Interview with my mother: The parent’s side of intermitting

Morwenna Jones 16 May 2014

My mother is my rock.  For the last twenty years she’s done everything for me.  Whether it’s sewing endless ribbons to ballet slippers when I was three, hand-making me a ball dress for Peterhouse May Ball in my first year, or tirelessly looking after me when my depression got so bad in 2013 that I made the decision to degrade, she’s been there.

Now, back in Cambridge, a phone-call or email from her always makes me calm down.  I sit and listen to her natter about my sisters’ tennis matches and nag me repeatedly about whether I’ve stopped biting my nails yet (the answer is, and always will be, no).  But this time it’s different.  I’m speaking to my mother about the one topic we never discuss; how she felt when my world came crashing down at the start of last year. 

“We severely underestimated how poorly you really were”, she tells me, ‘poorly’ being the word she used when I was five when I had a tummy-ache.  I immediately feel uncomfortable.  “We thought that you would be able to pull yourself through with the help of counseling and the university.  We were wrong” she adds. 

“It wasn’t until you came home and after a couple of weeks that we realised that the right decision had been made”, she confesses, “you were indeed in need of lots of TLC and major counselling.  As parents, you absolutely 100 percent want the very best for your child”. 

She lists some of the worries I so vividly remember discussing around the kitchen table before I left.  “ We live in a village, your friends were all at uni, you have two sisters.  You were also leaving your year group and we were worried that you would find it hard to fit back in again after time out”. 

As usual, she was absolutely right about all of these; living in the middle of nowhere was tiresome, I was lonely, my sisters swiftly grew to dislike me and, back at university, I can count the number of close friends I have on one hand, (and that’s fingers only).  Yet the worst thing I remember, and even the worst thing now, has been the impact my depression and bulimia had on my family. 

As my mother starts to tell me how incredibly hard the year was for her, describing her own counseling sessions that she started to have about two months into my own treatment, I instinctively want to stop and pretend that I wasn’t responsible for all the pain I put her through.  But I don’t and I’m shocked by what I hear.  My mother, who I inanely shouted at and verbally abused for not understanding me, doesn’t talk about that.  Instead she talks about how the hardest thing for her wasn’t what I did to her, but what I did to myself. 

“To see your once full of life, often argumentative but lovely daughter not be able to get out of bed, not to string a sentence together and not to care whether she went back to the university that she had worked so very hard to get into was heartbreaking” she says sadly, recalling spring last year.  “Many times I broke down and felt so incredibly alone.  Here was a girl who since sixth form had had a picture of Cambridge as her screen saver” (embarrassingly true) “who was so focused on that one goal – all I could see was a broken shell of a girl desperately in need”.

No longer that broken shell, I feel a pang of guilt and not for the first time.  During those weeks and months, it was my mother who fed me.  It was my mother who helped me get dressed.  It was my mother who forced me to get up and go to my counseling sessions and in doing so, it is no exaggeration to say, saved me.

We jokingly recall my first counselor (I saw two) and mum has some advice for other sufferers, “Do not go on first impressions!” She reminds me of my original reaction to the fiery Sarah, a bleached blonde northerner who, at first, scared the living daylights out of me.  She was the living embodiment of tough love, even on one occasion telling me to get over myself, but as my mum says “we all owe her big time”. 

It was still a bumpy ride however.  My mother describes “days when you were well, out of bed and taking an interest in life again” and then “the dark days when I felt I could not leave you alone or out of my sight”.  There were also my two sisters to think about.  “That relationship did suffer” Mum says, stating what we both know to be the obvious.  “They didn’t expect you to be at home.  You were supposed to be at university.  You were the clever one, secretly admired by them” (I’m not allowed to tell them that I know this) “they were confused and they didn't understand, like me most of the time”. 

Thankfully, there was light at the end of the tunnel.  “The good days started to be more common – the old Morwenna was coming back”, she pauses for thought, remembering that I’d had eating disorders for five years, “well a Morwenna who started to not worry about her diet and weight which was good”.   

My recovery continued and, on Thursday, November 28th 2013, I was discharged from Cotswold House, one of the country’s leading specialist clinics in eating disorders.  On Sunday January 11th 2014 I returned to Cambridge.  My mother’s reaction? 

Relief, mainly. “Thankfully 2014’s been good so far although things haven’t been easy”, she says, alluding to what we’re both aware of, that many of my old group of friends now want very little to do with the girl who went crazy and degraded.  But as ever, my Mother puts a positive spin on it.  “Friends you thought you did have really couldn't be bothered – the real ones are still there though and they’re the ones who are worth their weight in gold”.

She’s right, as usual.  I’m about to hang up (very tearfully) and ask if she has any last words.  “I still worry” she says, “but not as much now.  We are all so much stronger.  In life, if there are problems you deal with them, you don’t wish they will go away”. 

We hang up, my mum signing off with her usual ‘love and snuggles’ (in joke) and I get a text a few minutes later.  “Also wish there was more info for parents when students degrade, love ma xxx”.  Attached is a photo of a puppy sticking its head out of an Abercrombie shopping bag.

Listening to my mother and also sitting down to write this, I’ve been struck my two things.  The first, is that the world does not revolve around me.  As a university, we’re often so engrossed in our own lives that I wonder how often we really listen to what our parents have to say.  The second is how incredibly lucky I am and how rarely I recognize it.