Ellie is taking part in an experiment this summer.
An extensive study on how far I have come in recovery, and how much further I have the potential to go.
From tomorrow, Change will be injected to all parts of my life. I will be leaving home awhile, and working in a land far away from my parents, doctors and comfort.
It is a job that people with long, important names thrive in.
Time will go haywire. Long days chasing students into activities, followed by curfew watches and counselling.
I will be away from an environment that nurtures the growth of recovery.
In order to adapt, I must test the power of the following belief: “If it is not trying to achieve recovery, you shouldn’t be doing it.” – Ellie, June 2018
This is going to force Ellie into uncomfortable positions. It will demand that she is flexible, that she pushes herself over the thin boundaries we have abided by for years.
She must bow down before her meals even after they aggravate Anxiety. She must lay herself down in favour of heavier responsibilities, and take up calorific arms against exhaustion to prevent failure. Over 500 students will push Anonymous over the limit, but Ellie must choose to tread carefully, following everyone else’s lead.
She will be expected to over-stretch the anorexic marks and, by doing so, will tear the knots out in handfuls.
This will be a juggling act. A never before seen routine: the spectacle of anorexia being forced to work with sleep, society, food and duties. They will all be tossed into the air and ordered, leading each other through each day, into a week. Two, six.
This is the purpose of this experiment: to see if a healthy routine can be developed and maintained in a new and threatening environment. This rich, crowded and exciting community could spawn all kinds of culture in Ellie. If I can adapt to unchartered territory and still navigate towards recovery, the ends of the earth could fall away to reveal more opportunities in the future.
During this experiment, we shall observe the anatomy of Change.
It’s skeleton could be made up of something so simple as belief. Might we direct it further, and establish what exactly makes a strong belief? What power might it have to manipulate the facts?
We might see a single positive belief topple Anxiety, one worry after another. A domino effect of realisations.
We may be able to identify signs of disease with ease. Even in that blurry future, we can already anticipate the vulnerable aspects of Change.
In this case, there are several areas of concern. One is exercise, the other is food.
How will Anonymous react when she is exposed to exercise? How might we prevent her catching the need to do any?
The spectre of different air, different scales and different mealtimes is already enough for Anonymous to predict that her weight will rocket the moment her adventure begins. This we know, this thought already established. What we are attempting to learn in this experiment, however, is what to do with that thought.
That infectious and frightening thought.
My meal plan will have wounds slashed into it by my timetable. What we must observe, is if Change can nurture the decision to cover the wound in calories so it can heal. Otherwise, it will simply leave a hole for hunger to thrive, and my recovery will start to rot.
Yes, we must scrutinise Change. I am so desperate to find evidence of independence. I am so desperate to prove I can manage.
There are other variables to consider.
Some have been easy to control: I have found somewhere to live that promises to be clean and quiet. A little kitchen for me to carry out the rituals of food preparation.
I have arranged medical provision when I arrive and will be weighed every week, just to check Change doesn’t have any destructive adverse effects. I will also be returning to my clinic mid-way through the summer. The corridors of the hospital wing I have haunted for over two years will be yearning for me almost as much as I will them.
Other variables are less compliant. The animal emotions that rage towards my plate, the thoughts Anxiety hurls my way to ward off Change. The unknown corners Anorexia can whisper from: I can walk that far.
Then there are them: the intruders.
They become so rowdy, so disruptive, they are just impossible to ignore. They peel my memory to shreds, piece by piece, and begin to rearrange it.
They call my memory a liar and retell a story of what really happened. A chronicle enhanced with extra senses and superpowers: oh, how I delved into another person’s head and rummaged around their judgements. How I chose the bad to take away; how I baited karma to bat it’s eyelid: a butterfly’s wing blinking in horror. The future is written off already. Intrusive thoughts take justice into an anorexic head, and squeeze it thin.
And of course, they’ve the additives that come with anorexia. Starvation syndrome, even when I feel so heavy, makes a light bite for anxiety. I’m so hungry for reason, I attach myself to the strongest one I can find. And normally, it an alien one. Imagined and unreal, but totally believable.
The damage isn’t what they take. It is what they leave behind. The ghosts of a paranoid future.
They come at their leisure.
At school, as I listen to a four year old child break down words – one letter at a time – time crawls out of my control. It lags behind my whirring thoughts, and soon I feel the chair under my bottom grip me, now for too long.
As the energy grounds onto my mat at the close of a yoga practice, I cast any energy back down into the mat. Ellie grounds herself on her spot in the studio, and retreats into herself. Waiting for her, is a thought.
An alarmed and angry thought suddenly pops up into my mind and refuses to budge. As the class quiets into stillness, it starts to fidget. It pokes and twists, stabs a knife into recovery’s back. It is the most difficult of all the yoga poses: shivasana – that of utter stillness. And an anonymous thought cannot hold with it. My energy is taken and ricochets up off on a tangent, flying sky high and terrified of the very thought of sitting still for 4 mins. The intrusion makes noise in my head, and disturbs my practice.
I cannot practice being me as I am in that moment, with an intruder hijacking my thought processes and driving them into a fat and maddening future.
What if this happens when I’m away?
This is what we are working on. This is an experiment on how well I can cope; even if only with my own excitement!
(Food for thought: define “well”?)
We expect Change to aggravate the intruders, so have made preparations for them. Intrusive thoughts never leave, but they can be encouraged to stand aside by distraction. I am expecting to be busy at work, and hope it will be enough to force a threat’s sharp point out from my side.
I think I can do it.
– Another thought, another belief. What power might positivity wield?
An Anonymous subject in a summer uniform.
Let us see what happens.
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.
Something very un-anorexic just happened: I just left a guy my number.
Anonymous has been taking a strong dose of calories recently. The doctors said there were possible side effects, including increased energy, thoughts, and feelings. Mine are coming in waves. Hot and cold flushes, angry outbursts and depressive fronts. The pressure soars then drops, and it all comes out in relief rain. Sunny spells send me soaring high, tripping over all the colours.
The extra kilo I have gained recently has been lathered between jarred thoughts and disjointed feelings. Thoughts have been lubricated, and they slip and slide from moment to moment, meal to meal, face to feeling to fear.
My brain has gotten fatter. Stuffed with food and stimulus, my mind has dilated and feelings overflow all around me. There is more room in here to pack life into.
With every intended bite, every nibble at the corner of change, I am eating away at my own limits. Ellie tasted living all those years ago, witnesses it on the street. She uses her excess energy to dream. By gaining the weight I have so far, I have made room in my life for a dream world. Reveries featuring this afternoon’s snack; tomorrow’s game of scrabble; Mum’s smile when she hears of my progress next week; longer days; long lectures; travels; chapters and achievements. And yes, a boy.
My feelings about this boy have been pressed slowly against the confines of my brain, and now I am unable to cope with them.The real world leers through my sharpening senses. This emotion has been utterly crushed. And so it fights harder to be acknowledged each time he looks. Alive, and kicking.
Anonymous looked upon these messy, undignified feelings and blushed. Humiliated and confused, and completely out of her depth in this unfamiliar world of human interaction. Unsure of it’s threat.
I already know nothing will come of this. Anonymous wouldn’t be so unconcerned if she thought something in my life was about to change.
Ellie clung to her crush.
By clutching it close, Ellie can sink back into the cast of a normal 20-something year old. It is a drug that soothes the feeling of being an outsider, it is a reminder that even Anonymous is human too. Having a crush takes Ellie’s hot focus off me, even if just for a moment. An escape from all the empty space around me, all the vacant chairs and empty inboxes. A simple smile and light conversation cleared the air stuffed with nothing but myself, and my illness. Something else to think about, something less itchy. A crush that cracks open an unfamiliar part of life, and flushes my bleak horizon with interest.
The novelty of nervousness tickles where Anxiety normally bites. A fluttering, a flirt, an innocent throb of some thought process happening. Some change, or some yearning for change.
To him, I am Anonymous.
He knows a lot about the girl who drinks in his coffee bar after her yoga class: where she works, roams, rests; that she never takes her water in a glass but prefers to drink from the bottle; that sudden loud noises can draw tears from her eyes; to not speak until she looks up from her notebook; how important it is that her coffee is served with only skinny milk. He recognises her frown lines and wipes them away with a few gentle words. He knows she saw him blush, he knows he can tie her tongue up with only a smile.
He knows her as that girl, with no name. A half formed friendship growing too fast on one side, threatening to unbalance her from her stable, sterile solitude.
At Easter, the time to celebrate new life, Spring forces it’s head out of Winter’s tough hide. The sun lingers on the ruins of last year’s bloom. The air drags nature up and out of it’s selfish hibernation, and demands that the seasons share some life. Hardened flesh turned away from winter’s glare begins to crawl, wandering fingers pulling life into action.
When every leaf was shed in Autumn, every breath frozen in Winter; there is nothing left for Spring to lose.
Nature is brave. Maybe I can be brave too, maybe I could cast my fate to the wind, just this once. Now everything has been shed, now life has stripped itself away from Ellie’s skin, surely, there is nothing left to lose.
There can be Nothing for Anonymous or Ellie to lose by indulging myself in a crush. It’s the most normal thing that has happened to me in years, and it soothes my hunger for a normal life. Desperate not just for a life, but a full life.
The more I think about it, the more Ellie develops a taste for it.
I’m so hungry.
And so it was that on Good Friday, I marched into the suspect coffeehouse clutching a mahoosive bag of Easter eggs, and a gift tag bearing wishes and my number on it. Clad in my prettiest top and excitement induced, I was invincible.
I took my number and handed it over. My individual number, selected and plucked fresh for me by my mobile network, and stamped next to my listed name. A mobile number: the feature the grew on my reflection, as I stood before my mirror through the years, my phone clutched in one hand. A piece of myself I had control over. I mastered myself, and put it on paper.
He wasn’t even there that day: it was his day off. So I left it with one of his giggling colleagues, and walked out feeling taller and more capable than I have ever done before.
Ellie was a lazy dater: it is very unlike her to make the first move. Perhaps my illness has shifted her mind’s eye a little. Perhaps Ellie is learning the value of her own choices: there is nothing to lose, but everything to gain, by choosing to indulge in oneself.
This situation is no longer in my control, and I’m ok with that. The line between what I can do and cannot do is clear, and it is a very comforting feeling. My blood has been thickened by my pride, and confidence boost. I can do it. I can be brave.
He might receive my note, he might not.
He may text me, he may not.
He could toss my number in the bin, and laugh about it over a pint with his girlfriend later.
He might be forced out of his job by humiliation, reject any burden of attention and go on to lead a nomadic life as a recluse, in Scandinavia. He might not be.
He might be willing to let life slip between his sweating palms, and watch it flay and fray over there, out of his control. Like me, he might not.
There is so much that might and might not happen. This small pocket of the future punctured by ifs, buts and gaps; dashes through the dreams that itch away at Anonymous, and make my skin crawl all around her.
For now, I can sit with Anxiety as it picks over all this. There isn’t much for Anxiety to go on, really. Ellie lapped up most of the residual pride at actually taking control, for once. The power lies in the decision-making, and that wasn’t done by Anxiety.
If he did get my note, at least I’ve made it easy for him now.
If he texts, I’ll celebrate with a grand finale to Easter. I’ll be really, really brave. Guys, if he asks me out, I’ll face the biggest, itchiest fear food thus far: a creme egg.
The indulgence of fear, may turn out to be the indulgence of Nothing.
We’re going to retrace my steps through the last few weeks. The ground is still very uneven, so tread carefully. There are a lot of cracks we could fall through, straight into the fiery pits of anxiety rumbling away underfoot. Not to worry. My shoes are used to these harsh conditions, they can swing my mood to and from the threat of progress.
After all, they carried me this far. They haven’t fallen to pieces yet, as so many have before.
Come, we’re going to get off the beaten track a little. We’re going to explore the dark allies of myself I’d really rather pretend didn’t exist.
Don’t trip up over the bodies.
The quiet was delicate that Friday night. I was home alone, curled up by the fire with a crossword and a cat. The Beast from the East pawed pitifully at the window panes.
Then it came back. Out of the shadows of my mind, still woozy from Anonymous’ enforced famine, it came back. I was dragged back to that dark place, back into the my familiar prison.
Silence, my old friend.
Silence is strong but brittle, as it turns out. The secret I have held away from me for so long broke out in a desperate rash as recovery threatened to close in on me from all sides. I couldn’t carry it with me any longer: it was too big, too heavy. I just wouldn’t make it out the other side.
I have held Silence carefully knowing it was strong, but brittle. It broke between my teeth. First to my Godmother, for she was the first to discover my body, writhing in horror and shock. Then my Mum. I broke it up, and shared it with my Mum. The next day in hospital, I offered it up to my nurse.
I beg anyone to take Ellie off my hands. Here – help me, help me.
My tongue riled behind gritted teeth. My Silence broke, my secret crushed against the roof of my mouth. Unable to take the weight of Ellie’s secrets anymore, I tore them from my person and spat them out in a sentence.
This rotting body I have dumped at your feet is long dead. Even so, I just can’t let it go.
I cannot show you my secret. Only parts of it’s dismembered body. You’ll get the picture; just not the angry buzz, the bitter taste, the stench of sweat, the crushing pressure. You’ll get a still, frustration bitten idea. It’ll itch, it will be painful. You’re only in my shoes. Imagine how excruciating it is being trapped beneath my skin.
Emboldened by my 13 years, I went on a childish wander. With bare, unprotected hands, I leafed through the world around me. Ellie was looking for Anything really, but discovered Something. That Something changed Everything.
I stumbled upon a Secret. A most terrifying creature, one that grew bigger and blacker before my eyes. It latched onto me and began to mutate. My shadow dilated and leered. My family, my friends, my Self. We were all being watched, we were all being stalked by Paranoia. This Secret brutally trained my senses to be alert. I kept my enemy close to my chest, squeezed it tight and vowed to never let it go, never let it be out of sight of my mind’s eye. Plotting, trying to work out how to kill it.
I just didn’t know what to do with it, nor how to handle it. Should I hand it over, turn myself in? Would it behave differently if it were out of my hands? Probably not. No, better to hide from it.
Hiding from Ellie didn’t make her go away. It didn’t give me any peace.
Only now I’m refeeding her, now the calories are rousing me from my starved sedation, am I beginning to think again, remember again, feel again. It’s all exactly the same as I left it, only heavier, and neglected.
I drugged her. I plied her with alcohol. I watched men circle her like sharks and did nothing to stop them dragging her down, pushing her head down, striking her down.
I was an extra hand held over her mouth after Crackhead no.4 broke into her room, again. 2 inch idiot, Tweedles Dum and Dumber, the-ones-who-were-so-uninteresting-I-never-came-up-with-a-scathing-name-for-them. I can still see the specs of cocaine on his nostils, glittering like stars. The nights are black, but I can still see his stars. The blood never washed off my sheets, the smell of skin and sweat lingers.
And I did nothing, because this is the least Ellie deserved. I could push her further and further, but still she’d stay with me. Still with me, trapped together in the same body. Trailing after me like a ghost.
I met Anonymous when I was 13. Together, we plotted to rid me of Ellie. Only after all else failed, did we begin feeding Ellie to oblivion. Kcal by g, kg by bpm.
Stay away, get away from me.
The fear is still alive, kicking and screaming. My secret died on my lips but it’s legacy lives on. The seeds of self hate grew roots as I grew older.
I’m actually frightened to approach the subject again, let alone start picking up the pieces. There are too many bits to reorder, too many sharp edges.
I don’t know myself anymore.
I don’t know who Ellie is, what she did, what she might do. All I hear are the rumours orbiting the perpetrator of all my pain: Ellie.
I tore Ellie’s shoes from my feet and ran.
Even after lancing my secret, it still itches. It is a different type of itch, an uncertain one. As if unsure why it should be there at all, but persists as a precaution. From the moment I told someone my secret, I felt relief splash on my face like cold water. The pain was numbed for a short time, and now it is back with a vengeance.
Come, let’s leave this now. It has been an uncomfortable journey, so let us turn back to recovery.
As we’ve walked together through this thick undergrowth of my Self, I can feel your attention starting to lag. The relentlessness has made you a straggler, and you’ve struggled to keep up as we wade deeper into the murk.
Now, you are vulnerable. This is where Boredom prowls, and I’m sorry I haven’t been looking out for you.
Careful where you tread, you would not want to fall prey to Boredom.
I have been caught by boredom. As I flee from anorexia and pursue recovery, I entered this long grey grass of endless anxiety and monotony. My routine closed in and winter froze out any variation. I strayed behind time, and now I am trapped by Boredom.
Boredom bites into my limited life, salivates when it catches a whiff of loneliness. This Beast has settled on my job like snow: the hours thaw through the day, dripping and draining until I can crawl home and take refuge in sleepy solitude. Days are swept to one side without having spoken to a single human being outside my house. My phone sits silent, a ghost.
Boredom is excruciating. It is so itchy, but there is nothing Anonymous can do about it. The only way out, is up: I can escape boredom by squeezing weight gain past Anorexia, and drag my feet towards a recovering horizon.
Stop fidgeting. The more you struggle, the harder you fight, the tighter anorexia will squeeze.
And now, it is time we looked down again. You can take those shoes off now, they’re beginning to wear thin anyway. Soon, I’ll stand on those scales, and they’ll fall to pieces again.
They make you uncomfortable. I can read you fidgeting, glancing over your shoulder to check how far boredom is away.
Sharp scratch, deep breath. It’s over. This misery is mine alone to manage.
I have managed to put on and maintain 1kg in a little over a month. Not quite the prescribed amount, but enough to satisfied my doctors that Ellie can do it.
Of course she can do it: boredom and frustration is excruciating. She is pushing my towards the kitchen cupboard, begging me to have my snack. Please, make it all stop.
In my kitchen is a small, unremarkable cupboard. Behind it’s door, lies a monster’s lair. The “Snack in the Cupboard” – a hoard of nut butter, energy balls, dates and mylkshakes I have been stashing out of harms way. Piles and piles of calories.
The increase I have hid from for months, but that I finally put in last week.
I gained some weight.
I held on to it.
The itching never subsided.
We stand here together now, 500 kcal braver. But also, 500 kcal more anxious. For we have inclined our head towards change, at the expense of our mind.
My life is trying to outgrow Anonymous, I can feel it. But it keeps being stunted in awkward places: great tumours throbbing with anxiety protruding in on Mother’s Day, red traffic lights and unexpected phone calls. Any form of social life has been deformed. Friends are ushered away before they can expect me to sit. My travel radius has shrunk and barely skirts London – the journey is just too long to go anywhere else. Anonymous counts the extra calories she could be burning by choosing not to sit and study, but to stand and sneer. Great periods of time drawing blank, and being called a masterpiece.
My camera roll is stuffed up with pictures of my food. This symptom has got worse as the “increase” treatment was proposed: I feel the need to gather as much evidence as possible to prove why my weight behaves the way it does, week after week. Everything has been put on edge, and sharpened; ready for the charge to recover my body from anorexia.
Under all this thick and thin skin, Ellie still scratches her head, trying to find where it itches.
I feel life bulge from my person sometimes. Sometimes, I can taste the progress as it is made.
Look down at my feet: see the words written here. Read between the lines and find the small changes taking place in other chapters of our life, Ellie.
The violent buzz in my yoga classes is slowly subsiding. I find myself counting breaths in a pose, rather than seconds of being completely inactive. Exercise is being diluted by incense, and for a whole hour Ellie can focus on being, rather than feeling.
The relationship I have with my mirror has intensified. It speaks more animatedly, and seems more open minded to what I present before it. It can see through my thigh gap and still isn’t satisfied. Sometimes, it even speaks to me kindly.
How are the shoes? All this talk of food makes them feel tighter, right? More itchy.
You can take them off now.
I’m sorry our journey down memory lane has been trying. It isn’t always that bad down there. Recovery pushes me down there quite often, now I have the strength to explore it.
Yes, there are the ghosts rising from writhing corpses. But there are some bodies there that died properly. Dead and buried by acceptance. There are some bodies of innocent bystanders: times of my life that were victimised by anxiety and tortured out of proportion.
Some of these aren’t dead; they’re asleep. Lost in a dream.
If only I could take you into the dream world.
Standing in my shoes and watching Hopes and Dreams will never be enough. You’ll never feel how excruciating it is to hope and dream, how itchy it makes one feel trapped beneath the skin of an illness.
I have tried to bring my dreams into the real world, by writing them down. I wrote pages and pages on one dream that takes place On A Little Street in Singapore: back to where I was safe, back to where I was saved. Back to listen to the Oriel warble.
Another dream of pulling my skin on in the morning and feeling proud of Ellie.
A somewhat more trivial dream of asking my barista out, now burst by the sharp scratch of reality: how would Anonymous be on a date?
For now, please stay with me as I reach out to touch a dream close by, and make it come true. The dream of feeling 500 kcal more amazing everyday. The dream of making progress and watching it wash over my life, like cold water. I could float on it, perhaps.
I dream finding bits of myself I never knew existed, and piecing myself back together.
That will start, with bringing up a body.
A feast for the ears and heart, a score of temptations.
Ellie used to gorge herself on music, spending years binging behind her harp. She stuffed chords into the air and felt the notes grow fat, wobbling as they resonated off her harpstrings. She’d indulge herself in a joy nobody else could touch, not down there in the audience. Power ripened on her harp through grades and concerts. The horizon dilated, and I tripped towards it high on adrenaline. The strings shook, and notes blurred.
Music was a temptation away from dieting and exercise. It was a safe haven to install Ellie, a place she could lose herself in and know she’d always be able to find herself again. She could hide from herself, and drown her thoughts out in a melody.
To recover from Anorexia, I have been prescribed food.
Food to provide calcium, protein and potassium. Food to fix osteoporosis, amenhorea and a broken body image. Food for thought and food for esteem: food to give me strength to see myself clearly again, and food to pass judgement thereafter. Food to build up muscle, and food to build up self-worth. Love. Love?
Self-love is by far my biggest fear food.
Being presented with it makes my mouth water, and I become afraid. Trapped in this denial is all part of the punishment. It’s all part of the cleansing I must go through to rid myself of Ellie, and become Anonymous.
I haven’t indulged in self love for a very long time. It has always looked too tough, too chewy and complex to swallow, to understand.
My doctors and family sing a different tune. Their’s is a forgiving one. The tone is sharper, but melts into the background of reality like butter.
The lyrics clash horrifically in my ringing ears. The syncopated jangling of my nerves unsettles their “It’s ok” preludes. “Stop punishing yourself” a rhapsodic rasp and completely out of tune with the anthem I’ve sung all my life, and still do.
Anorexia treatment is trying to retune my thoughts so they are brighter, so that I may climb more major scales.
My Anonymous melody works. It speaks for me, sums me up with all my sins and contains me on a downward spiral.
To recover, I must tune in to reality. I listen out for it above the grainy images in my head, and try to sift through each one, sorting fears between ‘real’ and ‘imagined’.
Practising self love is a highly strung affair. Anonymous simply won’t swallow it: most of it won’t even make it to my plate.
A surge of inspiration was washed up after my Dad tuned my harp, and Ellie’s thumbs pricked. I plucked up some courage and a few strings, and with encouragement, I did it. I played my harp, and chewed on a sweet morsel of love and relief, peppered with nostalgia that sprung tears from my eyes in the final bars.
These strings have been plucked a thousand times, but not for the last two years.
Anonymous is a fool to suppose that playing the harp is any less a workout than standing, or taking the only light exercise I’m allowed. Twelve bars in, cramp killed the moment and my arms stiffened where they lay. My muscles froze over, petrified by the work that lay ahead. These fingers groaned in protest and these feet – in those shoes – shuffled clumsily along the pedals. And my back. Oh, my barren back. The ghost of posture’s past rattled in the empty pores of my spine. Holding up an armful of rosewood, 46 strings and a dead harp career, it was my back that cried out first when I plucked that first string.
Anorexia is finely tuned in to any form of sitting, and so harp practice causes a clash of peripatetic emotions: mostly alarm and panic. One or two attacks thereafter.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve managed to ease Ellie into a chair and force Anonymous to sit there and listen for 5 or 10 minutes, here and there.
For now, that’s all I can manage. And for now, that’s enough.
I chewed on this treat, listening to symphonic joy tremble my very being. Somewhere inside, I felt Ellie danceng again. She knotted and unknotted my tummy, lifted my arms like the willow trees in Marraconelo Way – my childhood home – and delved back into the music.
Thought process got caught up in this hedonistic party, and then I gave myself away. In a stuffy staffroom, I let slip to the headmaster that I played the harp.
Nice one Ells. You’ve done it now: you’ve sealed your fate and cast it into the music.
I wasn’t sure how to approach it at first. A harp performance in front of the whole school blocked up my future with exposure, humiliation, and ultimately, loosing my job.
My performance lurked in the corner of coming days, a real and gasping fear. There was so much that could go wrong, so many strings to hold and so many thoughts to order, reorder, disorder. How heavy would the silence be when it eventually fell?
I saw how it would be: held down and nerves wracked, fate screwing tighter.
No. Scratch that. We won’t make it to the end of the paragraph, I’ll lose you in the gloom.
I need to change the narrative.
Is it possible, Ellie, that your character had been feeling a little bit excited?
I waited in the wings.
Today, Ellie, you are not anxious. Feel that pleasant flutter, that fluid knotting, that movement? This is not the work of anxiety, who’s hand constricts around every sense and squeezes it tight, tight, tighter.
No, today you are nervous.
Oh, nervousness – my familiar friend! Oh, oh, oh – all is forgiven. Welcome back, you dithering twit. You are quite pleasant in comparison to your high-flying elder sibling. Anxiety is such a bore, you’re much more exciting.
Nerves, thanks for being here. Thank you for helping me.
How lovely it is to write that: that I felt something so normal and benign as stage-fright.
Ellie pulled me on stage, gripping me by my hair as it stood on end.
My fingers hovered over the strings, circling and skirting. They nestled between in the intervals. The silence was thick, and squeezed out from in-between the strings like honey. My fingertips traced the strings. C,D,E.
My harp hid me well. The scene was strung up and sliced into thin, bitesized chucks. Every face in the audience was blocked by a strip of nylon or brass, I couldn’t see my colleagues lining the hall, I couldn’t see the way out.
I had to hold this harp, this head, and the children’s wandering and wondering attentions.
I couldn’t hear the buzz of anticipation, only my silence, quaking in it’s final moments.
The wood weighed heavy on my shoulder, but held me close. I let the silence fall, and embraced music.
A far cry tuned in to where I was, and why.
The first note – that very first B – tore. It grazed the quiet and the melody frayed my nerves. Chords sparkled and strings sang. I nestled closer into my instrument.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed performing. Enjoyment: another nourishing and indulgent treat.
That first B plucked the poison from my head and I was let go, lost in rolling chords. I played on, on and on, into the softness of the room. Then the peace ended, and I had to stop.
My portion of enjoyment was dwarfed by that of the school. I have never known 200+ children sit so completely and utterly still. One could have heard silence splintering. I made grown men cry and succumbed under the layers of myself.
Then the peace ended, and I had to stop. When the last child had left and the final note hummed, I fell over the stiffened corpse of who I used to be, and burst into tears. Awe-struck by what I had just found, terrified of what to do with it now.
There are so many calories in enjoyment. I was hit by a sugary rush of adrenaline and tripped through a day at work high on endorphins. I had so much energy, I simply couldn’t contain it beneath this skin. Surely, to sustain this feeling, I must make more room for it. I clung to the confused ecstasy like my leggings do my thighs, and let it carry me through the meals, trials and tantrums over the coming days. Eating food, for a moment, was easy. Logical. I had just seen what nourishment meant, how much power it gave me.
Only now, a day later, is that feeing beginning to ebb away.
Anorexic guilt bit gently into how long I sat for, how deceitful it is to pretend I’m anywhere near as good at the harp as Ellie was.
She’s biting down on her own lip. Not out of nerves, but anxiety.
I hope Anorexia feels threatened by my performance. I hope she saw and heard every tiny detail: putting myself out there, facing a fear; identifying and understanding how I felt and what I felt. Distinguishing between the reality of Nervousness, and the monstrous Anxiety that embellished my mind’s eye.
This has to be another step, another push into the next movement of Recovery.
If only a rest could come, and for my thoughts to quieten down.
Anorexia pushed my body over a line, and it fell into the hands of the flu.
You’d think anorexia and the flu would be best mates. But no, this is a competition to see who could cause each other the most amount of pain. Anorexia calls the Flu lazy, and the Flu calls Anorexia weak.
I sit to rest, to break my fall before I collapse in a fever – and Anonymous catches me slacking.
I stand to calm Anonymous, to throw her a scrap of activity – and the Flu crushes the air around me in jealousy.
Insults are hurled in body and mind; whatever I choose to do I end up offended one or the other, and that illness flares up.
A breath of nausea, and the taste of salt. A cold wave lapping against a scorching fever. Sweat lubricating limbs as they twitch in shivers of denial. This cannot be happening, I don’t believe it.
Sludge stirs from the depths of my throat. Thick and sticky, every breath I take gets caught in phlegm and torn out of of my mouth in a hacking fit.
I watch the scarf around my neck pulsating at 50 bpm.
The fever broke. A million tiny pieces of the infection splintered, and a cold sunk in.
I can now sit up in bed. I can now raise my head and stand, move about a little. Soon the phlegm gets too heavy, and now it is time to rest again.
It is for this reason that anorexia is terrified of illness: though it be short lived, it be mighty. It will force my body to lay out on a bed or be still in a chair. It will drown all my thoughts – anorexic or otherwise – in the depths of despair and panic, and it relishes the crunch of breaking fight as I will back down, and surrender myself to sweet, healing sleep.
The flu confined me to my bed, and l became convinced that serious food would be thrown straight back up into anorexia’s face.
Eating anything at all was gruelling. Limbs quivering and posture weakened, I approached a glass of milk or scrap of toast. Anonymous dragged her feet with reluctance, unable to understand the necessity of it when all I was doing – could be doing – was moping about the house in a feverish reverie.
Ellie scavenged for encouragement to eat after nearly collapsing after I stood. After calling the clinic and asking Mum and Dad to yet again tell me that its ok to eat because I might have to, I did.
I have been documenting every meal I’ve eaten, and counting it so it barely scrapes the minimum of what I could manage.
Perhaps that’s why I still feel so grim. I think this might just be hunger.
I lost three days in a woozy haze. The time restrictions Anonymous so tightly enforced were swept up in the gruelling fight to drive out the flu.
Anonymous had no plans to eat breakfast, so reluctantly compromised not to set an alarm in the mornings. For the first time in a long time, my body could stir when it felt ready. Still, the pain drew me from a disturbed slumber at 7:30, as always.
Now I had the rest of the day to waste. Ellie hurled as many hours at rest as anorexia allowed her, in hope that it would coax the flu away.
This morning, I awoke and stood up, shaking the phlegm down my veins and blowing it out. I climbed under a hot gushing shower and let the stream draw liquid out of my face. Emerging with pink skin and panting, I was quick to wrap up in a fluffy towel and scrub every last drop of sweat, blood and tears of the flu out.
I’ve been here before.
The hairdryer roared and the sun grinned through the curtains. The window swung open on it’s hinges and welcomed clean air into my bedroom. The stench of skin is beginning to diffuse.
I downed some pills (paracetamol doesn’t have any calories, Anonymous,) and crawled down to the kitchen. I looked for something to settle my tummy. Violent cries for sustenance, please feed me.
Plump dollops of yogurt stiffened granola into tight balls. I folded a banana and a handful of blueberries in, then settled down to eat the first real meal I’ve eaten in four days. Guilt was an aftertaste.
Now what are you going to do? You’ve eaten, better get on and do something.
We’re about to go out to a nature reserve: normally a very enjoyable and relatively gentle family day out. I can see the line again. Please Ellie, please don’t let me cross it again so soon. Please don’t over-do it before the cold has gone, and get ill all over again.
I’ve been typing this out all morning, in fragmented bursts. Worry that the calories will grow bored with the cold and, in their temper, curdle in my blood vessels, keeps breaking my train of thoughts.
But here I can see written what I need to remember: you have to eat, you need the calories because your body is fighting an illness.
How ironic, this is exactly what my nurse tells me everyday – with or without the flu. Ellie, today you need the calories for the flu. But everyday, you need the calories for anorexia.