I’ve just read an article in the Guardian about a 15-year-old anorexic girl who killed herself by stepping in front of a train. Because you know she’s anorexic, you think you can see it in the photograph: the pixie-small face, the panicked, manic grin, a pallor to the complexion, black leggings loose on the legs, a feral bewilderment behind the lethargy.
In the article, her parents are critical of the NHS, who have done pretty well by me. They feel their daughter wasn’t given support and treatment early enough and so the creature had time to really get its claws into her. This sounds a fair criticism: the longer you live with anorexia, the more entrenched and habitual it becomes, I think.
The poor, old, impecunious, overworked health-service seems to have done its best later on, but her parents are probably so sodden with responsibility that some of it leaks out as blame. It’s only fair to share out some of the weight of it.
But nobody should be blamed. Anorexia is sentient. It possesses us and fights hard to survive. It squirms in our heads. It is a cuckoo, a clumsy parasite that weakens us physically and impoverishes us intellectually. It hijacks and cannibalises our own thought processes, replacing our rational objectives with its own mad agendas.
It makes us lie and cheat. We want to please you; we suspect disdain and weighty disapproval. we know how much trouble and distress we are causing to everyone, so we dutifully add in the bowl of cereal, as we promised, even though it makes us feel wretched and anxious, but then, somehow, the yogurt in our lunchbox doesn’t get eaten; we go for a quick extra jog around the park after work, just to get the endorphins flowing, to restore our mood because the eating flusters us so.
And parents and the people who love (or loved) us (once) can’t watch us all the time. They can’t imprison us forever. Sooner or later they’ll have to go to work or bed; they’ll just have to trust us, and then we can betray them. And they can’t force us to eat, or properly supervise us because, the problem is, we do eat, sometimes, it feels like all the damn time. We just don’t eat enough.
And if you confront us, ask us if we’ve eaten or how much, we’ll tell you what you want to hear because we are ashamed. We’ll exaggerate the size of the bowl, the number of pieces of bread, reduce the length of the run. We’ll lie and lie. What hope do parents have against that? Parents, who have spent our whole lives knowing best, nagging us, being right and hurt, rescuing us, infantilising us, caring too much. Of course parents are the last to be told.