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After beating anorexia and bulimia, now Debbie Howard's aim is to help others who struggle

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Debbie Howard

Debbie Howard

Debbie Howard with her daughter Latina and parents Pat and Paul at home in Groomsport

Debbie Howard with her daughter Latina and parents Pat and Paul at home in Groomsport

Debbie Howard with her daughter Latina

Debbie Howard with her daughter Latina

A young Debbie competing as a Commonwealth gymnast

A young Debbie competing as a Commonwealth gymnast

Debbie Howard

Pat and Paul McLarnon found out something was wrong with their daughter when they woke to the screams of 17-year-old Debbie in the middle of the night. Rushing to the bathroom two decades ago, the north Down couple found her writhing on the floor in agony.

Frightened, confused, trying desperately to help, it was only when they searched her schoolbag and found laxatives that the suspicions started.

Asked about them, Debbie refused to say how many she had taken. She shook her head at one, two, three. It was only when the counting reached 44 that she nodded.

That was the start of a 10-year battle that threatened to tear the McLarnon family apart and threatened the life of the talented Commonwealth gymnast.

Today Debbie is 37 and unrecognisable from the stricken teenager who battled through every family meal time - anorexia and bulimia stripping away the fun-loving, carefree daughter that Pat and Paul loved.

Having fought a lone battle over the years with little to no help, less understanding from health services and a complete lack of anyone to turn to for support, the McLarnons' love for their daughter and their determination to see her through the worst times took them on a journey to where they all stand today.

FightED, a charity set up to provide the support, care and understanding for families going through the trauma of dealing with an eating disorder that the McLarnons never had, is now making sure there is somewhere to turn to.

The name says it all. The McLarnons had to fight every inch of the way for their daughter, and now they are determined to fight to give others who find their family in the same situation the support they found distinctly lacking.

"When an eating disorder knocks on your door your whole world falls apart," said Pat, who along with husband Paul now delivers courses for parents on how best to help.

"We know. It's your worst nightmare.

"Looking back now we know we made so many wrong decisions, even if they were for the right reasons.

"We didn't know how to help Debbie. Everything that we did as parents seemed to make things worse."

Debbie admitted her problems started when she was 12 years old.

"As a gymnast, there was a lot of pressure to be skinny and we were weighed every day," she said.

"It started out with cutting out cakes and biscuits and ended in me eating next to nothing and nearly dying.

"But it wasn't simply the gymnastics. I was a perfectionist, I was very competitive and a high achiever and it was that combination of factors that led me to having an eating disorder."

She gave up gymnastics after competing at the Commonwealth Games as a 16-year-old.

"That meant I gained weight and I couldn't cope with it. I felt obese," she said.

"Everything I ate, I had to throw up. My eating disorder had gone on for so long I didn't know what normal eating was."

At one stage, told by a doctor that her eating disorder would make her teeth fall out, all she could think about was how much weight that would help her lose. Voices in her head, 24 hours a day, were telling her how disgusting and worthless she was."

Her parents had no idea what to do.

Pat recalled: "Meal times were a battlefield and we tried everything, from punishment to grounding, but if we had known then what we know now we could have helped her so much more. We didn't realise that we were pushing her into the arms of the eating disorder.

"When she did eat she would go to the bathroom and make herself sick because not only was she anorexic, she also became bulimic. As she became weaker, we, as parents, felt powerless and helpless."

The couple often felt unable to cope on their own.

"There was little or no support for parents," said Pat. "If we had had the skills earlier we would have been much better prepared to deal with it. Parents need to know how to deal with this and that's what FightED is here for, to give families a fighting chance of making it through.

Pat, looking back to her daughter's teenage years, recalled how she became "a stranger" to them.

"She became very depressed and sad, argumentative and manipulative and we had literally no idea how to help her," she added.

Parental love for their daughter made sure they would never give up, even in the darkest days when Debbie no longer wished to live.

"Our lives were thrown into turmoil from that first night," said Pat.

Every morning Paul and I woke up with a knot in the pit of our stomachs. We were terrified. Pat

"Debbie's younger brother went into her room that night and hugged her and said: 'Debbie, please don't die'. But she had hit her self-destruct button and had started basically starving herself to death.

"Every morning Paul and I woke up with a knot in the pit of our stomachs. We were terrified.

"As far as treatment, there was none here in Northern Ireland, so we had to battle the services. We wrote to every MP and MLA and got two compliment slips and one letter back."

It was in London where Debbie finally found help. She saw a therapist for four years.

With no treatment available in Northern Ireland, the government paid for her to travel to get the help she needed.

Thrown that lifeline, Debbie never missed an appointment.

"Even then it came to the point where the counsellor told us to bring her home," said Pat.

"She was so weak she was on the brink of heart failure."

In the end Debbie suffered until her early 20s.

Today, the mother of a daughter herself, Debbie hasn't left her eating disorder behind. Instead, she carries it with her as a medal of honour, determined to use her personal experience and the experience of her mum and dad, by being there to help others through.

"In the end, it's the whole family that needs support, treatment, knowledge," she said.

"There could be many parents out there in Northern Ireland feeling isolated, with nowhere to turn to. That has to change."

That's why Pat, Paul and Debbie started FightED.

"Debbie had to go to London to get the help she needed, but that was hard for her to be away from her family, and hard for us not to be there by her side all the time to support her," said Pat.

Now FightED is on hand to provide the support Pat and Paul never had.

"We're the proof that eating disorders can be overcome," said Pat.

"No parent should have to go through an illness like that unprepared."

FightED now offers courses for families regularly through the year, and the McLarnons, with Debbie, have travelled around the UK and Ireland delivering life-saving support services.

Long-term, Pat and Debbie's goal would see a purpose built facility for eating disorders running in Northern Ireland.

Now a fully qualified psychotherapist herself and chairperson of FightED, Debbie knows better than most what it takes to fight an eating disorder, and win.

"Things can get better and through FightED we can show you how," she said.

l For further information on the support and advice FightED can provide, visit fighted.org or call 07999 901936.

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