To save energy, starving brains shut down their emotional depth perception. Bald facts remain bald facts. Normal, healthy people understand a situation with a sudden imaginative pang, an empathy. It’s as if we see things in two dimensions, while, for them, a third dimension, a depth, springs outwards like a camera lens clicking into focus.
For us, all ideas, feelings, all assertions, are therefore subject to a doubtful and suspicious scrutiny. Especially our own. There’s something undefinable that we know we’re missing, that we don’t quite get, and we have profoundly shaken our confidence in ourselves. Our thoughts flicker backwards and forwards over the surface of things. We return and return to the same troubling points, thinking, “Why did I say that?”, “What did she mean by that?” The most innocent of passing comments are instantly converted into threats. “You’re looking well” inevitably provokes gasps of shock and outrage: “What does THAT mean? Am I looking fat?” Do you remember, a poor care assistant once said to Dylan, to his horror, “You’re looking well. Your face has really filled out”?
During my weekly review meeting, Mark, the consultant psychologist, said he thought I was an asset to the hospital, and, in a workshop, Eve, one of the therapists, said I put things very well! These are compliments, even to an anorexic, but praise makes me uneasy and unhappy. It threatens to dismantle my negative self-image and leave me with no identity at all. But it did make me feel useful, so soon I was thinking, “I must be an asset! I must put things well! Only then can I be worth anything.”
In workshops, we are all overly self-aware and self-doubting. People are always apologising for joining in, comparing themselves unfavourably to each, sitting in miserable silence. That’s when they’re not dozing off from sheer exhaustion.
We’re kind of feral: hyper-alert, yet dismissively insensitive, skitteringly nervous, bloody rude. Nicola, the occupational therapist, in an attempt to re-socialise us, started a debating group. The idea is that by reintroducing us, in a structured way, to the concept of sociable discussion and the courteous presentation of opposing views, we would learn to talk to each other again (sensibly).
We discuss how governments should use tax revenue, or something. I get my usual contribution anxiety. I feel an urgent need to help make it work. If I want to get better (I think I do. Sort of), I need to throw myself into all curative or palliative activities. I also want attention, to bellow my opinions, to be heard and recognised. I talk a lot. I am over-contributing, and being domineering, forcing my boring voice and opinions on others. I feel breathless with anxiety and excitement. I try to ration my contributions, but seem to lack the self-control. I monitor myself, trying to exercise a judicious restraint, supervising and assessing my involvement, limiting myself to a few brief comments and to prompting questions, when the conversation flags. I congratulate myself. I feel successful and relieved. Then, suddenly, I’m gabbling about nothing, again, running away with myself, trying to swerve my (now unwieldy) anecdote back on track, feeling I have imposed and exposed myself, feeling self-conscious, that I’ve failed, blushing with an oily and unpleasant shame. It is all so complicated and exhausting.
Dylan, meanwhile, stays resentfully silent, staring fixedly at the table, stonily unmoveable apart from one frantically jiggling leg, and I know he’s wallowing in a self-pitying sense of inadequacy. Sure enough, afterwards, he says “I’m not interested in that sort of shit”. His defiance masks a baleful self-blame.
This is what we all always do. We’re far too focussed on ourselves.