One-to-one sessions are more challenging than group work. It’s less easy to hide. No-one else is there to fill the awkward, expectant silences (so typical of police interrogations). The therapist and I are supposed to be collaborating towards a mutually desired goal, and I’m expected to tell the truth about myself, so we have something to work on, but complete honesty has always been out of the question for me. (I’ve only realised this recently.) Revelation would kill me, for some reason, so therapy is a threat; eating disorder specialists and dieticians are Gimlet-eyed detectives. Their sessions feel interrogative; you are confronted.
Meeting Phillip is far less confrontational because we don’t deal directly with anorexia, but I still feel pressure to come up with the goods. Before I enter the room, I always realise, with horror, that I’m empty. That I’ve nothing to say. All I’ll be able to do is shrug, with dumb helplessness and Phillip will throw me out in a fury because I’m a useless charlatan, who can’t even do self-destruction properly. Abi or Phillip, I approach every consultation with the same anxiety I’d have going into an exam I hadn’t prepared for.
Meeting Abi, especially, I’m eager to be a good patient (or appear to be). I want to fulfil the role required of me, so it’s very important to give the right answers. In workshops, this involves making generally affirmative noises, but 1:1 sessions demand definitive statements. I try to second guess what Abi wants me to say. I want to be a helpful, kind person; I want to make them happy, so if I’m asked, “have you eaten all your snacks?” I know the gratifying answer is, “Why, Yes, Of Course! Every Single One. Yum Yum!” It’s not intended to be a lie; I just automatically give an approximate version of what they want to hear. Whether it’s true or not barely occurs to me. Language is call and response, not truth telling (as I’m always saying). And I will have eaten some sort of snack, so it isn’t entirely untrue…
I still remember the first time I was caught out lying to Abi. It was one of our earliest sessions. (I’ve been seeing Abi off and on for years, now. We’re growing old together.) I’d brought Jo along for moral support, which turned out to be an error. Abi asked me some direct question, like if I was still exercising, or something. Trying to placate her and make the conversation go to everybody’s liking, I said something like, “No, not really. I take the odd brisk walk, I suppose…” And then Jo said, “But you’ve been for a run every day this week. You told me. I saw you come back in your running gear…” (I hadn’t told Jo that exercise had been totally banned.) I was absolutely mortified. Spot lit. I felt like a criminal. What could I say in my defence? I felt so nonplussed as to be almost disorientated. I was having to admit to, and confront, a version of events that I’d avoided acknowledging either to myself or other people. In typical anorexic fashion, it hadn’t occurred to me that Jo could call my bluff, because I hadn’t even attempted to reconcile the two alternative realities that I entertained, simultaneously, in my mind.
The world seemed to warp and shift: I wasn’t who I claimed and assumed myself to be. I was a liar. Who, then, was I?
Nowadays, of course, caught out like this, I’d just shrug, ruefully, and shake my head, muttering, “bloody anorexics, eh?” Diagnosis provides you with an identity and an excuse. (Do convicts feel like this?) It’s difficult to give that up.
But I wouldn’t make eye contact.