Obsessionality 101

Our therapists, Dylan and I, seemed to be linking the obsessive side of our eating disorders to a sort of mental hyperactivity or busyness of mind. This seems a reasonable suggestion. Overthinking is a famous symptom of anorexia, and, although we’d starved ourselves into lassitude, we both tended to worry feebly at things, growling, like aged terriers with a bone. Dylan’s thorough, almost obsessive, adoption of his diagnosis seemed to bear this out. 

Of course, the link between anorexia and OCD is well established. A fierce habit of restricting or purging or over-exercising is clearly obsessive-compulsive. Carrie Arnold[1] explores the relationship between eating disorders and “obsessionality”, which she defines as “a pattern of thinking, in which someone focuses a lot on a particular subject or detail”[2]

There’s also a lot of chatter, online, surrounding a correlation between OCD and ADHD. The NHS website suggests that OCD may occur alongside ADHD in adults, this is called “Comorbidity”, and can complicate the diagnosis of either condition. Writing for The International OCD Foundation, Dr Amitai Abramovitch points out that both conditions are “characterised by abnormal brain activity in the same neural circuit”, the frontal-striatal system, that is responsible for “higher order, motor, cognitive and behavioural functions”. However, people with OCD show increased activity in this area, while ADHD people have decreased activity. Many other reputable online publications also make this link. MDedge (mdedge.com) claims that ADHD can be an “epiphenomenon of OCD” because an obsessive person’s “continuous and excessive attempts to control behaviour and thoughts” can be so distracting. Conversely, verywellmind.com claims that “ADHD can result in OCD-type coping skills.”

There is less written on a link between ADHD and Anorexia, but it seems likely that a three point, mutually reinforcing nexus could be at play in us. It’s not a solid, rigorously tested, causal link, just a suggested correlation. Both Dylan and I could become a little intense and unusually habit- or ritual-forming in our behaviours, and this extended to our restriction of our eating and, in my case, to my running. Carrie Arnold quotes Steven Tsao, who claims, “with anorexia, this obsessionality could be something they think about a lot, but they don’t actually mind thinking a lot about…In fact, some patients are happy to focus on [their eating disorder] and think a lot about it. I have patients that say, ‘if I don’t spend my day thinking about food, what else do I do with myself?’”[3]

Arnold points how useful such obsessionality can be to somebody who is trying to control anxiety, as so many anorexics are. “Not only did anorexia mesh perfectly with my tendencies towards obsessionality (in fact my eating disorder probably enhanced my obsessionality), it also helped make me feel the world was simpler and easier to manage.”[4]

And, of course, hunger and exhaustion make you more anxious, more in need of reassurance, more rigid in your thinking, as your brain starves, so all these symptoms and behaviours, all these tendencies, become more pronounced as anorexia’s jaws tighten on you, its teeth begin to bite.


[1] Decoding Anorexia, 2013, Routledge

[2] ibid, p65

[3] ibid


Howler Monkey Blues

Dylan became more and more active and noisy as time went on. Jittery. He started letting out enormous whoops at random, like some sort of demented howler monkey swinging wildly through the treetops on grotesquely long arms. You’d really hear him coming down the stairs in the morning! I expected him to knuckle through the doorway, swarm up the door, and leap to the lampshade.

He also started to pick up anything tubular, rolls of wrapping paper, for example, place them next to a victim’s ear (usually mine), and whoop, whinny and growl through them. Then he’d shriek with laughter, especially if nobody else was laughing. This appeared to be a way of defiantly compensating for, or rejecting the implied criticism in other people’s silence. After particularly provocative jokes, or after particularly stony silences, he’d also drum his open palms on his knees, with loose-limbed energy, while drumming his feet on the floor. It was reminiscent of simian aggression, but was done with an open, delighted expression.

I think Dylan was announcing or identifying himself, possibly compensating for a sense of being inconsequential and overlooked. He was trying to provoke and annoy – be challenging. For the attention, yes, but also to vent frustration at the restrictions placed on his life, to rebel in the most good-humoured way he could. 

I didn’t find this annoying (much). I liked him. And I shared his frustrations and his identity anxieties. 

Dylan started acting like this, though, after it had been suggested he might have ADHD. His new behaviours seemed to confirm the diagnosis, but they seemed too deliberate. These weren’t involuntary tics. They were actions decided upon. 

That was probably a coincidence, but it seemed as if he had been offered an identity and an excuse by his therapist’s suggestion, and out of his sense of shame and hollowness and need, he had grasped it with both hands and was clinging to it for dear life. I suspect this because I had felt exactly the same when it was suggested to me. 

On the other hand, there’s no denying that Dylan’s were unusual behaviours carried to unusual lengths. It seems obsessive to pursue such pointless activities so assiduously, especially if you don’t feel compelled to.

Man-splaining my Mates

I hope it’s clear how much I love Dylan. Nobody else has had so many posts dedicated to them. He was absolutely central to my experience in Ascot House, and very important to my recovery[1].

Dylan is a complicated dude, and my reactions to him were similarly complicated. Because we shared a room and were rarely allowed to leave the house, I was constantly forced into his society. I had to accommodate him and all his foibles and, for purely selfish reasons, needed to think, and care, about another individual and their psychological state, because it impacted so directly on my own. Presumably, he had to do the same. (Experience would suggest that I’m an irritating little prick to live with.) We were forced into psychological interdependence, like normal people. Like we used to be. 

I feel very uncomfortable about exposing him, without his consent. I tell myself that the purpose of this blog is to explore my own error-prone reactions, and thus learn to understand my own psyche and the roots of my condition. That’s why various psychological-type-professionals have endorsed or encouraged me to write these posts. I hope any reader will understand this.

So, please remember that the things I say about him are entirely my own opinions and he would rightly dispute them all. (He is a most disputatious boy.) In this blog, over-analysing things, and coming to doubtful and implausible conclusions, is not my failing, it is my responsibility, as I try to feel my way through the dense and tangled underbrush of my mental states. Or so I tell myself. The practice is my responsibility, but that doesn’t mean the conclusions are correct.

For example, Dylan’s teasing, which caused me so much trouble, probably just shows that his family have a robust sense of humour, that’s all. Siblings tend to exploit your errors and flaws unmercifully. You’re supposed to take it in good part, knowing that it comes from a place of love and unfailing family loyalty. I suspect Dylan’s family felt complaining about it was weak and self-pitying. Why turn a happy conversation into a sullen and reproachful one? You should have enough strength and self-belief not to care. 

Dylan had learned to laugh at himself, a survival skill in these situations, but I imagine he’d rather not be in them, in the first place. He was a sensitive middle child and very thin-skinned. He probably spent his childhood vying for parental attention, struggling not to be dominated by his older siblings. He’d learned that, when he was vulnerable, he could secure his position by channelling the group’s ridicule towards someone else. Preferably before they started on him. His humour had that defiant quality, the quality of a pre-emptive revenge attack. 

In fact, there was hardly any teasing at Ascot House, but Dylan’s sense of self-conscious embarrassment at being there put him on his guard, made him feel derided, so he took the situation into his own hands. He’d decide what was designated as funny, almost arbitrarily, and everyone laughed to reinforce their membership. 

Instead of teasing, there was quite a lot of implied criticism in the house. Everyone had Opinions on everybody else, so Dylan didn’t get away unscathed. He’d react exactly as if he was being teased. He’d fight back, vociferously, while claiming not to care, because the person caring is the whole point of teasing somebody. Hence his tendency to say, “Well, I don’t give a fuck!” and “I honestly don’t care; it doesn’t bother me” about things that clearly did bother him an awful lot. 

Incidentally, I wonder if his love of all things naughty comes from being fiercely and strictly brought up. All forbidden behaviours became an exhilarating expression of freedom: swearing, rude words, farts, people’s balls showing down the legs of their boxer shorts… Dylan kind of confirmed this idea when I suggested it. Doesn’t Freud have something to say about being stuck in an anal fixation stage? 


[1] In so far as I have recovered. 

Burning Down The House

There’s been a backlash, recently, against the meritocratic society. Both Daniel Markovits (The Meritocracy Trap, 2019, Penguin Press) and Michael Sandel (The Tyranny of Merit, 2020, Penguin) have published books on the subject. These thinkers argue that modern societies, believing themselves progressive, have accepted egalitarianism in principle. They give the impression, to the untroubled and advantaged, that they provide an equality of opportunity (or are, at least, moving towards it.) Hard work and resourcefulness can now compensate for any disadvantage. Glass ceilings may exist, but they only trouble high-flyers, and are being dismantled.

Successful people tend to think that they have achieved by their own merit, and thus deserve the rewards that life has loaded them with. We crowd around gold medallists, asking for advice, and they tell us that if we strive, we will eventually make it. That, after all, is their experience. Few of us go to the also-rans for their advice on surviving repeated failure. 

To the victors the spoils, we feel, while the defeated can be left to rot. They have only themselves to blame for their indolence or lack of initiative. Society has discharged its obligation by levelling the playing field in the first place.

The indolent poor! It’s all very Victorian, because the level playing field is a myth. It’s still those who start with inherited advantages who get ahead, only now you can’t blame it on their privilege. Instead, winners can unashamedly revel in their victories, as seen by the invention of “Imposter Syndrome”, which attempts to pathologise humility, and the much satirised “Humble-brag”[1].

Michael Sandel credits the presidency of Donald Trump, and the rise of right-wing populism in general, to the revolt of ordinary people, who are sick of being insulted and humiliated in this way. 

This makes sense to me. Trump’s supporters can’t be blind to his grotesque flaws and vices, his flagrant lies[2], his laziness, and vindictiveness, his repugnant attitudes, his over-riding self-interest, his complete lack of vision, purpose and state-craft. And they must know how privileged, and thus hypocritical, he is. 

But they don’t care. They like Trump because, although he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he’s an unrepentant idiot, and so a spokesperson for a constituency who’ve long been called idiots. They needed a rich kid to get them inside the doors of the halls of power. And now they are going to wreck the place.

I think what matters to many Trump supporters is that he is destructive[3]. They want that. They feel entirely disenfranchised, alienated from the entitled ones, watching from afar their complacent, skilful ease. The system seems to benefit only those who run it, so the Trumpeters want to burn it down. They feel they have nothing to lose, even if Trump dismantles the whole apparatus of state and the traditions of governance.

Donald Trump promises to do just that. He is almost entirely without morals, ability, or sense of duty, and believes that if he can get away with something, it’s ok to do it[4]

His contempt for his own country and its principles is undermining and corrupting the institutions that serve and protect its citizens. But they don’t care. 

All that matters to the Trumpeters is that he upsets the well-dressed, well-heeled politicos they have come to resent so much. The more outraged and astonished the “political elite”, the more the Trump supporters cheer. 

I can’t quite remember how I was going to link all this to the anorexic experience, except to say that perhaps people with eating disorders become similarly rebellious. We are floundering while others glide easily along; We are so fundamentally inadequate that we can’t even feed ourselves. So, we wallow in it. We say, “Oh God, I’m sorry; I’m so sorry; I… Actually, you know what? Fuck this. Fuck you, Dr Complacent. Fuck everything: I refuse.” 

Of course, we don’t say this out loud. Instead, we are timid but resentfully stubborn, perversely insisting on doing what we know to be the wrong thing, the most destructive thing. It’s not just a cry for help, it’s one of anger and frustration; it’s a passive-aggressive rebellion against ourselves and life and the aspirations and strivings that we are incapable of. 

Rioters always burn their own neighbourhoods because they are the only one available to them. 

We’re Burning Down the House, the bone-house: our own bodies.  

Dylan’s angry, bitter humour might also be another facet of this: a rejection; a denial.


[1] Which I love, but did it exist before it was named? Did coining the term create the phenomenon?

[2] He clearly believes that language is not a receptacle to truth; it’s a tool to help you get what you want, and he has no obligation to be honest.

[3] And, sure, some voters probably thought, as a businessman, he could create jobs and others voted for whoever stood against Hillary Clinton, because they didn’t trust her after Bill Clinton’s presidency and because she was a woman, while, no doubt, many just wanted a change from an old order she represented, and many probably automatically voted for whoever was on the Republican ticket.

[4] And the American president can get away with everything because, it turns out, the president is effectively above the law. His power is only limited by convention, in other words, by his willingness to be limited.

All men are born equal…

What amused Dylan most of all was people making fools of themselves, or in some way demonstrating their flaws, weaknesses, limitations and insecurities. It might be something very little – somebody dropping their knife or making an odd noise when they sneezed – but Dylan would laugh long and loud. And it was pointed. It went on too long, was too loud to be ignored or treated as an expression of good humour and ebullience. He was laughing at you. Because you are a twat. 

He seemed to revel in indignity. He once showed me a clip of two grubby, unkempt men sitting in what looked like a dingy bedsit. One of them kept setting fire to the other’s tangled shock of grey hair that stood straight up from the top of his head. It was so greasy it burnt like candle wick, and the victim was so wasted he couldn’t work out what was happening. I have rarely seen anything that depressing; Dylan found it hilarious. 

He wasn’t saying he was better than you. He felt the same disdain and derision for himself. He was reassuring himself that everyone else was a moron, too. That was why he was unrepentant about it: He felt he was expressing solidarity. 

Yet it was undeniably belittling. He was dragging you down to join him in the hole of his self-hatred. This was evident in his aggression and defensiveness, if he was challenged. You’d get a sudden burst of his acute vulnerability. His standard response was to say, “Well, I don’t give a fuck. Honestly, I really don’t give a fuck” (and I’d say, quietly, in brotherhood, “yeah, but you do, don’t you?” and he’d not deny it.)

During the Snack-For-Santa debate, when I was trying to defend the poor care assistant, I said, “Mince pie: sausage roll: what does it matter what you leave out for Santa? He’s not even real! I don’t see why it’s funny.”

Speaking calmly and smiling, Dylan said, “Jesus, Xan, lighten the fuck up for once! Take the fucking rod out from up your hole, for fuck’s sake”. 

The other patients made anxious, uncomprehending attempts at laughter, trying to fake a connection, a sense of community they no longer understood.

On another occasion, somebody mentioned that Dylan had red hair (It’s a dark auburn). He flatly denied this. I was surprised because he clearly is. Coming from Ireland, where 10 – 30% of the population are redheads[1], I wasn’t aware that there was any stigma attached to the colouring, but, apparently, in England it can get you bullied. 

I said, “But, Dylan, you are red haired. What’s wrong with that?” 

He replied, in sombre and unsmiling tones, “Fuck you. You’re a fucking cunt. Seriously, Xan, you’re a fucking cunt.”  

I said, “Are you genuinely upset or are you teasing me?”

He just smiled enigmatically. I never found out. 


[1] According to ABC news in 2014, using statistics from a genetics-mapping website, Eupedia. 

Laughter is the Best Medicine

There was a savagery in Dylan’s teasing that was starkly at odds with his essential kindness and good-heartedness. It seemed like a vent for excess energy, like the flare on an oil rig that burns waste gas. That would fit with a diagnosis of ADHD. 

Energy doesn’t have to be expressed in so aggressive a manner, though, so perhaps he was also releasing his frustration at being trapped in this place and situation. Anorexics are a bunch of silly bastards. As we recovered, we all started to recognise how nonsensical the behaviours were. Yet we were undeniably one of their number and we had been just as foolish. All of us were ashamed of ourselves. 

I suspect it was worse for Dylan. I think he was brought up with very traditional expectations of how men should behave. His father seemed very macho – he’d worked as a bouncer, and Dylan was proud of the fights he and his brother had been in, when they’d acquitted themselves well. In a workshop, once, he’d admitted he was afraid of his dad, and then he said, “I know that sounds pathetic, a grown man scared of his own dad.” 

This was a very revealing comment. Firstly, there’s the unwarranted disdain for himself: of course he’s frightened of his dad!  We are formed, from tiny babies, in moulds of our parents’ making. A dominant and fiercely disciplinarian father will become the most formidable figure in a small child’s life, and the child is father of the man[1].

But, traditionally, men are supposed to suppress their fear, show some self-control. Or, preferably, not feel fear at all, only a sense of duty. 

I also noticed that he, a smallish, skinny 20 year old, referred to himself as “a grown man”. I’d never refer to myself as such, and I’m over twice his age. Dylan clearly felt that, by 20, he had reached his majority and should shoulder the emotionally self-effacing responsibilities of a mature silver-back, acting in an appropriately masculine way. Men should be reticent, resilient, suppressing their demons, not burdening others. Dylan felt he had let himself down. He’d been diagnosed with a weak and womanish condition: hysterical, self-indulgent. 

He was also showing up his whole family. They seemed a proud and tight-knit unit, who kept their problems to themselves. Of course, they were tremendously supportive of him, but they were also embarrassed, defensive. Simply to be diagnosed with a psychological condition was the definition of oversharing, but to be hospitalised! He was making a public spectacle of himself. 

The first time Dylan’s mother came to visit, I introduced myself to her and told her how lucky I felt to room with such a supportive and welcoming person, and how his determination to get better was inspiring me to do likewise. I think Dylan was grateful to have somebody give a good account to his mother, because I think, significantly, he sensed her disappointment. She, however, seemed cool and guarded in her response to me. I suspect she felt I was intruding on secret family business: none of mine. 

Jo and she did a one day workshop on supporting anorexics. Afterwards, Jo was upset because she felt the other participants were all claiming to have perfect home lives, while she had been confessing to the tensions we experienced. Obviously, here, also, Dylan’s mum was guarding the family’s reputation.

All this leads me to suspect that, once no longer anaesthetised by hunger, Dylan felt deeply humiliated and ashamed to be in Ascot house, among such a bunch of whining and pathetic idiots, and this feeling was at war with his sense of compassion for, and solidarity with, the rest of us. Perhaps this conflict contributed to his irritable, unmerciful humour. 


[1] Wordsworth, of course, from “My Heart Leaps Up” (1802), probably my favourite Wordsworth poem. 

Dylan’s humour

A restored weight brought significant changes to Dylan’s personality. This thoughtful, troubled young man became filled with a gleeful energy. The most obvious facet of this was his sense of humour. 

Very abruptly, Dylan started to find any mistake made by another patient hysterically funny. Any misjudgement or error, any humbling sign of human fallibility or limitation was met with shrieking howls of derisive laughter that went on too long. The more awkward his victim became, the longer the laughter would last. 

I guess Dylan would consider it affectionate banter, but it didn’t feel like it. He would persecute any of us for even the tiniest slips. My first encounter with this new Dylan was when I took my trousers off one night and my balls were peeping out of the left leg of my saggy old boxer shorts. This undignified, depressingly ordinary occurrence set him off on paroxysms of glee that kept bubbling up, even in the darkness after we’d turned the light out. 

On another occasion, near Christmas, a care assistant was talking about the deceptions she had to enact to maintain the fiction of Santa. Every year she had to leave out a carrot for the reindeer and a sausage roll for Santa, which her husband would eat, leaving a sprinkling of crumbs. At this point, Dylan interrupted, saying, “Who leaves a sausage roll for Father Christmas?! It’s supposed to be a mince pie! AAAAH HA HA HA HA! A sausage roll! AAAAH HA HA HA HA!”

Nonplussed, the care assistant and I tried to continue the conversation. Dylan would not allow this. He was going to ridicule the poor woman and nothing would distract him. 

People with eating disorders are very emotionally vulnerable. Dylan knew this. They are also very anxious to be liked and included because they feel so alienated and dislikeable, so there was a lot of pressure to join in this “banter”, to be part of the group. Almost reluctantly, shyly, the other patients followed Dylan’s lead. We found ourselves the focus of the room’s derision, with a fiercely disdainful Dylan as its nucleus, but an oddly lack-lustre, almost apologetic outer ring. 

Since this facet of Dylan’s behaviour had first appeared, I had refused to be drawn into it. I just stared at him blankly, refusing to even crack a smile. Despite the pressure to be a “Good Sport”, I wasn’t going to collude with my own, or other people’s humiliation. 

I’m not an original thinker, or particularly principled. In fact, I think I’m naturally conventional, but, by (bad) luck, I’ve often found myself part of outgroups. Or, at least, considered myself to be[1]. Normally, I’d keep my mouth shut and skulk in the background, out of harm’s way, so it’s a testament to Dylan’s essential good nature, and that of the other patients, that I, in my most vulnerable and risk-averse state should feel confident to stand, openly, against the group. 


[1] I guess this started when my proudly Scottish parents decided to move to the Republic of Ireland just before I was born.

The Ballad of Libby and Dylan

Dylan’s solution was to get himself a girlfriend, Libby, via Tinder, soon after he was allowed out unsupervised. (I was impressed. I thought you just got sex from Tinder[1].) This was all arranged by phone from the safety of Ascot House and then he could go out without being alone. 

He immediately threw himself into this relationship with alarming gusto and dedication. They texted constantly. By the second week, Dylan was talking about love. By the third, he’d paid off her £700 overdraft. He’d insisted, against her (very sensible) reluctance. He was also talking about them moving in together.

But he would worry obsessively. One evening, early in the relationship, he suddenly went into a precipitous decline, because she hadn’t messaged him enough. He worked himself into a terrible fret about it, looking at pictures of her and her ex-boyfriend on Facebook, wondering if she said the same loving things to all her exes. He couldn’t stop it; he couldn’t think about anything else. 

He developed an excessive hatred of his predecessor, an unprepossessing young chap who’d split up with Libby by mutual consent. Dylan would take detours, on the way to meet her, so that he could glare at the poor lad in the café where he worked. One time, Dylan and I went in to town together and he took me past the café so we could both glare in through the window. 

When, inevitably, they argued, Dylan was distraught. It was about money, which I think demonstrated how quickly he was moving the relationship on: that’s the sort of argument you have when you’re newly married. Dylan is very careful with money, and he disapproved of what he saw as Libby’s profligacy, as displayed by the overdraft he’d paid off. Libby, in turn, felt uncomfortable with the debt she owed him, so when Dylan started advising her on how to spend (or, rather, save) her money, she took fright, thinking he felt he had a claim on her, and she snapped at him. This led her on to voice fears that he was already too dependent on her, and even an admission that she sometimes found him “too tactile”

In other words, like me, she was alarmed by the speed the relationship was developing at. The “argument” was never more than a slight coldness, and a slight clipped-ness, of tone, an unexpected directness, but it hurled Dylan into a deep gloom, a “Slough of Despond”, a “brown study”[2]. He feared he would be abandoned and this reminded him of how isolated and alone he was, apart from her, and thus how dependent, how weak and ineffective, sitting there, quaking, waiting to be dumped. He told me, “the urge to self-harm was very high”. 

It soon blew over, but I sympathised with both of them. Dylan’s behaviour in this relationship seemed compulsive, obsessive, symptomatic of ADHD. He must have been a right little handful for poor Libby. Never a dull moment, though. 

Never a dull moment: Philip, my therapist, maintains that every behaviour you indulge in serves a purpose. It is obvious what benefits Dylan’s relationship with Libby brought him, but what was the purpose of all the fever and the fret? Well, it certainly passed the time, structured and gave purpose to his days, established proximal and achievable goals and surmountable obstacles. And it gave us something to talk about at bed time. 

And now I’m thrown back through decades to my own first catastrophic love – Lulu. This was an immensely damaging and destructive relationship, so what was its purpose? 

I guess it was also obsessive and compulsive. Was this early evidence that I, too, had this personality type? I thought about her all the time. It provided me with an absorbing purpose and pre-occupation. Brooding over Lulu’s slights and cruelties, planning reconciliations, took up all my time. It was comforting and purposeful. I never had to consider the vast, cold, pointless mortality of the universe, the pathetic insignificance and brevity of human life, the daunting prospect of what to do with myself for the next 60 years (if I was lucky). I was in love with Lulu. That’s who I was; that’s what I did. 


[1] Ok, so he got some of that first.

[2] What the hell am I on about?!

Eating Disorder Soap-Opera

The next night, when I went up to our room, Dylan had left his big A4 notebook open on his bed – neatly placed. I dithered over whether to look at it or not. Eventually I just glanced at the top of the page. The first line, clearly printed, read “Xan aired his views on my cuts last night. I know he just wants to help – but stay out of my shit”. I didn’t let myself read any more. I suspect that was all that was written about me, because it was clearly a deliberate message (I noticed that the second part of that sentence was an imperative and thus directly addressed to a reader.)

This elaborate means of communicating-without-talking struck me as stereotypically male, and it made me smile, even as it alarmed and threatened me. We’ll go to such lengths to avoid facing each other and saying what we feel! Dylan had ingeniously guaranteed that no response was possible, because, if I brought the subject up, I’d have to admit I’d been reading his journal! Of course, when he came up to bed, neither of us mentioned it: much safer like that.

An awkwardness persisted over the next few days, which made me sad. I brooded on how I’d only advised Dylan to seek help and asked him to return my things, which he’d taken without asking! And how he’d put me in a difficult position. He’d every right to cut himself if that is how he wanted to manage his anguish, but Ascot House would be very angry with me if it discovered that Dylan had been struggling so much, and manifesting a distress and self-loathing so extreme that he was physically injuring himself and displaying it to me, and yet I hadn’t bothered telling anyone, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty.

So I was still left with a dilemma. The first time he did this, I told myself it was a one-off event, but, on the second, it was clear it would probably continue.  We were living in a hospital staffed by experienced professionals, specifically trained to support people in Dylan’s position, and we were undergoing a programme specifically designed to cure people of exactly these afflictions, yet I wasn’t telling the very people who could help him. If I really cared about Dylan, surely I would pass on this information and risk the damage to our relationship.

Self-harm is distress-signalling, so perhaps, sub-consciously, he wanted me to dob him in. And yet that still wouldn’t save our relationship, if it is obvious I was the source of the leak.

What a soap-opera!

The staff had obviously picked up on our spat, because Lizzie, one of the experienced care assistants, popped her head into the art room where I was writing, and asked if I was alright. Then she asked, straight out, “how are things with Dylan?” Impulsively, I told her everything. Unburdening myself was a great relief, the metaphor of shedding a great load is very appropriate. I hoped Dylan wouldn’t murder me in my bed, though.

That evening, Dylan told me he’d handed my needles to the night nurse. He also appeared to have further cuts on his chest. He showed me such a doleful face. Poor lad! All was forgiven. That didn’t mean I trusted him not to do it again: he’s anorexic. We can sustain two entirely separate brains simultaneously. That must place us among the most untrustworthy people on the planet. We are sincere in our desire to do the right thing, but our compulsive bad behaviour isn’t unconscious. We kind of know we’re intending to break our promises, but we refuse to acknowledge or confront the programme running on the alternative dark net of our anorexic ids. Dylan had promised not to cut himself again, and no doubt he meant it, even while he was hoarding my needles so he could cut himself again. He’d told the night nurse that he had only cut himself once, because he was desperate not to lose access to his room, so even his confession wasn’t exactly the truth.

I know this is hypocritical of me. I am, and used to be, a little liar and hoped to be excused by my periodic regretful admission of this, after which I would repeat the offence. It is the illness that makes him unreliable: he doesn’t want to be like this. The mendacity, and the cutting itself, are demonstrations and expressions of misery, distress and self-loathing. He can’t be expected to abandon them until he is better.

Adopting a Dadish Stance

However, I didn’t feel I could remain complicit. I tried, pathetically, to find a way of washing my hands of the responsibility. I told Dylan that I thought he should tell the staff what he’d been doing. They were competent adults trained in supporting us through these things. I also told him I didn’t want him using my needles to do it. I didn’t want to help him hurt himself and I didn’t want to get in to trouble for having needles. I wanted him to stop.

Dylan flatly refused to stop or to return my needles. He looked angry. He said, “I just don’t want to be reminded of it.”

I said, “well, if you don’t want to be reminded of it, you might want to stop doing it repeatedly”


I responded, coolly, “Yes, if you could, Dylan. That would be lovely”, which is a pretty good return, I think. Then I ruined it all by yelling back.

Well, I was stung! I knew he wouldn’t want to give it up, but I guess I’d hoped he’d appreciate my care and concern for him. Where was the tearful bonding, with Dylan telling me how hard it was, but how grateful he was for my sensitive, clear-headed support? I hadn’t expected the conversation to take this turn. It felt like he’d taken me forcibly by the elbow and rushed me along a path of his choosing.

I recognise it, now, as a typical anorexic over-reaction caused by his alarm. He very much didn’t want to give up the means to embody his pain. He needed the scabs, the puckering flesh, the scars. Giving back my needles would leave him bereft, stifled by his own smooth skin. It was a very threatening prospect, so he responded with the fierce, combative panic of the anorexic, an attempt to overwhelm the threat with an emotional Shock and Awe campaign, or perhaps Sturm und Drang[1].

I guess I ought to have been flattered because Dylan was treating me with the unreasonableness you’d direct at a parent. That suggests intimacy and ease with my presence: acceptance, something we all crave. And, in fact, I properly shouted at him, in a sort of outraged dad or teacher way. I think I may have said, (god, this is embarrassing) “Don’t take that attitude with me!” He had manoeuvred me into that role.

And this is important. Dylan really was in bad shape and genuinely needed the help he was refusing, but I didn’t want to betray his trust. I guess I cared about the little fucker. By forcing us into each other’s company 24/7, Ascot House had ensured our lives, and thus our recoveries were inextricably intertwined. We were forced to think about, take an interest in, and care about each other. This distraction from our own inner turmoil was highly beneficial, coaxing up green shoots of cognitive and emotive renewal, of empathy (much lost; much missed.)

And that is how Dylan helped save me.


[1] Google it.