A single mother who has battled life-long eating disorders has revealed the heartbreak of watching both of her two daughters starve themselves to the brink of death after they were diagnosed with anorexia just four years apart.
Teaching assistant Pam McKenna, 47, of Coventry, West Midlands, was just 19 when she embarked on a damaging cycle of binge eating and yo-yo dieting, which has dogged her adult life.
Referring to her own issues as ‘a non-specific eating disorder,’ Pam was heartbroken when her eldest girl Jade McKenna, 25, was diagnosed with anorexia in 2014, aged 19 at the time, and dropped to just five stone.
In July 2014, Jade finally saw the eating disorder specialist who told her that if she didn’t start eating she would be ‘dead within a week’, sparking her journey to health.
Then, in 2018, her 14-year-old sister, Amba McKenna, now 15, was also diagnosed, and dropped to five stone six pounds.
Pam McKenna, 47, of Coventry, has revealed the heartbreak of watching both of her two daughters Jade (left) and Amba (right) starve themselves to the brink of death after they were diagnosed with anorexia just four years apart (seen following their recovery in Oxrober in Majorca)
Pam was heartbroken when her eldest girl Jade McKenna, 25, seen right, was diagnosed with anorexia in 2014, aged 19 at the time, and told she had a week to live
Speaking about the guilt she felt, Pam said: ‘Only maybe I didn’t hide it as well as I thought. I can’t help blaming myself or wondering if things had been different and my relationship with food had been better, whether this still would’ve happened to them.’
‘I can’t describe how horrendous it is as a mother to watch not one, but two of your daughters go through anorexia.
‘They both starved themselves to the point where they looked like walking corpses. If they hadn’t started eating when they did, they would’ve died.
‘As a mother, there is nothing worse than wanting to help your children so badly, wanting to make them see sense, but not being able to.
‘And you’d think I’d have noticed the warning signs the second time around, but I didn’t.
‘I just thought Amba was going through puberty and losing puppy fat.
‘I suppose I was in denial. I was thinking to myself. ‘This can’t be anorexia – this can’t be happening to our family again.’
‘But it was and with Amba it was even worse than it was with Jade.’
Jade McKenna in 2014. In July 2014, Jade dropped to just five stone and finally saw the eating disorder specialist who told her that if she didn’t start eating she would be ‘dead within a week’, sparking her journey to health
Then Jade’s 14-year-old sister, Amba McKenna, now 15, was also diagnosed in 2018 – and dropped to to five stone six pounds
In 2014, Jade’s weight plummeted to just five stone and she saw it as ‘an achievement’ when she slid into an aged 11 pair of jeans.
Meanwhile, four years later, in 2018, Amba starved herself down to 5st 4lbs and was so fearful of gaining weight that she was ‘too scared to drink water’.
And while Pam’s own dieting has never been so extreme, she said: ‘I’ve always been on one fad diet or another since I was about 19. I was stuck in a vicious cycle of binge eating and overindulging and then punishing myself and just eating fruit.
‘I never made myself sick or starved myself, but I’d say I had a non-specific eating disorder.
‘My weight’s always gone up and down between seven and nine stone.
‘When I look in the mirror, I don’t always like what I see – but I’ve tried to hide the way I feel from my daughters.’
In 2014, Jade’s weight plummeted to just five stone and she saw it as ‘an achievement’ when she slid into an aged 11 pair of jeans
Meanwhile, four years later, in 2018, Amba starved herself down to 5st 4lbs and was so fearful of gaining weight that she was ‘too scared to drink water’
Luckily Jade, now a communications officer for Coventry Council, who lives with her boyfriend, Chris Allen, 24, a trainee surveyor, has made a full recovery.
But while Amba, who was discharged from Newbridge House, an eating disorder facility in Birmingham in May 2018, is now maintaining a healthy weight, it is still early days and the risk of her relapsing remains high.
Despite their mother’s guilt, in case her behaviour influenced them, her daughters say their closeness to their mum and the unconditional love of their family pet Gizmo – a cross between a Jack Russell Terrier and a Pug, who joined the family in 2017 – are keeping them well.
Luckily Jade, now a communications officer for Coventry Council, who lives with her boyfriend, Chris Allen, 24, a trainee surveyor, has made a full recovery, while Amba is still on the road to recovery. They are seen with mum Pam and dog Gizmo last August
Jade McKenna at Dog Jog in August 2019. Jade, the first daughter to develop the eating disorder, said her problems with food started in 2013 when she was studying film, TV and radio at Staffordshire university, when she began exercising and became obsessed
Pam said: ‘I honestly believe Gizmo was the reason Amba got better and got well enough to come back home. She wanted to see him as much as she wanted to see us.’
Jade, the first daughter to develop the eating disorder, said her problems with food started in 2013 when she was studying film, TV and radio at Staffordshire university, when she began exercising and became obsessed.
A healthy 8st 3lbs when she joined, Jade – who is now a size eight to 10 – said: ‘I’d always been a sporty teenager and I cared more about football than what I looked like.
‘But I felt out of control at university. As a perfectionist I wanted to be in control – and that’s where my obsession with exercise and food kicked in.
‘In October 2013 when I was 19, I started exercising obsessively – I’d exercise before I went to lectures and when I came home. Alongside this, I began eating less and less.
‘I felt a sense of self-achievement if I didn’t eat and still exercised.
‘I was under a false illusion that I was fat – but other people started noticing and commenting on how slim I was.’
As the pounds started falling away, she lost around two stone in a matter of months, and Jade’s mental health began to deteriorate.
Jade and Amba McKenna 2018, Jade kept her word and, miraculously, by July 2015 she weighed around 8st and had made a full recovery – supported by the clinic and a university counsellor, while Amba is still on the road to recovery
Jade, Pam and Amba McKenna in Majorca in October 2019. The trio have supported each other throughout their journeys
Rather than socialising with other students, she kept herself shut away in her room.
‘I was in a bad mood all the time – and I didn’t want to hang out with any of my housemates anymore,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t living I was just existing.’
When Jade returned home for the Christmas holidays, having begun her diet and exercise regime, Pam was shocked by her appearance and made her see her GP.
‘In January I went to see the doctor,’ Jade explained. ‘At that point, I was in denial about being ill. I don’t think the doctor took me seriously, though, and told me to eat more.’
But Pam persisted, taking her back for a second appointment.
By now at 5ft 3, weighing around six stone, Jade was referred to the head eating disorder services for Coventry and Warwickshire.
‘I was added to the waiting list,’ she said. ‘It about six months before I was seen.’
During that time, Jade’s health spiralled downwards, and she shed another stone.
‘I went back to university, but I was a shell of myself,’ she said. ‘I lost myself – I was still obsessed with exercise and went down to about five stone.
‘I’d clean because I knew it would burn calories, or I’d walk around the town centre for no reason.
‘I’d try to go for as long as I could without eating, or I’d do things to avoid eating food like burning bread on purpose.’
But when Jade came home at weekends, she would still insist on cooking hearty meals for both her mum and Amba, while making do with a tin of soup herself.
‘It must’ve destroyed my mum having to watch me sip soup, while they ate a wholesome meal which I’d cooked,’ she said.
‘But there was nothing she could do to convince me to eat it.’
In July 2014, Jade finally saw the eating disorder specialist who issued her with a stark ultimatum – ‘Eat or you will die.’
Amba, Pam and Jade McKenna in 2019. Pam says she worries her attitude to food was picked up by her daughters
In July 2014, Jade finally saw the eating disorder specialist who issued her with a stark ultimatum – ‘Eat or you will die.’
She said: ‘The doctor told me that unless I started eating properly, I’d be dead within week.
‘It was hard-hitting to hear, but I still had this compulsive sense of achievement.’
Jade was admitted to the Aspen Centre, an eating disorder facility in Warwick Hospital, the same month and told she would have to spend at least six months there.
‘I didn’t want to go, but Mum practically dragged me there and begged me to stay until I got better,’ she said. ‘I remember looking at all the other girls in the clinic and thinking how unwell they all looked.
‘It wasn’t until someone said to me, ‘The way you’re looking at the other girls is the same way people are looking at you,’ that something clicked.’
Determined she was not staying, after one night, Jade met with staff and promised to eat the required amount to reach a healthy weight if she was allowed to do it at home.
‘I hadn’t been sectioned, so they couldn’t keep me in the facility,’ Jade said. ‘But they did warn me they’d keep my bed open in case I didn’t stick to my promise.’
Pam is doing all she can to create a safe and comfortable environment for her daughters, where they can share their problems and find support
In May 2018 Amba – who has now started a new secondary school – was allowed home. At a size six to eight, she has maintained a healthy weight and is on the road to recovery, but still struggles around food
Jade kept her word and, miraculously, by July 2015 she weighed around 8st and had made a full recovery – supported by the clinic and a university counsellor.
‘Something just changed, and I became determined to reach a healthy weight,’ she said. ‘I followed the diet plan they set out for me and within that year, I was back to being a healthy weight.’
Having returned to university in the September 2014, Jade completed her final year at university, while recovering, and graduated in July 2015 with a first-class honours degree – going on to launch a successful career, putting her anorexia nightmare behind her.
But four years later in April 2017 history repeated itself – this time with Amba.
Despite being shy, the teenager had a passion for performing arts, but was being picked on by some of the other children at school and became adamant that losing weight would make her more popular.
She said: ‘I found it hard to fit in when I first went to secondary school.
‘I was called names like ‘fat’ or ‘snake’ and it just made to feel really low.
‘I wanted to lose weight, because I wanted to try and be pretty like the other girls.
‘At first it wasn’t so much about what I looked like but more about fitting in, but losing weight became addictive.’
What started in April as simply cutting out chocolate and crisps, by August saw Amba avoiding eating dinner altogether and trying to survive off fruit and the occasional Pot Noodle at school.
‘I became obsessed with my looks, I was constantly checking myself in the mirror,’ she said. ‘I started looking to see if I could see bones in my face, my arms or the back of my legs.’
And by September, Pam knew something was seriously wrong with her youngest daughter.
‘Mum tried to make me eat, but I wouldn’t,’ said Amba. ‘All I’d eat was a chicken salad. By November I’d made myself so ill – I barely had enough energy to get off the sofa.’
Desperate for help, Pam took Amba to CAMHS – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service – who then referred her to University Hospital Coventry & Warwickshire.
‘I went to the hospital and was told if I didn’t eat, I’d die and would have to be admitted to an eating disorder clinic,’ Amba said.
‘I tried to eat. Part of me wanted to eat, but the other part of me didn’t want to put on weight, so I didn’t let myself.’
In January 2018, weighing just 5st 6lbs and around 5ft tall Amba, aged just 13, was admitted to a specialist eating disorders unit, Newbridge House, in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, where she spent four months trying to recover.
‘It was hell. I hated being away from Mum, Jade and Gizmo,’ she said. ‘I forced myself to eat enough so I could put on my target weight of about seven stone and get out of there.’
In May 2018 Amba – who has now started a new secondary school – was allowed home.
At a size six to eight, she has maintained a healthy weight and is on the road to recovery, but still struggles around food.
‘I’m not completely fine, but I am better,’ said Amba, who is taking medication to help deal with depression. ‘I’ve come close to relapsing a few times and I don’t completely like what I see in the mirror.
‘I still think I’m fat – even though everyone says I’m still really slim.
‘I motivate myself to eat what I need to, because I don’t want to leave my mum, sister or Gizmo again – I want to get better for them.’
The brave teenager has her mum and sister’s full support.
Jade said: ‘Watching Amba going through anorexia just like I did was heart breaking.
‘It made me realise just how much my mum must’ve struggled to cope seeing me go through it. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to watch not just one person you love so much, but two, almost die.
‘Now we’re doing all we can to support Amba, who is doing brilliantly. She’s a very brave and special girl.’
And Pam is doing all she can to create a safe and comfortable environment for her daughters, where they can share their problems and find support.
She said: ‘I’m so proud of both Amba and Jade. They’re both such strong girls.
‘Jade is like a mini mum to Amba and I know she’ll do whatever she can to help her little sister get through this.
‘I know that by supporting each other and with Gizmo’s love, we can get through anything.’
A spokesperson for BEAT – the UK’s leading eating disorder charity – confirmed that there can be a genetic predisposition to these kinds of illnesses.
She said: ‘People can be at risk when they are exposed to a number of factors, including a genetic predisposition to developing the illness, and environmental factors that act as triggers, such as peer pressure, stress or trauma.’
‘Anyone, regardless of their age, sex or cultural background, can develop an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.’
You can find out more at: www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
Jade and Amba have shared their story as part of the Coventry and Warwickshire Year of Wellbeing. To find out more about Jade and Amba’s story visit: www.bettercarecovwarks.org.uk/year-of-wellbeing-2019