A Stranger

I can’t go downstairs.
Red wine smokes by a roaring fire, the clamour of crackling wood licks the dim hue of candlelight. A bottle of anxiety ripens, secreting that fruity stench. Swirled three times before poured neatly down their throats between mouthfuls of crisps. Cheese and Crianza: the fragrance of cosiness.
I can’t.
The air would be too heady, woozy. Close. I can smell the fug from up here, perched at this desk with the window open wide. Wrapped in the embrace of the frost.
Down there, the stench of wine, whimsey and worries would turn on me. Burrowing between my frown lines, my pores soaking up the alcohol lingering in the air. Fermented calories a mere whisper, a sticky breath down my neck. Poisonous thoughts can catch, then rage.
It is marginally safer up here, in the back room. A spare space for spare parts going spare in despair and disrepair. An unused duvet, empty decoration boxes, a pile of hollowed out ostrich eggs. A pile of used clothes on their way out of here, crammed into a donation bag. Then theres me. Nestled up to my desk by the window, breathing in safe air. This desk was installed a few weeks ago when the intrusions became too much. The grating cry of the telephone, scratching cats and door rattling on their hinges. Unhinging. Winged calories taking flight up the stairs and seeping under the bedroom doors.
Each of these are examples of single, over-ripe cherries that can crown my day, and finish the feast for Anxiety to devour. So I must retreat up here, and back away from the triggers.
For awhile, I can forget. The pages of this notebook fold under my hands and this pen nestles in my hand. I take advice from Keats and Byron that I don’t understand, only revere. Snip, snip, snip. Cutting my life down to size and displaying the good bits in a scrap book: newspaper clippings, receipts, an empty cereal wrapper. Only the pretty bits, the shiny ones. Because really, that’s all anybody would be interested in.
There is nothing extraordinary about these parts: nothing emotive or glamorous about wallowing in my own poverty. And nobody to tell me otherwise. When I am alone, I can be Anonymous, or Ellie, or unreal. Allowed to sink back, and be nothing. Be neutral.
This is such an aggressive illness. Sometimes, it is just better that I stay away. When a cancer of emotions blots up the fluidity of my family; when Anxiety eats the atmosphere or I catch myself stalking my parents as they move through the kitchen, looking for irritation. When all I want to do is unload my burden onto someone else as they stagger under their own. I find a pocket of clean air, somewhere away from the noise, and contain the violence.
Oh, to be alone. To be undisturbed and peaceful, to be apart from the reality of it all. To cower in the quiet. Of course, I’m never alone. There is always something, someone. There will always be some corner that stops me as I retreat away from myself.

When I tumble off the edge of reason, I break out in feverish anger. An unreasonable rash, blinding and raging.
It makes me a stranger in my own home, and to myself. I mustn’t be around other people, I mustn’t. Don’t look at me, not like this.
I can’t see myself for rage: I can’t distinguish Ellie apart from the fear, apart from the anorexia apart from the – real.
Anger pushes me out.

Stop. Ellie, stop.
Come here, come back down here.

Anorexia grew around loneliness like mould. Layer upon layer, keeping out the cold. Recovery gets it’s fingernails lodged under this tough hide, and then I feel it. The sharp bite of memory, the familiar chill running up my spine. A bitter reality condensing, and rolling down my face like tears.

Anonymous carries loneliness, and so other people are at risk of exposure.
Mum and Dad splutter when my anorexic words turn the air rancid. They watch as insults, with nowhere to go, turn back on my tongue and begin to self destruct. Yet they stand by, and wait for the worst to be over. Always there, just there. Nearly there Ellie.
I froze my friends out, or they did me. Some backed off at the stench of illness. Some were stared down by long silences over text, not recognising me drowning in a crowd of my own thoughts. Those that survived this winter then endured rashes of words snaking down their screens, never face to face. Desperate pleas for news, stories, anything to whisk me out of myself, away from me. From my illness.
Then, there are the ones who survived, and found me. They agree to meet me at the edge of reason, where I’ll often leave them hanging, unable to wade through a flash flood of panic. Yet still they grit their teeth, and wait for the symptoms to subside. This is the only treatment for loneliness I trust to work: the test and trial of time.
Even after all this time: thank you. Thank you for remembering me, thank you for inviting me. I am flattered that you remember Ellie enjoys the odd pub trip, a carol service, a night on your bedroom floor. One day, I’ll come. I’ll answer to my name, not to Anonymous’.
Days go by where I speak to nobody but my long suffering parents. Sometimes, Anonymous needs her hit of loneliness to turn the screw. She thinks it helps, because it hurts. As if she has any control over her own impoverishment.
Yet still, she feeds on it. Another way of starving myself.

The chill of loneliness, and the itch of boredom. Here are the symptoms wrecking havoc on my recovery.

Blotches of boredom rupture randomly.
I haven’t learned to sit with time: not at my desk, behind my harp, around a friends’ table or in a car going somewhere new. Instead I am made to stand up to creeping calories, and confront minutes as they slide by, squeezing exercise out of them like sweat. Time drips by, washed away by frustrated tears. The empty promise of Tomorrow lurks in a couple of hours, bumping through the night until it pounces on a breaking dawn. I endure boredom, and wait for the day to end.
Easing this deadly symptom takes practice, and imagination. Last week, a miracle occured.

I was sent where boredom fears to tread: unchartered territory for my Anorexia. I was asked to cover the reception class full time during the week. That is nine hours a day wading through layers of children. The assault course was the classroom floor: littered with paper, mud and fingers. Lego booby-traps laid like confetti. Eyes that have only witnessed four years of this world would produce tears that could be stemmed with the wave of a wand, or a teddy, or a time out. Here – take this. Make that.
There wasn’t enough of me to go round. I left some thoughts on the whiteboard and buried others in the sandpit; had a panicked mind instructing my body to just. Stay. Calm, and do as I say.
Children can smell fear, and I stank.
Confronted by a week restrained in a chair: at a desk; an easel; cross-legged on the carpet and bolt upright in assembly. I could watch Sitting in it’s natural habitat, still and camouflaged against the hope in that classroom. The conclusions I leapt to when I accepted the job: the endless sitting, the clamour, the stress – the triggers tipping off tongues like spit. I held these at arms length as I crossed the threshold on Monday morning. If I could jump at an opportunity as fast as I jumped to conclusions, things could be different.
I called on all I had learnt in recovery: Nut theory; the smoothie crisis; the mystery of trust. Try it Ellie, try it for one week. See what happens. A controlled experiment in an uncontrolled environment – moving meals an hour each way; activity anxiety; lunch in the staffroom – see what happens. If you can do this, you could be opening the door to new things. Imagine what you could do, Ellie, if you knew how to sit?
Imagine how much you’d be able to write.

Anonymous isn’t good with children. She wrinkled her nose and held back, but I felt her watching. Her gaze often burned a hole in my seat, and I was forced to stand up, and make excuses by clearing up during circle time. Her chest tightened as the clock hand turned, screwing my lunchtime tighter. She clutched loneliness and waved it in my face in the few moments I had spare to stand back, and admire my work.

I am so proud of what I achieved this week: I sacrificed activity, and killed off boredom. I didn’t enjoy it: there was no room for enjoyment, no time. But it was brilliant.
How wonderful to be too busy to hear loneliness snoring, how wonderful to feel something as fulfilling as joy.
I did it – because I said so.
For a week, I could be part of a pocket of progress in a world of constant, cyclic doubt.
If only it didn’t have to come to an end. Going back to boredom, it looks different somehow. More vulnerable.

Boredom and loneliness are both causes and symptoms of my illness. When I feel brave, I try different treatments, and see how my life responds to them. Learning to manage loneliness, and look into it’s scarred face without flinching, or running away.
Anorexia was just a way out, just another dead end.
This blog eases the itching emptiness. Someone to talk to who’s judgements I’ll never read through my screen. Someone to talk to when I am faced with an empty chair across the table.
My phone feeds off me, and I off it. An unhealthy attachment, stuck staring at a screen looking for something that will never be there. I feel each dancing image drain time and energy.

My life has begun to creep. My weight is taking tentative steps up an axis, and strength rushes straight to my head. My memory is dilating and senses sharpening, and it is all rather hard to adjust to. I’m not used to managing all these processes, all this pain and all this light. Reality looks different everyday. Sometimes, it hurts to look at, so I choose not to. I turn my thoughts onto something closer, familiar. Like myself. Then I tear it to pieces, just to prove I can.

This time of year aggravates symptoms of loneliness.
Festivities have frosted over, small sharp triggers prickling as advent is worn away. The overripe fruit of Christmas, hanging just out of my reach. Last year, I wasn’t strong enough to tug enjoyment from branches laden with emotions. This year, I am at least reaching for it, determined to find some sweetness.
My family beckons to Christmas, and I can already feel myself being left behind. Left out in the cold, unable to get too close to the celebrations lest they upset Anonymous. Even now as I write my Christmas cards, I can here her growling. How many calories are on the envelope glue?
Ellie always loved Christmas. Perhaps that’s why I grieve so much when I realise it may never be the same again. I will sew my broken heart together with the doubt that things will always be this way. Something will change, it has to.

There is a stranger in here. Raging under the confines of my skin, tearing my mind away from my body.
Hiding from myself for so long, I’ve become a stranger. Always there, but never here.
When I touch Anorexia to rouse it, all I feel is loneliness.

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