Remember I told you how I watched some shrivelled hag returning and returning to the chillers, replacing one small side dish with another again and again. I watched her with kinship and with horror. She’d clearly decided to eat, but her food choice had to be exactly right or the consequences would be awful.
Each indulgent mouthful seems to equate directly to grams of gained weight and “having too much”, whatever the tiny, arbitrary calorie limit you’d set yourself, would be so existentially dreadful that eating even less, or postponing eating, becomes the safer option. I used to call it “erring on the side of caution”
Doubt appears to be a universal characteristic of anorexia. Or a consequence of it. It’s probably a symptom of brain malfunction caused by starvation. We find it impossible to make decisions. Every trivial choice is charged with far too much significance, especially when it comes to eating.
We are in two minds about everything. We live in a state of such confusion that we can maintain two entirely separate and contradictory opinions and states of mind, simultaneously, often because the rational mind is at odds with the affective.
And the id tends to win – we usually find ourselves following the option that’s most at odds with our best interests, but we do so listlessly, half-heartedly, “erring on the side of caution”. We are surprisingly risk averse, it’s just that the risk we perceive isn’t the one everyone else sees. It’s the immediate challenge of eating not the long-term threat of dropping dead.
It may seem surprising that we would destroy ourselves with so little conviction, but conviction takes energy. Addictions don’t need to engender strong urges, just persistent ones. Sooner or later you’ll lapse.
So we haven’t fully committed to self-destruction. We exist, trembling, in the tension between two points of view. Our feeble brains lack the power to resolve them, so we reluctantly let both stay in our minds, like bickering squatters: we adore food and we hate and fear it. To force yourself to eat is both a victory and a terrible defeat. We are going to follow all the advice the therapists and nutritionists give us, just without doing any of the things they want us to do. Eating a full meal wasn’t that bad, but I’m about to have hysterics. Being anorexic is an utter bitch; we don’t want to get better.
I’ve used the image, before, of two grotesque and bloated lizards stuck in an urn, struggling for space.
In this tangled mess, Anorexia can be open and openly irrational. Sometimes gleefully so. If somebody said to me, “You look bloody awful” I would say “Bam!”, indicating my triumph with a downward flick of the wrist.
The nurses told me that last winter they’d been briefly snowed in, and when the patients were told that the food delivery couldn’t get through, they’d all cheered. These were all people trying desperately to get better, but starvation is our thing. If you were disappointed because you were looking forward to being forced to eat your yummy bangers and mash, you’d have to keep very quiet about that, or risk being exposed as an attention-seeking faker. Once one person cheered, you’d all have to cheer.
I think this is why we often get worse after being diagnosed. In the middle an absolute tempest of befuddlement, we have been given an explanation and an identity. Suddenly, it all makes sense. Anorexia gives us purpose and structure and importance. We know how we’re meant to behave and where we’re going with it. We do so with relish and a will. The more committed we are to fucking ourselves up, the more secure our identity becomes. This is what we do. Like Romeo and Juliet, we might be hapless idiots, but nobody can doubt our sincerity: We’re willing to die for it. We are fucked up. Love us for it.