Sufflimandus Sum

Phillip and I recently unearthed a grinning skull from this soil of mulched down past experiences, clods of half-digested emotional shite still clinging to it. It was the time I tried to see a therapist and was sent packing by a junior doctor. You remember, I wrote about this a couple of months ago?

When I told him, Phillip just shrugged, noncommittedly. Far from being hurt, I found this liberating. It’s not that he seems uncaring or uninterested, it’s just that he’s got other priorities. It isn’t a big deal, at this distance, but I’ve been allowing it to poison my thinking, in secret, for years.

This particular event plays out so ceaselessly in the back of my mind that I forgot I’d already told you about it. It’s like the looped back-projection in a driving scene from an old movie, only made of blurry inkblots of feeling: you ignore the repetition and concentrate on the conversation in the foreground, yet it still casts its light over the scene. I assumed my memories were just part of my constant semi-awareness of the incident, but, in fact, it was what I’d recently written.

I’d rewritten the whole thing before I realised this, so here it is, again. Hopefully, restating it will give a sense of how ideas and memories keep replaying in my head. Maybe the discrepancies will be interesting, too:

I went to a university some distance from my home town. I saw this as an opportunity to re-invent myself, make myself seem more interesting. I’m wondering, now, what that says about my self-image. What was wrong with the self I already had? Abi says all teenagers use this time to invent themselves, but I remain disconsolate.

I had what I considered an ace up my sleeve, when it came to seeking attention and appearing more interesting – something that had happened to me when I was younger. It wasn’t much, but in the realm of the self-obsessed, in its extreme forms, it had a certain amount of cachet. I thought I could use it to impress my women friends, those infinitely forgiving philanthropists, and I managed to get myself referred for some sort of psychological screening by an NHS psycho-therapist.

My memories start to become hazy, from this point, probably in self-defence. In a recent episode of Fry’s English Delight, on Radio 4, Stephen Fry was discussing human memory. It turns out that memories are nebulous clouds of vague sense impressions until you start to describe them in words. Then your mind abandons the sense impressions and only remembers the words. Presumably they’re easier to store, long term, and you can recreate an approximate version by retelling the tale. They may also be less, or only latently, disturbing, in this format.

My visions of these events upset me so much that I avoided examining them, and never talked to anyone about them. I never, therefore, coded and stored them as words. I left the progressively degraded sense impressions lying, unprocessed, right there on the floor of my memory bank. Maybe that’s why, now that I’m trying to sort out my head, I want to work through them again.

The first person I saw was an attractive young woman. Neutral to begin with, she perked up, gratifyingly, when I trotted out my secret, my party piece. She said that she thought I would benefit from therapy, but she didn’t think I should see her. This was a good call: she was lovely and I was intending to fall in love with her. Instead, she passed me on to her superior, a consultant who ran some sort of clinic, and she got me an appointment.

The day of my appointment seems very hazy, so much so that I remember it as literally taking place in a mist. In my memory’s reconstruction, I find my way through this mist to a hospital-style building. I materialise at the bottom of a staircase, wondering where to go (why do I not recall a reception desk? Had I come in the wrong way?), when down the stairs a young male doctor in a white coat (as I remember him) comes skipping. Does he stop abruptly and ask me what I’m doing? Probably something like that, and I say I’ve come to see Mr X. (I don’t now remember the consultant’s name). Presumably I say “I have an appointment to see Mr X”, don’t I? But maybe I say “I want to see Mr X” and he thinks I’ve just got the name from a directory and come wandering in. Maybe. Perhaps.

The junior doctor says, “Mr X is very busy, at the moment, perhaps I can help”, or some such. And perhaps I don’t say, “But I’ve got an appointment”, but perhaps I do but he still takes me into a run-down side room – a couple of tatty fabric covered chairs, unevenly plastered walls, and clearly not used for psychological consultations – where I reluctantly spill my guts.

He Looks at me with a sort of alert impatience while I tell him my big thing. I try to elaborate, to make my experiences more significant, my mental state more real; he seems to be waiting for his turn, which comes when I’ve trailed to an anxious halt. Then he says, “Look, you seem to have got yourself into a bit of a state. Why don’t you go home, take some time out, and try to relax. Try to get to bed early, eat well and don’t drink or smoke too much and if you have any further problems, don’t hesitate to contact your GP.”

And that was it. I was horrified. I’d humiliated myself, admitted to something terribly shameful and this was the response! What was worse, I’d betrayed the other person involved in my history for a little bit of attention, my 30 pieces of silver. This was someone who I cared about and who cared about me, though they were a few years older and, clearly, similarly mixed up. I owed them loyalty, yet I’d named and exposed them to this bastard to whom I owed nothing because he didn’t care about me at all.

But he was right. He was right! No one should have to entertain my trivial, self-regarding bullshit. I wasn’t messed up. I was pretending, to give myself some borrowed glamour. Even then the NHS was overstretched and under-funded. I was taking time and resources away from someone who genuinely needed them. So I thanked him profusely, galling though it was, and stumbled out, a sort of shock insulating me, singing in my ears. It muffled voices on the bus; I marked, dispassionately, condensation on the windows, shouts from the park.

And I’d been so proud of my appointment, my official designation as “Fucked Up” and justifying therapy! I never mentioned this meeting to a soul. When Lulu asked me how it had gone, I grunted non-committedly. I never contacted mental health services again, and they never contacted me, but I kept all these things, and pondered them in my heart.

Perhaps there had been some confusion. Or had the exasperated consultant sent the junior doctor down to get rid of me? Was the young therapist condemned for not dismissing me out of hand? Perhaps my medical notes were utterly damning.

I now realise that, for years, I’ve laboured under the idea that I was a charlatan who got my come-uppance, here. Whereas, surely an 18 year old manifesting any sort of distress deserves more attention than that. They may have been right, but how were they so sure I was faking?

This probably helps to explain all the agitation, over-excitedness, paranoia and shame when I think I’m over-contributing in group therapy sessions. I have a desire to be useful, to help keep the discussion going, to compensate for my crapness, but I feel my contributions lack value. I am just ego-centrically pleasing myself, indulging my desire to contribute, to gain attention. I want to be noticed, but why should it be ME who keeps the conversation going? A good team player would coax other people to contribute so they would feel good.

Incidentally, my “designated carer” cornered me for a Ketchup after one of these sessions. I’d promised to always engage with the process and never reject any therapeutic offer, so although reluctant, I told her of my anxieties about over-contribution. She said, “well, you do have a lot to say…”! I hope she just meant I was an asset to the discussion, but I suspect not. Mind you, I’m an overly sensitive idiot…

Therapists

I’ve had three different therapists: Abi, the Eating Disorders specialist at my local NHS trust, Jamie at Ascot House, and my private therapist, Phillip. All three have different styles and approaches, but all leave me drained and exhausted. This is, no doubt, due to the energy I expend in dread, circumspection and furious strategic thinking. I’m thinking on my feet, improvising, as I try to engage with these sessions and make them useful, without actually confronting anything, while still making myself likeable, because they’re such lovely, good people and I want them to like me.

Abi’s the one I fear most. It’s her job to deal most directly with my anorexia and my progress towards recovery. She weighs me, sets me targets and demands to know why I’ve missed them. She’s a gorgeous person: interesting, forthright, humorous. I suspect she’s political, with opinions similar to mine, and, in another life, I think we could be friends. But she’s dedicated and professional, and that makes her a very tough cookie. She used to go hunting in my head for the twisty little creature. She tracked it down relentlessly and I just had to accept that she’d hack a path through my brain in the process.

Now that I’m a more acceptable weight (just inside the green band on the BMI scale) our conversations are much less bruising. I enjoy her company; it’s just that the circumstances and the topic of discussion that make our meetings fraught.

Jamie was warm, gentle and supportive. (That makes him sound like a sofa.) He also ran some of our workshops and tried to make us aware of our modes and habits of thought. He liked to use whiteboards to map out spider diagrams and models of destructive thought patterns to discuss how we could actively disrupt the cycles, cognitive-therapy-style. These were illuminating and useful.

With me, he honed in on a triumvirate of core values that feed into each other, I think they were “I’m selfish”, “I’m lazy”, “I’m incompetent”, along with a compensatory self-concept which we called “The Servant”. He also identified a need for attention and a melancholy, depressive attitude. (I could have told him that. No, wait: I did!) He also suggested I might have, if not ADHD, then at least an ADHD bent or synaptic structure to my brain. This surprised me, but when he gave me a test I came up emphatically positive. Admittedly, it was an anecdotal and self-diagnostic questionnaire, but it would explain some of my behaviour.

Jamie, and especially Abi, have literally saved my life and may permanently cure me of my anorexia. Phillip, on the other hand, doesn’t deal directly with anorexia nervosa, but he is the one who teaches me how to deal with the profound fuckwittery which led to it. We range widely over my life, at the whim of my wandering brain and, although some trains of thought remain inadmissible, patterns of thinking emerge.

When I tell Phillip some terrible, buried event from my past, in hushed and horrified tones, he deftly puts it into context and perspective by not reacting. He gives the impression that he’s heard it all before. “That’s what people do,” he seems to be saying, “You’re not the first to tell me this.” This disarms the buried, unexploded bombs. It neutralises the toxins in the soil that have twisted my growth.

An Essay on Man, Epistle II

An aside:

I’m in the supermarket, leaning into the chiller, and I glance right and catch the eye, bloodshot and baleful, of some scruffy misanthrope, leaning in and looking left, some weirdo, yolk-stained, sweat-scented oddball, Unabomber, fulminating muttered genocide through cracked and panicked lips. I break away from the terrible kinship in his wild and harrowed face, thinking, “Uh-oh. Best keep my eyes on the ground or else he’ll have me pinned against a wall, complicit in his ranting diatribes against the Jews or immigrants.”

And then I realised that the chiller’s ends were mirrored…

It’s the bloody cardigan my sister-in-law knitted for me. I love it, but it doesn’t half make me look peculiar.

Levity

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.)

Christopher Eccleston

There’s been a lot of coverage in the media, recently, of Christopher Eccleston’s admission that he suffers from body-dysmorphia and an eating disorder, which he describes in his autobiography, I Love the Bones of You. I’ve been telling myself, and everyone around me, how courageous he has been, and how good it is to have such a talented role-model admitting to the condition, making it more acceptable. Yet, all the while, a little voice from my hindbrain keeps interrupting, saying, “Jesus, what a self-pitying, attention-seeking wimp! And him a northerner, and all! And he looks so tough!” And then, another voice says, slyly, “Well, he can’t have been trying very hard or he’d never have had the energy for all that intense acting.” Now, that really is Anorexic thinking! His success is evidence of his failure to be a successful failure!

I’ve always liked Christopher Eccleston, so I was very disappointed by my own reaction. It’s deeply hypocritical and disloyal. It’s also disheartening that, after all this time, I’m still prey both to the repressive social conditioning that dismisses and condemns me (and him), and, at the same time, to the twisted, anorexic logic that celebrates self-negation. Perhaps only death can demonstrate our commitment to our Nihilism – the full ferocity of it – not because we desire death, but because we just won’t stop. There’s no ultimate goal, just an insatiable need to restrict.

Mr. Eccleston was on Radio 4 last Saturday and I instantly forgave him, mainly because he didn’t make a big fuss about it. His comments about his anorexia were brief, straightforward and integrated into the general discussion of his life and experiences. He seemed lovely.

My willingness to forgive him confirmed what I’d already worked out about myself: I’d felt threatened by such a big-hitter muscling in on my territory. I’m the middle-aged male anorexic. That’s what I do. That’s what I blog about. That’s my USP.

Once it became clear that being an anorexic wasn’t how Christopher Eccleston defined himself, everything was fine. I could go on being the middle-aged male anorexic; he could be the troubled but brilliant actor. Although, thinking about it, he’s always had the look, hasn’t he? – hollow-cheeked, cadaverous.

Incidentally, it’s interesting that an actor, whose profession involves being watched should suffer from body dysmorphia, an affliction of false visualisation, whereas I, who think of myself as virtually invisible, never suffered from this. Instead, I had body-dyscalculia, or body – innumeracy: I misread the bad numbers as good. Who wants to have a green-band bmi?

Alliterative Melodramas

It seems laughable, at first, the idea that it would benefit you, delving into your own psyche. It seems self-evidently self-destructive.

“Self” being the vulnerable construct. Formative experiences, and the assumptions based on them, have been integrated into your foundational belief systems. Your mind and all its thought processes, your sense of self and of the world around you, are built up from these systems. They are the premises that begin all your trains of thought. Surely to dismantle them will bring the whole edifice down around your ears. You might be reduced to an incontinent, blubbering wreck, a heap of formless flesh and shit and snot and tears, quivering in the ruins of your own cognition. Rigid control holds you together.

I try to engage with this threatening process, but sometimes, when I’m asked to explain myself, a part of my brain will be thinking, “Yeah, right! Like I’m going to admit to that!”

That’s when I’ve understood what’s going on because the question has been a straightforward one about whether I’ve been restricting or exercising, or something. More often, though, the explanation is so deeply buried that I just don’t understand it. I can’t identify my habits of thought, only their products. When challenged, my mind stutters with a blank perplexity. Abi keeps asking me, bluntly, why I do things. If I’ve lost weight, she’ll ask me – “why has that happened?” Then she’ll wait, expectantly, for a reply. (The famous interrogation technique!)

I used to want to blurt out, “I don’t bloody know, do I? If I knew that, it wouldn’t have happened, would it?” Of course, I didn’t have the nerve to say anything of the sort. I aim to please. And, anyway, it would still have happened, because I knew exactly why it happened – because I hadn’t been keeping to the bloody rules, had I? I can identify the superficial reason why I’m not better yet: it’s because I can’t commit myself, fully, to recovery. For some reason, I can’t renounce, fully, the behaviours. But I don’t want to admit that thought into my head, because then I’d have to explain why. And that is an illegitimate, inadmissible train of thought: a dull glint of train tracks leading back into dank caverns in some abandoned, haunted mine.

The art of filibustering

Another way to dodge the threats of 1:1 therapy is to keep talking. If you can monopolise the discourse, you can steer it away from challenging subjects. You can keep the conversation on trivialities and away from specific admissions and examples, and their terrifying implications. This is difficult to pull off, because the whole point of the strategy is to avoid the humiliation of self-exposure, yet here you are waffling on about yourself.

The trick is to keep it only superficially about yourself, say, your philosophy of life, and try to lead the topic away to politics or something. You have to accept the embarrassing fact that you’re a tiresome bore, but it’s better than revealing what a nasty, selfish little shit you truly are. (I realise I’ve just written this whole paragraph in the 2nd person, to distance myself from it.)

Because of the free ranging nature of our therapy, Phillip is cool with this, but Abi won’t let me away with it. Abi’s job is to stop me doing anorexia. Right Now.

If I’m challenged to confront and explain my disordered thinking and behaviours, I try to take us on a long journey of digression; I escape into great, long-winded, obfuscating anecdotes, swooping allegorical asides, that carry us far, far away from the issue at hand. It gives me time to collect myself, to calm down, to think about what I’m going to say next, so I can remain guarded and careful, so I don’t blurt something out. (Isn’t that the essence of talking therapies? Blurting something out and then dealing with it?) I guess I do something similar in this blog. Think about it: When was the last time I dealt directly with anything truly difficult? Like my children. When was the last time I even mentioned food?