Victoria Coren-Mitchell (I think) once said that in her family it was considered the height of bad manners not to make a joke out of everything. Or maybe it was not to make light of everything. I feel similarly, although I’m not sure where this comes from. My parents, despite having good senses of humour, take life rather seriously.
Ms. Coren-Mitchell probably meant you shouldn’t burden others, but levity and irony can also shield you from the world. If you’re not serious about something, you don’t have to own it. You can instantly jettison your attitude and opinions if they become a liability, attracting disdain or disapproval. Or ridicule. Sincerity is horribly exposing.
But it’s also grounding. Too much levity leaves you rootless, unmoored, scudding across the landscape like an untethered party balloon in a gale. Levity discourages a sincere and focused engagement with your own experience of the world. It seems to foster a frantic and distracted sense of unreality.
For a long time, I approached my anorexia with a sense of its unrealness. I truly felt that I must be pretending, like an attention-seeking teenager, like I was clowning around, only more pernicious.
My condition seemed laughable. Because I could stop it whenever I wanted, right? I knew how to eat. In fact, I was too good at it! I loved food! Too much. I was always teetering on the brink of going on a massive binge. That was the problem. My thinness and restraint were only temporary. Modern society is besieged by processed comfort food; most people are overweight (probably). It was only a matter of time until my resolve weakened and I collapsed into a defeated obesity.
When I had to admit to it, I’d say, “I’ve been diagnosed with Anorexia”, blaming others for the diagnosis. I should have said, “Apparently, I’ve got “Anorexia”!”, making speech marks with my fingers, snorting with derision and rolling my eyes, “Jeez-Louise! What’ll they come up with next, eh?”
I was horrified by the idea of taking an honest look at myself, and objectively explaining my thoughts and behaviours. I approached therapy with an unshakable assumption that I was a charlatan, that to tell the truth, rather than second-guessing what people want to hear and then saying it, was to admit to the shallow, attention-seeking falsity of my condition because, beneath the surface, I was just needy and self-obsessed.
What correlates, in my head, are ideas of not taking things seriously, not deserving to be taken seriously, of pretension, surface and hollowness, falsity and emptiness, insubstantiality and rootlessness and disappearance…
Anorexia, rather than therapy, is a comfort because it provides a tangible and undeniable demonstration of unwellness. It gives me character and (ironically) substance and purpose, and, if I’m genuinely starving myself to death, no one can deny that I’m actually, truthfully, messed up. (Romeo and Juliet, again.)