A job offer was to be a mere threshold from which I could step out of myself, and into this new person. For a few weeks, it would all be new. A confident skin glowing with enthusiasm, one so honest and true it could mask anorexia for a few weeks.
A summer job would take me away. A breakout so violent it would shake Ellie awake for good, and make her turn time forward in her direction. The weeks away would blemish days with new things. Like acne, I’d stay awake to watch nights rupture into mornings. I’d do fun things and new things, cool things and social stuff. Escaping anorexia would redefine “things”.
It was a beautiful sight to behold.
Nights glittered with the dew of clubhouse sweat, mornings studded by efficiency and days brimming with life, friends, fun – things. Socials would wade into weekends and let the energy ripple right into Monday morning. Perhaps a love interest would bob along, perhaps a spark would jump from my mouth to a career path’s ear. Who knew? Who knew what “things” I’d encounter and claim as my own? Who knew what new “things” about myself I’d have to keep forever.
Who knew that what I had seen – what that vision had been, all those months ago – was a dream of recovery. I was dreaming of living in a recovered future.
Of course, these things are but a dream. A little pocket of calm amongst an anorexic nightmare. Still, Anonymous couldn’t quite deny Ellie the right to dream. It’s her favourite pastime.
Even in the days leading up to leaving, I hadn’t woken up. I was still indulging so much on a fantasy that my bags were bloated with glittery tops and high heels. My tennis racket waited in my suitcase for the day it would be used on a hot summer’s day. There was room in that bag to take the memory of a tennis partner home in, and the energy I’d surely have to do so. Even as I distributed Anonymous all over the flat, and let her loose to scope out where her routine would lie, I still didn’t wake up.
Only when the first staff social stomped nearby, did Ellie stir.
The details caused a disturbance in the air: punting in the afternoon followed by Pimms and strawberries on the lawn. Supper somewhere with a youthful (ie, greasy) name and then on to a pub until alcohol outstripped blood supply. My comfort zone stops long before this line of weakness. At the very invitation to such an exciting event, Ellie started to pick up and give out worrying vibes. Sticky carpets paved the way through crowds of people and clouds of calories looming in the smoky nightlife air. A whole chunk of Anonymous’ time would be handed over to another person and spread thickly, horizontal, on a punt. There, we’d be trapped. Incarcerated and subjected to an anxious few hours stuck seated, with nowhere to run but the shallow depths of the river.
Ellie still dreamt, she could still hear the utopian calls beckoning her to err on that side of the decision. The night advertised recovery in it’s fullest form. There were so many promises of interaction it would no doubt keep, in return for an Anonymous concession. Which she simply cannot give.
I couldn’t do it. Ellie woke up, and was frightened.
The staff social calendar haunts me. The happiest few weeks for a while have been stalked by the expectation that looms above me. It’s a shadow cast over the contentment I hold with solitude. I’m careful to skirt around it, and not tread on it’s toes with my big anorexic feet.
There have been meals, picnics, pub trips, punts. The events orbit food, and draw boozy blots over the summer. Things sit too close to food, and for too long in the company of inactivity. These things are too far out of my reach.
Ellie’s stomach twists with longing every time she says no. We walk together in the opposite direction, and let Anonymous be. She gets very worried if we wake her, better to let the beast lie. I always knew I’d have to choose my battles here, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, not yet. There just hadn’t been any warning of this fact in my dream.
I’ve been starved of social interaction with anyone my own age for quite some time. Living in a quiet rural village and working with 4 year olds has it’s golden moments, but I am often foraging for them alone. When every other 22 year is out there doing things and getting things, there aren’t many people left with whom I can share what I find. So coming here has already given me ample amounts of exposure to people like me. And I’m relieved to say I really like it. I do like most people.
I’ve been so hungry for company. Only now I’ve tasted it do I realise how much so. Yet it has come, and much of the time I still don’t know quite what to do with it. How to digest something so rich, so nourishing? And how to be, how to hold myself in my generation. To recognise the bones that prop us up out of demography: that rapper, that film, that classic hit. What pray, does “reem” mean?
Aside from the obvious problems a recovering anorexic might have with socialising with people at events, there are nice gaping holes in my memory of actual human interaction. It’s not bad, but enough to make me wary.
And now, I’m hungry.
On the other side of town, all my colleagues are tucking into brunch. A staff trip to celebrate a great session and greater team. I shall allow you a little more than the excuse I scraped together for them as to why I wouldn’t be there. But please don’t expect the full picture: there are too many things in the nightmare for me to conjure into words.
Oh the hazards. Brunch trips over two meals and lands in a calorific puddle of sweaty uncertainty. The trickery that would do to my metabolism rivals the thought of what I’d be exposed to. Had I simply gone and sipped black coffee, I’d still have been there. I’d have been there in the presence of lumbering servers serving slowly. Wafts of bacon or eggs or caramelised fruit would gather in my throat and drip calories into my system. The endless chatter, however pleasant, would eat into my seat. The heavy weight of time would sit next to me and glare as an hour, possibly two, passed by with me being able to stand, or move, or exercise. There are some times in the day when this is ok. But not in the clear run of hours between breakfast and lunch. Not landed lazily between two well established mealtimes, not on top of so many other things. Not at brunch.
I won’t put myself through it. It would hurt too much. And that, I recognise, is selfish.
I should have gone, shown my face. I should have chosen other people’s desire to see me over my own to stay away. For I am Anonymous, and it makes sense to put everyone else first. Expectation is a crafty thing. It has so many mirrors.
Ellie is recovering her summer dream so convincingly one would have thought this is the best it could get. Even with Anonymous putting things all over it, my time here looks to be every bit as good as that vision.
And really, that is more than Reality had expected.
Once again, I have neglected to write about today, because I’ve been too busy making a meal of last week on my blog. It is now published, and so I can draw a line under what was a very anxious week. Lines can always be blurred, but the only thing I want to take with me into the next is my desire to do better. This week, I want to do well.
I’m sure I’ve had plenty of positive and constructive thoughts on the day, but alas: writing of the last tore me from the present, and I haven’t really been in the moment at all. I have been chewing it all over, rewriting my misery again and again. And now what of today? Where am I, here and now?
So here I shall commence: in the here and now, at my desk and scribbling fast so I can get to bed.
When I got myself to here today, it actually turned out to be really nice. Nice is not a word I use liberally, but it’s quaint and inoffensive qualities render it perfect for this description.
Anonymous dreads her days off. The vast hours of time moving at a glacial pace through the day serve as a tribute to all I have lost by wishing it away. Boredom lurks too close by, and preys on me as I drift.
Today was a day off: ie, a day in my control. This is how I want to think of it, for it is a day that belongs entirely to me. Aren’t you lucky, Ellie?
Ellie decided to do something brave with her precious morning. She took a gamble with how much exercise there’d be in it for her, and agreed to meet a friend from work for coffee. I’ve been trying to keep the extent of Anonymous’ power over me away from her, so glued my tongue into my cheek when she told me she knew of the “perfect” coffeehouse. Two unknowns found in the plan.
I’m so glad I went. Cancellation was a tempting escape route away from the possibility for sitting for longer than usual, dodgy waiters who lie about the fat content of their milk. “Of course this is skinny milk,” they say. I have to drip drops off my spoon, holding it up against the light. Only skinny milk is watery enough to see through. The latte itself came out bigger than I expected. Prickling panic subsided after Ellie reminded me that we’d normally be having a snack too, not just a latte. So it was alright: not ideal, for Anonymous had a slim plan, but alright.
I went because Ellie enjoys spending time with people. She likes feeling together, especially when she’s able to be with herself too.
The activity anxiety stung less as soon as we stood up to go for a walk down the river. The air was cooler today, and I know my body had to use some extra calories to wrap my jacket around my shoulders tightly. I knew the walk was coming, and I wasn’t having to hold off too long because she drank her coffee at about the same pace as me. And so it came to be that Ellie could enjoy the time, the place, the company. We had a very gentle chat on the nourishing pics of literature, family, jobs and gossip. I think I feel better for just having some normal human contact with someone. Working relationships are propped up and unnatural.
Don’t get me wrong: I do like being alone. Most of the time actually, it suits Ellie and Anonymous quite well. One can think, and one can write. Sometimes though, three is a crowd. It gets stuffy stuck in this head.
Mum and Dad left for their holiday today. Not that it makes much difference to me literally: they’re at home and I’m up here. But the safety net of their phone calls has been moved quite far out of reach, out of range and signal. Which is fine. It may do me good to try fighting Anonymous without running crying to someone afterwards. It will do them good too.
I just hope they didn’t leave worrying about me. I’m so selfish: I ended up calling them again last night out of desperation. They didn’t need to hear their daughter being eaten alive by her illness, it is cruel. I just couldn’t keep her in.
The sun came out, and time took it’s course on the day. The afternoon seems to have been trodden into the ground by distraction. I’ve kept busy by prepping tomorrow’s food, finally found a Waitrose, (don’t laugh, where my food comes from it very important to me. I’m anorexic, not just a Surrey girl), and writing this feeling quite pleased I published my blog earlier.
Achieving sends me on a high, and somehow it is just easier to believe that it is all going to be ok. Even if the achievement is something as small as willing something good to happen, amongst all the bad.
Out of a hard week last week, I was able to produce a blog post. Something to write about.
This week, I’d like to cope. That would be a novel idea: plenty to get my teeth into there.
Day 16: Friday 13th, of course.
I just screamed in public.
I will never be allowed back into Clare’s Scholars gardens again, not if any of the tourists reported the strange sight that was myself. Cross-legged and cowering beneath the dahlias, glaring at the glum gardener as he continued to mow the lawn over the spot I had been sitting near not a few moments ago, but had to absent on grounds of rising noise anxiety.
I had taken my snack to the nice corner, the one far away from other people, and so far away from triggers. Just as I spilt my tea over breakfast; as the recycling man clattered as I was taking my first mouthful of porridge; as the traffic lights turned red – it was never to be smooth. I ran from the swarming tourists on the street, and hid in the garden.
Then they all found me. The gardeners emerged from the hedges clutching machines and clippers. Punts drifted to this side of the river, screeching children and screaming babies making their air sodden with alarm. Greasy teenagers lumbered along to the beat of their music that they had to be playing out of speakers: because clearly the revered Cambridge ambience and birdsong wasn’t upbeat enough for them. Noise rose in the air and collected together with the swarm of other triggers following me: exhaustion, fear to eat but fear of not eating, loneliness, and dread of the long shift ahead of me later on.
I so wanted my snack. To curl my tongue around it and savour this: my prize for getting to 11:30. I was so hungry. There was so much noise in my head, and suddenly too much outside it.
And so yes, I screamed.
My anxiety jumped when I arrived in town. I locked my bike up after a bemusing journey in (more on that to follow), and then I was swept up in the clamour and sweat of thousands of people teeming down King’s parade.
Up to the click of my lock, I was doing ok. The morning, in normal circumstances, would have been written off as “pointless”. Turning up to a yoga class in a strange city, anticipating an hour or so of the much missed therapy it gives me at home, had opened the day up to chance. I knew there was a chance the class wouldn’t be as good as my one back at home, I was prepared for that.
What I was not prepared for was to rock up to the studio and discover it was nestled behind a pungent vegan restaurant. Even at 9 in the morning, the stench of seared aubergine soaked the air in oily odours. The floor in reception was thudding from the heavy metal music playing in the kitchen next door. In the yoga studio: a place of peace and contemplation, was tarnished by the screaming vocals tortured by squealing guitar chords. Then the teacher turned up – let me not even start on that. To push up into downwards dog and call it anusara, nose blocked and ears ringing, is something contradictory to the famed intelligence of this city.
I left after nine minutes, my head feeling noisier and shakier than I had when I walked in. Not quite the point, some would agree. No matter. I have my bicycle, so I’m not too worried about missing out on the muscle tone leant by my weekly yoga at home. It just would have been nice to do something familiar, something comforting.
Despite the disappointment, I was a little amused. What would have been a waste of time at home I can simply write off as “futile”. In which case, I have achieved what every explorer aims to probe: pointlessness. For only when we discover something is completely useless do we call it useless, and make it a boundary. This is how we build up our knowledge of the place we are in. I will not attempt to go to yoga here again.
Then I got to town, and to all the people. And now here I am, screaming.
Let me move now along to here: my evening shift.
I already hate this.
Tonight we are throwing the student’s graduation party, and we’ve already had dramas erupt like champagne corks. My worries are threatening to do the same, but with arguably less energy. I don’t have enough to spare. I certainly don’t have enough to get me through the next few days: ten hour shifts back-to-back, with two night shifts thrown in for good measure.
I’m frightened my body will fail.
I’m frightened my mind will burn out.
I’m frightened the cold night air will help me catch a cold.
I’m frightened I’m not going to have enough to time to prepare all my food.
I’m frightened because I don’t want to eat this.
I’m frightened because I have to.
How else will I achieve the week?
Day 17: Shake and rattle
Ok I’m struggling.
Someone is in the flat next door playing jazz. Let me clarify: they are playing smooth jazz from good quality speakers, and have been doing so all evening. There was an interval that coincided (miraculously) with my supper. I suspect the hot date taking place over there most likely gave their ears a break and let their mouths do some work. I’m talking about eating and talking, by the way. Anyway, it has started again. It isn’t hurting me, but it is making me anxious. Mainly because I’m convinced the sound has stressed me out too much, and now I won’t sleep.
I have a 12 our shift tomorrow and two night shifts in the days following that. Does anyone else sense I’m heading for a burnout?
Exhaustion makes me eyes lose focus sometimes. In order to not lose focus on what is on my plate, perhaps it would be useful for me to address my food and exercise in this diary. I can’t hide from it, especially not with another weigh in coming up.
Today I have been restricting, and have been duly punished for it. I’ve been feeling quite ill all day. Anonymous made me stand all the time. A day catching up with work admin was not going to serve as an excuse to sit at a desk. Instead, I volunteered to run errands and move bags. I fetched students and vigorously put paper through the shredder, flying arms and all. I sat down for 20 mins at lunch, and 10 because I needed some coffee. Why does that still feel like too much?
Tomorrow is the first of three difficult days.
Having indulged my feelings in this notebook, I think I know what I need to do to manage the coming shifts. Survivor’s instinct dictates that I draw on what I know works. So maybe what I should do is force the days to be good ones.
Against their will and the will of fate too, perhaps. But this is a more positive angle than the ones I’ve had before.
I guess for today, I can at least say that I’ve achieved an angle.
Day 18: Difficult Day 1
I’m already not enjoying this.
As I started work at 11 today, I thought it would be a good idea for me to get a coffee and have my snack beforehand. I approached the cafe stemming the cold sweat that has been breaking out since last night. 30 degree heat appears to be doing nothing for my immune system, and I think I’ve come down with a cold. My feet have been dragging somewhat because my thighs are a bit stiff. They still aren’t used to cycling, nor to disrupted sleep patterns. I have really been quite looking forward to this coffee. It has been a busy morning prepping for lunch, snacks and supper, and already getting hot out there. I’ve been wanting to fill you in.
And now here I am, feeling worried.
Perhaps it is because the cafe’s dishwasher has broken, and I now have to drink my coffee out of a paper cup. Perhaps it is because I miss my Mum and Dad, because I haven’t had a hug in weeks. Perhaps it is because whenever I go on Facebook, my newsfeed clogs up with all my happy friends embracing each other in their graduation gowns. Perhaps it is because I have such a long way to go before all that. Perhaps I do just feel a little left behind, and at the mercy of this illness.
Perhaps it is the disgust I feel for all this self-pity.
Ok Ellie, stop. You’ve forgotten to breathe again. You’ve forgotten where you are.
I didn’t check this was skinny milk. Oh no, I’ve already drunk at least half of it. I sigh: how will I think to remember this when I get on the scales tomorrow? That this one latte will have such an influence over my weight.
Stop Ellie. Try and enjoy these 15 mins you have here. Put your pen down if you like: you shouldn’t be writing if you’re only doing to prove something to Anonymous. Sip your coffee, taste your snack.
I think this is skinny milk. It looks watery enough.
1:24am: I just got home. It was actually a pleasant cycle home. The streets are less worrying when nobody else is on them.
Today actually went quite quick, which is really all I’d ever ask for. It was arrivals day for the next batch of students staying here this summer. They seem a little bit, well, cool than the last lot. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as they are not too cool for rules.
In any case, the icebreakers I ran went down a treat. Nothing beats zip-zap-boing. In fact, the games were a perfect metaphor for today’s shift. I approached it thinking I’d be completely out of control. As it turns out, I didn’t have to force any fun. It all just happened.
Day 19: Difficult Day 2
I’ve just been weighed. Was not expecting that.
How exhausting it is to discover that in 5 days, gravity has grabbed every morsel of my body and yanked it up 0.8kg. How? After all these long days, these dodgy mealtimes, these restrictions – how – have I managed to regain the weight I lost last week?
It was a rather horrible experience all in all. I’ve registered as a temporary resident at a GP surgery here, and met the nurse and the scales that will be weighing me from now until the end of my time here.
Today turned out to be very different to last week, when I was shown into a GP with a pair of old fashioned scales. They ticked and creaked, and settled well below the weight I had arrived in Cambridge with, if you remember correctly. Today, I was ushered into a waiting room underground for 25 mins. The room was packed and airless, dark and with very little room to let Anonymous out to pace. I became extremely anxious and burst into tears before the nurse had come to get me.
After all that, I got on these new scales. As my weight leaped up, my jaw dropped. So did my guard. I was utterly overwhelmed by all these feelings.
49.8kg. Back to that weight I had when I arrived here three weeks ago.
How? How did I do that without realising?
How did I lose control?
Now for some logic. Only here, cupping a strong coffee and considering it all, can logic get a word in edgeways. I’m just trying to work out which of these feelings are mine.
First came horror. It still sort of lingers, like a bad aftertaste.
Then I remember logic. Logic reminds me that these were a different pair of scales. These were scales of superior stuff to those I had relied on last week, for they were calibrated and electronic. These scales didn’t click menacingly upon receiving my weight. Last week may have been a lie altogether: could it be that all this worry about gaining weight so quickly could have been the work of misinformation?
Logic also reminds me how focused I have been on my plate this week. I swallowed the shame of bringing in so much food to work, and just did. I ate everything prescribed to me and counted every last calorie.
And the exercise? Perhaps there is something in what my doctor’s say: exercise only does so much to weight. It’s what you eat that counts.
Let it not be forgotten, too, that it is 11:30, and a hot day. I’ve been drinking lots of water and haven’t managed to have the ceremonial poo prior to being weighed.
If Anonymous lets me believe my eyes, and lets me think that this is nothing but a sign that I’ve been good, then that’s another matter.
If what has happened is true, some would interpret it as a good omen, not a threat.
It shows that despite ‘everything’, I can still let go of Anonymous.
‘Everything’ embellishes life here: cycling, sun, snacks, books, work, work, work, the energy to work. ‘Everything’ can serve as an excuse or an explanation for what I did with my food. Whatever happens to ‘Everything’ though, this weight shows I can do it.
Ellie, you can be trusted.
Imagine what you could achieve if it transpires you can maintain your weight alone?
Today has just been an invitation to hate myself.
I am so stupid and a burden and utterly utterly useless.
Ellie, you did wrong. And now we’re crying outside the gate of the College for all the world to see. I think that tourist even just took a photograph.
I’m feeling useless and stupid, which is what I am.
If I had been educated at Oxbridge like everyone else here, maybe I would have a few more brain cells to use. Maybe I would have realised how to do my job properly.
Any other student counsellor here would have known how to run detention. Only I appear to be thick enough to think that holding students in solitary confinement for 3 hours in the midday heat is punishment enough for turning up late for registration.
Indeed, I felt I was being punished too. Anonymous hates being left with her own thoughts. I’ve got cramp from pacing round and round in circles; for that is all the exercise I could do in there. It was maddening.
Perhaps I’m just not a punishing person. When one of the students put his head on his book and shut his eyes, I didn’t think twice.
Only now I’ve been chastised for not forcing the students to do their homework during detention, do I realise how stupid I’ve been.
So stupid, that everyone agrees. It must be the talk of the staffroom: Ellie on detention duty, and she can’t even manage that properly. Utterly laughable, it I wasn’t affiliated with her name.
The worst part is is it is supper time, and I’m too worked up to eat. I’ll surely throw it all up in a frenzy. I can’t force any more anxiety into this body.
It won’t hold, and certainly won’t hold over the course of the coming difficult days.
(Disclaimer: I did eat supper, eventually. I really needed it. Crying is tiring.)
Day 20: Third and Final Difficult Day
Yes I may have overreacted a tad yesterday. I took criticism too personally, only because my professionalism was worn thin from tiredness. I know I say it a lot, but exhaustion is very real to me at the moment.
I’ve been watching threats come and go today, and have a theory regarding why they scare me so. They just get too close, too real.
My mind’s eye catches them out and Anonymous drags them in. She turns them over and over, examining them closely. She studies them to know them better, thus making it possible to anticipate their next move.
I watch people walk into a house and know the music will start soon. I see the binmen coming over the hill and know the sound will stay with me long enough to ruin the peace I need to eat.
And now here, back in Fitzbillies’ coffee shop. Two no doubt terribly important and clever people having a loud and egotistic conversation in an otherwise gentle environment. Why do their decibels make me so angry?
Is it because I came here to calm down; are they stopping me? Or are you letting them?
This is me re-angling myself into the here and now. Almost forcing ‘ok’ onto my tongue.
Stop. You’ve forgotten to breathe again.
How are you doing Ellie?
Well, I’m looking forward to my day off tomorrow. That’s after tonight’s night shift of course.
I’m also looking forward to buying myself some flowers later.
And writing in my positivity diary that despite ‘everything’ occurring in this cafe, I’ve managed to move my mind out of harms way. I’m doing ok today, like I said I would do.
I’m so looking forward to tomorrow. Mainly because I’ll be in control of my day and my food. Presuming of course that I make the choice to do so.
I hope I have a good day.
Day 21: Long awaited day off.
Tiredness is pretty. It blurs sharpness into a creamy lather, into which I have been sinking today. On my bike, shopping, wandering the meadows. Today, I have just leant back into tiredness, and let it drift on through.
I haven’t acted upon it as others can: I won’t sleep in or rest of anything. But Anonymous will grant it some acknowledgement at least.
All my work colleagues are in the cinema watching the Incredibles. As I write, they are probably a couple of minutes into the adverts.
I would love to have gone. I was invited of course, and had even allowed myself to get excited. Having been unable to take part in any of the social events happening for staff owing to anxiety, mealtimes or exhaustion, I really thought this would be the one I’d make it to. It transpired that they wouldn’t be attending an evening viewing like I thought. Instead, they are in the 12pm one.
I can’t sit for 185mins in a cinema, in the middle of the day. Anonymous won’t let me.
I told them I wasn’t feeling well when I cancelled, which I suppose is sort of true.
Stop writing now Ellie. You don’t have to write because Anonymous says so.
You’ve got nothing to prove to anyone.
But this week, I can’t help but think I’ve proved something to myself. I’ve don’t well. Because I said I would do.
This grey and drizzly snacktime, I have had to do something a little different.
The first dreary cloud clogged up the skyline last night, and now all that sun has been ruined. I had to slip back into that person who arrived here two weeks ago, clutching a handful of useless ideas of where she might go when she needed her snack.
This is what I came up with. Sat at a bright table by the window, I’m sipping a semi-skimmed latte and bending over this notebook. Semi-skimmed not necessarily by choice, but because that seems to be independant-coffeehouse-speak for ‘skinny’. I think not, but after last night and this morning, I’m actually too exhausted to care. Anonymous can quibble over the handful of extra calories floating in this cup, but I’m having no part in it. Now, this here is a strange occurrence not just because of the coffee quandry. Perhaps you can hear it between the lines, perhaps you can sense the clamour shaking words off the page and out of my head. I walked into this noisy – nay, bubbly – coffeehouse, and felt anxiety turn me right around and march straight out. Grinding beans and steaming pumps, gurgles and burbles and babbling gabbling. It was a clamour to turn any anorexic’s empty stomach.
It was already 11:30, and I was already running late for my snacktime. Anonymous considered our options, and drank the room. We were in Fitzbillies: an iconic Cambridge coffeehouse, that must so happens to be a little too far away from anywhere else. When visiting, everyone “has” to try Fitzbillies. Coming here in the first place had been nothing more than an effort to be more adventurous. A table by the window watched me weigh up my options. Over ten people passed through, ordered, sat themselves down, but still that table remained empty. It was waiting for me to be brave, and so I stayed.
The food here looks delicious. I wonder if I’ll ever try one of those granola bars. No, not today. I’m a bit busy with my latte, see. Look how creamy it is! The milk is like velvet. I wonder how many calories it costs to be so fluffy? No, I haven’t googled it yet. I don’t think I should really, do you?
The noise in here is dying down a bit, and the coffee rush will be over in a matter of seconds. I can hear myself think again, and now I can’t avoid thinking of it any longer.
It is weigh day. I finally patched together a plan to get weighed each week, as requested by my clinic whilst I’m here. After failing miserably to get anywhere with the on-site-fabled-possibly-non-existent who has still yet to materialise, I snatch control before my nerves wrapped their fraying ends around this trigger, and registered as a temporary patient in a local surgery.
The scales have been falling all week. The needle click click clicked, and pulled gravity to my feet. The number was smaller than the number I arrived with, that is all I wish to say. Anonymous cast sweeping assurances that these were foreign scales, that I left my watch on, that I had cycled in, failed to poop, failed to get an appointment at 10 o’clock and instead had to attend at the farcical time of 9:35. So many units to build up to get an accurate weight, but this is the one I have. It is the number that I will work with and negotiate into next week.
I knew I was losing weight, I just didn’t know what that meant.
The whole country has caught football fever, myself included. I seem to be the only one in any discomfort; everyone else rides out the spasms of noise without blinking an eye. Anticipation assaults us all and yet I am the only one to fall.
You’re reading this and feeling revolted, I can taste it. How has anorexia managed to starve me of even the tiniest inkling of patriotism, any sense of fun? Allow me to explain.
No, listen. Actually listen: the explanation is in the air, mingling with all those gasps and cries and endless chanting. The noise is actually excruciating. It cuts right through me, and shakes Anxiety awake just when I’ve worked so hard putting it to bed.
There is still 26mins until the game starts, but the signs of a noisy onslaught have already been sighted.
Seven people clutching beer have just been appeared in next door’s window. Cars clot the drive; the shelves of every off-licence in Cambridge are bare, skeletal. And this: the sinister silence hanging over England, like bait.
I did not manage too well when England beat Sweden last week. I covered my ears and tried not to breathe in the sound. Still something must have leaked in, for an hour or so later I was curled up in my cupboard and howling for it to all be over: please, please let me sleep.
It is all too easy to brush Ellie’s words of comfort to one side: it’s a Wednesday, people need to be up in the morning for work; next door’s flat is tiny, they’d have to decant to a pub for an actual party. As a former student, I can say with certainty that no amount of limited space nor commitments will hold back a rush of alcohol infused desire to have fun. Oh, I wish I could still have fun.
My plan might work. I shall wade through each minute as if time weren’t stuck. There is a small chance the game itself will contain the masses. People will be glued to the screen, and noise will only be unstuck and lodged into my side if something actually happens. This should buy me enough to time to make supper, and eat it battling only Anonymous, not Anxiety as well.
I shall assess the situation when the familiar cries at the final whistle blows. If the decibels ring with alarm, I could put on a film. Not ideal, for I never watch TV in the evenings. Anonymous considers it a waste of time, but in this case she may just have to swallow it. Hard lumps of bad scriptwriting is easier to digest than what I daresay will await otherwise.
In the very likely event it reaches my bedtime and everyone is still at it, I’ll sink. An endless night of worry and exhaustion awaits, pressing in like treacle. Already noise is all over the neighbourhood, like a rash.
One wonders why I don’t just watch the game myself. Don’t get me wrong, I really want to. But it wouldn’t feel right, not all by myself.
Anxiety’s tolerance of noise has not made much progress at all really. If anything, it feels like it just drags me backwards.
Oh, I must just mention hummus-gate has been solved. Prior to my journey up here two weeks ago, I spent a happy afternoon in the kitchen making batches of my Anonymous approved hummus. I froze it in batches, and tried the first defrosted one today. As if it were made fresh, if a little stiff. Every now and then, it would do me good to defrost a little faith.
The Day before Yesterday
I can see my pillow from here, and it is calling. Oh my dear, I have been thinking of you since I left you this morning. All through the day, every word and mouthful, I was just thinking of your plump embrace, your lumbar support. How I would sink into you, and ride a dream out until dawn.
I am so excited to get into bed, so forgive me for keeping this brief.
Having just cycled home at 1 in the morning, I don’t quite see how I plan to actually go to sleep, for the adrenaline is still pumping a little too loud. If only it had hit me earlier, when I really needed it.
The morning confronted me with a grim cloud-clotted start. After yesterday, after the horror that was yesterday, today was promising to be just as frightening. I wanted none of it. I ate my breakfast grudgingly, docking a few calories here and there to start my anorexic sedation from the start.
When going on a school trip, Anonymous has always packed Anxiety. A great bulky load I had to carry all the way to London, again. After an anxious and restricted lunch, we loaded into the cell that would take us to the Strand, straight down the M11. I didn’t make it to work before I bucked under the stress. The thought of having to sit in that bus, through all that traffic, all over again. It was a heavy prospect, and it dragged my calorie count down. By doing so, it pushed Anonymous up. The 1hour 20 mins trip on a hunger high, still flying after this morning’s panic attack.
We arrived and everything left me. Every anxious animal in me collapsed in an exhausted heap. Luckily, the students had free time until the theatre show in the evening, and so so did we. I took myself off to those quiet corners of London that I know so well, and did everything I could to expel any residual worries before the show, and before I had to put on the show of ‘responsible adult’.
I was grateful to eat my supper. I packed it that morning, complete with a picnic plate. Pretending it was completely normal to picnic in Pret.
The rest of the trip was fine. I’m good at looking after things, just not always myself.
The heat backed off today, and all this worry has left me cold. Three anxiety attacks in 24 hours: pricking thumbs of something wicked. This way, it might come.
I’m being weighed tomorrow, and I can’t wait. It has been over two weeks and I just can’t take the strain of uncertainty anymore. I care not if I’m losing weight: that much I can sense. What though, if it turns out I’ve actually gained? What would all this worry and incontinence and exhaustion mean then? Is that what recovery is?
I wish I didn’t have to stay up any longer. I wish I could be with you now, pillow. Alas it is not to be for at least half an hour. There are food diaries and positivity diaries to fill in, a plan to be made for the morning.
Ellie, have you soaked your oats for breakfast in the morning? There is much to prepare to meet another day.
02:00am: Hello, pillow. 02:03am: F*** off is there a car alarm going off. 02:30am: F*** off is it still ringing. 02:57am: Seriously. 03:07am: Why tho.
And thus our scene is set for another anxious, sleep deprived day. The perfect conditions to cultivate Anonymous.
The 12th Day away
So today has been a little bit horrific.
I had an anxiety attack on the bus, in front of all the students. Not to say any of them noticed, one hopes. I was fairly well-practised at disguising these assaults at university, and have not forgotten how to shut out my surroundings and turn it all in on myself. Cowering between the seats set a little too far forward for the cool kids to catch, stuffing a little too much of my uniform in my mouth for any of them to hear it. Wheezing engines of static, grid locked cars and thick headphones that beat sweat down everyone’s brows also helped cover for me. I was curled up in a ball, pressed in on myself and felt the heat, the traffic, the ticking clock counting the seconds I was stuck sitting there press in on me too. My phone was clutched to my ear, the desperate reassurances from Mum passing through my ears and absorbed into the anxious pit in between. This, my third phone call home in three days. If only I could stop calling Mum and Dad. I had rather thought this would give them break from me; a few weeks without their daughter ruining the good days.
I hope nobody saw me, I hope nobody heard. These feelings were so swollen, so cheap and nasty, I could have just given them away.
It was hell. Full, fiery hell. Anonymous pointed her pitchfork at my enormous bottom sat in a seat in the middle of the day. She rattled my nerves like the bars of a cell: I just wanted out. I was sitting so long, and was burning up in place of calories.
London’s roads were melting. Roads out of town a vast network of failing veins, with too many cars causing clots and tumours. Red brake likes lit the way out for over an hour. And then it was far from over: there was the great journey north. All the while taking place when Anonymous needs to be standing, moving, exercising. Yet here we were, shackled in place by a seatbelt. Hell, I tell you.
I have been negotiating all day. From the start, Anonymous had imposed traffic restrictions on my food. I was on-shift for a medic trip to a London hospital: of course I’d need to allow time to commute. I had sacrificed some food for that. But the extra time and extra traffic cost me dear calories. I hobbled home feeling disgusted at how empty and tired I felt: all I had done was take students to London and supervised their workshops on a ward. All I had done was a day’s work. Now, all I have is a shell of myself. My stomach is actually singing.
I really tried to help Anonymous survive the day. She leapt at any chance to make random trips around the hospital; she ran coffee and collected samples; replenished the syringe supply and disposed of the sharps. Even when we pulled in at 9am this morning, I let her feed me breakfast standing up. Anything to make the pain go away. War has raged all day.
And now I have to go through it all again tomorrow. I can’t face it. I’m too hungry and too worried, too frightened to eat in case the traffic comes back an tricks me into keeping those calories.
But I will do it. I have to: that’s my job. It’s part of recovery, and what I’m here for.
Oh, wait wait wait! Something good did happen today: in fact I am almost sure it is what stopped me from self-combusting on that bus.
I was published in the Times again! Yay!
(Now – journalists. They have to sit. If I want to be a writer, I will one day have to sit.)
I had another panic attack last night, halfway through 2 films I wasn’t really watching. One was being screened in the cinema, a ticket to which I had bought this morning without consulting my energy levels. At 5pm everything was empty. Even stuffing myself with supper hasn’t filled the hole, so I just stayed home, and tried to drown out the ghostly clamour of Saturday nights.
I failed. The noise got me, and Anxiety could feast.
I don’t want to write about last night. For now, let me just tell you that I am safe. I’ve eaten breakfast and my snack (a latte and energy ball, if you’re interested), and am about to tuck into lunch.
Reality is starting to get to close in Cambridge. It breathes down my neck, with condensation breaking out in an anxious sweat. Ellie needed to get out of it, fast. So we got on my bicycle and came here.
Here is where I have come to escape other people. Here is where I thought I could come and just be quiet, be alone. These are the Grantchester meadows: a great expanse of rippling grass that hugs the riverbanks. There, a pocket of willow trees leaning over the water, draping their branches to skim the surface. It is here, in the quietest, shadiest spot I could find, that I am writing to you now. I’m chewing a salmon sandwich, and watching dragonflies lick the lilypads. The light is almost blinding. What a relief to have the responsibility of foresight taken away, even if it is just until another person happens upon my seclusion and shatters my shield.
Here, I can watch the river traffic. Lumbering punts and pushy kayaks, a duck, a swan, a small boy on a SUP.
Yes, I feel safe here. I feel safe away from all that.
I’m going through the day with a fine-toothed comb, trying to find something positive to write. Today, I am pulling apart thick clumps of worry and anxiety, and pulling out microscopic good things like nits. Every now and then I get too close, and a spine of Anxiety gets lodged in my hands, which I must then carry through the rest of the day.
The novelty of being away and living independently has worn away. Exciting places and exciting prospects come away with very little resistance to anorexia. Suddenly, I can see straight through Ellie’s optimism and excitement, and see the vast but thin network of disordered thoughts. “New” has paled under scrutiny: for everything about me is just the same.
Anonymous has been given the opportunity to be everywhere. She is unsupervised, under pressure and armed with a bicycle. Just, I suppose, as I am armed with Ellie, but my weapon keeps getting distracted by the sun or the smell, or just fear.
I’m starting to worry. Now the buzz has dipped off, I can hear it. I can hear the noise. Slamming doors and calls; squeaky railway tracks; spluttering motorbikes and hoarse men asserting themselves the only way they know how. It’s everywhere. A thousand final straws to draw.
I had my first anxiety attack since arriving today, and it was horrible. I was walking through town on one of the busiest streets at lunchtime, and it just happened. Something electric passed through the crowd and sun, and suddenly it had ignited. I couldn’t see for all the stars flashing like falling scales.
I’ll never know what started it, I never do. But we can draw on records from this diary in the moments leading up to it, and build a skeleton out of fragments. I had sat in the Fellow’s Garden with my coffee, and scribbled down any excuse I could for my shaking hands.
Is it simply the unknown I face everyday? The people, the place, my fate on the scales I still haven’t got on? Or perhaps the flat. Yes, Anonymous has gotten over the glamour of having a whole kitchen to herself, and has just noticed how small the flat actually is. She’s been doing the maths: how many steps fewer are you taking by staying here, Ellie?
Or perhaps, it is exercise itself. The happiness gleaned off my handlebars feed both Ellie and Anorexia. There is no greater feeling than soaring down a gentle slope on two wheels. When this gets taken away, as it surely will in four weeks time, how will I cope then? Anonymous will be hooked, addicted. Ellie will be bereaved. I shall deny forever that my grief at not being able to cycle at home is because I’ve taken a step backwards, and dabbled with exercise again.
Or perhaps it is all of it. Perhaps I can cope with these things in batches, but not all of it. Not all at once.
There is a quote that comes to mind every time I come here. These Fellow’s gardens at Clare college, set back from the river and the rushing tide of people and places. “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it” (As You Like It, the Bard himself). This possibly isn’t relevant to anything. But I wanted to share it here. It might give you some sense of comfort I get by retreating into one of the many College gardens.
I have been quite agitated for a few hours now. Every sound a sediment, clamour building up like sand. I pray it does not burst it’s banks. No, this anxiety is louder than noise. This anxiety is Anonymous.
I think I’ve eaten too much. I’m not sure, I might have only eaten enough to meet my meal plan, but it is more than I told myself I’d be eating today. And that makes me anxious.
Put simply, it will be a matter of 140kcal. There is no excuse, but I would like to try and explain what led me to having that snack, instead of the smaller snack I had planned.
So basically I panicked. It was a hot, sweaty day, and I had turned up for my shift at 3pm having had a full day fulfilling anorexia’s walking quota, and had a telephone appointment with my clinic. To say I was tired would be bad storytelling.
I arrived, and was hurled headlong down a list of errands I had to run before setting up for the student’s party that evening. The tasks were simple but geographically complicated. I spent two hours marching about the city, picking up props and paying for punts. And then of course, I had to turn up at the venue to “show face” for the academy lest it be thought that we expected people to do their jobs without up breathing down their necks. By 4:30pm and 30degrees, everything started to go pale. I felt something in me lift – Ellie – and she went to the nearest juice bar and ordered.
I have lived my whole life believing a small Banana Buzz juice was worth 250kcal. I’ve had them before and survived. The hat got to me, and mid-slurp, I googled it. Just to check.
Anonymous immediately threw away her nightsnack and set about calculating how much of her supper she was allowed to eat. The problem was, it happened again. I excused myself from my post supervising the exit, and found somewhere quiet to sit and have my supper away from prying eyes. And then I ate all of it. Ellie just shovelled the food into my mouth, ravenous for any ounce of energy to help her through her shift until 1am. I don’t understand why, but I just felt I needed it. I was exhausted.
It has been a very emotional day, really. Surely that must be worth some calories?
And as my nurse said, I probably need them.
I just don’t believe I do.
I’ve just published my last blog so I’m going to keep this short and sweet.
Got very bored and agitated at work: too much admin in too smaller office; too many questions as to why I insisted on standing and running errands. Far too many Anonymous eyes watching me desperately try not to have an inactive day. (Ellie: “define ‘inactive’”?)
I will elaborate on the current argument between Anonymous and Ellie another time. It’s a recent dispute over whether or not Ellie is losing control of her exercise levels since she arrived here, and I’m just not wanting to talk about it right now.
I don’t want to scare myself by believing I’ve started going backwards.
Thank you for helping me retrace my steps through a very difficult week.
Going backwards has spat me out where I began: proud and full of hope.
Tomorrow, I will work to reset myself. Let us hope I can carry myself into the next week, and hold myself as the days rush forwards, clawing and pulling at Recovery’s scaly back.
From the second moment, we clicked.
On that sweaty summer’s day, the key slid into the lock and the door opened. Humid air melted into a cool breeze from windows here, here and here. Foreign sounds of cars, children and cities only just scraped through the gap in the panes. Light flooded into this small flat and made the walls lean back, make way.
Mum and I waded in, clutching several cold boxes full of anorexia friendly supplies that we’d almost certainly find on Cambridge high street. We didn’t want to leave it to chance.
The bedroom has a bed that doesn’t hurt. The mattress accepts the osteoporotic curl in my spine, but chooses not to provoke it.
The bathroom was clean, or at least, clean enough for me to clean it again only once.
Some things don’t click immediately, and need to be wiggled about a bit until they fit well.
The third moment I had been in the flat, Anonymous was baffled. Where are you expected to eat? There is a desk, yes, and a sofa and coffee stool. But where pray, will I be able to carry out the rituals of consumption, alert and sat up straight?
We found a table folded up in the cupboard, and it now sits in the centre of the room. It is slightly precarious, and wobbles if it cannot be supported by the wall. It now sports a chair for me to sit at, today’s paper and a small bunch of sweetpeas. Their aroma froze home and bought it up here, to be with me for the next six weeks.
Ah, and the kitchen. This shrine to an eating disorder, a stage on which life hangs delicately in the balance. Which life will I choose today?
Ellie had tried to prepare herself for the eventuality of it being a disaster. She was armed with Detol and bleach, and confronted the kitchen door reciting an order of priorities she’d work through: fridge, floor, surfaces, handles, surfaces, cupboard doors … I was set up to scream.
The fourth moment in the flat, I lowered my antibacterial weaponry. The kitchen, like the rest of the flat, was fine. There were no festering carcasses or empty noodle cartons. No mould crusted the side and the oven door was at least visible, rather than being shrouded under layers of oily grime. The fridge door didn’t fall off, and there was air.
The fifth moment, Anonymous raised her cleaning utensils again, and attacked anyway. Just in case.
Mum and I set about unpacking my immediate necessities: out came a carton of Waitrose own organic semi-skilled milk, dates, avocadoes, bags of dry calories.
Next followed my blender – my most loyal companion in the fight to feed. I cleaned a draw and filled it with a single knife and fork, one cutting knife, a wooden spoon. Piled a stranger’s crockery into a random cupboard and installed my own yogurt bowl, breakfast spoon, milk pan. Even my glass measuring jug survived the long journey north.
I found this flat on airbnb, and it belongs to strangers. They have utensils, washing up brushes, graters and the like. But I can’t use them. We don’t know what they’ve been cooking, and I wouldn’t want to lick up any second hand calories.
I made room, and left room for anorexia. At least today, I know I am more comfortable than she is. I have somewhere safe, quiet and clean to prepare my food. That is a relief.
Day 2: Training
I had turned the corner and told myself not to run back. Mum had stood on a crowded pavement, told me she was proud. She waved me off into time’s unforgiving channel, and I was suddenly flushed away from the close support of my family, and into the world of independent living.
For six weeks, you are going to get to live alone.
I had expected loneliness, or anxiety, or one of anorexia’s friends to greet me. They didn’t come. Instead, I walked briskly down King’s Parade, and set about achieving my first goal on my own: to have my scheduled snack, even in the face of six weeks of uncertainty. I sat in the sun, and considered how potent my own company was.
You’ll be ok Ells, so long as you don’t lose sight of yourself in loneliness. Don’t forget what anorexia looks like: she looks different to you.
It is the beginning of the end of a very long day, and I want to write so much.
I want to write how frustration rose like bile as I stood on a stagnant bus, watching cyclists zip through the rush hour traffic.
I want to write and tell you where I have found anorexia in Cambridge: there, there, over there. How she glared at me all through training, where I had to sit throughout the 4 hour session.
I want to write how she loathes my exhaustion, when all I have done is sit, sweating. I want to write how I missed my second snack because I had sat through it. How I still feel so hungry and so frightened, it hurts. My mouth aches from holding so much saliva since catching a whiff of pastry in the corner shop. My cheeks are chaffed and bleeding from where I’ve been chewing, trying to convince Anonymous that she can wait for food, just a little longer. How my stomach has emptied into my bowels and erupted in a desperate call for digestive help.
I want to write about the terrible crime I’ve committed to help anorexia through the next few weeks. If I scratch her back, she’ll clamber on mine with less aggression.
I want to write how fate has been leaving signs for this inevitable failure everywhere. Snippets of local news ft crashes, death and disaster feed the hungry, paranoia beast who seems that much louder now I’ve nobody else to talk to.
I want to write how easy it is to hear her, even in this beautiful city. Even when I can’t hear myself think: even through the clatter of plates from the flat below, the crying child in the flat opposite, the raucous laughter of friends in an apartment a few blocks over, I can still hear her.
I want to write how excited I am about starting my job, but I can’t because I don’t know when that is. I still don’t have a rota or a plan. I can’t prepare myself for the summit of this challenge: I cannot plan my meals nor work out where and when I can eat. There is more: I don’t know how much to eat for breakfast tomorrow. Should I eat little enough so I can sit, or more than enough to move about?
I want to write how anxious all this is making me today.
But I won’t. Negativity makes such salivating reading, and I will not indulge in it. Too many good things have happened today, and ruined it’s bitter taste.
Tomorrow, I will deal with the consequences of my crime. I will also walk to training, just to take the edge off the stagnant stench of inactivity that awaits me in First Aid.
Day 3: Training
Someone has hurled some food for thought at a wall opposite King’s College. It’s a ghastly post-modernist construction eating into the ancient walls, and called art.
This masterpiece features a skeletal locust leeching on a clock. Each irregular second is devoured by the clanking cogs of this iron insect. With mechanic mindlessness, it clamps it’s mouth shut on every minute without tasting it. It just looks greedily onto the next.
A perfect metaphor for anorexia, methinks.
Anywho, back to today.
I had a better night’s sleep last night, and woke up feeling much less worried by this whole exercise. My bed felt cosy as opposed to claustrophobic, and the city stretched into the future rather than falling short in just a few days time.
Sleep shook shock from my eyes, and some elaborate scales have fallen away from my anorexic crime. Guilt is less potent. No doubt tomorrow, when I have more time and energy, it will all flare up again.
On energy: I have none.
My day gets hollowed out as time wears on. Coping with the seconds as they slide by in this strange place tires me out, before I can begin putting my mind to the exhausting task of making enough food to se me through the day tomorrow. I am rendered empty of thought and word enough to bulk out my limbs and fashion them into a presentable, upright state past 6:30pm.
I stood in the shower moments ago, and felt the ground pull me close. This is all just so tiring.
I’ve had to miss another staff social event. Last night they went to the pub (sticky beer patches, all nighters, plumes of smoke – it was a no from Anonymous), tonight they have gone to some pizza place in town for food. I’d never have managed eating there, even if I had the energy to navigate my way down an unseen menu.
But I would have liked to have joined them afterwards, say, in a few hours time, for a drink. I had been invited. As I can’t seem to make my mouth move enough to let words out (not that there is anyone to talk to here anyway) and still need to make supper and my night snack, I just wouldn’t have time. Plus the commute to get anywhere would be well over 20 mins without a bicycle.
Instead, I’m going to read the paper, and listen to Radio 4 in the kitchen. Small familiar comforts are enough to prevent me feeding time to Anorexia.
Today felt long.
It tasted tough and strung out. Hours spent waiting for someone to give me something to do. I suppose I have been trained in the art of patience if nothing else.
The College haven’t hired a nurse yet, so I’m going to have to wait to find out who will weigh me. That’s ok for now, but I just know that Anxiety can store this up for trouble later. How will I know it’s all ok, if I’m not being weighed?
Time has had more to eat than me today. I have found food incredibly difficult since coming here, and I want to write why, but can’t.
I can’t because I didn’t realise restriction was happening, until my stomach was groaning for me to realise how much I haven’t eaten. My intake has taken a deep breath in to make room for mistakes, and I am scared Ellie will start shrinking. She gets small and frightened when things go wrong.
I will do better tomorrow. I have to.
I shall also be less irritating.
It has been such a long time since I was around people my own age, it seems I have completely forgotten how to act at all normal. From across the room, I watch Ellie drown under hoards of uniformed graduates, accolades glittering in their eyes and intelligence billowing from their bicycles. I try watching every other person I come across, see how they react to me and act for me.
Only when time runs out, do I try and spot myself in the crowd again, and realise I’m lost. Spending too much time around people makes me feel anxious, because I lose focus on myself. And at the moment, I have to put myself first.
Anorexia never had to put up with any of this social anxiety crap. She just starved it out, and grew fat on time.
Day 4: First Day Off
I’m sitting beneath a Chinese Trumpet Vine (Campsis Grandflora), and my feet are burning. Anorexia’s feet are the first thing to go cold in a crisis, but today they have started to burn.
The scorching summer sun cannot squeeze beneath the canopy of heavy vine leaves, and so my head is quite protected. I can see straight out across the quad and onto the river through the branches, but can nestle here in nature’s protective embrace, and enjoy being with myself. My feet don’t fit. I’ve had to dip my toes into the world outside.
This must be what it feels to be inspired. For Cambridge really is a truly inspiring place. Even tucked under this vine, I cannot see all the Colleges around me – I don’t have to. I know they are there, just from the way my feet tingle.
What an honour it is to be here.
I found somewhere to meditate on myself. A retreat. I shan’t tell you where: but please know that I am well protected from the sun but still exposed to light.
In this light, I need to redefine what it is to be honest. I do so here, in a single sentence: It tingles.
Anxiety trembles and slips about on my meal plan, but positivity quivers in anticipation of something good, something great.
But now I remember my anorexic crime, and my feet begin to sweat.
The very thought of anyone finding out makes me come over faint and clammy, because if they did I’d lose it all. All this, all this greatness: burning desire and excitement, Chinese Vines, summertime gladness and independence – would be taken. Taken out of anorexic hands, for she might not cope with it.
It may not be that bad. But the fact I don’t want to tell you anything about it, nor want anyone to speculate it may be what it is, tells me I shouldn’t be doing it.
If I had had permission to do it I’d be fine right now. But I didn’t even ask, because I was afraid the answer would be a resounding no.
Day 5: Arrival’s Day
I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next 6 weeks.
Am wanting sleep.
Am going to be brief because of the latter.
Students began to arrive today. Twelve hours of smiling and greeting and to-ing and fro-ing has just about exhausted any anorexic concern about lack of activity. It was all absolutely fine until the end of my shift came – oh, glorious 8pm – and there were still students needing to be registered, roomed and toured. Nearly had an anxiety attack at the thought of the journey home and another full day of work tomorrow.
Still have no on-site nurse and no plans to be weighed. Still trying not to think about it. Still trying not to have an anxiety attack about that too. Still think I need to try harder.
Am so hungry, but it’s too late to eat anything now.
Tomorrow will be better, I want to write.
(Must not think about tomorrow’s night shift. Shhhh.)
Day 6: Night Shift
Can’t talk. Am exhausted. Wish I were in bed already but still have to wash up my tupperware, fill in my food and positivity diaries (tonight’s entries are party to it’s demise for simply demanding completion at this ungodly hour) and find my sense of humour. At 2 in the morning, it tends not to show itself. I had forgotten that. It has been years since I stayed up past midnight.
Oh no, I’m teaching tomorrow.
Have no lesson plan. Have no teaching experience of sullen sixteen year olds. Have no idea if they bear any resemblance to 4 year olds, instructionally speaking. Have no wish to find out. Have no wish to look upon the great void of originality with which I am supposed to pull this inevitable farce together.
Bed. Just let me go to bed.
Day 7: Creative Writing Masterclass
Anyway back to last night, or should I say this morning?
Only a few hours ago, I had been uniform-clad and chatting merrily away to my colleague in the dead of night. We swept the corridors every half an hour, prowling about for any rogue students railing against the injustice of a curfew.
To survive the gruelling two hours waiting around the College, we turned it into a game. It seemed as if the building itself were laughing along with us: floorboards creaked and doors slammed, deliberately belittling our effort to be as quiet as possible so as not to wake the students. The printer roared all night, and a syncopated stapler accented the cheerful crackles of laughter conducted by a Harry Potter trivia quiz. Who ever said nothing good happens after midnight? In what world is several hundred quick-fire questions to distinguish who was a bigger muggle not a good idea?
In what world did I ever believe I’d have the strength to find out?
There is more.
I’d like to point out to the less observant among you, that yesterday’s shift spanned 9 hours: 15:00-01:00. Yes, all very impressive by itself. But let us look closer at the details of it: Let us count how many meals I had to prepare in advance and eat in stressful circumstances.
Snacks could be eaten quietly at my discretion. Supper on the other hand, was rather more worrying.
I bought a fancy salad-specific tupperware on my day off, and set about packing it in advance yesterday afternoon.
There were all these cubby holes to put the dressing and garnish in. I could separate the feta from the squash so neither went soggy, and store the kale so it didn’t go limp. All very organised and cute; but looks questionable when produced in a university catered dining hall and decanted onto a plate. I carried it off well.
I had resigned Ellie to the fact that she wouldn’t be able to focus on her food completely at supper, and so packed a simple meal with fewer calories to keep an eye on.
I ate, and tried to taste more than the alarm of being around so many plates of steaming Yorkshire puddings, and under the scrutiny of so many eyes.
After four and a half hours sleep, I rose from my bed and went about my day as usual.
My eyes were upholstered by a puffiness that leaked a few salty tears. Gravity felt a little more unforgiving, and my legs were slightly swollen after a night roaming the College.
And yet, they worked.
They carried me from bed to kitchen to chair to sink; my ravenous brain worked it’s way through the day with a hunger for caffeine and adrenaline; my eyes could focus on the lesson plan in front of me. I swung from thought to thought in a straight line.
My energy levels finally gave up as I fell through the door that evening. Making and eating supper was a slow, sultry affair. A memory of going to bed: a blackout.
If I were to measure this interesting circumstance and how I coped with it against my Anonymous past, we’d be alarmed. Previously, I’d never have made it out of bed if I’d been up that late the night before. We’d never have known this of course: previously, I would never have contemplated even trying to work at night. The risk of screwing up my body’s metabolic clock, thus inflating no.kcal consumed and absorbed, was too great.
And yet this week, I was forced to do it without even thinking. Sort of.
The morning melted away quickly, and before long I was wading into my creative writing class.
I fumbled with the projector and rearranged the desks. I wiped equations off the whiteboard and doodled a few learning objectives under the workshop title.
The students filed in, and my nerves clung to me like sweat.
On paper, my lesson plan was sparse at best. A skeleton that I had to somehow bring to life in the next two hours.
I had forced Anonymous to sit for an hour that morning to organise how we’d manage the lesson. She choked at the very sight of a chair so soon after finishing breakfast. I was full, triggers brimming over my tolerance level already. Swallowing sitting was a big ask.
I raced through a powerpoint and punched quotes haphazardly at my keyboard. Any moment I could I could stand to cut something, check something, twitch or fidget, was leapt up on. Ellie gritted her teeth and sucked on the exercise I had done on night shift, walking up and down those corridors.
It’s ok, you can afford to sit.
Hello, welcome, hi.
I am teacher supreme.
At least, that’s how it felt afterwards. Euphoria and relief put a spring in my step as I paced between the desks, leaning over the students as they finished the final exercise I had set them. I watched perfection scratch out the attainable.
Self confidence was worked into a frenzy and screwed up in a ball, tossed into the bin. Some bent over their work, with words pouring onto paper like vomit.
It was fascinating to watch writers’ minds working faster than their pens. Every thought edited before being committed to paper, as if they were worried about what would happen if someone read the truth between the lines.
I know that feeling all too well.
That evening, honesty finally released me.
Six days chewing over the tough decision of whether or not I would confess my secret crime came to an abrupt end of the phoneline. I called home to issue a warning to my parents. Ellie did it to save herself: she was so looking forward to a day with her Mum and Dad, she didn’t want it to be ruined.
She didn’t want to be looking on a reunion across the gulf of dishonesty.
That which I now confess to you: I succumbed to temptation, and hired a bicycle.
We shall say no more for now, except that my journey has been slashed in half and I get more time to much needed sleep.
A win for Ellie, and for Anonymous.
And then the other thing I have to confess to them. That my nails are flaking away, that my bladder cannot hold itself together. That the warning signs have started, and that I better brace myself before I get on the scales.
Day 8: Mother of Motivation, Father of Faith
It felt strange at first. As if I had been woken from a dream and was gasping for air, and trying to work out where I was. For it was not the place Mum had left me in when we said goodbye this time last week. Ellie, where did we leave reality?
Over here: in the arms of the two people who are helping me prise Ellie out of Anorexia’s grip.
Mum and Dad came to visit me today. We arranged it over the phone, after I had called up after a long shift and burst into tears. Just because that is what I do, and it can seem alarming. It helps though, I promise.
I took one look at them and was bought back down to earth. Standing on the Citi 3 bus into town ready for a wander around this lovely city, I looked at my parents and remembered why I had come here, and what I wanted to achieve.
I’m not here for a job. I’m here for a change, and a chance.
It was so easy to slip into a dream. How lovely it would have been to believe that anorexia would have just let me go, just because we were busy and somewhere new. Different people and times, as if we could trick her into getting stage fright. Ellie, you still have anorexia. You still need to choose recovery, always.
We had a nice day. Lovely actually. We muddled our way down winding side streets, past the Colleges and into the Scholar’s Gardens. We sipped latte in the sun and took a picnic to the park. We watched punters wave big sticks from the river banks. We chatted gently about life and the universe.
They are so kind, and I am so lucky. I will never forget that, and so never forget myself. Not even amongst all these challenges and good things, and all this confidence. I will not forget myself, and must continue to recover it.
Look Ellie. Look at what you’re doing. Look how proud you’re making your Mum and Dad.
Tomorrow, I will register at a GP surgery as a temporary patient and get weighed; I’ve given up with the on-site debacle. I will also eat good meals and devour time as if I appreciated the luxury that it is, and how privileged I am to have so much of it.
Tomorrow, I will also start a new book and enjoy some of the homemade dhal Mum bought up for me today.
Tomorrow, I will try.
I’ve been trialling a new treatment for Anonymous this week.
It was prescribed by my nurse after she had briefed me on it’s previous success in other anorexia cases. A cheap and sometimes time consuming therapy, to be taken every evening just before bed.
Naturally, I was sceptical. Anonymous is suspicious of anything that might bring about the inevitable: she is wary of change. Why change, when my current prescription is working so badly? Why take the risk of finding something that actually does work, something that will pull me out of anorexia?
After one week, I am willing to believe this could be life-changing. I feel amazing, almost high.
The wonder drug? A “Positivity Journal”.
After I’ve brushed my teeth, put Anxiety in it’s pyjamas and filled out my food diary; I pull out a cloth-bound diary and a biro.
I write the date, three positive things that happened today, and three things to look forward to tomorrow. The first attacks fear, and the second attacks dread: the two strains of hopelessness. Three is a magic number, but doesn’t curse my entries as a rule. One day last week was simply crawling with good things, so I pinned all of them down under my nib.
Something positive is my final written word of the day, and I can go to bed and welcome sleep.
The best part is that I sort of understand the science of it. Whilst other treatments remain mysteries, this one is relatively simple, and completely under my control. Unlike weight gain – which has side effects more grotesque than the illness, so seems utterly pointless (in my anonymous opinion) – “positivity” is a relief. It is an instant painkiller for a bad feeling, and antidote to anxiety. “Antidon’t”, if you will.
Just like weight gain, I notice the medicine as it starts to work. Knowing I have to write three good things about the day later forces me to find the good things as time slips by. Each day has been turned into a treasure hunt for nuggets of positivity: the rain waited to start until I had reached the car; I made two old ladies on the train smile; I woke up to a crying cuckoo.
Better still is what can sometimes happen to the bad things. You see, when one single monstrous occurrence threatens to ruin an entire day of delicately placed positivity, Ellie gets defensive. She leaps upon this selfish fiend and pulls at it’s form, with the intention of turning it into something good. Failing that, she’ll tear off a handful an anxious period and call it a lesson, to be carried around and referred to as WORD. Only good things can come from being informed. It may keep a similar bad thing from happening in the near future.
This may not be a cure nor a sustainable source of help, but it is a diversion away from things that could aggravate anorexia. Fewer flare ups give Ellie more energy to focus on pulling thin pins from the side of recovery.
It gets better. No, it really does.
Writing down the good things in life is a natural remedy. Because it has no hidden agenda, no additives or calories – emotional or otherwise – anorexia just swallows it. It is an easy painkiller to administer.
Essentially, I am drugging Ellie with positivity. She is drip-fed the good stuff all through the day and a final shot in the evening sees the day pass into the night.
Positive features of the day mingle together and become a cocktail. Hope becomes a vision in these fumes. Every night for the last week, I have caught Ellie looking forward; already planning where she’ll look for good. This is a stark contrast to Anonymous, who still casts her eye around, anticipating the bad.
Journalling is a psychedelic experience.
Pulling a thought or a memory out of my head and forcing it onto paper has long been a comfort throughout my recovery. It always looks different down there, smaller almost. Not quite the monster it was when it was locked ink my head.
This “positive” journalling adds another dimension to the whole experience. An extra sense to guide me through the harsh terrain in recovery, which is mined with anorexic traps and triggers. The principal of evaluation remains the same.
Words stare at me from the paper, reflecting my thoughts back to me. There it is, all in writing. I marvel at them awhile. It is in these moments of reflection, that I am learning how to be grateful.
Having good things happen to you makes you grateful, not greedy. This is a pretty detail I’m gradually becoming aware of, even if I’m not convinced I’ll ever believe it. So much life can fall in the gap “knowing” and “believing”.
Yet it is this depraved and frightened belief that feeds anorexia. Anonymous justifies bad things happening by expecting them, almost greeting their occurrence with relief, as if I’ve repaid some of the debt to the universe I owe for simply taking up space.
How interesting it is to write that on paper.
Gratitude is a pleasant side effect to positivity, and is accentuated by reflecting on it.
It is a high like no other. I can’t believe what I’ve been missing, and what I still deny myself when I let Ellie retreat into black space.
By denying myself the pleasure of positivity, I have also been mistreating the good things.
Ellie, how do you treat the good things in life? As though you’re embarrassed by them, perhaps? As if they’re shameful, or somehow incriminating? Why must you push them away, as if you’ve no right to them?
Taking positivity has bought my fear out and demanded an explanation from it. Explain: explain why you cannot accept the good things for what they are.
I am one week into the course of “positivity”, and already I can feel the weight dissipating on my shoulders. Gratitude lifts the day out of my hands and casts it out of my control. It only invites me to chase the sun into the next day.
This week, I am grateful to have heard the cuckoo call. I am grateful to have felt a burst of rain lash against my face before the sun burst out like a boil. I am grateful to have heard the rain’s arrival: the sharp tap on a leaf or a window pane. I am grateful to never hear it descend, only arrive.
This week, I am grateful for space. I am grateful to have somewhere to roam, ponder, and grow.
This week, I am grateful for exposure: for good things to befall me disguised as baddies.
In the cinema, I sat next to large people eating large portions. The salty smell permeated the air, broken only by smacking lips. Ellie endured, and I thank her for proving science right: no, Anonymous, you can’t catch fat from other people.
In the car, I was strapped in with intrusive thoughts. I rode the day with a premonition: a threat glaring at me in my rear view mirror. Ellie endured, and I thank her for getting me home safely; for scrapping Anxiety’s script and rewriting how the day would be.
At home, we have been plagued by noise. Road-works and car horns, the crack of clicking bass from next door’s summer party. The house quivered anxiously. My nerves stretched past the point of anorexia’s tolerance with every day spent under house arrest from other people’s selfish intrusions. Ellie endured, and I thank her for not tearing all her hair out.
This week, I am grateful for exposure, because it shines a new light on my resilience. Still pale and flakey, but a hide strong enough to withstand small portions of life.
This week, I am grateful to have been rootling in the moment for something good, not scraping around in the future for something bad.
Of course, like all treatments, this one has it’s limitations and side effects.
Being on standby for something good is almost anxiety inducing. When time runs dry of nice things and I am left clutching at straws by the end of the day, I become aware of how desperate I feel. My life dwarfs next too everything I hoped to achieve today and everyday. Eventually I’ll retreat into myself to wallow in my misery, and let myself shrink.
Some days are easier to swallow with a positive pill than others. Time sometimes chokes on a trigger and too many thoughts churn reality into a sticky mess. It is easy to lose sight of the good when it is drowned in all the bad. It’s absence haunts me.
And of course, there’s that all too familiar sensation of failure when I am unable to see any good, or even any point. Blinded by anorexia, anxiety, or just the dull, a surrender is inevitable. I am hoping that with time and “positive” treatment, I can turn away from “failure”, and instead learn to manage it as “disappointment”. A hard task for anyone I think you’ll agree, especially if one hasn’t the ability to think straight anyway.
I know one shouldn’t get too excited by the initial results of a new medicine, but I can’t help feeling that this is some sort of magic pill. Time goes down smoothly, like thick drops of syrup.
Can you overdose on positivity? Imagination run away with the idea of the future, and forget that I’m not invincible, only inevitable.
Here are my three biggest positives this week: I made a new friend, I managed to do a headstand in yoga (perseverance and practice pays off!), and I put on weight.
Let me write that again, just so we can reflect on it. I put on weight.
A whole 0.4kg of positive energy, for which I will be grateful. Perhaps not quite yet, but soon, I will believe that this too is a good thing.
This too, is inevitable.
We must be grateful for the inevitable; else we will simply grieve.
A line of ulcers tell the tale of my weekend away. As the train neared the coast and the day melted on the streets of Brighton, I bit my lip. Every word in my head throbbed and ruptured, one swollen worry after another.
Every ulcer bulged over an anorexic boundary. Each one a scar from a battle raging behind my blinking eyeballs.
For just one night, she wanted to step out of Control. Ou of the never ending cycle of food, school, food, bed; out of the four walls of this house that press my empty inbox against my face. Out of character and out of excuses, Ellie decided we needed to go away, and get out of Control.
Brighton was a realistic target. An eclectic seaside town would doubtless be full of people to watch, meaning I would be unlikely to get bored and turn on myself for entertainment. Brighton is close by: only an hour or so on the train. Anonymous can handle trains, she can stand trains, and on them.
I wanted to examine myself and my progress under a harsher light. There would be no home comforts to hide behind, no easy escape from any triggers.
The point of this trip was sharp and threatening. A serrated edge to dissect just how much of myself could cope in difficult conditions.
I named the main 3 Brighton ulcers: Food, Comfort, and Komedia.
These worries oozed threateningly, slipping around on thick layers of sticky anorexic panic.
There are smaller tears on my lips surrounding each ulcer, like little moons orbiting three central problems. They’re known as “Inactivity”; “Timing”; “People”.
The most grisly worry about going away was, of course, Food. The F word.
I could feel this ulcer forming from the moment I recklessly hit “confirm” on the National Rail website all those weeks ago. I wanted my meals planned as early as my rail ticket.
The very thought of eating out not just once, not twice, but four times in 48 hours was simply ridiculous. My anorexic eyes stung each time I looked to the future, and saw those meals coming. It was grotesque, unthinkable. Lost too far beyond the borders of Control.
Despite trawling websites and menus from the safety of my bedroom, the food in Brighton remained elusive. I got on a train to meet a stranger on my plate.
Brighton is an eclectic pocket of the UK.
Vibrant vegetarian cafes; a grid of lanes fallen under a vegan siege; locally produced platters of only the finest and freshest foods. There were so many areas of opportunity to try new things, way out there: out of Control.
Anonymous saw the food for what it was. At least, she nestled into the gaping holes next to each item, and filled it with her own list of ingredients and nutrient information. She feels around on the inside, still entirely in Control.
In my head, the calorie inflation rate rockets the further from home I go.
A tablespoon of homemade hummus costs fewer calories than a dollop of alien hummus.
An exact tablespoon of homemade hummus costs less anxiety than someone else dumping liberal amounts on my plate.
Homemade hummus is stiff and lumpy, which is characteristic of it’s sparing olive oil content. The hummus out there, out of Control, looks like velvet. A cloud of soft spread wobbling slightly at the touch, skin spotless and smooth. This hummus would be heathen. One can almost see too much tahini. The scent of garlic ripens and permeates with obvious additives.
I tread carefully around food when it has been prepared without anorexic supervision. Avoidance has simply been a way of delaying the inevitable, which is what I was faced with in Brighton. Eventually, I was always going to cross that line, and taste forbidden hummus.
I arrived and cursed Instagram for planting false expectations in my head.
“Vegetarian food” was ripping off the weight loss trade and tipping over the edge of indulgence. Slabs of gooey gluten-free cake, tottering towers of coconut ice cream, grains glazed in thick dressings and quivering mounds of hummus. Beads of chickpeas in salads; greens smothered under a thick tahini layer; thick wedges of bread with lashings of avocado; seed-studs like bullet holes.
It seemed each deli was attempting to outdo the next with their plant based platters. Anonymous was wrong to assume they’d be in the business targeting weight loss markets.
The servers themselves floated behind the counters, piling generous portions onto people’s plates. A bit of this and a bit of that. Their eyes were glazed over, dilated.
Nowhere was safe.
Even a humble bowl of soup could not be had without a twirl of cream or fistful of nuts. Everything was being served on huge plates, tantamount to small cauldrons. This was dangerous territory for an anorexic. Unnecessary calories grew like a tumour on every meal.
I had a choice: risk being snared by calories, or almost certainly passing out in a strange city. It is with pride that I tell you Ellie’s voice shouted louder, and Anonymous was resolved to try and eat something.
So it was that I haunted the North Lanes for over two hours, chewing over what I could eat.
My ulcer throbbed for every second wasted: I was running out of time. Lunchtime would soon be over.
I peered into every eatery in Brighton, scrutinising the menu and adding up the calories. I occasionally entered, and fascinated over other people’s plates. Tongues twisted flat breads into dough sculptures. The food was unreal, ridiculous. One deli actually let me stand around the counter, and watch them assemble a Buddha Bowl.
Before my eyes something beautiful was born.
A layer of crunch leaves, shredded beetroot, juicy plump tomatoes. Then grains rained down in clumps, glued together by a thick dressing. A scoop of dhal cushioned the salsa and stopped the juices bleeding into the hummus. It’s velveteen layer bristled with a final handful of herbs.
Anonymous watched apprehensively. There was so much food for so small a meal. I backed out of the door.
By now, Anxiety was beginning to snap at my heels. The familiar panic that I wasn’t going to get anything to eat started to set in. The chase was on, and Ellie ran back to that deli. It was their kindness that saved me, I think.
Ellie ordered a Buddha Bowl and Anonymous ordered adjustments: leave off that, only a tiny bit of this. No, no dressing thank you.
She clawed lunchtime back under her control and installed me in a window seat.
I watched the world go by through the condensation. Such a busy world going so far, so fast. How difficult it is to keep up.
When my first meal out in Brighton was finally set down before me, Ellie was gagging for it. Even Anonymous can’t talk with her mouth full of anticipation. I picked up my fork – then dropped it in horror.
It was huge. The long prongs rang as it fell with a clatter, and it bared it’s enormous fangs in a metallic grimace.
At home, I eat with small cutlery. I only eat with small cutlery, because Anonymous can only take small bites. It’s how she controls how much I eat. On what planet can one shovel food into their mouth with such a contraption as this? How does it even fit between one’s lips?
I looked around for a teaspoon, but none could be found. Tentatively, Ellie picked up her fork and plunged it into the quinoa. Small bubbles clung to the prongs, then settled on my ulcer. That was my first anxious bite.
Ellie worked her way around the plate, small servings belittled by this giant fork. It seems I swallowed my dignity along with my food: moments after finishing the last mouthful, I began lapping up the dressing with my finger. Oily skid marks smeared my smile, and residue was all over my ulcers. It was delicious.
I chewed over my first food ulcer long after lunch had finished. I was haunted by that giant, quivering dollop of hummus.
Even examining the photographs I had taken didn’t offer any answer to that one, biting question: how many calories was it worth?
I couldn’t shake this feeling that I had done something terrible, something unthinkable. Something so out of character, and out of Control.
My next meal would be important: it would dictate how much energy I’d have to get through the rest of the night. It would assure Ellie that this gamble was still a good idea.
I cannot remember what I did to pass the time between lunch and supper. I had to redo the whole thing the next morning, after the climax of breakfast. My mind was in my mouth, chewing over where my next meal would come from.
The ulcer began to swell under time pressure. I grappled with supper and reused my lunch plan the next day.
I managed my food. I ate my food. In some respects, it was an interesting experiment that showed eating out alone is far less stress-inducing than eating out with other people. On my own, I’m only responsible for how I feel.
On their own, each meal would have been an average challenge. Collectively, they were enormous.
The uncertainty lasted 36 hours, and that is an enormous mouthful of time for Anxiety to swallow.
Whilst calories infected one ulcer, cleanliness did the next.
The longer I lingered out of my house, the more dirt gathered together, weighing me down. It was one aspect of going away I hadn’t considered, and it was a shock to discover how much I struggled with feeling dirty. Simply because the unfamiliar is filthy.
This ulcer is rancid.
Sweat, skin, cheap shots, sex, second-hand air. The salty sea air seasoned the fug of hangovers, urine, and fried food. This seaside party town was sweating under the strain of stag dos and cigarettes. The pavements wept gum and greasy wrappers, tears of beer bleeding into the gutter. There was no air to dry out the damp. Instead, it became a moist blanket thrown over the layers of other people.
I inhaled other people. Anonymous kept catching whiffs of people: fat, drunk, high. She was utterly terrified, knowing her anxiety did not make her immune to catching the calories rising off another person’s plate.
Anonymous’ existence is sterile, carefully executed in clean, calm Surrey. My environment is a sanctuary to which I retreat to avoid any anxiety triggers, like drugs and alcohol.
Away from home, I was suddenly cut off from the support network my parents give me. I was alone, drowning in this sordid world.
Everything in Brighton had been touched.
A million grubby fingers had held that handrail, this fork, sat in that chair and pressed that button. Anonymous felt as though Ellie was forcing me into another person’s shoes, squeezing me into another person’s habits by exposing me to them at close range.
Every chair was weary from supporting too many people. I could catch other people simply by breathing the same air as them, I knew it.
A single fingerprint on a mirror flashed a thousand possible people I might turn into, if I wasn’t more careful.
Anxiety settled on my skin in a layer of sweat. Dust and dirt mingled into a grimy layer. The shower at the youth hostel only added to it. The bathroom was dripping in other people’s dirt, humid and heavy. I smelt drugs in the air and felt them burrow into my pores. Here in my head, anorexia felt a shift in my metabolism.
I did what I could to ward off anxiety with a small bottle of hand sanitiser, some wet wipes, and distraction. The ease with which other people passed in and out of public loos was fascinating to watch.
This was a culture grown out of Control. It flourished in the warm climes of friendship and relationships.
Perhaps that is what I was missing, perhaps company was integral to breaking a fear of other people.
Anonymous was careful not to touch anything, lest she catch any calories, or any fattening habits.
She was cheered by the fact I had to squat each time I used the bathroom (which is quite frequent during weight restoration). The extra seconds of exercise burned my thighs with anorexic satisfaction. It was such a relief to finally be able to nestle my bottom on the friendly seat at home.
Going away was only the mouth of the rabbit hole: the youth hostel I had booked into would be the real test of Anonymous tolerance.
I gaped when I entered the dorm. Not sure what, or who, to make of it.
A pair of flip flops, a hairdryer, a couple of crumpled Topshop bags. An empty Starbucks cup with no name scrawled on it’s side. A wet towel melted into the carpet. A warning sign of 5 unmade bunks, with their duvets twisted into grotesque polyester sculptures.
All but one mattress was claimed by a stranger.
I locked my bag in the empty cubby hole and inspected the bathroom. Youth Hostels are functional and hospitable, just not entirely to anorexia’s taste.
The empty beds were the most biting issue. The absence of their hosts haunted my imagination, and filled it with bogeymen.
I cowered behind Margret Atwood, hiding from the drunken drawls creeping through the window. The first emerged shortly before midnight, a chatty Texan who could drown out the noise from the nightclub next door.
Every spike of ecstasy from outside stabbed ice into the pit of my stomach, and I try not to remember. Revulsion rises like bile with the roar of merriment.
Later that night, when I was cocooned in recycled sheets and feigning sleep, I heard the other roommates prowl into the room, one by one.
They silently diffused into bed in the dark, not even turning on their reading lights. They shut the window on the drunken night outside, and settled into easy sleep.
Out of the fug, I salvaged pockets of sleep: 25 mins here and there. A bit of this and a bit of that.
At 3am, the bunk above creaked threateningly as my cumbersome bunk buddy ascended the ladder. Anxiety gnawed at me to get out of there sharpish: the bed would surely collapse, and I would be crushed. I’m still not sure why I stayed.
Anorexia tried to spring me from my bunk too. As the slept, my dorm mates became musical. Their bodily functions syncronised and the air was thick with with harmonised farts, burps, barfs. A cloud of skin, sweat and food descended. One had clearly had a liquid dinner, and there was the definite stench of cheesy chips. The signature scent of student halls, I remember that one well. Airbourne calories stalked me in my slumber, and backed my nose and mouth behind my hand. I was too afraid to move, just in case the fat gobules floating in the air would rush towards me and pounce.
Instead, I wrapped myself in these slutty sheets, like the hundreds of other guests thrust upon this bed before me.
The night shed it’s slippery skin slowly, but soon it was morning. I awoke with relief, and a mouth full of ulcers.
I crept around my right to get up, and tiptoed out of the room. Ellie pondered on this behaviour over breakfast. The way I melted into the wall, the way I was careful not to be spotted, lest my presence stagnate my dorm mates’ fluid fun. The thought that I could even have been responsible for it in the first place.
Do not pity me. Anorexia is not a sympathetic character, and Ellie did this to herself. She took control and hurled me out of it. This is a tale warranting not pity, but pride.
It is with pride I present to you the final Brighton ulcer: Komedia. A concentration of triggers bulging before anxiety. Let’s lance the boil.
By 5:30pm on Saturday, I was crawling up Regent street. The sun was finally settling down onto the cloudy skyline, and the first part of my journey was nearly over. Ahead of me was a long lonely night. The hours were empty aside from the inevitable scarpering of sleep at the slightest noise. And there would be noise: the air was hotting up to receive the Saturday night fever.
Nightlife has two strains.
The first can induce pleasure among those susceptible to it, the other brings anxiety. The dark hours are dampened by sweat and encourage the growth of alarming behaviour. Noise seeps through the streets like mould. The spores were already being released: pubs spilled out onto the streets, hairspray gassed the hostel corridors, and anticipation condensed against my eyes.
By 5:30pm, I still had no plan how to navigate through the next few hours out there, away from Control.
All the anorexic-tolerant delis would shut at 6: an hour before suppertime, and half an hour from now.
Triggers were beginning to cat-call over another foaming pint. The night beckoned time to a slow shuffle. It was going to be a long night if I didn’t come up with some means of distraction from the world around me, and within me. I needed somewhere to hide for the next few hours. I also needed food; something to starve off anxiety, but also feed that part of myself that had dragged me here in the first place.
Right on cue, Ellie spotted a sign in the street. One thing led to another, and I drew up a plan.
By 6, I was no longer clutching at straws, but a ticket to a stand up comedy night, and a salad box bought just before closing time. Ellie chewed on her lentils, leaves and ulcers, listening to my rules crack between her teeth.
A comedy night, on a Saturday night, after dark, in Brighton. You’re joking, right?
Well, we’re down this crazy rabbit hole now, Ellie. We’re eating supper far too early and are out far too late. How much more can you take? Let’s lance this boil, and see what happens. Let’s watch your rancid fears splatter out of Control.
I installed myself in the furthest booth from the stage. It was a dark corner, but was spared having to endure a long night next to a couple doing a risqué performance of their own a few tables away. From here I could make a quick escape through the fire exit, but also watch other people’s sticky nights unfold and take flight, beer in hand.
Anonymous flinched each time she glimpsed my watch. It was so late to be out alone.
I felt myself biting on a smaller ulcer, the one formed when I realised how much I missed being home.
Anonymous wasted no time in telling Ellie she could be curled up with her dog at this time. She needed have said anything; Ellie was thinking it too. Clubs were never really her scene.
Now, I realise it wasn’t home I was missing as such – it was me. A home for my self.
The air was heavy, rubbing up and into my pores.
Alcohol spiked the air. Steely, sugary sickness rose into my nostrils as the gaffs kept coming. The lights flashed and microphones boomed. Airborne calories pulsed with the stereos. It was an assault that I am honestly shocked to have survived.
There were too many triggers for Anxiety to grapple with at once. My mind simply couldn’t spend too much time chewing on one before the next was rammed down her throat. I struggled to swallow the scene before me.
At 9pm, we retreated. I wormed m way out onto the street, and ran back to the hostel. Neon lights and car horns lead me back to the main road without me even having to glance at my map, I just trusted the world around me to help.
I expected Anxiety to stalk me from the dark alleys, but there were just too many people. Too many lights.
I haven’t been out of the house so late for a very long time, of course I felt exposed.
I slumped back in my chair. As I spat the final mouthfuls of my tale out into the cool, unmoving hospital air, my nurse smiled.
“I’m proud of you,” she said. The words felt nice. I repeated it in my head, over and over. I’m proud of you.
“You’ve got so much potential, Ellie.”
Yeah, I guess I have. Maybe I should start to believe it.
Brighton exposed Anxiety to the world Anorexia tries to hide me from. It was interesting to watch it fend for itself out there, out of Control. In some respects, it was easier to control than it is at home. At home it has various lairs in which it wallows: my cutlery, my quiet. Me, me, me. Away, Anxiety just didn’t know what to settle on. There was so much for it to feast on, it became sick, but dragged me up to dizzying heights in alarm.
I was very anxious in Brighton.
I was frightened of the food, and alarmed by the air assaults of smells and sounds. The clamour of lives clashing in the streets broke one moment and passed it on to the next. Time was told by anticipation for what trigger would arrive next.
It was a struggle just to escape my own head, but there were pockets of time when my mind was free to wander, and follow Brighton’s enticing features.
Yes, it was uncomfortable.
The electric thrill of not knowing what was going to happen next buzzed in my bloodstream. It burned like salt rubbing into a wound, an ulcer perhaps.
Only by pushing myself, did I realise I still had the capacity to cope, and to enjoy in spite of endurance. I need not be taught how to fend for myself, merely revise it.
In Brighton, I discovered the world’s best hummus, my sense of humour, and confidence.
This trip was worth the calories. It has taken a while so come down from the high, but I can look back and stroke the ulcers fondly with my tongue.
I will take the Bright on. May it bleed into the next few weeks.
I’ll see it in the mirror, catch an ugly feature protruding towards me from the glass. Progress grips my legs between it’s purple fingers. It squeezes swollen veins up to the surface where they throb buoyant on layers of whitening blubber.
Skin bulges out of the top of my bra, the straps struggling to contain this heaving, heavy flesh. Thighs leer at each other, and are leaning in for a kiss. Parts of me try to move independently from the bones of my body: arms flap, jowls quiver and giggle, my belly balloons and floats through the rest of the day, high on food. A voluptuous smile parts the pouches of my cheeks, and sallow skin is flooded by a blush. Beads of sweat jewel my face when the weather turns warm, like medals to celebrate the return of some body heat.
Anonymous is sometimes masked under layers of make-up. Cakey and indulgent, moist, melt-in-the-mouth. A single spray of perfume freezes her presence in other people’s eyes. Chanel makes her choke, Jo Malone is itchy. The stench of effort fills the air with the fume of progress: for here self respect can spawn everyday, if it is left to.
Stretch marks the spot. And here were can join my spots: dot-to-dot, we can draw the conclusion that my hormones are on their way back.
Pimples rupturing in greasy cavities between my nostrils, fat pustules moulded over with flaked yellow pus. And on these hormones rage: words tingle on my tongue as a tantrum brews. Out they burst volcanic fury, casting my thoughts and feelings all over the place.
It is exhausting being all over the place: there are too many out of reach things to mind, and I can’t quite stretch far enough to real them in. Instead, these ugly thoughts and alien feelings simmer, stoked by rising hormone levels and panic. Complete and utter panic: for they break the banks of what I can cope with. I can’t stretch far enough to manage all this, all this feeling, and thinking.
There is so much of me now, I just can’t seem to hold it all together.
Yes, my mirror tires me out.
Any reflection on my recovery is utterly exhausting: it glares at the future, waiting for something to happen. It is not Progress that strains me, but my reaction to it. I find myself constantly over stretching myself to meet some mark of approval from either Anonymous, or Ellie.
Progress is not the only distressing thing Recovery has dragged up. My mirror image, the picture of my present, is bored and lonely. Tired, and fed up.
Triggers have sharpened to a knife edge and attack me with ease, for I am a bigger target now.
A car door slams and a fox cries; a hundred murmuring voices press me into the walls of an art gallery. Protecting myself from an anxiety attack is haphazard, and doesn’t work the way anorexia does. Retreating into the next room to punch a pillow, or reciting Alt-J doesn’t have the same numbing effect anonymous did when she wiped me off Life’s landscape.
There are some things I can do on an anxious come down: A darkened room, cocooned in a duvet. White lights, and black coffee. Relief splashed like cold water. She makes the sound the sound the sea makes,
to calm me down.
I am all over the place, and that is not a sight for my sore eyes. I keep leaving bits of myself behind. I’ll forget my concentration and leave it at the breakfast table, still chewing over whether or not that tablespoon was too heaped.
My attention slips out of reach and stumbles into tomorrow already. Today means nothing when tomorrow is still up for grabs.
I fumble through the one coffee date I’ve had with a friend for months. I lost thread of the conversation as soon as anorexia began counting down the seconds until I had to stand again.
The only human beings I have actual interactive contact with outside the children I teach at school are my parents, the postman, and that pervy dog-walker with the one-eyed spaniel. Company is a basic human need of which I am literally starving.
I haven’t had a real conversation with anyone my own age in months.
There are many reasons for this, each as frustrating as the next.
Only one of them could be under my control.
I have spent too long locked in my own head.
Recently, I have been over-stretching myself attempting to meet up with other people. I’ve been pushing myself into texts, trying to tempt anyone to meet me. I hadn’t anticipated that the hardest part would be writing a text compelling and desperate enough for them to simply reply, rather than just scrolling on by.
Needless to say, my progress has been moving too slowly for some, and they have moved on and left me behind. Which is fine. I’m not hurt at all. At least, that’s not a feeling that means all that much to me anymore.
Badgering people to see me did pay off in some circumstances. A visit from my godmother and supper with my Grandparents were breaths of fresh air. My brother came home for a brief visit and resuscitated some will to live, even if that air blows in different anxieties. I met a friend for coffee and struggled to be present. All I could feel was anorexia watching her sip her coffee slowly, digging deeper into time spent sitting down.
This sort of meet up will take practice: it was nice to feel like I was trying though. A sort of novel experience.
Solitude is becoming less comforting now that I have become bored of my own company. There is nothing I can talk to myself about that isn’t base gossip or venting about the feral, shrieking kids down the road.
If I follow the stretch marks, and do as my doctor’s suggest, being alone with myself will be less abhorrent. One hopes the violence will eventually cease, and that I shan’t be punished for sitting, or punished for not sitting.
A change in my behaviour will see a change in the topics I can discuss with myself. Recovery will give me new things to talk to myself about, perhaps something less political than food, and exercise. Chewing over what my next meal will be sucks the joy from the moment when it finally arrives.
Loneliness does things to people, even Anonymous.
Each day unpicks a nerve.
I can’t take much more of this utter isolation. Sooner or later I know I’ll pick a side: wade into recovery and run the risk of being lonely, or go back to the one friend I do have: anorexia.
I am being passed around Anorexia and all her friends as if they own me.
She snatches up my emotions and loses them, dropping them as though the scorch her fingers.
At this stage in my recovery, I am unable to control my emotions, and I loathe it.
I’ve become an accessory to the my own destruction, and the violence that tries to tear my family in two.
My family is the last thing I have left in the world. It is precious, and it’s value has made me see how delicate it is.
Time together must be managed so it isn’t overcooked, and the heat of each other’s company doesn’t singe and boundaries.
Time apart must be constructive, so I am always able to hod myself up tall when I present myself again.
Then, Anorexia’s time must share with Cancer.
Both illnesses inhabit this house, but are excluded from our home. We trip over Cancer on a Friday, and slide though a couple of days of chemotherapy. The drugs will eventually lose their momentum and it all picks up a little. On the good days, we gather. We gather ourselves, and each other. We come together with the energy. We cling to these days carefully: for they are precious.
How cruel it is to feel anorexia slip, how unfair it is to lose control of her and watch her hurl pieces of our precious time together into despair. Anonymous chucks their light moods far away, where they’ll sink into worry like stones. Anorexia is a selfish friend, she drags everyone down with her rather than slip away quietly.
Worse still, to let her get hold of the heavy days. The days woozy with worry, rattling with pills and shaken nerves. How low it is for anorexia to stalk my family in the midst of the chemotherapy cycle.
The consequence of losing myself on these days is horrifying. Anxiety chews on fatty guilt for weeks afterwards.
No, there is never a good day to be anorexic. I will never function past this mark without learning to manage my emotions.
That will start with having the strength to hold them in the first place.
And I want to. I want to be there for my family, to hold them as they hold me: emotions and all. I want to get better so I can be better. I want to get better so I can get Ellie to help me help them. They are better support than anorexia is – you know they are, Anonymous. Leave them alone, leave my family alone.
Anxiety holds it’s breath, knowing the worst is surely on it’s way. That’s when I give way under the weight of it all. All is nothing, but at the same time – everything.
Facing it All – the now, the never, the perhaps and the presumed – I pour myself into anxiety, and let the feelings brew. Misery stirs my thoughts once, twice, thrice; round and round and round. My blood begins to roar, and then I lose it. I lose reality in the gloom, and the next few hours are at the mercy of anorexia, and all her friends.
I have to get out of here: I have to stretch out of this hovel.
Anything to stretch myself out of this hovel ad beyond the confines of my skin, just to remind me there is life outside madness.
A trip to London, a small supper party, and impromptu phone call overseas. Anything: Ellie has to push me against this restrictive bubble.
She hates seeing me struggle. Especially when she is too weak to help, worse still when she is string enough to try, but doesn’t believe I’m worth it.
My weight is a stretch mark on a graph. A slight trend, a hint. A clue so Anxiety has something to plot against.
Just another layer to my imprisonment.
Stretching food so it will one day be a loose fit around my life is sickening. So much eating is required, so many swallowed challenges.
My most recent gut-busting trick was to try, just once, to add a behaviour around food, rather than change one I already have. Thus the ‘bananadrama’ challenge was born: to eat, without planning or preparation, a banana with a spoon of peanut butter. Foodstuffs chosen because there ain’t no anti-anorexic treatment like my most favourite snack.
The trouble was with the timing: when could I possibly see fit to stuff an extra 150kcal out of mealtime hours?
The answer came on the day of a distressing day trying to meet a friend for lunch. In my anxious stupour, I avoided eating anything remotely calorific. It felt good to feel nothing, until I saw myself reflected, swaying uneasily bus window. I was hungry, and climbing high on hunger. They aren’t pleasant trips, are they Ellie? You should eat something as soon as you’re home.
My stomach stretched a little further with the progress I made that day.
It felt grossly uncomfortable, but it felt like progress.
Recovery is bruising my anorexic frame of mind, and opening it up to consider how it would be to live without Anonymous. I have spent so long locked in my own head, and am struggling so much to break out of it.
Sometimes, it is easier to shield you from my Progress. It is easier not to listen to your gasps at my transformation, it is less painful to confess weakness than declare strength. The latter just agitates Anonymous, and I become anxious again.
Sometimes I sit on my progress here. Literally – did I mention I sat through shivasana in my yoga class last week? Practising the art of meditation still evades me, but I at least talked myself down onto a bolster, and joined in the final 5 mins of class that are so vital to the essence of yoga. I didn’t quite manage it this week, but feel ready to try again next time. Even if only a tiny blip in anorexia’s regime, this is a scratch at progress.
I deny it exists too often, and so forget that like time, Progress is fragile too. A single anxious episode stretched out over a few days is enough to tarnish a month’s work of weight gain. Take last week for example. All that food, all that effort to reach 49.4kg; but then a single anxious thought could shake it down to 48.8kg by the next week. We can still follow Progress, even here. It moves forwards because of recovery, in spite of its weakness. Progress is a very loyal friend, just not that strong at the present.
I trace a stretch mark up my leg, wrapped around the pillowy flesh on my thigh. Progress is here, as alive as the time that raised it.
Only by accepting that the only constant thing is change, will I be able to control my progress. Acceptance could turn it into a friend, rejecting it could turn it into a slave. Head the future off, and Progress into madness.