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.
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.
In order to recover from anorexia, one must put on weight.
0.5kg per week, until the symptoms subside.
In order to gain 0.5kg per week, one must eat 500 kcal more than their daily requirements. Everyday, for the whole week.
One has to eat an extra 500 kcal everyday, for every day of the week.
500 kcal, 7 days a week
That adds up to 3500 kcal everyweek. Extra. Everyweek.
In order to recover from anorexia, I have to eat 500 kcal more than what I do already. What I already do isn’t enough. A medicinal measure of progress: my weight – my number – has been unchanged since November. I need to eat 500 kcal more than enough.
The problem is, eating enough is already too much. It’s too much for Anonymous to cope with: so much disorder to be dealt with.
When will any of this ever be enough? I’ve had enough.
In order to recover from anorexia, one must put on weight.
Layers, and layers, and layers.
Doctors’ encourage anorexics to put it on one layer at a time, at a speed with enough momentum to maintain itself, but not too much to blow a fuse and send the carrier into a despairing, confused blackout.
It is a substantial layer of 0.5kg per week.
Try it on piece by piece, assembling a costume to crawl up the axis onto the next stage of recovery. There, the world will be waiting to see what gargantuan monstrosity appears. Anonymous can feel the thrill of the onlooker waiting to see my transformation. Another layer that will be stripped back sometime, to reveal reality’s chuckling face: don’t flatter yourself. Who would even be interested?
In order to recover from anorexia, one must put on weight.
500 kcal more than this ample diet working it’s way through the time I have yet to get through.
500 kcal more than a diet already bursting at the seams. A diet stuffed full, and futile.
500 kcal more to be melted down and trickled down shrunken veins. Great canals of blood pumping 500 kcal into my heart. Galvanising my brain into action for a while. 500 kcal lathered over porous, brittle bones. They shiver when I pass a wheelchair, or see someone on crutches. Rattled, I cross myself. That could be you if you’re not careful.
One must eat 500 kcal more than they need to function as they are.
Here is the great sadness: I only function. I do not flourish.
Increasing is wearing. Food dances on my tongue, swilled around with the poisonous words Anonymous mutters as I chew. Anorexia poisons food with her thoughts so I don’t touch it. Every missed mouthful is consumed by my illness, just so it can maintain itself. It grows strong with less, as I will with more.
I have to put on this weight.
It has been a while since I last recognised an actual increase. They are starved off, strangers in the midst of a treatment plan. Anonymous is so paranoid about them trespassing into my mouth, that she randomly arrests any morsel of food she suspects to be dense enough to smuggle in illicit calories, and then brands the word “increase” upon it. She has cheapened a label, causing the value of a real life increase to sore. When I find one, it is to be held in bewilderment and awe.
I often find Ellie scavenging on these offcuts, desperately trying to find some indication that it had been real: she had really seen an increase. This usually happens the night before clinics, the night before she is to be put up and judged by her doctors: “So, Ellie. Did you increase?”
Let us look at last week’s plate of empty promise.
My milk measure bulges just over 200ml; four chia seeds spray onto my porridge as I open their packet; the barista making my skinny coffee looks shifty. Anonymous scrawls the word “increase” into my food log, and burns those extra calories before my eyes.
There is not enough fuel in these lies to maintain recovery.
In order to recover from anorexia, one must put on weight: 0.5kg per week.
In order to gain this weight, one must eat 500 kcal extra everyday, 7 days a week.
A heaped teaspoon of honey pales under scrutiny. That will have been an extra 22 kcal at the worst.
Anorexia has led Ellie to believe that 500 kcal is in touching distance. I am convinced that a small, painless tweak to my diet would be enough to send it spiralling up and out of this illness.
Everything becomes subject to calorie speculation. Predictions made based on anorexic data, drawn from the fact that any calorie will be a big one.
500 kcal is not as easy to get to as I think it is. Proof of how far anorexia addles a brain is found in my reluctance to face the ugly fact that 500 kcal is more than a heaped measurement, or even just an extra glass of coconut water at a dodgy time of day.
Ellie waves an avocado in my face: look, an increase! Well, this is certainly looks more like an increase. Half an avocado is a solid extra on your plate. A great lump of anxiety clogging up Anonymous’ clear run through the day, dodging food and triggers as she goes. Despite my wracked nerves comping through this meaty flesh – it isn’t enough.
Half an avocado? That’s 120 calories, tops. 380 to go now Ellie.
A banana? An almond? What about a smoothie?
The point only seems to show itself to me. Here is the point, sharpened and clear cut: I don’t want to get bigger.
I just want to be recovered. I just want the worst to be over. If only weight gain wasn’t so painful.
In order to recover from anorexia, I must forget where I left “enough”.
My “enough” was mine to find and mine to lose, my body’s requirements and my body’s right. My “enough” pales next to another persons, and there it awaits their judgement. My “enough” was left too long in anonymous hands, and was squeezed too hard.
My current “enough” looks too much by comparison: well over the recommended daily calorie allowance of a normal female of my age.
What was “enough” then, is not enough now. You need to eat more, Ellie.
It’s not enough.
I don’t know when recovery will ever be “enough”.
I have heard what is coming up there, above the ‘anorexic’ weight range. There, the anorexic is expected to roam, picking off food despite the number, no matter the feeling.
There will be so much matter to feel. The maintenance course is a heady dose with unpredictable, invisible side effects. Doctor’s will see me dragged upwards and ditch me at a BMI of 20: a number I have never let myself reach before. Not since I was 13.
Treatment starts with but is not limited to, a number.
I simply refuse to see how one can possibly make a story out of numbers. There is no character development or story twists when the plot just ambles up and down and across an axis, losing a bit of itself each time it looks down to check where it is, and where it might be heading.
Every week, my nurse repeats it.
Every week, my nutrition repeats it.
Every day, my parents remind me,
and every second, Anonymous avoids it.
500 kcal, everyday.
She doesn’t fight. She’s a coward. She’ll just shield her eyes to block out reality, and stay safe and stagnant in denial.
This week, I’ve been trying. I managed to meet a sort of increase, I think.
The moment to increase arrives and I feel unsure how to greet it. Should I just go for it? Stuff the ting in my mouth and hope it doesn’t come back to bite me later?
Or perhaps I’ll wait, give myself time to prepare for it. If I think it through, perhaps the thoughts will straighten out, order themselves on their own. The disorder will cease over time, won’t it?
Time is growing thick and going fast.
In order to keep up with time, I need to be putting on weight. I’m about to be left behind.
This morning there was a smoothie crisis. The smoothie in my meal plan was let out one or two kcal, in an effort to lure my diet up the great 500kcal. Ellie was granted permission to try a new smoothie, one she had been eyeing up out of a recipe book. This one would be thick and flavoursome, full and fruity. Frozen banana frothed up and foaming, thickened by avocado and sweetened with – get this – a medjool date. Spinach crunched in rapture. The calories would tip the day in favour of recovery, I could feel it.
So I did it. It slipped down, smooth and silky. It was heavy, leaning against the walls of my stomach and oozing through my intestine. A increase, surely – I finally found an increase.
The numbers lay low with the truth. They had to be lying when they denied an increase had ever passed through here. After running through it all over and over, I must concede here. That smoothie was not an increase. Anonymous simply replaced the original with a bulkier one, and docked a few calories later in the day, to make up for regret. All without me realising.
I cannot judge 500 kcal, but I will judge how I react to it. That increased feeling is both a punishment and a prize, depending on who I fight for.
All other variables aside, – confidence, communication, constant-crisis-aversion – the tale of treatment comes down to numbers. An incomprehensible series of numbers plotting Anonymous on her journey out of my life.
If I don’t gain any weight this week, I’m going to be in big trouble.
If I don’t increase my diet by 500 kcal in time to pull myself together, layer by layer, the doctor’s will carry out the fearful examination of my future in treatment they have been threatening since stagnation.
There will be a terrible reaction, and the rapid spread of anxiety and change; and it will be all my fault.
There is nothing else that will solve or explain weekly-weight-gain-gate, than fear. Only fear will tip me over the side of this crisis.
I have a banana in my bag.
Ellie said today, I’d eat a banana with coffee. With – not instead of. So she put a banana in my bag.
Now, I have a banana in my bag.
With three days until my weigh-in, this is all I’ve got. An inability to cram, clear confusion, and an extra banana in my bag.
An extra 100 kcal.
In order to recover from anorexia, one must put on weight until the symptoms subside.
Treatment tries to weight out a voice, wait out a feeling. Eventually, they are said to grow small enough to be manageable.
Food will recover me, not cure me. Treatment seems to be the gathering of layers, pinching them together, tighter and tighter, compress them and squeeze them slowly until the pressure finally drops, and a character emerges. Thus, a story may start: featuring numbers, yes, but also feelings.
In order to gain 0.5kg per week, one must eat 500 kcal extra.
Note: an increase will never be found in a feeling; for it is only a number.
Reader: I hope you have picked up on the repetition in this post. For it is only by saying it over and over again, can the realisation be summoned to stand on the present ground.
What will happen if you gain weight, Ellie? You’ll gain weight.
You’ll gain weight.
You’ll gain weight, and life will go on. So they say.
Only this time, you’ll be choosing to go with it.
There is nothing more I wish to add in this post. So long as I make a meal of weight gain, I don’t deserve to indulge myself sharing news and views.
Good things are important in recovery, but they are lonely without someone to be with.
I need to eat 500 kcal more today.
I need to eat 500 kcal more today.
I need to eat 500 more today, and everyday after that.
To recover from anorexia, I need to put on weight.
Christmas was there, peering over the cusp of just a few days. The atmosphere had mounted advent. It was building, it was beginning to charge. Excitement clashed with stress on the streets, fear melted down by nostalgia’s wrath at home.
Anxiety was lit up like a Christmas tree. Great flashing figures were frozen in a festive stance, dangling off anorexic branches. They’d slip – surely.
The tree was bloated with presents, my family feverish with festivity. I watched them in the grip of Christmas, and grieved for the joy I still cannot hold onto whilst clinging to Anorexia.
This year though, I touched it. I felt for the joy Anonymous has trained me to turn against, and I touched it. I unwrapped Christmas, and found a collection of moments.
They are mine forever, to treasure and keep.
Christmas day itself was so bright, I was blinded.
The pandemic of stress sweeping across the world’s kitchens on the 25th December was baying in the oven. My parents’ time plan was lathered in goose fat, and it began to slip about under the pressure. I had prepared anxiety for the onslaught of smell and stress and sobs and sighs that would ensue in preparation of my family’s Christmas lunch. Even walking the long way around the house, I felt my father sweat. That turkey was cooked by his concentration if nothing else. Perhaps it was the looming scrutiny of the nine family members, perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it’s just because it is Christmas. It happens every year in every household, so I had to be prepared for it.
So it was to be that I would avoid the kitchen at all costs, and plate up a cold meal at the last minute. It was with some reluctance that I agreed to try something different for lunch on Christmas day. Something special, to celebrate a year of recovery wins. I opened my ‘safe’ cookbook, pulled my calculator towards me, and began to break down each recipe. Pencil marks branded each serving size a calorie content. It was by this process of elimination that I made my choice. A herbed nut loaf. This Anonymous-approved meal, prepared the day before, was not without it’s own festive surprises. I measured out a serving size – a sixth: 3cm – and began to saw away at the dry crust. Specs of nut fell away from the knife’s blade. The wrinkled skin cracked from side to side, and chunks of squash sank out of sight. The walls of my nut loaf trembled: and suddenly I couldn’t tell what was slice and what wasn’t. 3cm of crumble collapsed, again and again. I butchered the remainder of the loaf, eventually salvaging 2 cm of crust and a spoonful of crumble. Whilst my cousins filed past, plates piled with parsnip and potatoes, I glared at my plate. Daring it to be bigger than I had convinced myself it really was.
This dry pile of crumbs had some calories left over from my usual lunchtime quota, so Ellie cut up a fig and weighed out an apple. Anything to wet my appetite that was rapidly decreasing as the day wore on, pushing me towards my place at the dining table.
There was a saga with the sprouts. These green gems, these misunderstood buds of festive joy: the only part of the traditional Christmas meal I have ever negotiated with Anonymous. As the kitchen was hotting up, the lunchtime hour nearly upon us, I became aware that our deal was under threat. It was carnage in the kitchen. Too many hands and too many cooks manhandling too many of my clean, innocent sprouts. Anonymous had no idea how the sprouts were going to be boiled. She had always held her vegetables hostage, but now they were being lost in the family feast. Unable to hold it down, I threw these words over my parents as they edged down their to-do list. One solution would have been to take a handful, and boil them separately in the annexe. That way I could monitor them. But that wasn’t the point: this simply is not the point of a gathering at Christmas time. The whole day, Ellie had been fighting to feel included. I wanted to share the responsibility of sprout-consumption; I wanted to walk on common ground in the conversation after the meal: “delicious sprouts”. Thus I had to persuade Anonymous to hand over control of them. She didn’t want to let them go, she didn’t know how they would be treated. Would they be subjected to seasoning? Salt, sugar? Unnecessary sprinkles over their delicate skin? What of the saucepan: had it been washed throughly – was it clean enough? Was this not the pan you used to boil your ham in yesterday? I conjured calories from the dregs, and watched them sink beneath the boiling water that the sprouts were dancing in. Mum, Dad, how will I know?
You just have to trust us.
Yes, but how will I know?
Ellie considered this. She peered past their flushed, frantic faces, into the steamy kitchen. The stress sprouts were causing me was decidedly less than that of chaotic Christmas cooking, which my parents were just about on top of. They could do without this, Ellie. We could all use do without this. You just have to trust them.
Celebrate the trust I have, despite the doubts I am desperate to unload.
The sprouts survived the cooking. They made it to the serving bowl, to the sideboard. I nearly did too, only stumbling when I picked up a clean spoon to take some. There was meat on that sideboard; bacon. Bread sauce, gravy spittle. Nothing looked clean to Anonymous if I had been dirtied by a blind eye.
At the table, Ellie perched on her pain threshold. I picked up my knife and fork, which Anonymous swiftly took and began to stab me with: goodness, what enormous cutlery. The prongs were silver and strong, great gulfs torn between them. The knife would have flattened my nut loaf in one sitting. My first mouthful of that Christmas meal was air. I peeled away from the table unannounced, and reappeared clutching my small knife and fork. Ellie settled into her chair, and turned to her right. The conversations around the table were woven with each other. Voices layered over each other, pauses to pour wine or drink wine or dine with wine. Alcohol was an anxiety that ran away from me during the meal: I had expected it, for it was Christmas.
To my right, my grandfather and I shared sparkling water. I paced my mouthfuls, trying to match his so I might close the gap between finishing my meal, and waiting for others to finish theirs. With no food to watch, Anonymous’ eyes begin to wander, and they often settle on me, sitting there, wasting away under the onslaught of calories I just consumed just by waiting for someone else to finish their meal. The minutes restrained by etiquette dig into my side. My grandfather tore a shred of turkey off with his fork. He sliced a sprout, he speared it, he swirled it in thick, velvety gravy. The crust of roast potato crunched and crumpled against a smooth ball of stuffing. A small morsel assembled carefully, mindfully. He lifted it to his lips. Then paused. He finished his sentence: string of wise words spread before me. I couldn’t read them properly, anxiety was starting to blind me with spots of electric panic. The clock was ticking, and my nerves were racking up calories. When the full stop dropped, he placed this delicate forkful in his mouth, and began to chew. Once, twice, again. And again. Time sank back into my seat as he picked up the conversation again. That wonderful, soul-reviving morsel anorexia starves me of. Oh Ellie, I’m so hungry for this. I’m craving contact with people left on the other side of your illness. How sad for my grandfather’s wisdom was wasted on a narrow, anorexic rhetoric.
Where I hung off his every word, I felt Anonymous claw at them, shove them aside, hurry them along. And it hurt to watch: it was painful to endure. The Christmas dinner fight will be defined by my insistence on listening to my grandfather speak, at least until other people got up for seconds.
I lasted through that course. By the time heads were turning to their empty plates, inclining towards the kitchen where trifle and figgy pudding and cream and chocolates lay in wait, I was exhausted. So I retreated. I put my knife and fork together, and left them all to it.
I had identified possible black spots on Christmas day. The sticky bits I would be expected to sit still, and the stale ones where I knew Anonymous would force me into exile. The times Ellie would gasp for air, away from the fug of fun she still can’t quite manage in more than hourly bursts. On my time plan, I scheduled in scraps of activity I could chuck at Anonymous, just to keep her quiet. In the bleak midwinter of the afternoon, those sickly hours between 2 and 4, I shouldered Anorexia and heaved it outside into the cold. Onto a public footpath. Until I reached the summit of anxiety, and it all calmed down with the setting sun.
I needed breakfast before church: nobody sings well on an empty stomach. Nor can they walk up the rectory footpath, stand and sit and stand and sit at the organ’s cue. Without breakfast, Ellie, where will you summon the energy from to shiver in the pews, or cling to the words of God? How will you focus on your faith. This tattered faith. The one so unrecognisable in this anorexic war. Yet here it still is, it survived. What can this faith give you, but the courage to be still for an hour during this Christmas service.
Walking up the lane, I asked my Mum yet again if it was ok to sit. The third time, she took my hand and sighed. “Ellie, of course it is ok.” then she leaned in, making sure the gravestones were out of earshot. “That’s why God gave you a bottom!”
In the lead up to Christmas, I worked my way through a to-do list, staying busy, staying Anonymous. I was being chased towards the big day, when it became clear that I was missing something.
At the end of term, the reception class put on a Nativity play. Alas, this was not the simple tale of the birth of Christ. Lo, let it not be presumed that Mary and Joseph hunkered down in a stable before the divine child. This is not what happened, according to the children. What really happened, actually, was a cow picked a fight with Joseph. One of the Kings had a toilet break during their dance and the sheep were in fact better at herding a flock of four-year olds than the shepherds. The angels never did grasp just how far to not pull their dresses up on stage. The Inn Keeper had less to say about the whole thing than the Inn’s Door. As for the Inn Keeper’s wife, well. Disgruntled puts it plainly. Away in a manger, life went on. I was lucky enough to witness this retelling, and humbled by the hope they conveyed in their Christmas message, however unwittingly. Here, take this old news: this good, hopeful news. Fresh from a four-year old: here is a story of hope.
Here I present to you the Chronicles of Christmas, these acts of faith. I earned back confidence in myself. The best thing is: I coped with it too.
I made it to the summit of the festive season, overcoming the scarp of social events and high altitudes of emotions I can barely contain on a day-to-day basis.
I allowed myself an extra 50kcal at breakfast: because it is Christmas.
Even being able to eat breakfast at the kitchen table – for 7 consecutive days – without moving the clutter of Christmas decorations off it, is quite a feat. Not least because Anonymous has had me exiled into the utility room during my meals up until now. How wonderful it is to eat somewhere warm, to be allowed to enjoy a meal in entirety without sacrificing something.
Faith follows me like a shadow. I can never quite see it in entirety. Nor do I realise it is there, stalking every step I take. This Christmas made me grieve for what I lost, and protect what I have. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring it into the new year.
This Christmas gave me time with my family, the most precious thing Anorexia took from me.
A collection of moments: making crackers, decorating the tree, riding the air closer to the big day. We haven’t watched Love Actually yet, that’s tomorrow night.
’Tis the time of year to celebrate what we have, despite all we must carry.
There is no present, like the time.
No Mum. I can’t try just one Kale chip.
Which one? Of what veg:oil ratio?
There is, say, about 57kcal per 23g packet. Of that packet, what percent would I then be eating by having a single kale chip?
Let the value of the chip be unknown. Now, Ellie, find the meaning of eating just one.
Imagine how that will stick out in my food diary. Lunch: OUT @ Pret a Manger: Festive Salad box; 1 x Kale Chip. (And then what – describe it? Large leaf approx. length of index finger. Salt crusted and curling at edges, a deeper shade of green – suggesting longer cooking time?)
Work that one out on the scales. It will surely show up in my weigh-in. Uh huh, even that one.
Yes I do eat kale. And yes, it is considerate of the manufacturers not to adulterate these lush leaves with anything nasty; any additives; any anorexic pesticides.
But Mum, that’s not the point.
No, no thank you. I’d rather eat the whole bag than sneak one.
Well I’ll tell you. Look here at this neat little packet, very pretty yes? Decorated in all these numbers down the side, an exact measurement of kcal and g. Of course that’s exactly what will be in the packet. That or less. One can trust these companies to scrape by with the bare minimum: they cannot make a profit by being generous.
What are you doing? No I don’t want a packet Mum. That’s not what I meant. I was just making a point.
An exact, precise point.
Control variables in my life are being monitored.
This constant counting and recounting, documenting what I let happen today.
Anonymous applies precision theory to the science of weight gain.
Weight is an important source for my nurses. It tells the simple tale of my week in recovery.
But it is a clumsy and fickle thing, weight. I don’t trust it.
Every Monday morning between 10:02-10:07, I stand on the time and place to recover. Anorexia scrutinises the number flashing from the scales. Staring down, she stares it down and strips it back.
Immediate checks on that number are carried out. My weight could latch on to a heavier vest, or get stuck in the grip of an extra couple of hairpins. A wall of water may get stuck in my cells after that extra glass last night.
Anonymous counts and moderates all the variables controlling my weight, not just my food. My clinic uniform is thin, lightweight. A single cotton layer that is proving ever more difficult to maintain now winter is closing in. Six studs; one glass of water aloud at breakfastime. Four attempts to wee prior to entering the ward. I record the size and timeliness of stools as the pass, or not pass. Meals from supper the night before right through until breakfast are calibrated and checked by the clock.
Any reason to accuse weight it is lying. Things are not improving.
Precision cuts anxiety down to a size I can manage.
To achieve precision, Anonymous questions everything until every answer is the same. Nothing is ever worked out, yet here she is working on it all the time.
Tablespoons levelled, scales balanced. A full life, half emptied. Dressing on the side. Just in case something slips past, just in case something is added to my life.
Precision theory forces a solution to get comfortable, and forces a thin answer from the lips of change: soon. But not yet, we can’t be better yet.
Cage myself in precision, knowing I won’t survive in the wild and random world.
Ellie took me out there once last week.
I padded into the kitchen to find Mum bending over a pot on the stove. The air was thick, wrapped in a herbal hue. I could hear mushrooms cackling as they were tickled by tomatoes.
This ratatouille recipe had been giggling in the pan not five days ago. Enough for two. I watched my parents slurp the spiced sauce whilst I nibbled on a lonely creation of my own. Ellie looked on indignantly. She must have missed something: ratatouille didn’t seem to be as worrying as it was rumoured to be. A bit of olive oil, perhaps the tomatoes splitting their sides as they giggled in a sugar rush. Perhaps we hadn’t missed anything: perhaps it was just a miscalculation.
Anonymous scratched her head again as Ellie handed her mother three plates. Just a portion, please. An Ellie sized portion.
Thick wedges of stewed vegetables sank onto porcelain. We shared a supper together, delighting in the madness of not knowing who had that bigger slice of courgette, the larger spoon of sauce. They were roughly the same: and roughly was fine. Roughly was rustic, homemade. Marked out to be interesting and unpredictable. The same definition of life, wouldn’t you agree?
There were no numbers to add up. The supper just worked. This plate of food didn’t need to be questioned, for it was perfect.
The next day in the clinic, I wasn’t weighed. It’s a doctor’s way of throwing Anorexia’s eye off the ball. We will never know the impact of that Ratatouille.
I pondered the meaning of ratatouille, and tried to weigh up the possible impact it would have had on my calorie intake. An anomaly of 50-100kcal, perhaps? Ellie considered this no further that evening. She is learning, slowly, that a blip like this doesn’t tarnish the bigger picture. If anything, it adds some colour, some character.
Let’s look at the bigger picture. I see no points, only smooth learning curves.
When Anorexia focuses my sights on a small, sick number, it is difficult adjusting my sights onto the something as big as Life. I can’t bring myself to look this big brute in the eye. Look away so I don’t look back; not scare the future away by staring longingly.
I just stare down at the scales, focusing on the immediate and imminent anxiety the next mouthful of kcal could bring. Then let Precision be the only comfort when treading the exact route to nowhere.
Anorexia looks after the details. It’s all she can cope with, it’s all she can reach.
That’s why the portrait of an Anorexic Life is so bare, so dull.
Predictable brush strokes skirt life’s boundaries, missing them.
Barely scraping the edges.
Precision is an exact science, whereas Hope is only a theory.
I’m experimenting with Hope. Using the nut theory I mentioned in my previous blog post, I was weighed today.
I walked into hospital proud, prepared. I smiled and cried, and let relief rain down. The number went up, and so did the bar. Now, Ellie, you need to keep going. You need to keep gaining.
We never could have predicted the outcome of the Nut Experiment. Neither Ellie nor Anonymous thought it would give birth to a new age of Hope. A precise point, somewhere in the future.