Sufflimandus Est

Jane, the other therapist at Ascot House along with Jamie, points out that anorexic behaviours are exaggerated forms of normal behaviours. Everybody worries about how they appear to others. Everyone prepares a face to meet the faces that they meet.

Jo attended a couple of workshops for the carers of anorexics. She felt the other two attendees, a mother and a husband of two patients there, were very keen to say how successful their family and home life was, how stable, happy and supportive, how open and honest everybody was about their feelings. Jo didn’t believe a word of it. She was blisteringly honest about the strain my illness puts on the family, how betrayed and alienated she feels, and how guilty for not supporting me better, but also for not adequately protecting the children from me, or at least from the anorexia, how she worries that she ought to leave me for the sake of the children, as some of her friends have advised her. (The treacherous rats!)

Then, of course, she felt terrible. She worries that the other two really did have perfect lives and she’d exposed herself as a ruthless shit and her family as dysfunctional, and that everyone was looking at her with horror. So the same issues of guilt and inadequacy and self-consciousness and anxiety were played out, although perhaps in more rational and muted tones.

I think the carers’ workshops are more set up for mothers than for partners. Mothers seem capable of the most resilient endurance and unfailing support. (Don’t hate on me: the gendering is society’s not mine.) Every documentary on anorexia I’ve watched has the loveliest teenagers being absolutely foul to their long-suffering mothers. The intimacy of the relationship allows them to offload, confident that the mother will take it without abandoning them. Parents are probably biologically driven to be self-sacrificing in the defence of their children, even if the threat comes from the child themselves. Parents are also in a position of responsibility and authority (nominally, at least) over their children and can insist on certain rules being followed in their house.

That’s not the case with partners. You can’t really order them to eat. There is an unwritten contract between spouses, an understanding that each will act in a certain dependable way: be supportive and caring, perhaps. Either partner can breach this contract. It can be dissolved, in a way that is simply not open to mothers and their children. Your daughter or son remains your son or daughter even if they never speak to you again. You remain their parent. Jo left these workshops feeling guilty that she didn’t provide me with a level of support that would be wholly inappropriate and self-negating, and which she isn’t in a position to provide, given that her primary obligation is to the children.

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