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Extremes

All the Different Ways My Mum Tried to Poison Me

I grew up with an illness the doctors couldn't diagnose. It took years for me to realise the problem was my mother.
April 14, 2021, 5:05am

You might have heard the term “Munchausen by Proxy.” The more modern term is “Fabricated Illness by Carers” but both describe a form of abuse in which a carer, usually a mother, deliberately makes their child sick in order to gain praise and attention for caring for their sick son or daughter. 

There were a few years in which this phenomenon became the darling form of twisted abuse for Hollywood screenwriters—you might remember there was a reference in The Sixth Sense—but it’s very rare for perpetrators or survivors to talk about their experience. This is what makes Julie Gregory’s account so unique.

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Julie Gregory was born in 1969 and grew up in rural Ohio. She’s not really sure when her mother’s abuse first started, as it just seemed to have been ramping up throughout her whole life. It wasn’t until adulthood that she realised her abuse had a name.

We spoke to Julie about what she recalls from her childhood. From being fed a diet of random pharmaceuticals and matchstick heads, to her realisation at the age of 14 that her illness was being induced by her mother. Here Julie provides a small extract from that interview, which appears on our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. You can listen to the full story here.

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Julie with her brother Danny

One of my earliest memories was actually a nice one. I was sitting on my mum's lap while my dad was driving the car. She was brushing my hair, very lovingly. I had this long blonde hair and I was rummaging through her handbag and she asked me “are you looking for suckers?”

I told her I was and she said “here, let me get them for you.”

She pulled out the pack of suckers and I took one out. I put it on my tongue and there was this immediate familiar metallic zap from my taste buds, and I sucked on the sucker. I didn’t realise until much later, years and years later, that “suckers” were actually matches that my mum had been giving me as candy. She always wanted me to have them and it was just normal for me to be praised for finishing a pack of suckers.

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I didn't dislike my mum. I loved her very much, but as a child you have this almost innate sense of wanting to be loved by a parent, and you just do anything you can to try get those little crumbs of love whenever you can get them.

I didn't have any friends growing up. We didn't really have any surrounding family or neighbours. It was just this wild and woolly lush part of the country and I walked around barefoot with my animals. My family consisted of my mum, my dad, and my little brother Danny, who was about seven years younger than I was, and we lived on a dead-end dirt road in a double-wide trailer.

My mum and I were really enmeshed; I really didn't have a lot of independence from her, and from a really early age she would take me to doctors and tell them I had something wrong with me. Mum would get one medication from one doctor and then another medication from a different one. What I didn't understand was that she was actually researching what medications to not combine, and then she was seeking out doctors to get those medications for me. And that’s how she was making me sick early on.


You’re reading an extract from the full story. To hear the full version in Julie’s own voice, just click the play button below:


My mum always wanted to present well. We lived in such an isolated place that she rarely had an opportunity to put on makeup or do her hair, but these doctor outings meant she could put on a fancy outfit. So she would get dressed up and be really nice and very effervescent, and looking back, I think she was trying to get a positive response from the doctor. The doctors made her feel like she was a good mum, and she sort of needed me, the child, to shoehorn her into that environment so she could get some attention.

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The other way she kept me sick was by withholding food from me. I used to go to school without breakfast and mum wouldn’t fill out the forms so I couldn’t get lunch at school. I would come home so hungry and I just wouldn't get to eat. She would say “well you can’t have this you can have that—you're allergic to it.” This made me really really thin and tired, which put me in a position in which I was dependent on her.

As I got older I tried to talk about these things to some of the school counsellors but they didn't really believe me. It wasn't a time in our society when kids were taken seriously for this kind of stuff.

By the time I was about 10, she started to do something similar with my little brother. She started saying he had asthma and breathing problems and she wanted to get treatment for him. And my dad was this lazy guy who just wanted to be left alone—but I remember him suddenly grabbing her wrist and cracking it onto the countertop. He got really upset and told her “no, you will not be doing this to my son. My son is fine.”

I think my dad had already lost control with me and considered me too far gone. The fact that I was also a girl probably played a factor. I grew up at a time when girls really were not as important as boys were. He just didn't ever carry the torch for me the way he did for his only son. So I was the guinea pig that she got to take out on the most.

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Julie as a child

I was about 12 when my mum took me to a new doctor. I was sitting in a chair and the doctor asked me to stand-up. I hadn't been eating at all and as I stood my heart raced and I felt faint. But the doctor said that I could have a heart problem and should probably go and get a test. My mum really zeroed in on that. From that day forward she started telling people I had a heart condition.

After another few years and multiple ECGs [heart function tests], my mum began pursuing what she thought would be necessary open-heart surgery. I think it was age 14 where she got me checked into a hospital, which was actually a wonderful time in my life. There I got three meals a day and extra fruit cups and lots of jello. The nurses were really nice and my mum wasn't around to hit me or pull my hair. It was actually quite pleasant. And then everything changed.

At the very end of my week a nurse walked in and said she had to shave me. I said I'd already been shaved on my chest. She said “no, I need to shave your private areas.” Even to this day I can't say exactly what happened, but I just sprung to the back of that bed. I pulled the covers up and I just blurted out: “No! My mum's making this up. I’m not sick!” 

The nurse looked at me and I looked at her and we were just frozen there. Finally she said “I’ll be right back” and left the room.

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I was just reeling. I didn't even know if what I’d said was true. I didn't even know that I believed it, but I knew that I felt better in the hospital and I’d never had this kind of feeling before.

Finally, the nurse came back in and she was pretty mad; she had a very hard clip to her walk. She wasn't going to be taking this from some kid. Then there were a whole bunch of adults around me. They drugged me and that was it. 

Coming home I was just inconsolable; I just really couldn't talk. I didn't eat and didn’t engage with anything. I remember going back to the hospital with my mum where we met with my cardiologist for the results of the procedure. He said “guess what? I've got news: your daughter's fine. She doesn't need any further exploratory surgery.”

My mum was furious. She said, “John I thought we were in this together, I thought you were going to do this open heart surgery.”

He looked at her and I could see in his face that he thought there was something wrong with her. He got really stern and he said “she doesn't need anything more. She doesn't need open heart surgery” and he just turned and walked away.

I think there was a loss of innocence from me. I had unearthed the truth but I had to cover it back up again because I was still having to survive a very dangerous, very violent family. It wasn't really a good home, and finally I went into something called a group home. That was the first summer free from my family.

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Julie with her daughter today

It wasn’t until years later that I realised there was a term for my mum’s behaviour. I was taking a psychology class and the professor was talking about this little-known type of abuse called Munchausen by Proxy. He said it was where the perpetrator, usually the mum, fabricated or induced an illness or injury in order to make their child sick, so they could pursue medical appointments and invasive procedures. I remember him saying that sometimes these children die because it gets taken too far.

In that moment everything came together. I just started breathing really fast and my hands got really sweaty and I felt white hot all over. I ran out of the classroom and went into this brick stairwell and just started hitting my head against the brick wall.

All the pain, all the IVs, and the medications—everything was for nothing. And all these doctors, people who thought they were smart, they were just freaking clueless. They were just led around by this psychopath lady and nobody ever got involved to help me.

This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes. You can listen to the full story here, free, only on Spotify.