My room-mate at Ascot House was a 20-year-old ex-barman called Dylan. He was the only other male patient and became my comrade, confidant and mentor. This was my most important relationship while I was being treated, but our friendship is a good example of my difficulties with, and alienation from, other people. I saw exactly those characteristics in him, too. But was I projecting my mind-set onto other people (again)?

When I’d first arrived, he’d been a quiet, solitary figure, sunk in a motionless exhaustion. He was very kind, and solicitous of my well-being, which, being an anti-social anorexic, I found threatening and intrusive. In fact, he was reaching out to me because we had to share a room. He knew neither of us wanted to do that, but it was imperative that we got on.

Dylan had a different therapist to me, but she also suggested that he might have symptoms of ADHD. Was this co-incidental? Is there a correlation between Attention Deficit Disorder and anorexia in men? Had she and Jamie (my therapist) read the same scientific paper? Passed it around the office? Maybe they had co-authored it.

Dylan seemed to embrace the suggestion with even more enthusiasm and relief than I did. But then he had more right to claim it.[1] As he recovered, Dylan’s character seemed to alter. For a start there was the jiggling.

I was a terrible foot-jiggler at school. It was possibly a reaction to sitting in classrooms all day, because it dwindled in later life. Any trace was finally expunged by the eating disorder. That compelled me to take exercise until I had absolutely no energy at all. Any rest I allowed myself, or was forced on me, became a warm, blessed space of complete stillness.

At Ascot house, an environment as restrictive as a school, my weight was restored, but this left my tenseness and discontent untreated, and foot-jiggling made a return. It was disapproved of by the staff. They didn’t trust us. They knew we might use any tiny movement as an attempt to burn off just a few more calories. Any physical tic might be sought out and cultivated into a compulsion, repeated ad exhaustiam, could serve as a last stronghold for the retreating disease, from which to launch a counter-attack. To combat this, the poor, determined, care-worn staff were told to pursue our anorexia into even these tiny corners of our behaviour. They had to get used to conflict.

The problem was, sometimes it was simply innocent foot-jiggling caused by an inherent sense of tension and anxiety, and the frustration of being forced to sit still all day.  You’d hear many conversations such as this:

“You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?”

“Jiggling your foot.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“We both know you’re trying to burn off calories.”

“I am not! I always jiggle my foot, it’s my Anxiety Disorder[2]! Jesus, you guys are such fascists!”

But we stopped, anyway. We were keen to please.

That is how controlled life is, in an Eating Disorders Unit. I guess it has to be, but it’s galling and we resist it. Our eating disorders whisper, “This is tyranny. They’re just pathologising anything they find irritating.”

Dylan became the worst foot-jiggler of all. He’d sit at the table in the art/ therapy room, where I liked to write, in a relaxed attitude, one ankle on the other knee, texting. After a few minutes, you’d realise the whole table was ceaselessly shuddering from the bouncing of his foot on the floor-boards.

Then there was his drumming. Some djembe drums were kept in the art room, for music therapy. Dylan would wander in, pick up a drum, idly, and begin wildly drumming. Luckily he had a wonderful sense of rhythm, but it still filled my head with noise.

I’d tolerate these things with saintly forbearance for as long as I could, then I’d ask, politely, “could you stop doing that? Just for a minute? Only I’m finding it difficult to concentrate.”

Without looking up, or ceasing, Dylan would growl, “Yeah, fuck of, Xan, you cunt”[3], which I richly deserved and was good for me. Where did I get off, telling anyone what to do? Hell may be other people, for anorexics, but we need to re-learn how to live with them. The lack of privacy was terrible. It was also therapy.

  • Footnotes:

[1] I know this is the typical envy anorexics feel towards each other. We don’t feel competitive, exactly, because we all assume we’ll lose any contest.

[2] Anorexics have every disorder going.

[3] I found this simultaneously exasperating and amusing (I love swearing).

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