The weirdo 5th column.

Anyway, Nicola was in charge of preparing us to re-enter the real world. It was like a boot camp. We were spies from an alien race being trained to fake rudimentary human behaviour, so we could go undetected in the field. We re-learned how to negotiate social situations. Later we would go out and practice them, supervised, at first, then independently, in walks to the shop, snacks out in cafés, even meals out (if we could afford them.)

In one of our assertiveness sessions, Nicola had drawn up a list of scenarios we might find difficult. I was surprised how accurately she’d pinpointed my behaviour. One, for example, was “starting and keeping a conversation going”. My way of dealing with socialising is to frantically hurl words at people, too panicked to listen to their responses, and then scarper, suddenly, but I thought that was just me. It turns out this is what we all do.

On another occasion, we had to role-play conversations that might lead to conflict. It was basically a conflict resolution workshop. We learned to state our case, listen to another person attentively, and hold our ground without rancour or distress, and we found it unexpectedly challenging.

For the first activity, we had to talk to a partner for two minutes and then they fed back on what they remembered of what we’d said. I was so keen to be an attentive, caring listener to my partner, Natasha, that I used every memory techniques I knew to recall what she said. I did quite well, better than she did, but it almost killed me. Mind you, Natasha’s talk on her cat was clear and concrete, whereas mine was a load of random waffle.

However, when it comes to putting these techniques into practice, we quailed. Jamie (the psycho-therapist) said this was because all anorexics are “risk averse.” It’s difficult sharing a house with strangers. Terrible tensions built up, especially between room-mates, and especially when people began to recover and thus not only had the strength for brooding and exasperation, but also to notice how maddeningly mad our comrades’ behaviours were. But we lack the nerve to confront the sources of the friction. Instead, we vented our frustrations in terrible bitching behind their backs. The atmosphere could become toxic.

Dylan and I managed to muddle along quite well, but we did it by a conscious commitment to loving each other, because there some things that really grated on me and I’m sure he felt the same. For example, I became so overwhelmed by having other people around me all the time. The brain power you need to expend to negotiate all those different relationships is exhausting, so I was desperate to read in quiet solitude when I went to bed, to recuperate. But this was the time Dylan wanted to chat about his day. At first this made me almost hysterical with frustration.

I decided to drive through the frustration by actively embracing these conversations. I told myself this was part of my commitment to Dylan and to supporting his recovery (Thus making myself useful, see?! Jesus, what a patronising bastard!), but, really, I was too timid to say anything. I’d much rather be self-sacrificing, or self-obviating than admit to Dylan what I found difficult about his behaviour. The conflict, the intimate humanity of it, would be excruciating.

Similarly, if Dylan suggested something to me, perhaps where I should go for my “snack out” (he’s a local), I felt I’d have to go there, because the stress of directly denying his suggestion would be too great. We were so reliant on each other’s good will, yet so overly sensitive.

Incidentally, it turned out Dylan was the exact opposite of me when it came to solitude. He was terrified of being alone because of the dark thoughts he was prey to with nobody to distract him, so much so that, when he started being allowed to go out on his own, he’d stay in if he had nobody to go with. Think about that: he CHOSE to stay within the walls of the overheated house where he’d been trapped for MONTHS, where you’re never alone, where you’re not even allowed to walk in the garden without permission, a house so claustrophobic that it felt like being imprisoned in a diving bell with 10 other people, as it fills up with their suffocating, exhaled carbon dioxide.

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