Sisters Kate and Alex opened their show, 3 Years, 1 Week and a Lemon Drizzle, in 2016, and most recently performed at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
We have always been close. If we weren’t sisters, we would probably still have made friends if we’d met at school or at a party…or the supermarket. Probably. Yes, we’re almost 100% sure that we would be friends if we weren’t sisters. But sometimes it’s harder to speak truthfully to those closest to you than to a complete stranger. And so we didn’t speak about it at the time, about what it was like for Kate, or what it was like for her, going through this thing that we were both going through: Alex’s eating disorder.
When Kate realised there was a problem, she was sixteen, Alex was nineteen, quite old to be diagnosed, people said, although the signs had been there since childhood. Alex wasn’t living at home at the time and so we were seeing less and less of each other as it was. When, however, we did speak, we would ignore the elephant in the room and make jokes to break the tension. The first time we spoke about it seriously, just the two of us, was approximately two years ago, when Alex (finally) asked Kate what it was like for her during ‘that time’ – and then, naturally, we made a show about it.
Both actors and theatre makers, we managed to discover a familiar language through which we could share and open up to each other more than perhaps ever before. Our show touched on all the hundreds of questions for Alex that Kate had, but never felt she could ask; it looked at Alex’s need to apologise to her younger sister for ‘making her go through it too’ and, above all, it told the story of how our relationship drifted, disappeared, and eventually became what it is now, stronger than ever.
Throughout the process of making and performing our show, we have tried to remain hyper aware of how privileged we are to have a method of unlocking ways into these incredibly difficult conversations at our fingertips. We know so many people that never find the words to talk truthfully to their loved ones. We have also been sure to never forget how fortunate we are to have an opportunity to work together in the first place; ultimately our story, and Alex’s illness, could have had a very different outcome.
Realising we had lost a lot of time not speaking about it at the time was hard, and something we still haven’t really addressed. Maybe we’ll make another show about that one day! But we learnt a lot about ourselves – and each other – through speaking openly and honestly with each other throughout the process of making the show. It gave Alex a chance to reflect a little on the pain she had caused – although through no fault of her own – which wasn’t always easy, but it also showed both sisters how strong Kate had become. She got on with it because she had to.
Kate says when Alex was ill it often felt like what was going on at home wasn’t my problem to talk about; I wasn’t the one with the eating disorder and so it wasn’t up to me to tell anyone. We talk in the show about how, in hindsight, this probably didn’t do me much good; the concern I had for my sister and the huge distance that suddenly seemed to grow between us was making me unwell too and I know I’d have benefitted from support. One thing I found very difficult at the time was talking to people that were close to both myself and my sister; I wanted to talk to somebody impartial, so I could be honest, open, and a little bit selfish. It never crossed my mind that there would be a Support for Siblings of People with Eating Disorders club, however – that seemed a bit of a long shot! It wasn’t until after Alex was in recovery that I had any idea of just how many people suffer in the UK alone from eating disorders and therefore how many siblings of ED patients there must be too. There must be thousands of people, young and old, currently watching a loved one suffer and as such, are in need of support themselves.
We’re so grateful for our little show and for each other now more than ever, but above all, grateful for the conversations we’ve been able to start and the people we’ve been lucky enough to meet. If our story can encourage even one person to make time to look out for the needs of a sibling of a person in recovery, or even in the throes of their mental illness, then we have done what we set out to do.
That Beat are working so hard to raise awareness of the importance of support for siblings of ED patients this month is wonderful, vital work. More has to be done to help those who can often become ill themselves, simply through the trauma and pain of watching their sibling live with a mental illness.