The corona virus is another example of an overwhelming catastrophe that makes us all feel small and powerless and unsure what to do for the best, exactly the circumstances that led to my previous lapses or relapses: Climate change, the responsibilities of working in a school, Brexit, etc. My comforting rituals rear up again, even though, or because, I’m not concentrating on them. For example, the threat of being locked in my house all day has led to me lengthening my morning run, “just in case”.
The behaviours assert themselves gently, so it takes a while to realise that you’ve started doing them again, and then that you’re doing them more and more slavishly. You can only guess at their causes, because the decisions to run a bit further, for example, sell themselves as unimportant and unthreatening whims, not worth thinking about, something you could take or leave as you wanted.
I don’t intend to lose weight, just as I never intended to develop anorexia, although the diagnosis has become part of my identity. Behaviours I indulged in for other reasons had weight loss as a side effect. Weight loss was the price I paid for other benefits.
Now, exercising is a form of self-control, and thus self-comforting, in the face of an uncontrollable crisis. But, of course, losing weight could be an “undesirable” side effect, and, because it’s unitary, it’s a good way of measuring my success.
When you think about your illness, the negative effects of the condition are so glaringly obvious, they eclipse those benefits (of thinking about what you eat, of exercise, of having something absorbing to busy yourself with, to distract you from the helpless terror.) It therefore seems wholly nonsensical that you should pursue such a self-destructive goal. It almost makes more sense to say anorexia has a mind of its own (mankind’s favourite strategy when faced with the inexplicable) and to ascribe to it malign intentions.
In fact, its survival is predicated on deeper habitudes. The true purposes of our restricting or our exercising are more deep seated than the superficial demands of a specific situation. The mind-set is always there, underneath, so unless we are constantly vigilant, we will return to our habitual activities.
Any new crisis that distracts us will lead to the re-establishment of the behaviours, which we then retrospectively explain to ourselves as the condition trying to reassert itself. It makes more sense to characterise it as a resourceful enemy that will cannibalise any situation and any thought process to survive. It also allows us to excuse ourselves.
This gives us the impression that we are possessed, and need to exorcise the demon. I’m not sure how healthy such an assumption is – to be at war with your own brain seems a recipe for a crisis of identity. We know what we know about anorexia from writing, even though part of that writing only exists in our heads as verbalised, retrospective, and self-justifying narratives of ourselves. What makes writing the most glorious art form is that metaphors, fantasies, lies and objective truth (or its signifiers), all co-exist, side by side, in exactly the same form, words, and thus with exactly the same status. Hence fairy-tales, meta-fiction magic realism and fake news. I know this is prosaic and disappointing but, in this situation, if you want to get better, IF, it’s worth remembering that anorexia isn’t a twisty little beast, satisfying as that image is. It’s just us. Being a bit crap. As humans are.
On the other hand, when your weight drops right down, you do go into an uncontrollable self-fuelling, tailspin. Severe malnourishment causes such alarm and anxiety that you compulsively try to control your world by indulging in your comforting activities, which cause severe malnutrition. I guess the human brain, by its structures, tends to go off the rails in certain pre-determined ways, and the only thing to do at this point is for people to hold you down and feed you up, to forcibly pull you out of the spin.