Anne Ton­ner

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - MEMOIR - WORDS PENNY McLEOD

There was a time, 10 years ago, when Anne Ton­ner’s young son would reg­u­larly close all the doors and win­dows of the fam­ily’s sub­ur­ban Syd­ney home so no one would hear the fight­ing. The fam­ily was in vir­tual lock­down as Ton­ner’s teenage daugh­ter Chloe was sav­aged by anorexia ner­vosa – at times a fa­tal ill­ness, which Ton­ner says made her child “at worst, a vi­o­lent and abu­sive mon­ster” dur­ing meal­times.

Ton­ner’s award-win­ning mem­oir Cold Vein de­scribes her fam­ily’s painful ex­pe­ri­ence with anorexia. It is so sear­ingly hon­est and in­ti­mate, her tone at times so self-mock­ing and self­ac­cusatory, it feels al­most un­com­fort­able af­ter reading it to meet in per­son.

The Ton­ner of Cold Vein is at break­ing point: she screams at her sick daugh­ter to eat, threat­ens her, slams plates into the dish­washer and cries with frus­tra­tion and self-pity. Her re­la­tion­ship with hus­band Ray is se­verely tested, and she is scathing about her­self. Early in the book, when Chloe is first hos­pi­talised for anorexia as a 13-year-old, Ton­ner writes of her meet­ing with the doc­tor: “I took the reins, all brief and ef­fi­cient in my navy pantsuit (I’m a lawyer, you know).”

Over cof­fee in Ho­bart, Ton­ner is softly spo­ken and re­served. There’s a hint of the cool and de­ter­mined hu­man rights lawyer de­scribed in the book but also warmth and poise. The mother of four is com­fort­able with her de­ci­sion to share her har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in Cold Vein, which won this year’s Finch Mem­oir Prize.

Chloe, now 26, fully re­cov­ered and work­ing as a lawyer, is happy their story is be­ing told to raise aware­ness about anorexia. Since the ill­ness, she’s trav­elled over­seas, com­pleted her de­gree and lived with friends. “I’m 110-per-cent re­cov­ered, not just in the sense of hav­ing a healthy BMI [body mass in­dex] and func­tion­ing,” she told her mother in a text mes­sage to be shared with oth­ers.

“I do not spare a single thought for calo­ries or com­pen­sat­ing through ex­er­cise. It is sim­ply not part of my life any­more.”

Ton­ner, who com­mutes each week be­tween her home on acreage in the Huon Val­ley and Syd­ney, where she works part­time, says her chil­dren prompted her to pub­lish her mem­oir.

“I started writ­ing it 10 years ago and it took me about four years to com­plete,” she says. “I couldn’t de­cide what to do with it. My chil­dren had dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions to it. Ryan, my el­dest son, said he found it hard to read be­cause it’s so vivid and it makes him feel like he’s back in those times.

“But I think it’s im­por­tant these things are writ­ten about. It was about pro­cess­ing the trauma of it. In my work with refugees, I’m un­der­stand­ing there are many ways to process trauma. For me, the writ­ing re­ally helped. I wouldn’t like the book to be seen as be­ing only about an eat­ing dis­or­der. It’s also about deal­ing with ad­ver­sity.”

The book is grip­ping and pow­er­ful on many lev­els. Like the new Net­flix film To the Bone, which fol­lows a 20-year-old woman’s treat­ment for anorexia, Cold Vein un­packs ev­ery as­pect of the dis­ease – from its ini­tial mis­di­ag­no­sis as lethargy caused by a virus, to near death, hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion and treat­ment for it at age 13 in Syd­ney and again at 16 at a clinic in Stock­holm, Swe­den, to Chloe’s even­tual re­cov­ery.

We learn of treat­ment op­tions avail­able to the fam­ily; the lack of knowl­edge about the dis­ease within the broader com­mu­nity; its dev­as­tat­ing phys­i­cal and men­tal ef­fects (or­gan fail­ure from mal­nour­ish­ment, anger, de­pres­sion, sui­ci­dal thoughts and sui­cide); and, as in the meth­ods anorexia suf­fer­ers use to lose weight. Crit­ics of the film have said this level of de­tail is po­ten­tially harm­ful be­cause of con­cerns about copy­cat be­hav­iour.

Cold Vein, how­ever, doesn’t glam­or­ise anorexia. The bru­tal, and at times dis­turb­ing por­tray­als of Chloe’s ill­ness, which the fam­ily nick­names Cold Vein, will likely serve as con­ver­sa­tion starters about eat­ing dis­or­ders, which af­fect an es­ti­mated 4 per cent of Aus­tralians. Re­search shows that one in five pa­tients with anorexia, who died pre­ma­turely, had died by sui­cide.

“As a teenager, I’d been through a pe­riod my­self of be­ing ob­sessed with weight loss and calo­ries and los­ing quite a lot of weight, so it may have been un­di­ag­nosed anorexia. But I was cer­tainly never as sick as Chloe was,” Ton­ner says.

“I saw the link be­tween us – notic­ing some of the things I used to do – and it made me very wor­ried be­cause I know what a dark place it is. I was never hos­pi­talised and I think I re­cov­ered rea­son­ably quickly, though I’m not sure why. I cer­tainly didn’t sink to the depths that she did.”

In Chloe’s case, the first sign of a prob­lem was a change in her eat­ing habits, Ton­ner says. “The eat­ing be­hav­iour is the thing that be­comes dis­or­dered. Chloe dras­ti­cally changed her eat­ing habits. She started eat­ing par­tic­u­lar foods, de­creas­ing the amount she ate, and she started eat­ing on her own in her bed­room. She also started ex­er­cis­ing a lot.

“Her be­hav­iour changed a lot and that process sparked other things: the brain and hor­monal changes, and be­fore very long she was very sick. It was self-im­posed star­va­tion.”

Chloe’s ob­ses­sion with ex­er­cis­ing as a way to stay thin hin­dered her re­cov­ery. “A big part of Chloe’s anorexia was this com­pul­sive ex­er­cise, so she would be in her room do­ing 1000 star jumps with­out us know­ing and that had a big im­pact on her. It kept her sick be­cause if you do that much ex­er­cise you can’t put on weight, you can’t re­cover,” Ton­ner says.

Des­per­ate to help their then-16-year-old daugh­ter re­cover, the Ton­ners de­cided to try a treat­ment ap­proach used by Mel­bourne’s Man­dome­ter Clinic, de­vel­oped at Karolin­ska Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal near Stock­holm, “where the med­i­cal ad­vice given in one hemi­sphere was flipped on its head”, Ton­ner writes.

For Ton­ner, this meant re­lo­cat­ing to Swe­den in­def­i­nitely while Chloe had treat­ment at an in­pa­tient clinic at Karolin­ska. “At Stock­holm, they ac­knowl­edged this ob­ses­sive ex­er­cise was part of the prob­lem,” Ton­ner says. “She was en­cour­aged to sit in a wheel­chair in or­der to con­serve en­ergy for about three months – it was re­ally tough … they also re­lied on the Man­dome­ter, which would weigh how much she was eat­ing and then give feed­back on how quickly she was eat­ing.

“The prob­lem for peo­ple with anorexia is they don’t eat enough and they eat too slowly. The Man­dome­ter was grad­u­ally train­ing them to in­crease both. So over the weeks and months, she would put more on the scale and eat more quickly. The feed­back was from a ma­chine that she couldn’t ar­gue with. So there were no more ar­gu­ments.”

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