Here’s an example of anorexic thinking:
I had a dreadful food day, yesterday. I made us Malaysian Curry, 279 calories a portion, if serving 6, but we’re only 4. I reduced the butternut squash, used 1 cal and reduced-fat coconut milk, but there was a huge amount of soupy sauce left over, probably more than a big bowlful. For some reason, I just ate it. I forgot there was coconut milk in it, and the problem with things like that is, just because they’re reduced fat doesn’t mean they aren’t still fatty or starchy or calorific, just less so than the original lump of lard it was derived from. I’ve felt dreadful ever since – very full and tormented by that feeling of gastric satisfaction. I worry (and simultaneously console myself with the idea) that I am feeling more active, more alert, and more sustained, physically and intellectually. I’m writing this quickly and with unusual ease. I am less interested in food and have just flicked through my new cookery book, Meera Sodhal’s Made in India, without the avidity and relish I would normally bring to it. I’ve just thrown out two pints of milk, simply because they were weeks old and on the turn (Profligate Madness!) Even my farts are more aromatic, more richly expressive.
I’m squirming with it, desperate to take exercise, go for a run, yet unable to explain or justify it or spare the time, yet also feeling this resistance as weakness and failure. Going for a run would feel liberating and courageous and reassuring, all at once.
Written down, this is clearly, to a rational observer, illogical and twisted. It is further evidence that I’m getting back into my old habits. I’ve been maintaining my yummy breakfast (2 toasted crumpets and honey with 2% Greek Yogurt and some fruit) but restricting my daytime food and snacks and increasing my exercise, in order to really luxuriate in the big payoff – my tea, which is large but low fat and highly restricted.
Since I stopped seeing the Eating Disorders people, my weight has been gently creeping downwards. It’s not noticeable, day by day, but it has gone down, measurably, over the months. A little. I’ve started doing 200 star jumps a day, since I heard a woman on Louis Theroux’s documentary say she did 2000 a day. What is it about anorexics and star jumps? (And see how we take each other’s warnings as suggestions). They noticeably elevate my heart-rate, which seems encouraging, to me. I’ve also started running every time I need to go somewhere. It makes it much quicker, and I gives me a satisfying and reassuring sense of expending energy. Strangely, it makes me feel energised, but I’ve recently noticed that my legs feel faintly quivery when I’ve been exercising or rushing at work, and I’m concerned that my heart will start to feel slightly fluttery again, or at least delicate, as I sometimes imagined it did when I really pushed it in the past. I like and fear this (hopefully fictional) sensation in equal measure.
This could all be illusory or psycho-somatic. The more you introspectively probe your physical sensations, the more they elude you. The point is, that instead of frightening me, feeling unwell seems comforting. I guess we’ve abused our systems so much that we’ve become alienated from our own physical senses. What feels like intolerable hunger to most people is simply a flicker of a familiar sensation to us. So these dangerous symptoms of failing health become the only way we can measure the success of our actions and be sure we have the control we so crave, and the excitement and relish of that most basic and important aspect of life: food.
The memory of other aspects of the condition are also returning to me. For example, I remember that my bladder muscles seemed to be weakened at my lowest point, so that I sometimes dribbled a little pee, in anticipation, just as I was fumbling with my flies. Perhaps this was some strange psychological, rather than muscular degeneration, because I really didn’t care about it, or the smell of pee that might accompany the removing of my boxers. I had more important things to occupy me. I think I wouldn’t have minded if I’d been staggering around constantly dripping down my legs like some mangy, incontinent ram.
I think there’s an element of rebellion in the anorexic mind-set. The duality of mind I’m always going on about means we’re perfectly aware that we look and act weird, that we’ve gone to Tesco’s in crotch-stained pyjama bottoms, hiking boots, 4 old jumpers and a tea cosy. In summer. (My mother made us an outsized tea-cozy, and I genuinely did wear it on my head for a while. It was wonderfully warm.) We know what you’ll think, but we just don’t care, presumably because, through malnourished mental exhaustion, we’ve lost the ability to feel things from your point of view. However, a little voice in our heads suggests that this dismissive, narrow-minded attitude is mischievously challenging social norms.
I suspect we extend this attitude to our constant talk about food. We are being intentionally boring. We tell ourselves that we are rebelling against the idea that more pompous concerns are more profound than our most elemental needs. We tell ourselves that we are suggesting re-evaluation.
A woman on Louis Theroux’s documentary about anorexia was talking about the “guilt” she’d feel if she ate too much. I think that isn’t the right word. I have started, again, to experience fleeting sensations of a sort of rootless distress, which I think is related to this “guilt” and is presumably just a side-effect of hunger and exhaustion. It seems to alienate me slightly from the normal world, as there was a thin, transparent film between me and it, like I’m a ball of anguish wrapped in cling film. Maybe this is because I know I can’t properly attribute the feeling to anything in that world.
And it’s a self-fuelling cycle. The same woman tells Louis Theroux, “when you’re starving it gets so bad you feel pain; it numbs everything.” Malnourishment causes or sustains anguish and a terrible sense of alarm, but the immediate, urgent, sensation of hunger numbs it.
I also seem to have gained an almost febrile creative energy on the way down between the increasing moments of exhaustion (I think this happened last time.). As long as I see any sort of relationship between the creativity and the other, more manic aspects of my behaviour, it’s difficult to give them up.
The pernicious thing about this condition is that it’s the individual action that’s difficult to give up. We’re all totally committed to the principle and the project of recovery, but when faced with a specific choice between, say, running or not running, we struggle, then, often, make the wrong choice. The torment of not burning calories, of allowing them to moulder away inside us, turning into staining, corrupting, fat is uncomfortable enough to mean that we often give in to the urge to exercise. Then that wrong choice becomes habitual, the new norm. This is, of course, compulsive behaviour, and may build up to a return to anorexia, but we reassure ourselves that it’s just one extra run, and so we aren’t abandoning the campaign, which would be an open betrayal of the trust everyone has invested in us.
On Louise Theroux’s documentary, a team of health-care professionals was looking at a patient’s weight-gain chart. Her weight was constantly flirting along the line of minimum acceptable increase, even though she was unaware of the existence of this chart. It was nowhere near the ideal line. So, you see, we are constantly “dancing on a volcano”. Dancing is fun, though, and I haven’t gone over yet. At least I know the volcano’s there, now…