The proper study of mankind is man

We had 1:1 therapy once a week. I had my session with Jamie on a Tuesday. These tended to deal with similar issues to the workshops. I guess this is unsurprising: the therapists usually ran with whatever was on our minds, which was often something thrown up by the workshops.

Tuesdays felt like hard work, and it was a relief not to be languishing around doing nothing, for once. After a couple of workshops and a therapy session I’d be exhausted, my mind a whirl of confused thoughtlessness. I’d spend the rest of the day staring dully at this laptop. Ok, that’s what I normal did, but at least, on Tuesdays, I could justify it. I’d often wake at 3am and be unable to get back to sleep.

I (sort of) looked forward to therapy. I knew I’d be listened to for an hour by somebody who was professionally obliged to take an interest. It must be a uniquely satisfying privilege to know that your abject whining is earning someone their salary or their sense of professional pride. It did nothing to assuage your sense of guilt at your cost to the NHS or your occupation of a bed that could be put to better use, but this was a constant, whether you were in therapy or not.

On the other hand, as the time approached for these 1:1 sessions, I’d scan my mind for any evidence of anxiety or anguish, or odd behaviours or beliefs, that I could use to prove my madness and demonstrate that I wasn’t a time-wasting fraud. I guess we probably all crept sheepishly in to our sessions, thinking, “I’ve no idea what to talk about. I’m fine, apart from my attention-seeking. I’ll be unmasked. I’ll be denounced.”

I felt I needed to produce the goods for Jamie, or he’d hurl me bodily from the door, followed by my bags, roaring, “As I always suspected! Get thee gone, thou Fraud! To think of all the time I wasted on this pretence! Hast thou not seen the waiting list for beds?” (A condemnation of King James biblical proportions.) I’d crawl off wringing my hands and whispering, “I know. I know. I’m sorry.”

I still have this worry when seeing my therapist, Phillip, now. I’ve even tried writing things down in a notebook that I could brandish in my defence, so I have something to say. I tell myself that it’s just a record to aid my memory, but what I really mean is, a prompt to aid my performance. This goes against the spirit of analysis. Phillip says I need to just turn up with a willingness to explore, and implies this very anxiety is symptomatic of a lack of a sense of self. What and how people think and feel, and how they enact this, is of interest, not what they remember to profess or how they’ve decided to act or to view themselves. You are who you are, here and now. It takes a long time, and a lot of therapy, just to realise that the mind is never idle. Even the deepest sleep is just another mode of processing. The very fact that you think your mind is empty, and there’s nothing to say, and that you are a charlatan, is worth discussing.

This all makes sense, consciously, but my hind-brain remains unconvinced

Yar Boo Sucks!

I’m fully aware, by the way, that an uncharitable reader could sneer at what they saw as my “bourgeois” concerns, my talk of dishwashers and in-laws, of Christmas dinners and council tax, the petty anxieties that beset people living an easy life. I bow to these criticisms; I remain defiant. I can do no more than describe the life I lead with honesty. What advantages do you have, gentle reader? Because I’m sure you have some, and you may squander them with just as much thoughtless ingratitude as I do. I didn’t ask for, nor pursue, such a life, just as I didn’t ask to become middle aged. This is where I’ve found myself, and at least I have the grace to handle it badly. Perhaps that’s one of the attractions of anorexia – it adds drama to a soft existence; it gives it an edge.

Kitchen Wars and Christmas Truces (or lack of them)

The kitchen was my domain and I’d defend it fiercely. The more ill I became, the more insistent I was (or “bullying”, as Jo put it). If anyone advanced on the kettle, I’d shoulder-barge them out of the way, shouting, “No, no, you sit down! I’ll make the tea!”

Christmas dinner was a battle-ground. It had been my party piece for years and I did it almost entirely alone. I’d closet myself in the kitchen, stressed and swearing, and chase away anyone who tried to help. Then, with a flourish, I’d produce the full works, including a home-made Christmas pudding! (forsooth!) to great acclaim.

This is the anorexic’s dream. You might not be able to contribute anything personally, you might be an obnoxious little shit who has refused to talk to anyone, but you’ve produced something tangible, a material contribution to a happy Christmas, for which you are praised and thanked. You’ve proved your worth. You’ve justified your inclusion.

Of course, you fear you might be forced to eat the lard-impregnated stodge you’ve prepared for everyone else, and it would taste corruptingly lovely. Luckily, though, in the ensuing food melee, nobody notices that you’re hardly eating. You’ve spent the day deeply involved with the food you crave, yet you can prove your strength by turning away from all that deliciousness, leaving the table to get the gravy, lurking in the background clearing up.

The problem is that Jo’s sister, Sylvia, also has her needs. Because she is single and childless, “family” remains for her what she grew up with: parents and siblings, rather than what we have gathered around us as adults – partners and offspring. Sylvia wants to nestle into the heart of Jo’s home: the kitchen. Distorted by relocation and added progeny, it’s still, to her, a temporal and spatial extension of her original family. In this conception, I’m the interloper: The house is Jo’s; she’s Jo’s sister, and sisters out-rank husbands.

Recently, when staying with us, she came down for breakfast and noticed that I hadn’t finished emptying the dish-washer. Without pausing, she charged at it and started putting things away. I said, “Hey, I was in the middle of doing that!” Sylvia and Jo laughed merrily at this: “Oh what a joke; what a jolly situation!”

I didn’t laugh; I wasn’t joking: it’s not her business. By doing this she is pushing me out of my role. She is making herself more at home than I am.

I think that’s why she treats my parents with such care. She is being proprietorial. She is dancing attendance on honoured visitors to her family’s home.

Sylvia wants very much to spend Christmas with this childhood family. Christmas is its nostalgic festival. Her dream is to make Christmas dinner together in happy companionship. With a glass of wine. How lovely. She makes repeated sallies towards the cooker, with this aim in mind: “What can I do to help? Can I make the bread sauce? I’ve laid the table; if I could just reach over you for the glasses…” She is determined to the point of complete insensitivity. It takes all my anorexic’s unabashed rudeness to beat her off. I’ve even had to resort to physically barring her path to the cooker, stepping right and left to stop her darting past me.

I was defending my hearth.

I was also defending my right to be here, which I have to earn by doing the very jobs she’s trying to take from me.

Poor Jo is stuck in the middle of all this, trying to find compromises. Perhaps she and her sister could make the red cabbage the day before? This will not do, in Sylvia’s eyes. IT IS NOT ENOUGH!!

And Jo has her needs, too. She is a compulsive carer to her family, running around after them and genuinely distressed if she can’t assuage their fears and solve their problems. It makes all this worse for her. (I don’t know where this comes from, but I suspect caring for her mother through recurrent bouts of cancer. And her father is a sensitive flower. I blame the parents!)

In the end, I lost the battle. I’m the one with the diagnosed mental illness that shouldn’t be pandered to, and perhaps sisters really do out-rank husbands. Last year we shared, but, apparently, I was grumpy about it, so this year I was locked out of the kitchen while the women, Jo, her sister, my mum, made Christmas dinner together. It made them very happy. See what an engine of negativity I am? Only by thwarting me can happiness be achieved.

I sat in the hall muttering, “I’m the bad guy?!” like Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down, and every now and then putting my head on the floor to call through the crack under the door, “Sure, ignore the needs of the person with the Psychological Disorder, why don’t you?!” and “This is deeply sexist, you know! You should be coming OUT of the kitchen!” and “Make sure you roughen the potatoes before they go in the oven.” and “Are you sure you know where the colander’s kept?”

By my standards, I was dealing with it well.

Normally I’d hate myself for acting like this. I’d be mortified and I’d be horrified by having my role and purpose taken from me, leaving me with nothing, making me a useless burden again. But this time I didn’t care so much. Sure, I was being a bit difficult, but that’s the price they’d have to pay for stealing my job. Is this a sign of recovery? Am I more comfortable with myself?

The only time I nearly lost my cool was having to endure my sister-in-law presiding over my table, standing at the head, carving the turkey, saying, “Alistair [my dad], breast or leg? roast potatoes?” and serving people like a decorous host with her guests. I’d have dumped everything on the table, saying, “There you go, you gannets! Help yourselves!”

Ok, “presiding over Jo’s table”.

Ah, well! At least now I get the memoirist’s revenge: objectifying living, breathing people, turning them into my creatures, my dancing puppets, attributing limiting, singular and overly coherent motives to them, reducing their vivid, intense and complex interiority into the hollow simplicity of my self-justifying theories.

(Incidentally, on Boxing Day, my Father-in-law and his wife, and my brother-in-law and his children, came over. I make that 12 people, with my parents. Two people hovered on the outskirts of the happy family scrum, two pariahs, darting in and out with offers to make tea, vying with each other to be the one who hands around stupid mine pies that nobody wants. They were…me and Sylvia. That’s the source of the conflict: We’re in direct competition for the same social niche, because, for different reasons, we both feel peripheral.)


Back in “Self-Esteem Class”, Jane was interrogating one of the other patients. Elizabeth has the lined and wizened face of a veteran, with twenty years’ experience of anorexia. She kept mentioning other people’s needs: her sister’s, the dog’s, rather than her own. Jane suggested that, as she recovers, Elizabeth may find her motivations change and she begins to do things more for herself and this was ok. Elizabeth gave a moue of distaste, and said, “It seems really selfish to do it for yourself”.

There’s probably an element of virtue-signalling in this. We’re terrible virtue-signallers. We need people to notice what we’re doing right to alleviate our shame, to plead for mitigation against our disgrace. But there’ll be truth in it too: we need to serve. Industry and effort cleanse us.

We need to make amends, of course, but also, if we lack intrinsic value, we need to be valuable for what we do. Without work we are simply a drain on resources; a moral deficit. Our continued existence degrades the experience of others. It takes from them, jostles them out of their rights and enjoyments but adds nothing, benefits no-one.

So my own defence against what I saw as my powerless, pointless, morally redundant life was to try to work for my place in the home, to intentionally subordinate myself to the wishes and needs of the rest of my family. I must always be active, doing useful work, adding value, a desire that became increasingly urgent as I grew more feeble and less able to be effective.

To this end, I took over as many household tasks as I could manage. As Jo was working so hard and paying for everything, I cooked, made tea, washed up, went shopping, ran errands, picked the children up. This was my job. Exclusively. No one could say I wasn’t pulling my weight, even as I became less and less able to engage with people. Parenting, husbandry, became an activity, not a state of being. Because, increasingly, I had no stable state of being. I was losing myself in a white-out of malfunctioning neurones.

Which was what I wanted.

More thoughts provoked by “Self-Esteem Class”

As a younger man, I was hostile to being paid for. I used to assume this was driven by a proud independence, that I was rejecting financial subordination, or, at least, resisting a natural laziness, passivity and dependence.

Was it, though, just a lack of self-worth? If anyone volunteered to buy the tickets or foot the bill, or get a round in, I felt something more akin to alarm than indignation. Perhaps I wanted people to think I was worth paying for, but I couldn’t see how I deserved it. What were they getting in return? I was certainly too cynical to believe the offer was driven by bonhomie or largesse. Unconsciously, they’d be expecting something from me. I’d be in their debt and forced to masquerade as somebody who deserved it. I’d be vulnerable to being unmasked, to being asked to live up to that expectation, and being incapable of it.

I’m probably admitting to a feeble capacity for love or affection, and assuming nobody else felt strongly, either. Sure, I used to offer to pay for others, or split the bill, or pay the extra, but everybody does that. Always being anxious about money, I did so out of a sense of duty and decorum, not affection.

Now I’m financially dependent on my wife. As the person with the much more important job and the much larger income, she pays for everything because I can’t afford to. She pays the bills; she pays the council tax; she came up with the deposit, arranged the mortgage, bought the house, repays the loan; she gives to charity; she bankrolls the children – their clothes, their after-school clubs, their holidays; she subsidises me.

Making money has never been important to me. (This isn’t virtue, it’s the privilege of never having experienced serious lack). I have no problem with Jo being more successful, and I’m not clamouring to pay all the bills. But being dependent makes me feel vulnerable, lacking control of the situation. I trust Jo not to throw me out on a whim, but my existence is still fundamentally conditional. I don’t own it. They aren’t my decisions. I’m so uncertain, I wouldn’t be able to make them if they were. My job is to wait and see what they want to do and then go along with it. It’s as if I’m in limbo, or at least between jobs, particularly as I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer, which appears to be beyond me.

Dylan and I respond to the suggestion that we get fish and chips

“Christ, No!… The grease! I’d be sick!… I don’t know… Ok, yes, let’s just do it! …No, wait, do we have to? Could we do it another day? Only it’s fish pie tonight and I like fish pie…Ok, you’re right, I hate fish pie, but I’d prepared myself for fish pie and I was kind of looking forward to being forced to eat all that deliciousness… What about the Fish and Chips? Are you still going on about that? I thought we’d finished with that! But it’s so greasy… It just seems a bit early for this step. I’m not ready: all that grease… What about Wednesday?… No, you’re right – no time like the present… What do you think, Dylan/ Xan?… Well, I will if you do… No, no, I will if YOU do… What are we talking about, again? Oh, yeah, Fish and Chips. But it’s so greasy!…”

All about Eve, by William Blake, Hans Buldung, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Durer, Joseph Mankiewicz, Henri Rousseau, et. al.

Eve, the therapy person, is around my age and, like me, is a mother. When not therapizing, she sings in a band, and runs our music therapy group with a band-mate, Steve. She has a powerful, versatile, alto singing voice, and that slightly bohemian look that musicians adopt when they work in education and have to tone it down, including hair of a flamboyant copper that reminds me of a Golden Lion Tamarin. (Eve doesn’t look like a Golden Lion Tamarin, it’s just that her hair reminds me of one.) Most importantly, Eve exhibits a relaxed, tolerant and warm-heartedly humorous attitude to us that is invaluable in an atmosphere like Ascot House, that is constantly teetering on the brink of mass hysteria.

She’s the one who was tasked with finding Dylan and I, when it became apparent that we were willing to give recovery a try, and saying, “So, Dylan, Xan, how would you feel about going out for fish and chips?” or “Do you guys fancy a curry, tonight?” then watching with an amused grin as we descended into a state of terrified indecision.