Susan, the dietician at Ascot House, occasionally gives talks about nutrition. Everybody loves them because they’re so informative and seem to clarify our perceptions, though I’m not sure what we’ll do with the knowledge. The latest was on the gut and what it does. Susan described all the icky, bodily stuff with great gusto. It was sweet to see somebody taking such pleasure in the visceral, biological aspects of life, and most anorexics seem too jaded and malnourished to be squeamish. This is ironic because the condition is so clearly an attempt to reject or transcend the ignominy of the physical. I guess we have insulated ourselves against that disgust.
Susan reminded us that digestive organs are tubes of muscle. If you reduce the body’s nourishment, this muscle begins to fail. Malnourishment also begins to hamper the gut’s ability to produce enzymes or to maintain a healthy biome for beneficial bacteria that break down food.
What we manage to eat is imperfectly digested. When Ascot House begins to feed us up, we experience these difficulties as bloating and gut pain and a sense of intolerable fullness, as our poor old system labours to process the truculent, lumpen matter. It feels as if we are poisoning ourselves, which compliments the thought that we’re soiling ourselves with grease, as fat layers creep back along our limbs, under our skin, like a subcutaneous tide.
Anorexics’ poo, in my experience, is remarkably inoffensive. It appears as dense, black, odourless, sheep droppings, apparently mined for every molecule of nutrition, very infrequently, and cleanly, produced. This is one of the advantages of the condition. The return to a “Healthy weight” is accompanied by the humiliating return of squashy, smearing and revoltingly odoriferous shite and dreadful, mortifying, stomach-churning farts that can’t be disavowed.
Susan’s comments confirmed what I’ve suspected for a while. I’ve had difficulty swallowing, at times. Another patient, here, can only eat soup or pureed food. This could be psychosomatic: the symbolism behind your throat refusing food is obvious. It could also be caused by weakening peristalsis as our bodies feed off their own digestive tracts. We cannibalise our own bodies.
I noticed this first in the slimness of my biceps. The muscles in my arms and legs had quietly vanished, leaving behind a sort of veiny relief map of bulging, sluggish-looking blood vessels: I’d also consumed the fat layers of my skin.
The next sign was an increased need to pee. I drink a lot of scalding tea and coffee. The sharpness of the heat serves as a substitute for eating, I think, and it also provides a sensation of temporary fullness. This may account for the extra trips to the bathroom, as might some disturbance in my electrolyte imbalances, or something.
However, I suspect the main reason was the weakening of my bladder muscles. I started having to nip into the bushes to pee during my run, and go to the loo, four or five times a night. Then I started to seep urine into my boxer shorts. This seemed to be partly psychological – I’d make it to the loo, but before I got my flies undone, I’d begin to pee. A couple of times I’ve pissed on my hands. I began to stink like a goat.
When it was warm and I was standing still, I’d get subtle, aromatic strains of pee. Standing in our local bookshop, talking to my friend’s beautiful girlfriend, I became aware that notes of pee were gently wafting up past my nose, please God, I hope, keeping close to my skin and so unnoticed by others.
A further ignominy comes from the wastage of my arse. As my hams disappeared, a cavernous hole opened between them, but I have also eaten my own sphincter, so on the infrequent occasions that my sluggish gut reached the point of defecation, I was afflicted by a need so sharp and urgent that it had to be attended to immediately or I felt I’d soil myself. I could feel my delicate sphincter shuddering with the effort to stay shut. On one occasion, I went for a run with my sister. Towards the end I was suddenly visited by an urgent need. If I’d been on my own, I might have tried to find a place in the bushes, and prayed that nobody walked past, but with my sister, I had to soldier on. (I’d spent the whole of her visit trying to convince her I was coping.) I barely made it to the loo, and as I locked the door and pulled down my trousers, I couldn’t hold on any longer. I dropped a (luckily) solid poo onto my pants and stood on it in the scramble to sit on the loo. I don’t want to dwell on this. I had to bin the socks and pants.
And then there’s sex. As I’ve said elsewhere, the whole framework of synapses governing, sexuality, eroticism and romance, is lifted, cleanly, out of your brain when you’re malnourished. No vestige of it remains at all. You don’t even miss it, viewing the urgent, fevered, frottage-drives of teenagers with perplexity and incomprehension. There appears to be a governing principle in the body that allows it to perform triage on less vital functions. In a time of famine, I guess reproducing would be a very bad idea because you wouldn’t be able feed either the gestating mother-to-be, or the newly born infant, so this function, and even the desire to exercise this function, is simply turned off. It’s very strange that the human body can make these decisions without the engagement of the conscious brain.
There is also a subconscious benefit to being asexual, of course. Sexuality complicates life horribly. It can lead to betrayal, humiliation, mortification and general misery. The calmness of a sexless universe – it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
I recently heard a programme about Viagra on Radio 4. Apparently, erections occur when the neuro transmitter nitrous oxide is released into the smooth muscle cells of the arteries, the corpus cavernosum, which causes the release of a substance called cyclic GMP. Have I simply consumed my own arterial muscle?