I’ve been mulling over Mark Austin’s documentary about anorexia, and his conclusion that, when he argued with his anorexic daughter that he wasn’t addressing his daughter he was “talking to this thing called anorexia”. I understand the attraction of this conception of anorexia: it absolves both your beloved, apparently psychotic daughter, and your intemperate self, of blame. The anorexic brain’s aims and intentions are so much at odds with the sufferer’s best interests, and are so blatant, that the condition seems to have an independent volition. It makes sense both to the sufferer and their families, to see people with anorexia as possessed, hollowed out and replaced by a malignant entity, like the demon in The Exorcist. (“Do you know what she tried to do, your cunting daughter?”) In the Radio 4 documentary I mentioned before, Maya’s father talks about “seeing her turn into this monster”.
This way of seeing the illness seems to occur to us all independently, but I’m beginning to be uncomfortable with it. For a start, it implies that the real person, who is undeniably present and involved in the conversation, is being ignored. Presumably all conscious lives are lived equally vividly and, as such, deserve to be acknowledged. The self is not constructed in isolation, but in communication with others. Part of who you are is socially and communally constructed – how you are perceived and reacted to by others, how you respond to these reactions, and so on. Robin told me that he believes the mind makes the best decisions available to it at the time. Robin’s point is, I think, that if you develop anorexia, there will be reasons for this, rooted in the soils of yourself and the alternative might have been worse – suicide? Complete loss of sanity? Which is not to deny that anorexia is horribly undesirable and that the starved brain cannot be reasoned with, as Abi would point out.
The transformation itself is interesting. I think we tend to make the error of seeing our identities as having an irreducible, unchangeable core, so that if someone’s character changes so fundamentally we think they can’t truly still be themselves.
I think the self is probably much more complex and troubling than this. I think the brain is a systemising organ. It is designed to draw all the different functions into a coherent and co-operative whole. Our different nervous systems interact and, as part of this web of neural activity is consciously governed, a single human identity, a person, is conceived of, as a sort of organising principle. After all, it is contained in, composed of, and sustained by, a single body.
As anorexia begins to starve your brain, various pathways cease to function. You may lose the ability to react to pain, or to feel immediate empathy with others; you may become inarticulate, and frustrated by that fact. Your systemising brain still draws the remaining threadbare strands together, however. It attempts to maintain a self out of what is left to it. So rather than being a completely alien parasite that inhabits your body, a demon, a cuckoo, a boggart, anorexia constructs itself out of you. It thinks with your thoughts. In a horrible way, it is you, grotesquely transformed. Everyone can recognise the parts; they are horribly familiar: a Frankenstein’s monster horrifyingly constructed out of pieces of the person you know so well. The insults parents hurl at the monster damage their vulnerable child.
Perhaps, also, the conscious governing systems are, themselves, weakened and thus fail to reconcile our totally contradictory thoughts and impulses. Whereas, previously, nonsensical and self-destructive ideas would be suppressed or abandoned or drowned out by the healthier or more vigorous or more urgent thoughts, now, in your weakened brain, all idiotic, damaging mental patterns, rooted in your dark, emotional subconscious, can grow up and explicitly compete with your more sensible thoughts and aims. So you can sincerely wish to get better and still be secretly, intentionally, throwing away your food to satisfy another, darker, baser urge. It’s as if the weeds of your subconscious, formerly shade-loving, have started appearing in the bright sunlight of the well-tended garden of your conscious mind, unashamedly and with aplomb, demanding to be treated equally, because you are no longer capable of weeding them out.