This blog only deals with one aspect of my existence. Behind the tedious madness is a whole world of work, family and their friends that only appears as a shadowy, sketched-in backdrop. There’s a photograph of my village in the 19th century which is eerily empty apart from one hansom cab and horse. Apparently, the square was full of people but the photographic plates developed so slowly that their movements have blurred them out of existence. They’re like the servants in Jane Austen novels: there but invisible. (“These our actors/, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and/ are melted into air, into thin air”.)
I know I can sound monstrously solipsistic. One of the trademarks of Anorexia is a duality of mind, thoughts so deeply fissured as to represent a crisis of ambivalence. We are fully aware of our selfishness, our cruelty and our treachery. We exist in a welter of self-blame that further lowers our sense of self-esteem. We agree with all the criticisms you make of us. But we armour ourselves with a hunger so urgent that we can’t be dealing with that right now. We store up the self-blame and the sense of injury and abandonment for when we’re better because we all think our condition is temporary: surely you can’t stay thin for long in the modern junk food world.
All this gives us a skin as thick as rhino hide and a stubbornness to match. Those of you who live with us probably recognise the set jaw, the hunched shoulders and the general air of miserable endurance that makes a truculent anorexic look like a Tommie digging in on the Western Front. You’ve become an utter shit, and you know it.
In my defence, though, the blog is supposed to help me articulate my thoughts on a specific problem and thus help me process and solve it. Part of this process is an act of communication, but, dear reader, if you dislike my approach, please do turn to something more to your liking.
I guess I’m describing anorexics’ isolation even in the bosoms of their own families, and this characterised the rest of my summer. I spent my time trying to creep unobtrusively into family gatherings, cringing with self-consciousness. Anorexia makes you anti-social because it makes you so socially inept. You flail and flounder around, knocking into things and damaging them, hurting people close to you – a bull in a china shop.
The problem is they care too much. The air seems to become charged as people notice you’re there. There seems too much meaning behind each greeting. Rather than simply accepting your presence, everyone knows; everyone tactfully doesn’t mention it. Everybody, sincerely and genuinely, wants to know how you are, sometimes even squeezing your hand compassionately.
And they notice. They noticed me cautiously trying to scrape the least béchamel-y, cheesy pasta-y bits of mince and tomato out of the huge slab of lasagne that somebody’s slapped on my plate. Before every meal I had to create a whole battle plan in my head to ensure I could end up cooking and helping to serve so I could eat standing up by the cooker and not be overlooked. (“No, no, I’m fine. No, no, I’ve got enough…”). It was exhausting.
We went to a Yorkshire temperance inn for dinner with my family. It was good, hearty Yorkshire fare: black pudding, rack of lamb, steak and chips. Scanning the menu, I hissed to Jo “I can’t eat, any of this…” Around us the conversation seemed to drain away as everyone pretended not to be listening. I wanted to leap up and shout “oh for Christ’s sake! Leave me alone! I’m trying. I don’t even want to be here!
I clung rigidly to my food plans and felt alarmed if they got altered. Emotionally, the consequences of this seem catastrophic. You can’t express yourself properly but it seems desperately important that you do before somebody forces you to eat something terribly fatty and this would be awful, for some reason I’m not sure of, so your voice goes all shrill and you start gabbling.
Then everyone over-reacts, attributing anything you say to your illness, so any conversation can go rapidly down-hill as you flounder around trying to extricate yourself. Stuff keeps coming out wrong and You don’t want to spoil everyone’s holiday but everyone is hurt and worried and forgiving and everyone knows it’s your fault, but they’re not blaming you and you wish they’d just leave you alone.
A typical scenario might go like this: we’re going for a picnic: sandwiches, sausage rolls, cake, “one small apple for the vitamins”…I want to nip to the shop to get a little sushi tray, which I know is exactly 274 calories, a pleasing and recklessly low amount for a lunch. Jo says “Well, why don’t you just have that last bagel and the bit of smoked salmon in the fridge? That’s probably the same as your sushi. It’ll save you money, and it’s not fair that we should all have to wait while you go to the shop”, but I look at the bagel packet and one bagel is 230 calories and god knows how much the salmon is but now I feel I can’t really go to the shop and I’m upset, because anorexics look forward so much to the food they allow themselves, and sort of confused, but then Jo says “but go if you really want to” and now I don’t know what to do and it all seems too important and I’m hissing at Jo as quietly as I can “You’re just making it more difficult for me” and my sister and Mother come to Jo’s aid crying “Oh Xander!…” the diminutive they used when I was a child.
Poor Jo has to manage and handle me. I feel like an old, mangy, bad-tempered bear with worn down teeth that Jo has rescued from the circus and is trying to house-train. Everyone is nervous that I’m going to take a crap on the sofa, then suddenly lunge at somebody…
I was asked to cook dinner by my in-laws. There weren’t enough large bowls for my fish stew, so I cunningly provided myself with a small bowl, hoping to get away with a much smaller portion than everyone else. My father-in-law, with thoughtless self-sacrifice, made straight for MY bowl and started filling it. So I said “Oi, that’s my bowl!” I was trying to make a joke out of it, but my alarm and irritation, mixed with their expectations, must have made it come out badly, because there was an almost audible gasp. My poor father-in-law leapt to his feet and everyone else started examining their spoons minutely. Jo started to shush me! I realised I was making a spectacle of myself, standing there, waving my ladle, so I hazarded a grim, baleful half-laugh that fooled no-one.
At least I only have to deal with this in the summer. It must be awful to be an anorexic teenager, living with concerned, martyred brothers, sisters and fathers, perhaps with a mother who has taken on the thankless task of forcing her child to keep to their meal plan because together we’re going to beat this thing. The pressure must be awful. You must want to scream “Oh, just FUCK OFF”. Actually, I think they probably do, all the time, which proves how horrible the anorexic child has become and how virtuously long-suffering their family are.
By the way, yes, I am fully aware just how banal and trivial these situations are. That’s their great advantage. You can fully absorb yourself in histrionic little dramas and thus avoid confronting the truly ominous. And we call your bluff, really, by being willing to actually starve ourselves to death over such farcical nonsense. Anyway, it passes the time. A boy should have a hobby.