How hunger to succeed nearly killed Debbie

She was a teenage gymnastics star with the world at her feet, yet she was caught in her own private battle with anorexia

Debbie McLarnon
Debbie McLarnon

She was told she had to lose weight to be a winner, but Bangor girl Debbie McLarnon took that advice too far. Jane Hardy reports

Most people picture anorexia as a physical war manifesting itself in skeletal thinness and the jutting hips of sufferers, but the real battle is in the mind. It’s all about psychology, as Debbie McLarnon (30), a psychotherapist, former sufferer and star gymnast, knows to her cost.

The Bangor woman who has been well for seven years and is engaged to Gareth Howard, owner of a cafe in the town, has total recall of the difficult years.

“Not eating was my coping strategy but it was flawed. Every time anything went wrong, it was what I did because I’d made this link between success, perfection and thinness.”

Now, as we chat on the phone at lunchtime, I can hear Debbie downing a yogurt and munching on a sandwich in between answering questions. It’s a healthy sound, but she remembers all too clearly the mealtimes at home that turned into pitched battles.

“I eat healthily now and always have breakfast and try to get my five-a-day, but my problems started when I was 13 and I started cutting out this and that to lose weight. I used to come home from gym training and refuse to eat the dinner my mother had made which led to massive battles.”

Debbie was a talented gymnast as a girl and her difficulties stem from the time she started training for the British Championships in 1996. The gym she attended was impressive and they’d hired an overseas coach to improve results. “We were told that we had to lose weight and should cut out this and that food. This wasn’t how I was brought up so I told my mum who said ‘Well, she doesn’t speak English so maybe you haven’t understood’.”

But the damage was done, as Debbie reveals: “I did rhythmic gymnastics, with music, and was very competitive but the pressure built on me to succeed. So I started losing weight before the British Championships.”

Once Debbie had won in her category at the games, her problems didn’t go away, they just intensified. “I’d already started cutting out crisps and sweets and was pretty thin, about six-and-a-half stone and five feet tall. Because I had muscles it didn’t really show, although there wasn’t a pick of fat on me.

“When I look back I think ‘Oh my God’. But at the time I thought my coach was right, if I lost weight, I’d keep winning.”

As she says, anorexia is insidious, it creeps up on you.

Then Debbie decided to step up her dieting regime before the Commonwealth Games. She was 16 and as she says now, completely out of control. “I wasn’t living on very much at all. We were training six to seven hours a day. I’d do three hours in the morning, then have a piece of dry toast and go back to bed because the hunger pangs were so bad. After three hours’ training at night, I’d take myself out running wrapped in cling film and layers so I would sweat off more weight.

“We got weighed in every day and I think there were a lot of girls on the British squad who were doing the same thing. We helped each other lose weight and were totally obsessed. The sport has changed and the girls competing aren’t stick-thin now, but when we went over to England for the games, we were always being told by the national coaches that we were fat.”

You can’t help wondering why nobody noticed Debbie’s worsening state but anorectics are furtive and good at hiding what’s going on. “None of my family or friends realised, apart from my best friend Clare, and I said I’d never talk to her again if she said anything.”

After the Commonwealth Games, when Debbie came 14th in her category, everything went, as she says, pear-shaped. Oddly, Debbie actually put on weight at this point, going from an underweight six-and-a-half stone up to a healthier eight stone. “But I couldn’t cope with being normal, I felt even my feet were fat.”

So Debbie became a “purging anorexic” at the age of 17, using her fingers to throw up sometimes as many as eight times a day. She also took laxatives. “Once I took so many I had to stay in the bathroom. I told my mum and that’s when my family decided to take action and sought medical help.” Some doctors, Debbie says, didn’t really understand her problem.

Then started the roller coaster of treatment, improvement and relapse, followed by slow recovery. Debbie saw a therapist in Belfast for six months. “She said: ‘Do you know if you do this, your teeth fall out? I just thought ‘At least I’ll be thin.” There’s a kind of dark humour in the way she tells her story.

Debbie’s mind was still unwell, so any amount of therapy and threats failed to work. “All you care about is being thin. I didn’t think I had a problem.”

Her GCSEs and the Commonwealth Games had been “super stressful” and A-levels were also difficult. But the “real perfectionist” managed a decent A, B and C even though she struggled a bit.

Debbie’s problems were beginning to show. As she and her friends reached their social years and went out together, she wouldn’t eat anything all day, so when she had a drink, she quickly became drunk. Her best friend Clare wasn’t prepared to be warned off, though, and took Debbie to see a teacher they both trusted at Glenlola Collegiate school in Bangor.

Although Debbie still didn’t want to change, events were conspiring to help her do just that. “I was worried I’d have to gain weight, obsessed with myself. I used to endlessly measure the distance between my thighs and count my ribs.”

Yet to outsiders, she was functioning well as a psychology student at Queen’s University. She graduated, got a job in a bank in London and went to live in the capital with her university boyfriend at which point everything closed in.

“I was so lonely and desperately unhappy that it reignited everything. I started exercising compulsively and cut out food. Every time I ate something, I’d throw up.”

Sometimes Debbie would be OK for a month or so, but the improvement never lasted.

Then she linked up with Deborah, a therapist at a private clinic in the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London who she consulted for a

crucial four years. “She undoubtedly saved my life.” Debbie says now.

What changed? Debbie and her mother engaged in family therapy, Debbie saw a dietitian and therapist every week and gradually her mindset altered. The whole process required commitment, and cash, but Debbie’s parents were desperate to help.

“They would have done anything, would even have sold their house to help. We weren’t wealthy although comfortably off but fortunately my Health Trust funded me half the time as there weren’t specialist facilities in Northern Ireland.”

After a year-and-a-half, Debbie came back home. She still had to fly back to London, which cost money, but kept body and soul together by working part-time at her parents’ Centra store.

When somebody suffers from a psychological illness, everyone is affected. Debbie’s younger brother Ricky (28), now working in property, was deeply upset when his big sister began to fade away. He’s now preparing to cycle across America to raise funds to bring over specialists from the Maudsley Institute in London who can train therapists here. One serious problem for Northern Irish eating disorder sufferers has been the lack of specialist care in the province.

Ricky is determined to help his sister change that. Debbie has a telling memory of her baby brother’s reaction to her illness. “I remember when the family became aware of my illness, one day Ricky came into my room, hugged me and said ‘Debbie, don’t die’.”

Her happy ending is now in place. Debbie met her fiance Gareth in the pub where she was working years ago, and their relationship developed quickly.

“I told him what had happened and am glad Gareth knows me now. He simply can’t imagine the person I was before.”

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