Talk away, Mr. Theroux…

I like to compare myself with other anorexics, and the women in Louis Theroux’s documentary, Talking to Anorexia, have some pleasingly familiar symptoms, although, as in-patients, they are much thinner (and, consequently, madder.) There are the similar physical symptoms (cracked fingers, corrupted nails), and, more interestingly, similar behaviours. Like Rosie, I don’t like being watched while I’m eating; like Ipsana, I indulge in truly ludicrous levels of “every-little-helps” exercise. I run everywhere, always take the stairs, and do star jumps every day; she never even sits down, because standing burns off more calories.

I recognise the need to “Walk it off” when we’re unhappy with what we’ve eaten. I’m all too familiar with the fraught, frightened and unyielding arguing and negotiation, as backed into a corner by the pitiless logic of care workers, the threatened anorexic attempts to escape.

I am also deeply untrustworthy when I make promises about eating, just like these patients. We all need supervision and tend to lose weight when sent home and left to our own devices. “Once out of hospital”, says one patient, “give me long enough, and eventually things will start going backwards.”

And I recognise the exhausted brain’s resigned acceptance of an illogical and unreconciled double perspective. This allows Janet to say,when she puts on weight, “I’ve done well, haven’t I?…I’m not happy. I don’t know why I’ve put on LOADS, haven’t I?”

I feel it’s important to compare myself with these women, because they are so clearly unwell, and I need to reassure myself that I am genuinely ill, and not just childishly attention-seeking. This also seems to be the case with them. We often don’t take our own condition seriously.

Ipsana was the best example of this on the documentary. She tells Louis Theroux “I was at a much, much lower weight. My ECGA basically looked similar to someone who’d had a heart attack.” She sounds as if she’s boasting. “It sounds like you nearly died”, Louis Theroux murmurs, sympathetically. “Even now it feels like ‘oh you’re just being melodramatic’”, she responds, but you can tell she’s pleased. She’s reluctant to recognise her anorexia at all, even though she’s been in hospital for 9 months, and admits she wouldn’t be there if she hadn’t been sectioned. Louise Theroux says “I have the impression she’s not really sure she has the illness”.

Ipsana’s truculent defiance seems like an appeal for confirmation. She wants medical professionals to prove to her that she’s genuinely ill to justify the fuss she’s causing. I think this is characteristic of anorexics. On these documentaries, you keep hearing girls complaining that their poor, long-suffering mothers don’t praise them enough when they do well. Louis Theroux says he wants to tell Janet, a 63-year-old lifelong sufferer, just to EAT and this may be what she wants – to make him act like a parent towards her. Her therapist says “they do elicit lots of care from others.” I do this myself: I want Jo to tell me that it’s alright for me to have another piece of bread, even though that would mean she’d have to second guess my complicated motivations, including giving up responsibility for my food choices.

It is ironic, of course, that a condition fuelled by guilt should make us so difficult to be with. I guess that is part of its diabolical, self-propelling ingenuity. We are dependent on others, highly sensitive to what they think, and yet unable to respond to them. We’re horribly blunt with everyone and want to be alone, but then we feel guilty and lonely and worthless and misunderstood, so we medicate these feelings by attempting to replace them with extreme hunger.

Diagnosis provides us with an excuse for all this. Thank God! We’re actually ill! It’s not our fault! But, because the symptoms and causes of the condition are extreme versions of recognisable, ordinary human thoughts and emotions, because it is built out of pieces of us, it seems unconvincing, so we need to constantly demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are genuinely ill by getting worse, by being close to death, even.

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