I think my mother is developing anorexia. What do i do?

Background: As a result of a terrible, terrible childhood, my mother has a history of mental illness (officially PTSD, but obviously it’s more complicated than that) that includes 8 years of therapy and four years of stays in psychiatric hospitals (My teenage years, incidentally. Thanks mum.). Her last stay in hospital finished in November 97 and since then she’s been doing much better, although she still takes quite a bit of medication and sees her psychiatrist once a week. But really, she’s been living quite a normal life for the past four years - she works full-time, she sees friends, etc. I thought perhaps it was all over sigh. She has issues with control and is obsessive about neatness in the house, but to be honest we can live with that compared to past conditions.

Anyway, she’s always had problems with food, although in the past it was binge eating and occassional flirtations with bulimia. It was under control for a while, but the food demons have resurfaced in a new way and now she won’t/can’t eat. She is aware of what’s happening and it worries her but the worry is overridden by the food demon. We spoke about it briefly yesterday, although she’s very unwilling to talk about it and i don’t push her on it, and she explained that she feels like she doesn’t deserve to eat. I think it’s also a control issue and a new way she has found of punishing herself (she has big guilt issues, one of which is me. She feels guilty for being ill and not a terribly good mother to me. What am i supposed to say to that? Anyway, that’s a pit rant for another day).

So, at the moment she seems to be subsisting pretty much on cups of tea and occasional toast. She’s lost a lot of weight quickly (although she is still overweight by society’s standards) and her doctor has now noticed. It’s especially worrying because she has mature diabetes, although apparently her blood sugar level is ok at the moment. She may be eating at night occasionally, since i happened to stay up particularly late last night and she came down at 3.30am. She just had a cigarette last night though.

She says that eating makes her feel sick, and she does have IBS which contributes to this.

To be really honest, my sympathy grows a little thin nowadays. I grew up with this and it just gets tiring after a while. But i know it makes no sense at all to even consider telling her to just get over it, however much i want to sometimes. That makes me sound like a bitch queen from hell doesn’t it?

So… how do i handle this situation? She doesn’t want to talk about it and obviously i can’t and wouldn’t force her to eat. Should i try making her some food? I think she probably would eat it if i made it because she’s always liked my cooking (i cook low-fat stuff) and she wouldn’t want to make her reluctance to eat anything that obvious. She’s seriously endangering her health but I feel a bit powerless because no matter what i do it seems it’ll be wrong. I can’t ignore it, but i can’t force her to talk about it. NNnnng.


Wow! What a problem to have.

Honestly, it doesn’t sound like there is much you can do for her. Is she still seeing her therapist? Is s/he aware of your concerns? It might be something they could discuss in a session?

I would just continue to make sure she knows you are concerned for her, but…well, I don’t know what else.

On a tangent, my MIL does the “I’m such a bad person/mother” thing and it is a total manipulative ploy. She’s a martyr. I’m not saying your mother is this way, but you did mention her having a control issue. Have things been changing in YOUR life, where you have moved beyond her immediate control? Maybe she feels like she’s not getting enough attention from someone? Just a thought.

Whatever happens, I’ll say a prayer for you and your mom!

Good luck!


I understand where you’re coming from, as the daughter of an undiagnosed, clinicly depressed paranoic. You’re at the crux of the problem when you say you can’t force her to eat. You really can’t, you know. She’s going to do what she wants, no matter how it hurts you or how self destructive it seems.

If you think she’ll eat your cooking, you might want to try that first. Try to get one good meal as often as is conveinient for you and if it makes YOU feel better. But remember, she’s not an infant. You’re the daughter, not her. So you’re not going to be able to solve this alone and you’re going to wear yourself out trying.

It’s good that her doctor has noticed, as he might have more influence than you. Is she seeing a therapist? She should be, as this is the best way to get to the root of the problem. And you can do your best to keep lines of communication open so you can intervene if she does anything so self destructive as to require hospitalization.

And, speaking as someone who’s been through some of these mother daughter problems, you might consider some therapy yourself. You aren’t the queen bitch from hell. Trust me. It always makes me feel like I’m hogging space in the lifeboat, but I try to take care of my needs first and try not to get involved in my mothers delusions. I can’t fix her, but I don’t need to spend my life proping up her emotional health. You may be carrying more then your share of the family guilt, and, trust me, it helps to talk it out with a professional.

Not to worry Kaiju - I’ve been there done that. Had my own little trip to hospital a couple of years ago. All better now though (unlike someone i could mention, i have the magic gift of being able to deal with my problems and then move on… ooooh, that’s nasty), and although I do care about mother dearest, that won’t happen again. Of course that episode compounds her “I’m a terrible mother” martyrdom, but I don’t get involved any more. I have a very special fixed smile for when she goes off into one.

Thank you for your concern BunnyGirl. I think Kaiju and yourself are likely right - there’s not much i can do. She does see her therapist once a week and a community nurse visits once a fortnight, although obviously i have no idea what they talk about.

The doctor knowing is a precariously balanced thing. If he starts drawing attention to it or being overt about its badness, it’s quite likely that will make her worse. She’s a contrary woman. And i have to live with her.

Any further comments/ suggestions are very welcome.


Wow, I think you’re way beyond the "Do a Google search under “anorexia older women’” thing.

FWIW, here’s one anyway. Some good stuff on why older women stop eating.

All I can think of:

  1. Your mom is not only mentally ill, she’s also physically ill. Is the “doctor” who has “noticed” an internist? If she’s not under the care of an internist of some kind (geez, IBS and diabetes? :eek: girlie, you sure got a plateful), then IMO she ought to be. You can’t expect a therapist to be able to address IBS and diabetes and anorexia, as well as the inside-the-head problems. Also, there are probably post-menopause physical issues to consider (dunno how old your mom is), like osteoporosis. Hormone fluctuations?

  2. You are not a tattletale if you inform her MD that she’s not eating, especially if you are honest about it with her and tell her ahead of time. “Mom, Doctor McCoy needs to know about this, so if you don’t tell him, I will.” He needs all the information he can get in order to properly manage her IBS and her diabetes. Indeed, it might be detrimental to NOT mention it. And anyway, don’t diabetics have to eat a certain amount every day, or else it messes up their blood sugar?

  3. I have Crohn’s disease myself, and the first thing I think when I hear that someone with IBS isn’t eating is, “Yeah, I have days like that, too.” Some days you just DO NOT feel like eating. Maybe she’s just having a flareup, not full tilt boogie “anorexia”.

  4. You’re right, you can’t tell someone who is mentally ill to “get over it”. However, although mentally ill, your mom is still an adult. You’re not responsible for her behavior–she is. If she doesn’t wanna eat more than toast and tea, it’s not your problem. The reason people get so upset about anorexic teenagers is because they’re children. Your mom is a grownup, she’s old enough to take responsibility for her own life. I know that sounds really hardnosed, but there it is.

Do you know what “passive aggressive” means? It means that she’ll go, “Oh, no, I don’t feel like eating anything” in a faint little voice, and then she gets lots of attention from you. Anxiety, “Mom, you have to eat”, like that. It’s the same way with some little kids, they get lots of attention from Mom for not eating. The solution with little kids is to put the food in front of them, and if they don’t eat, fine. Put it away after a reasonable interval and then make them wait for the next meal (no snacks). However, like I said, your Mom is a grownup, and so are you. The two of you ought to be above these little games, plus they aren’t healthy for either of you.

Your responsibility as a daughter extends only to making sure there’s suitable food available. You’re not required to agonize over whether or not she actually ingests it. And if she does collapse due to malnutrition and have to be hospitalized, as long as her doctor, her therapist, and the community nurse were all aware that she was refusing to eat, nobody’s gonna prosecute you for “elder abuse”.

My grandmother got strange when she was in her 80s. She wouldn’t eat anything except soup she made by boiling leftover chicken bones. My mother (her daughter-in-law) worried herself blue in the face that Pauline would starve to death on her watch, but my dad just said, basically, “Hey, she’s 80 years old. Let her eat or not eat.” Then he would go in there to her garage apartment and trick her into eating a dish of ice cream with him, by saying, “Gee, Mama, I’m going to have some ice cream, won’t you join me?” And it wouldn’t have been polite to refuse him, so at least she got some nutrition that way.

But your mom doesn’t sound like that would work. She sounds like she’s perfectly aware of what’s happening.

So, fine. Let her do what she wants. And take some time for yourself. She doesn’t need a nanny. But YOU will, if you keep up at this rate. :slight_smile:

I suppose I really can’t address the problem, since I’ve never had a mother who had mental problems. Opening the thread, though, I thought I could contribute, so I’ll still say what I was going to:

I was good friends with someone who was dangerously anorexic. There was nothing we could do, all I would suggest is that you make sure her psychiatrist knows about it, and that the doctor knows already is good, too.

Anorexia is a mental thing but its consequences are physical. Scary stuff.

The good news, if we can call it that, is that yor mother’s eating problem might resolve itself when it makes her sick enough to end up in a hospital. My mother gave up eating (anthing healthy, anyway) because she felt Dad was trying to poison her, or the neighbors were pumping noxious gasses in through the window.

Eventually she landed in intensive care with anemia and thyroid problems, which were also part of the cause of her mental problems. With a doctor’s help, she got a lot better, physically and mentally, although she has the occassional funny spell that makes it a real treat to be her daughter :-{

It’s good to hear that your taking care of yourself, Francesca, and not getting caught up in the “I’m a bad mother” manipulative trap. Sometimes the only way we can help our mothers is to be strong enough not to get dragged down with them. Someone’s got to be the sane one. So keep the faith and look after yourself. Our prayers and support are with you.

Yikes. I feel for you, really. I am a former anorexia sufferer, and I know I put my family and friends through hell. Even though my experience was in my early 20’s, quite a while back, the “eating disorder” mindset still lurks there. What I can share from my personal experience is:

  1. It’s all about control.

You said your mother has control issues? Well, when you feel that your life is totally out of your control, it often feels like the one thing you can control is what you eat. Her past performance as a parent, her mental illness, her physical condition - all stuff she can’t fix. But the pizza in front of her? That, at least, she can have victory over.

  1. There is very little you can do.

I know from my own case, as well as other anorexics and bulemics I knew, that we all knew what we were doing. (Just like DDG surmised.) We even knew that it was an illness, knew it was hurting people, and that didn’t slow us down at all. One of my friends died (at age 22) from it; she was 5’8" and weighed 87 pounds at the time of her death. Not even one of the survivors changed behavior because of it. I personally didn’t stop until two years later.

  1. Anorexics stop when they are ready; nobody really knows what triggers recovery.

For a long time I didn’t eat. Then one day I did. I wish I knew why.

  1. Take care of yourself.

The advice to keep your mother’s doctor and therapist informed are right on, as is the advice to take care of yourself. You are not responsible for making her eat - it isn’t likely to work, anyway. Make sure you have somebody to talk to - a therapist, a trusted friend, whatever.

I know you’re going through some ugly stuff with this. My heart goes out to you.

Just a quick note to say thank you all for your concern and advice. She’s seemed a little happier this weekend and although i still haven’t actually seen her eat anything, she’s been fine with me asking her what she’s eaten and has told me in such a manner that i believe her. I guess life goes on as normal in the crazy-lady house.