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.