They just need to care

The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen (ZunTold Books; £7.99).

In The Year I Didn’t Eat, Samuel Pollen tells the semi-autobiographical story of 14-year-old Max Howarth through an account of what happened from one Christmas Day to the next, punctuated by letters to his eating disorder, Ana.

As an account of a teenage boy’s experience suffering with anorexia nervosa it’s particularly welcome, and it is very engagingly written with characters that really bring the story to life.

What Pollen skilfully manages to do in this enjoyable book is describe one young person’s experience of an eating disorder, whilst weaving in comments about thoughts and feelings that underlie the illness. He uses Mr Edwards’ GCSE biology lesson to tell the reader some facts about anorexia’s impact on the body, and we get snippets of his sessions with his therapist Lindsay giving insights into his thinking and into how she goes about trying to help him.

The book is likely to appeal to teenagers with eating disorders and their friends, but Pollen also makes the book useful to parents and siblings, partly through making Max’s brother Robin something of a hero in how switched-on he is to what will help Max. Robin introduces Max to geocaching, and this weird way of connecting with other geocachers becomes one thread in Max’s recovery. Max’s PE teacher is also an important figure. Those who know someone struggling with an eating disorder may find it helpful to hear what Max says: ‘Someone doesn’t need to understand you to save your life. They just need to care.’

- Reviewed by Dr Helen McCarthy, AFBPsS Consultant Clinical Psychologist and author of How to Retrain Your Appetite.

We asked Samuel Pollen a couple of questions.

What do you wish you had known when you yourself were struggling with an eating disorder?
That people recover every day. It sounds obvious – of course they do – but when you’re going through an eating disorder, you get very good at telling yourself that your situation is uniquely hopeless. It isn’t. I’m not saying it’s easy – it never is. But there’s every chance that you can get through it, and come out stronger on the other side.

Anorexia is a frightening illness for families to see a relative suffering from. Are there any words of advice or comfort you would give them?
Well, first of all, it isn’t your fault. Eating disorders happen, like lightning bolts falling from the sky. They just do.

In terms of advice – try to keep things as 'normal' as you can. What helped me was family board games, and cinema trips with friends, and all the conversations I had that weren't about my eating disorder. They reminded me that people cared about me, the person behind the disease. And that made a huge difference.

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