Soon after Greta Thunberg started fifth grade in 2014, she was extremely depressed and would not eat, her mother reveals in the upcoming family memoir Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis.
In the book, which hits shelves in March, Malena Ernman details the family’s strife as the climate activist, then 11 years old, faced the possibility of in-patient hospitalizations for feedings via tubes and IVs, according to an excerpt published in The Guardian.
“She was slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and little by little, bit by bit, she seemed to stop functioning,” Ernman, 49, writes. “She stopped playing the piano. She stopped laughing. She stopped talking. And she stopped eating.”
Ernman, an opera singer, describes in moving and wrenching detail the frustration, fear and powerlessness she and her husband, Svante Thunberg, an actor, underwent as they attempted to help Greta overcome her refusal to eat.
When Greta, now 17, did eat, the amount was minuscule — and only consisted of bits of rice, avocado or gnocchi. Eating disorder specialists suggested her parents document all that she ingested; one lunch of 5 gnocchi took two hours and 10 minutes, according to the excerpt.
Ernman writes that she and her husband took to the internet for answers, researching things like anorexia, autism and eating disorders.
They ruled out anorexia, but kept the “door wide open,” as they’d heard it was a “very cunning disorder” that would “do anything to evade discovery,” according to the excerpt.
Ernman turned to friends and experts, including a school psychologist, who was the first to suggest that Greta was exhibiting signs of being on the autism spectrum.
“After two months of not eating Greta has lost almost 10 kg [22 pounds], which is a lot when you are rather small to begin with,” Ernman writes. “Her body temperature is low and her pulse and blood pressure clearly indicate signs of starvation. She no longer has the energy to take the stairs and her scores on the depression tests she takes are sky high.”
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By mid-November, Greta was faced with possible admission to the hospital, prompting her to try to begin eating again.
She started slowly but surely with calcium tablets and bananas, and after two months, according to Ernman, her weight began to not only stabilize, but slowly creep up.
Soon after, Svante accompanied Greta to school for an end-of-term ceremony, and saw classmates pointing and laughing at his daughter, according to the excerpt.
At home, Greta began to open up about it for the first time: “Stories about being pushed over in the playground, wrestled to the ground,” writes Ernman. “Svante and I inform the school, but the school isn’t sympathetic. They don’t believe her.”
Ernman also details that within that year, after her weight stabilized enough to get a neuropsychiatric investigation, Greta was diagnosed with “Asperger’s, high-functioning autism and OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
Around that time, her mom writes, Greta saw a movie at her school about the tremendous amount of garbage in the oceans, and became so overwhelmed with emotion afterwards that she began crying.
“She saw what the rest of us did not want to see,” writes Ernman. “She belonged to the tiny minority who could see our CO2 emissions with their naked eye.”
It was this realization that was the catalyst for Greta’s subsequent — and renowned — climate change activism, as well as the fuel she needed to live life to the fullest.
It started small, in August 2018, with a solo school-day strike in front of Sweden’s parliament to raise awareness of the need to curb CO2 to prevent the most catastrophic effects of an overheating planet.
Within weeks, the once non-talker was giving speeches before thousands, as well as interviews with TV crews from all over Europe.
“The phenomenon keeps growing,” Ernman writes. “Faster and faster by the hour.”
Greta had soon sparked a worldwide youth movement, one that would lead to millions of kids and teens worldwide holding their own school strikes for climate inaction. In 2019, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and has been nominated again for 2020.
“Right now, I have a lot of people listening to what I am saying,” Thunberg previously told PEOPLE, “so I am using that platform to try to achieve a change.”
If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or go to NationalEatingDisorders.org.