we were children; normal. One minute concocting grand schemes of world domination involving buckets of tadpoles and our pet cat; the next having our said plans foiled by mum’s slipper. One day we were re-enacting heartfelt scenes of sibling love we’d seen in Neighbours; the next we were creating scenes of such domestic hostility they wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in that Antipodean soap opera. Kathryn would give me advice on how best to play my role as the Ugly sister; I would help her with her times-tables; she reciprocated with my grammar (something she always had a better grasp on) so I would offer assistance with her history (something she always had a better grasp on as well!)

In those halcyon days we were just Addy and Kathryn; brother and sister. But all that changed around the time of my sister’s ninth birthday, when she was cast in a school play and had to wear a leotard as part of her costume. Three years later, at the age of twelve, Kathryn was admitted into a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and obsessive compulsive disorder.

She was still my little sister, the girl I’d played with, laughed with and planned world domination with.

But I was no longer her brother, I was contagious.

To be continued…
Wednesday 19 September:
  My Sister and Me (Part 2)
Friday 21 September: My Sister and Me (Part 3)