It was Easter 2010.
Life had been feeling like it couldn’t get any better. My direct selling business was booming and, the year before, we had taken a dream family holiday to Florida. Our son had started to settle in secondary school and our daughter, Katharine, had completed an amazing final year in primary before moving up herself.
On the run up to Easter there had been the usual banter about what Easter egg the kids were hoping to have. I had noticed that Katharine hadn’t taken a yoghurt to school for a while and spoke to a GP friend about my concerns, she reassured me there wasn’t a problem.
On Easter morning Katharine happily opened her egg, broke off 1 cm square of chocolate, ate it with relish and declared she was full! I can still feel that moment. It was like the floor was opening up and my world was falling apart. I looked at our beautiful, vivacious daughter, how had I not noticed before? How had I not seen how thin she was!
Confronting the situation seemed to make matters ten times worse. She had obviously been reducing how much she had been eating but now it was out in the open she seemed to eat even less. There followed a round of waiting rooms, doctors’ surgeries and weighing scales.
Katharine refused to speak to anyone. She started getting up earlier and earlier to pretend that she had had breakfast. There came a point when I had to admit that my sleep was too important to my own sanity and that I couldn’t supervise every meal time. As I am sure many readers know, caring for someone suffering from mental ill health is tough. Two things were invaluable: one was the hour a week when a nurse came to see me and I could just talk about what was going on. The other was my understanding that for me to be able to be there for Katharine and the rest of our family, I had to make sure I looked after me too.
We discovered that all our socialising had revolved around food – when we visited friends, had people over, or went out there was always a meal involved. Not only did we feel too exhausted to socialise, the challenge of food being involved on these occasions made it too stressful. We became very isolated and insular.
In order to get a diagnosis of anorexia, the person has to lose a certain amount of weight over a certain amount of time, so we waited! As her bones began to protrude, the books I read by professionals for professionals informed me that people die of anorexia. That wasn’t an option I was prepared to accept for our daughter.
The journey I had been on in my direct selling business had me believe that we can take responsibility for our own lives and we can steer things in the direction we want them to go, so I scoured the internet for information that might help us. At that time, nearly a decade ago, resources around mental health were far harder to find. Eventually I came across a book written by another mother (Mum Please Help – by Karen Phillips), that talked about neuroplasticity. I started working with Katharine to do the things that the book talked about.
We played a game called “Who are you?” where I repeatedly asked her the same question.
In the beginning she had nothing to say, but after several weeks of repeating this every night she eventually became a daughter, and then a sister and then a friend. We found things to laugh at as a family. Laughter had become very scarce in our family, so we started watching loads of rubbish but funny movies. We created vision boards for ourselves so that we could see our future. Katharine wrote affirmations over and over again and we walked outside and talked.
Recovery felt like a very long slow process, in a two steps forward and one step back kind of way. The first year was the hardest, in the second I kept thinking that things were better, although six months later I’d realise it had still been pretty bad. About two and a half years after we first realised she was struggling, I felt I could describe Katharine as better.
Remarkably, my business had survived me being very focused on Katharine, but I was completely changed as a person. I had been so challenged, I now felt in need of a new and different future.
I had been coaching in my business for 13 years by this stage but without any formal qualifications (only years of reading and practice), so it felt like the right time to go and enhance my tool kit. I started my coaching training with the view that I would simply take it back to my direct selling business and it would help me even more. However, whilst on the course and practicing with friends and family, I started to appreciate how powerful coaching was.
One day we were asked to consider what our ideal coaching business would look like; I suddenly knew that I needed to be outside more. I started coaching my friends outside and magic happened. I was blown away by how much more powerful it was for me to coach people whilst out walking.
Interestingly it wasn’t until more than a year later when Katharine and I wrote a book about our experiences, (Our Journey with Anorexia – How a parent can be part of their child’s recovery) that I realised that all of our really useful conversations had taken place outside.
During Katharine’s recovery I’d seen that the things that made a real difference were simple – they weren’t easy but they were simple! I was frustrated that it had been so difficult to find these simple ideas that help people look after themselves mentally and emotionally. I wanted to change that.
So, in the Autumn 2013 Fresh Air Fridays was born. Much as we do today we explored things, such as “what does looking after me mean?”, we spent some time being in the present moment in nature, we learnt to listen to one another, we had some time for a gratitude practice and a relaxation exercise and we connected with like-minded people.
The early days of any business can be challenging and I have been exceptionally lucky to work with a wonderful business partner Rose Dixey, who has had her own life challenges. What we both find is that by really living the ideas that we share on our programmes we are able to create lives that really work for us. We often remark on how fortunate we feel, both in what we do and in the relationships we create around us.
Even Katharine acknowledges that all we have been through together has made us who we are today. She and I are very close, both as mother and daughter and as friends. She continues to thrive, is loving university and works hard so that she can travel in her holidays. She has worked on a couple of summer camps where she contributes to the young people who attend. Her plan is to become a clinical psychologist and I don’t doubt that her own experience will be of benefit to the people that she works with.
At Fresh Air Fridays we now have 11 facilitators with more training soon. We run community groups for individuals and have run programmes for Companies House, The Home Office, charities and several technology companies, among others. We are excited to be exploring the concept of social prescribing in a regeneration project in South Wales.
The journey we have been on as a family isn’t one that I would wish on anybody, however the outcome is that we all feel much stronger and more resilient. Both Katharine and I are clearly on paths that will have us do what we can to help other people suffer less.
I am really proud to say that Fresh Air Fridays provides the space, support and skills to enable people to look after their mental and emotional wellbeing. I like to tell people “We take you outside so that you can feel good on the inside!”