Here, Kendall Thomas, 48, tells the story in her own words.
￼Looking at my daughter Ashlee, I couldn’t help but worry.
As my 14-year-old hunched over the plate, poking her fork at her dinner, her slender shoulders jutted out awkwardly.
‘Is everything okay?’ I asked her cautiously. Ashlee just shrugged.
A bright and bubbly teenager, she was always chatting and having a giggle. But lately, she seemed to be a shell of her normal self.
Her weight had plummeted and I noticed she was exercising ferociously. Has someone hurt her? I fretted. Was she being bullied?
One weekend, my husband Andrew, Ashlee, her two brothers and I went camping.
Desperate to find out what could be wrong, I watched her closely. So when Ashlee got up to go to the toilet, I quietly followed her.
Horrified, I heard her being sick.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, when she emerged.
Breaking down, Ashlee confirmed my fears – she’d been making herself sick.
‘I overate…’ she sobbed. ‘I’m fat.’
She confessed to having an obsession with health and fitness. Following models and health fanatics on social media, she’d become addicted to diets, green juices and workouts.
After seizing her phone, I banned her from using it.
Scrolling through it later, I was disturbed by her search history. How to starve yourself... How to look thinner... The enormity of her addiction hit me.
‘These girls online aren’t real,’ I told her.
There were endless filters, clever angles and apps where they could alter their body images.
‘Do you still have your period?’ I asked her. ‘No,’ she replied, hanging her head.
Desperate for help, I took her to the doctor, but I was turned away three times, and told this was ‘normal’ for a girl who exercised as much as she did.
Then Ashlee started coming home from school early every day, claiming she felt sick.
And one day, she stopped going to school altogether.
Finally, in February 2015, a doctor gave us a diagnosis.
‘Ashlee’s got an eating disorder,’ he explained.
Sadly, a medical diagnosis only seemed to spur Ashlee on. It was like a switch flicked in her brain – she didn’t have to hide anymore.
She barely ate, only nibbling on a carrot or apple every so often.
For Andrew and me, it felt like our whole world had fallen apart. Our little girl was getting sicker and sicker in front of our eyes. And we felt so powerless.
When she refused to eat, we got desperate. And it got to the point where we had to force-feed our daughter.
Sitting there with a tiny portion of food, she’d scream bloody murder and throw a fit.
‘Come on darling, you can do it. Just put it in and swallow,’ I’d plead.
Andrew would forcibly open her jaw, shoving food down her throat. Her tantrums and cries scared us.
My sweet little girl had turned into a demon, possessed by her eating disorder. The thinner she became, the harder it was to control.
In the middle of the night, I’d hear Ashlee wake up and work out.
‘Can’t you see how skinny you are?’ I asked her. ‘No, I’m so fat,’ she huffed. ‘You’re a skeleton Ash!’ I shot back.
My gorgeous girl had dropped down to less than 40 kilos.
At 172cm, she was far too skinny. But it was a mental issue – no matter how thin she became, her brain made her look obese in the mirror.
Five months on, we struggled to get Ashlee to even drink water. She’d lost her sense of taste and smell. To her, eating was like a horrendous chore. Taking her to hospital, I refused to leave without treatment.
‘My daughter’s not eating, we need help,’ I cried out.
A doctor offered to help us get into an eating disorder program at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, Brisbane. There, Ashlee was diagnosed with anorexia and orthorexia nervosa – an obsession with eating healthy food.
One activity was to help Ashlee understand her body dysmorphia. The nurse had her draw a life-size outline on a huge piece of paper of what she thought her body looked like.
Then, they had her lie on top of the outline, showing her how small she really was. It was eye opening.
Nine weeks later, Ashlee was finally discharged. While she was far from cured, we were ready to face her condition head on.
Back at home, we covered all our mirrors so she wouldn’t see her reflection and break down.
Now, almost three years on, Ashlee, 17, is doing well.
She has returned to a healthy weight, exercises at a normal rate and is back to her old, happy self.
For so long, I blamed myself for letting this disease wrap its tentacles around my daughter. But I am so glad we admitted we needed help before it was too late.
I want other parents to know they should seek medical help as soon as something seems wrong. And I want to warn them about the dangers of social media. This disease would never have touched our girl if it didn’t exist.
Eating disorders can go from mild to life-threatening in a matter of weeks. Take control and teach your children to love themselves.
Find out more about Ashlee’s journey on Facebook page, The Secret Burden.
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