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?

You got me banged to rights, Guv’ner!

One-to-one sessions are more challenging than group work. It’s less easy to hide. No-one else is there to fill the awkward, expectant silences (so typical of police interrogations). The therapist and I are supposed to be collaborating towards a mutually desired goal, and I’m expected to tell the truth about myself, so we have something to work on, but complete honesty has always been out of the question for me. (I’ve only realised this recently.) Revelation would kill me, for some reason, so therapy is a threat; eating disorder specialists and dieticians are Gimlet-eyed detectives. Their sessions feel interrogative; you are confronted.

Meeting Phillip is far less confrontational because we don’t deal directly with anorexia, but I still feel pressure to come up with the goods. Before I enter the room, I always realise, with horror, that I’m empty. That I’ve nothing to say. All I’ll be able to do is shrug, with dumb helplessness and Phillip will throw me out in a fury because I’m a useless charlatan, who can’t even do self-destruction properly. Abi or Phillip, I approach every consultation with the same anxiety I’d have going into an exam I hadn’t prepared for.

Meeting Abi, especially, I’m eager to be a good patient (or appear to be). I want to fulfil the role required of me, so it’s very important to give the right answers. In workshops, this involves making generally affirmative noises, but 1:1 sessions demand definitive statements. I try to second guess what Abi wants me to say. I want to be a helpful, kind person; I want to make them happy, so if I’m asked, “have you eaten all your snacks?” I know the gratifying answer is, “Why, Yes, Of Course! Every Single One. Yum Yum!” It’s not intended to be a lie; I just automatically give an approximate version of what they want to hear. Whether it’s true or not barely occurs to me. Language is call and response, not truth telling (as I’m always saying). And I will have eaten some sort of snack, so it isn’t entirely untrue…

I still remember the first time I was caught out lying to Abi. It was one of our earliest sessions. (I’ve been seeing Abi off and on for years, now. We’re growing old together.) I’d brought Jo along for moral support, which turned out to be an error. Abi asked me some direct question, like if I was still exercising, or something. Trying to placate her and make the conversation go to everybody’s liking, I said something like, “No, not really. I take the odd brisk walk, I suppose…” And then Jo said, “But you’ve been for a run every day this week. You told me. I saw you come back in your running gear…” (I hadn’t told Jo that exercise had been totally banned.) I was absolutely mortified. Spot lit. I felt like a criminal. What could I say in my defence? I felt so nonplussed as to be almost disorientated. I was having to admit to, and confront, a version of events that I’d avoided acknowledging either to myself or other people. In typical anorexic fashion, it hadn’t occurred to me that Jo could call my bluff, because I hadn’t even attempted to reconcile the two alternative realities that I entertained, simultaneously, in my mind.

The world seemed to warp and shift: I wasn’t who I claimed and assumed myself to be. I was a liar. Who, then, was I?

Nowadays, of course, caught out like this, I’d just shrug, ruefully, and shake my head, muttering, “bloody anorexics, eh?” Diagnosis provides you with an identity and an excuse. (Do convicts feel like this?) It’s difficult to give that up.

But I wouldn’t make eye contact.

I celebrate myself and sing myself

Therapy, at least of the sort offered by my practitioner, Phillip, is a chance to explore and understand what you think and feel. It gives you the space to compose and articulate thoughts, to be listened to and understood. As such, it seems like a luxurious indulgence. It felt almost depraved, at first, to dwell on myself so much, to indulge an urge that surely ought to be supressed. Surely my ego was grotesquely distended already? Didn’t anorexia prove that?

Therapy might be corrupting if it only brought up the things you wanted to express or knew how to express, or, at least, knew. Everybody wants to be treated as if their words were important, but it’s not good for the soul to have your own interpretations taken too seriously.

But therapy is supposed to seek out and challenge the hidden thoughts and assumptions. Therapists ask searching questions, or expect you to ask searching questions of yourself, and what if you don’t want to confront things you might find in your head?

Personally, I’ve been wandering around, imprisoned in the labyrinth of my own mind for decades and I bore the hell out of myself. It also turns out I don’t understand a damn thing that’s going on in there, but I suspect I won’t like anything I stumble across.

On top of this, there is the need to come up with the goods. We all feel like charlatans, remember, so we always fear that the therapist will look us up and down and say, disdainfully, “Well, you’re fine, you self-indulgent, time-wasting bastard!” About to start a therapy session, I always look into myself and think, “Oh, my God! I’ve got absolutely nothing to say! What will become of me?!”

So self-scrutiny can be hard. It’s tedious, or disturbing. It’s upsetting and unpleasant. It’s a chore, and what with the admissions and the exposure, the mortification, it’s a dirty and soiling chore. Like unblocking drains.

But this means you can treat it like work, and you soon lose the guilt. In fact, you experience that resigned-yet-apprehensive Monday morning feeling in advance of each session.

And therapists are professional listeners. That’s their job. It’s what they were trained and are paid to do, and they can take professional pride in their ability to do it well. Remembering this makes it easier to justify spilling your guts to them. You can treat yourself like a topic under discussion.

Of course, I still feel guilty, but now it’s because I’ve been given an opportunity denied to most. Everyone should have therapy. It does actually seem therapeutic: healing and constructive.

Derisive laughter is the best medicine

Therapy’s demand for unflinching self-scrutiny and then honest admission is at odds with the social rules in normal society. In Britain, when somebody says, ‘How are you?” you don’t answer, “I’m falling apart, here!”

My room-mate, Dylan, is the only other man in Ascot House. He’s disdainful of the gloominess patients admit to in therapy workshops. He knows we do it because we feel we ought to, and thus regards it as dishonest and attention-seeking. He doesn’t say anything, but I can sense him casting his eyes to heaven, internally. I guess friction is inevitable when we’re all cooped up together like this. Given that we are simultaneously the most sensitive and the rudest people on the planet, it’s surprising we haven’t murdered each other. Is it a testament to our tolerance or our indolence?

When asked to “Check In” Dylan always drawls, “Not too bad…Yeah, not too bad…” in languid, meditative tones, despite having been climbing the walls a few minutes before, and despite jiggling his foot so frantically, under the table, that its energy could power the whole house. He’s disassociating himself from our self-important misery.

He is also trying to support a relaxed, sociable atmosphere, by avoiding the awkwardness that would follow any intimate revelations. We’re kind of old-fashioned in our expectations, he and I, although he’s only 20, and we automatically resort to this kind of behaviour. You’re supposed to make light of things and not burden other people.

Perhaps this is still gendered. I’m torn between the desire to demonstrate that I’m genuinely ill, and the desire to make light of everything, but Dylan’s openly hostile to confession. He’s had a very traditional training by a typically macho, punchy dad. Maybe women can be emotionally open, honest and talkative, but, even nowadays, we boys imagine the look of horror and embarrassment and alienated betrayal on our friends’ faces, if we described to them what was truly going on in our heads. If we knew. If we admitted it to ourselves.

In workshops, you can rely, to a certain degree, on basic social etiquette to avoid too abrupt an encounter with your demons. We keep to the social scripts, and this stops us from degenerating into howling megalomania. No one grand-stands, or holds the floor for too long; everyone contributes and responds appropriately, takes turns beautifully, listens carefully and contributes dutifully. We’ve been horrible to our families and we want to redeem ourselves by being sweet and supportive to each other. We’d like, very much, to prove to ourselves that we’re kind people, not arseholes.

We’re not being insincere, it’s just that we’re sharing responsibility for our illness and putting it into context and perspective: we’re not the only ones in this situation, and this generates a certain distance from our problems. Our concern and respect for each other allows for restraint and decorousness. You can escape into wise but vague generalities made to murmurs of assent. You can say, “I think, people like us are often trying to process a sense of humiliating powerlessness…” without having to stand naked and raw before them and bear witness to your own ghastly failures, without having to say, “I am Xan Nichols, a feral and diseased rat, cowering in a filthy corner. I’ll savage any hand extended to me. Let me tell you what I did to those I say I love…”