A few days ago, I walked past the place where I had lived when the illness was in full control, and it felt like revisiting a place for the first time since a death. I didn’t expect to have quite so visceral a reaction to a yellow-painted door, but seeing it again made me feel nauseous, like I’d walked past a ghost. Déjà vu.
I feel, different. Where previously I shed my shame in sweat and the starved clenches of a stomach, I now swallow that shame with this new strength. The feeling which necessitated starvation for my survival, the serpent-like sensation of safety, is still faintly there, but now it whispers rather than drowning all other thoughts like white noise.
I have gained 40lbs. As a cumulative number it feels vast — usually only seen in print when it’s the quantity lost, not gained. But each increment is testament to the changes made. People I’ve known for years have re-introduced themselves to me after not recognising me. It’s understandable. Sometimes even I struggle to recognise that other self. The mindset feels like another language — a complex argot which is often undecipherable to the uninitiated.
In the vernacular of anorexia, you cannot see your self, only your size, which is magnified through the lens of the disorder, and in turn intensified through the corroborative silence of others. Even if you suspect that something may be wrong in your behaviours, the lack of intervention or acknowledgement of disorder intensifies the fear that should you seek help, you won’t be believed: that the doctor will see the size of your thighs and you will be laughed out of the surgery door. Judgements of body size are as common as flies, and so subconsciously there lies the assumption that if your weight loss was truly substantial, the comments would come flocking. They don’t. Our culture of politeness wills blindness, but this silence encourages, and perpetuates suffering. When I first ‘confessed’ my illness to my tutor, I was met with the response, ‘well, it’s no surprise’. That anyone had noticed was a surprise to me.
Anorexia numbs; it distracts the mind from emotions by focusing attention primarily on food and weight, but it also dulls your experience- low weight and depression are partners in crime, and the anorectic world is cold, grey and ever-shaded with guilt.
Why have rice when you can just eat vegetables? Why eat a whole grapefruit when you can just eat half? Why put milk in your coffee when it has no calories black? Why drink juice when water’s lighter? Why eat when you’ll just have to burn it off in the gym? Why eat at all?
And then it takes over. You can only eat at certain times, and if circumstances delay you from adhering to these rules, then you mustn’t eat at all. You look forward to waking up, not for the day ahead, but to see how much weight you’ve lost overnight. Of course, if you haven’t, that day will be dominated by exercise and agonising in the mirror, pulling at the flesh you think is fat around your StomachHipsThighsArmsAss until there are sore red stripes, like warning marks, brandishing your body. Your thoughts will become magnetised to food, yet actual, material food- food that smells, that is edible and nourishing- is terrifying, threatening to pull down the fragile house of cards you have been assembling, precariously, on the scales.
This body starts to feel insubstantial, causing you to constantly check that it still exists, no bigger than the state you willed it. You grab hip bones, collar bones, shoulder blades; make rings around your upper arms and still there is space through the hoop of your fingers. Make a loop around your thighs with both hands and will your fingers to squeeze tighter. Your thighs yawn apart, an exhausted gap appearing; your lap has disappeared along with the sense that this may be a bad thing.
You sit on a wooden chair in the library and can’t help but wince with the pain of feeling that your hip bones are going to pierce through flesh. You take a spare jumper everywhere as a cushion so that you can sit down. Your spine is so visible through your back you have bruises along each vertebrae from sleeping on a duvet-cushioned mattress. You sit at your desk, trying to concentrate on reading, wearing two pairs of socks, jeans, three jumpers and wrapped in a blanket. You wear gloves to type because your hands seize up like icicles in the cold. It’s May.
Your hands frequently spasm and curl up into your wrists due to dehydration, and random bouts of pins and needles cause you to frequently drop things. You’ve lost so much muscle that sometimes, lifting your arms to get dressed, or in the shower, your shoulders will dislocate. You have to reach along that slippery shelf of bone to reposition your joints. Your hips frequently pop out while walking.
When you wash your hair, clumps of brunette gather among your fingers. When you brush it, tufts, like dandelion wishes, float to the floor. Your skin is paper thin and flakes, with a blueish tinge caused by the visibility of your veins, or pure coldness, or both.
You haven’t had a period in months, and bone scans show early signs of osteoporosis. You’re told that you might not be able to have children. Your chest shrinks along with the rest of you, until you are unable to even wear a bra designed for just-pubescent teen girls, because the wire leaves bruises along your ribs. Besides, it’s entirely unnecessary.
On bad days, on cold days, your speech slows as if chewing toffee, the effort of forming words requiring more energy than you can afford to spend. The fog is there, and through the mist all that is visible to you are those numbers you repeat as mantra. All you want to do is sleep — but that is laziness, and you can’t abide the thought of that epithet being applied to you. The CCTV is there in your mind, watching, judging, weighing.
When you eat, your mind is overwhelmed with a painful anxiety akin to brain freeze. When you eat, your stomach begins to reject it, pulls itself around in knots, internally kicks itself for being so stupid. The thing that would cure you, hurts you. But that thing that hurts you, cures you.
When you recover, you have to reverse all this. One by one, stop the checking, the weighing, the exercising. Stop the counting, the obsessing, the agonising. Like Alice, you must follow the labels to drink and eat despite the uncertain results. You must listen to Derek Walcott, and sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself.
I’ve dismantled that house of cards. I’m no longer ashamed of existing: I take up space. It’s hard to be useful when you’re starving, and it’s hard to do good when you’re near dying. Self-care enables mutual care: as an anorexic, the only way you can avoid triggering others is by recovering yourself. You have to learn to treat yourself as just another human being. And then, as Steinbeck says, ‘now you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good’.