Determined 16-year-old Libby Devare is busy fundraising to pay for a month-long volunteering trip to help children affected by the Nepal earthquake.
Her face lights up as she talks of her excitement about the once-in-a-lifetime trip and her career plans in medicine. It’s a far cry from recent years, when keen musician Libby was ill with anorexia.
Libby, a pupil at Buntingford’s Freman College, explained: "I was 11 when it first came into my head and I started skipping lunch.”
Someone at school had first called her ‘fat’ when she was in Year 5, aged nine or 10. The name-calling and bullying continued and she started missing meals. “It wasn’t serious at first but we went on a family holiday to Cornwall, I ate as little as possible and then I ate lots and felt guilty. That was the first time I tried to be sick and it carried on all summer.”
As she focused on settling into Freman College, Libby was well, but a few weeks later, her anorexia started to take hold. “She was obsessed with healthy food and we’d spend hours shopping, looking at all the labels and had cupboards full of food she viewed as acceptable,” said mum Nicky, 50, a teaching assistant and part-time florist.
“She wouldn’t have breakfast at home, saying she liked taking it and eating on the way to school. And she’d take lots of snacks that I later learnt she would give away. We tried everything but she was just spiralling and getting worse.”
After confiding in a friend, who told his mum, Libby was quickly referred to Hertfordshire’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) – an NHS service and later to the specialist eating disorders team. Penny Smith, advanced eating disorder practitioner, visited and supported the whole family while helping Libby tackle her illness.
“We’d been living with this immense feeling of despair and Libby was very difficult to deal with – she’d hit me and push me, she wasn’t herself, I knew it was the anorexic voice controlling her,” said a tearful Nicky. “Penny coming was such a huge relief; as at last we felt we were in the safe hands of a qualified and experienced nurse whom we hoped could help us make this evil illness go away and get our daughter back.”
Nicky was off work caring for Libby, who went to school part-time while they worked very gradually to beat anorexia: “The horrible wizened witch that was controlling her.”
“It wasn’t overnight and there were setbacks when I struggled to eat different things, but after battling with my illness for over two years, I very gradually became less scared of food, and towards the end of my illness the fear sort of fizzled out,” said Libby. “And one day, when my friends were going to Nando’s and the pictures, rather than letting them eat and then meeting them at the cinema, I joined them at Nando’s and it was such a nice feeling. Learning saxophone gave me something to focus on and has opened doors for me, too.”
Now recovered, Libby wants to be an A&E medic. She enjoys playing in East Herts Concert Band and school groups. She is keen to raise awareness of mental health issues and breakdown stigma. “I am a really positive person and I like to support people and make them feel better. I’ve shared my story on social media not for sympathy but to raise awareness.”
Nicky and furniture maker husband Ralph, 52, recently spoke at a support group for parents of children and young people with eating disorders. Nicky said: “The only thing I wanted to hear when Libby was really ill was that it will be ok and I think we gave them that hope by talking about our journey. It’s great that Penny’s team is growing, with a larger number of qualified and dedicated staff to help even more families in desperate need.”
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder like Libby, please contact your GP - to search for a GP in your area or to find the contact details for your practice, please see the GP section on NHS Choices
You can also speak to Hertfordshire’s CAMHS mental health helpline on 0300 777 0707 from 8am-7pm or 01438 843322 from 5pm-8am.
Young people aged 10-25 in Hertfordshire can get free online counselling support at www.Kooth.com and the Samaritans helpline is 116 123. In an emergency, dial 999.
If you’re worried about a young relative, you can visit your GP or visit www.youngminds.org.uk for information.