Gemma Oaten: ‘Anorexia nearly destroyed our family’

But throughout the 13 years that this terrible disease wreaked havoc on actress Gemma Oaten, her mother Marg refused to give up on her. They reveal here what finally made Gemma seek help.

Gemma’s story

Actress and charity patron Gemma Oaten, 36, is single and lives in Southwest London.

Anorexia took so much away from me – my health, my self-esteem. It almost killed me several times. Yet despite the devastation it wreaked, mine and Mum’s bond survived.

Until I was nine, I was carefree, a tomboy who loved playing football. I know now, after years of therapy, that being bullied and the onset of puberty triggered my anorexia. My body was changing, I had my hair cut in a more girly style and at school I was doing well, both academically and in sport. Boys noticed me for the first time, and other girls began to bully me.

My young mind linked the changes that were happening to me with how my peers treated me; it made me want to return to my childhood self. So began my 13-year battle with an eating disorder. I couldn’t control the bullying, but I could control my body, taking it back to a time when I was happy. I’d throw away my school lunch and push my food around the plate at home. I’d suck in my tummy and feel my wrist to check whether they were getting thinner.

Gemma and mum Marg
‘I’ve come so far,’ says Gemma. ‘And I owe that to mum.’ Image: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Mum and Dad saw I was depressed and losing weight. They took me to the GP several times but it was a year before I was diagnosed with anorexia, by which point the disease had taken hold. Over the next two years, its grip on me tightened. Although I was ‘in the system’, I received little professional help and my weight plummeted. There were a lot of arguments at home. Mum was terrified and our fears and frustrations would boil over into rows.

Being placed in a children’s psychiatric unit when I was 12 was one of the most frightening days of my life. I’d been due to have a therapy appointment but the doctor took one look at me, put me in a wheelchair then took me to the unit where I spent the next six months. I was told I was 24 hours from death if I didn’t eat. That admission marked the beginning of eight years in and out of hospital, sometimes in units far from home for months. I’d gain weight on a refeeding programme, then be discharged. But the causes of my anorexia weren’t properly treated and I would return to a ward again.

I got my GCSEs despite studying for them in hospital. With Mum’s encouragement I held on to my love of drama, joining the National Youth Theatre and acting when I was well enough. Mum would make me clothes, because nothing in the shops fitted, and encourage me to see friends, but I was too depressed to contemplate a normal teenage life. I’d lock myself in my room, taking the sleeping pills I’d become hooked on in hospital to escape life for a few hours. Other times I’d drink to numb my pain, punishing my already weakened body. I swung between clinging to Mum and raging against her because I needed an emotional outlet. I put her through hell but she never gave up on me. I was 16 when my parents set up the charity SEED (Support and Empathy for People with Eating Disorders) in 2000, which I’m patron of. Back then I was furious – I didn’t want Mum to bring other people’s problems into our home. Now I see it was my anorexia that was angry. It knew the more Mum learned about the condition the more she could help me, and it didn’t like that.

When I was 18, I had a heart attack – the result of years of starving my body – and Mum rushed me to hospital. I can barely remember the car journey, only her talking to me trying to keep me with her. An ECG revealed I was in cardiac arrest and, although I survived, it was hard for both of us to come to terms with how bad things had become. A year later I suffered a bowel prolapse because my muscles were so weak and had to have surgery. I felt scared; my body was falling apart. The turning point came when I was 20 and one of my closest friends took his own life. When I saw the devastation this caused his family it opened my eyes to what I was doing to mine. I was killing myself slowly.

Gemma Oaten
Gemma as Sydney Somers in Holby City. Image: BBC

Over the next three years I had intensive therapy at home instead of hospital. I gained weight and control over the intrusive thoughts that had haunted me for years. When I was 24, I went to drama school to pursue my dream of becoming an actress, going on to star in Doctors, Emmerdale and Holby City. Anorexia is my past but it’s also always with me in my present, not only in terms of my mental health but also my work for SEED. It made me who I am today. It being part of my present doesn’t scare me because as long as I can control and manage it, it will never be my coping strategy again. When I lost some weight during lockdown through stress and worry while living alone in my flat, I took control, saw my GP and therapist and confided in Mum. My refusal to let my eating disorder creep back into my life is empowering. I’ve come so far, and I owe much of that to Mum.

Marg’s story

Retired teaching assistant Marg Oaten MBE, 68, lives in Hull with her husband Dennis.

To protect your child is the most primal maternal instinct. To be prevented from doing that, by an eating disorder that threatened to kill my daughter, struck at the heart of my identity as a mother. The day Gemma was first admitted to a psychiatric unit I sat in the car outside the hospital and sobbed. I felt I’d failed her. Right under my nose, anorexia had infiltrated her thoughts and body. Now she was in someone else’s care and I didn’t even know if she’d survive.

She once told me there were two voices in her head; one telling her to eat in order to live, the other telling her food would make her fat. As time went on I could see the latter voice becoming more powerful, overwhelming her thoughts and behaviour.

Our relationship is a unique one because, for many years, anorexia placed it in a state of limbo. While my three older children grew up – both physically and emotionally – and flew the nest, Gemma was trapped in time. Just as she wanted her body to remain childlike, she also remained very dependent on me; vulnerable and unsure. We’ve spent so much time together, and the closeness we have today is the light that emerged from the darkness of those years.

After Gemma was diagnosed, for a long time I felt like I was floundering. There was no support or guidance offered to me and Dennis. She’d go into appointments with doctors and therapists and the door would be closed in our faces. When she was in hospital our visits would be watched over and I felt as though we were under suspicion as the cause of her problems.

Gemma and mum Marg
The pair on holiday together in 1995.

All we wanted was to help, but we had no idea how. I made mistakes, like trying to sneak butter into her food. She’d be furious, I’d lose her trust and just make things worse.

Dennis and I set up SEED 20 years ago to help other families like us. It started with a helpline that we manned from our living room, then I began to attend workshops about how to help sufferers and their families, putting what I learned with Gemma into practice.

I didn’t know it on that awful day in 2002, but Gemma’s heart attack marked the beginning of her recovery. Driving her to hospital she was barely conscious and having chest pains, and not for the first time I thought anorexia was going to take her from me. It was a long road from there but gradually her mindset changed and she wanted to get better. I felt hopeful after more than a decade living on a knife-edge.

What Gemma has achieved as an actress makes me so proud because it was her dream and she clung to it, refusing to allow anorexia to take it from her. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry that she works in a world where bodies are scrutinised. I have to trust her when she tells me she’s resilient enough now to cope with that.

These days I relish the normality of our relationship. I can call her for a chat, or we can spend time together and it’s no longer dominated by anxiety and fear. I have my daughter back.

Gemma and Marg in four

Describe each other.

Gemma: Loyal. Lovable. Bubbly.

Marg: Beautiful. Caring. Loving.

Their worst habit?

Gemma: She gets distracted during a conversation.

Marg: She’s an overthinker.

When you’re together…

Gemma: She makes me feel whole.

Marg: We drink wine and laugh so much.

Your favourite memory of each other?

Gemma: Watching her receive her MBE from the Queen in 2010, for services to eating disorders.

Marg: Holding her in my arms after she was born.

To support SEED (seedeatingdisorders.org.uk) go to bit.ly/3ag5qr8.

As told to Eimear O’Hagan.