What I did on my holliers

I’ve been away all summer, dragged reluctantly from Croatia(!) to Norfolk to Yorkshire to Norfolk again at the whim of relatives and friends, trailing along in their wakes, muttering darkly…

Croatia is a curious blend of Italy, Greece and the French Riviera, with a typically Balkan divisive and volatile history. It’s got Roman ruins; frescoes of Venetian winged lions; waterfront promenades with cafes; cicadas; barren, rocky coasts; warm, clear, salty Adriatic swimming; carb-heavy Mediterranean diet (grilled calamari. Yum!) It’s a fascinating place, but I don’t want to bore you with it. This isn’t a travel blog; it’s about my relationship with FOOD. So:

I found it difficult. Going on holiday necessitates abandoning the foods and food rituals that you know keep you at a “safe” weight. You lack control over the food you’ll be confronted by and forced to eat. You have to emerge from your bunker and embrace the experience and whatever it throws up, telling yourself that you’re doing it for the family (which they find gratifyingly annoying), telling yourself that you’ll just have to find a way of coping, which means exercising to compensate for any extra calories. Bring your running shoes.

Abi, the eating disorders specialist, thinks I need plans and routines to help me deal with this, and she advised me to think about what I was going to do when confronted by a greasy pizza. I never came up with an adequate response, but I went for a half hour run (or stagger) every morning, followed by a plunge into the sea. Very quickly anorexic exercise-inflation had increased this to a half hour swim.

The problem is that I’ve never been very good at calorie counting and I find scanning menus and plates of food and assessing their stodge factor very difficult. I love food and so I’ve always found it difficult not to finish my portion. I tend to err on the side of caution. I’d prefer to just have a tiny portion and finish it all up and lick the plate, yum scrum. I do leave food unfinished, but it feels like such a waste, and my anorexia has something to do with not wasting any food at all. It’s probably that control issue again. I’m the most ghastly food nag with Daniel and Maggie. I hate myself as I stand over them hissing “finish your damn spinach!” Luckily they argue back and Jo comes in on their side bearing down like a ship of the line, with all three decks of cannon run out and primed. The result is that I retreat wounded and sad, which is just as it should be, and they eat cake. Thank god I’ve got a compost heap at home to help justify the spoilage.

Anyway, back to Croatia. I was very cautious and suspicious at first, reluctantly leaving some of my potatoes and bread and living off tuna salad. By about day 4, however, I was beginning to feel pretty odd – I didn’t feel hungry at all, (was that the heat?) but I felt exhausted. As I’ve said before, I’ve become so alienated from my own corporeal urges that I don’t recognise hunger, anyway (What is that feeling? Thirst? A sore throat? Stomach ache? Constipation? Habit? An entirely imaginary, evaporating mist.)

Then I began to feel, in an odd way, that my sense of self was being dismantled. I couldn’t quite decide what it meant to be me. Perhaps I needed the guy-ropes of purpose, place and routine to secure me; perhaps the lazy freedom of holidays doesn’t suit me. Whatever the reason, I began to feel twitchy and distressed. Then I began to feel that I was no longer able to think straight – my thoughts didn’t quite link up, or I couldn’t comprehend the emotional meaning or impact of any situation or conversation. This, in turn, led to me entertaining some dreadful thoughts almost as a way of testing my emotional response. I know these thoughts: they are the beginnings of those infamous “intrusive thought” that we anorexics specialise in and come back to like a tongue probing a sore tooth.

I mentioned an edited version of all this to Jo and we decided that it was probably my under-fuelled brain shutting down again because my calorie intake didn’t match my calorie expenditure, like poor Hal slurring “Daisy, Daisy” as Dr Bowman removes his circuits.

My options were then either to reduce the exercise or up the calories. I opted to up the calories – the easier option for me, because I like eating. So I started finishing my portions, and having a yogurt ice-cream every day. (Yum!) This seemed to do the trick and the most distressing symptoms subsided, leaving me feeling only slightly lost and purposeless, which was a relief. When I got home and weighed myself, though, I’d actually gained a pound! I wasn’t happy about this at all, although I know I should be. It’s difficult to feel a sense of achievement and control when your successes involve surrendering to your basest appetites.

Imagine, then, the Croatian scene: Jo, Maggie and Daniel stride down a path through Mediterranean pines, beach towels tucked under their arms, skipping happily, to where the Adriatic sparkles in the sun. I trail along behind them, twitching, creeping through the dark, withered forest of my own blighted synapses…

And this is exactly why anorexics don’t need to go on holiday anymore. I can make an immensely complicated, hysterical, life-or-death melodrama out of a tuna salad. It’s a much, much cheaper way to find interest in your life. It’s like taking drugs! It’s just a pity it’s so deathly boring for everyone on the outside.

Appropriately, towards the end of the holiday, I lost the hearing in both my ears, completing my isolation from my gorgeous family. A build-up of wax, the practice nurse tells me, probably something to do with all the swimming: the ignominious humiliations of the human body.

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