Bright On

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.

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Well hello there

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.

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Flowers make everything better, even breakfast!

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.

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What a mouthful that story was.

Stretch Marks

Progress is hideous.

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.

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Up a size now aren’t I!

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.
They’re coming.
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.
And food.
Food?
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.

 

Bring up a Body

Here, put on my shoes.
Lets take a walk.

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.

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Extract from food diary: “Banana approx. 25 lines long.”

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.

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“Thou shalt have a body positive day.”

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.

Vandalism

The future stretches ahead of me, a blank canvas.
I can’t tell yet if Recovery will be a vandal, or an artist.

It is a rough sketch of the rest of my life. Recovery appears as a scar on the face of the Future, a blot on this perfect canvas. More and more over the last few weeks, I have foreseen recovery screw over time as it passes.
Thin lines cut through a ‘fine’ mesh – “totally fine”. They grow bold. They creep into my routine and I follow, kicking up anxiety as I tread. I would like to take a moment to stand back and admire the work it has done in the last week alone. Work I have done.
My routine coloured a little outside the lines of my control. My snack time jabbed out into the unknown, 20 mins early. Time allocated for standing was squeezed tight, and stuffed into a chair.
My new job at school clumsily fell over lunchtime. Food had to fall back an hour.
Adjustments had to be made to accommodate my ever ebbing energy levels at the end of the week, resulting in Sunday being shortened by an hour or two so I could indulge in sleep.
Let me draw your attention my big recovery wins.
Look at those bold strokes made at anorexia when I sat in the same seat for over an hour in my classroom. My student and Anonymous were crying to leap up and toss their reading books aside. They both just wanted to escape to another activity, more activity. Ellie battled them both throughout that hour. Anonymous, we must not fail this pupil. Anorexia’s own strength can sometimes be used against her.
The classroom sitting success that Thursday gave way to a Friday pushing borders into old territory. I found myself gingerly perching in the craft corner, holding a paintbrush for the first time in years. I bought the Future some watercolours today. I wonder if it’s allowed them.

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Primary school takes up fridge space.

These wins embellish the present, and offer inspiration for the Future.

Recovery scribbled all over a dull Thursday evening. It has taken control of them, free-hand. I had always fancied a design of the future that could use Spanish, especially as Ellie had been so invested in her studies of it at university all that time ago. A rush of blood to the head as it turned towards my future saw me book some evening classes at my local university. After an anxious reshuffle of supper and lunch, I found myself sat between two businessmen, reciting the subjunctive. “Me llamo Ellie,” and I remember my voice.
The class itself shaded my food. I had to eat supper away from my kitchen chair, risk preparing it in advance and banking that I’ll have the energy to last that long through the day to see my plans through. Simply being strong enough to cram my prescribed calories into such a short space of time is, in my present view, a victory in itself.
Spanish lessons are another tool I am using to reconstruct the Future’s face. The confidence boost added a glow to my lessons in the coming weeks. Homework is pulling me through the week. Golden hours spent having something to do ooze by, like thick drops of honey. A worksheet, a translation and some grammar. Achievable means to get to the end of another week.

These Spanish lessons cast me back into a university environment. A violent throwback, that I want to rebuke forward into the future.
I am still reeling from the stress of the UCAS calamity. Only now, standing back to admire that rushed application, can I appreciate Ellie’s signature thoughts presiding over anorexic ones. This University: 20 mins from home; 15 from my hospital. A good uni, with a good course and good support. A stable structure on which I can build myself on, on which I could construct a future. Not just a fantasy, as Exeter had been. Leaving so soon in treatment was just Ellie trying to elope with anorexia. Applying to this one here would brand the Future with a degree even whilst I’m in treatment. It would give me a hopeful high ground, in the fight for my Future.

This is Ellie’s current design for the Future, subject to approval from my doctors, Anonymous, and myself.
Presently, it looks motivated. Certainly there is patchy motivation. But it seems grainy, a bit scratchy for Anxiety.
All this uncertainly leaves me dithering at how to carry myself towards the Future, how to behave around it and understand it. It is a new friend of mine, and I still need to learn to manage it’s moody swings from one moment to the next, leaping on the past like a wild animal.

Reality’s sketchy face watches me. A harsh glare bores in the back of my head, it’s ugly presence looming each time I enter the classroom, or walk into a hard yoga class, or begin another day. You’re just not enough.
Working in a classroom is not for the faint hearted, and I am all too aware that Anonymous is unable to do my job as well as Ellie could. There is not enough room in her head to take it all in, and give back. Children think too fast and carry too much energy to keep up with. 10 hours shouldering the clamour and colour, worry and wonder leaves me drained halfway through the week. I have to get better, or it will all catch up with me. I am already being left behind by the next generation.
That is not what Ellie wants her future to look like. That was never my design.
There is always a snack-stand off at the end of the day. At 6pm I collapse into the car, and face the food in the glovebox. 200kcal cut into neat wedges and wrapped up in shiny foil. Anorexic friendly slogans splash across the front: “vegan”; “GF”; “wholesome”. I stare at it. Cold, tired, and covered in paint – this is never the time to poke Anonymous in the eye. Anxiety is already awake, the air poisoned by what will happen if I do eat it, and what will happen if I don’t. Reality holds my snack up to the future, a dangling carrot to guide me.
Or a threat. If I don’t have the energy for school, the children will sniff it out, and devour my confidence whole.
For my future, I must eat.

As a teacher, I doodle around the edges of children’s futures. Small embellishments here and there, stickers, smiley faces and time outs.
As a friend, I scroll through an exhibition on my facebook feed. I like these works of art. My input in their future is cheapened as I hand out token likes like sweets.
As a real friend, I behold work on other people’s future with wonder, and applaud.
As a person, I turn back to my own future. It is hard not to panic at the sight of a blank canvas. It stretches endlessly through the years, staring back at itself, and reliving an end that has yet to begin. A portfolio of late submissions or absences: relationships, job, any branded token of happiness that could be waved in someone else’s face, with pixel-glittered joy. Where would I start on that?
At least I could explain an anorexic picture of the future. These sharp and rigid lines, this confined and primal, perfect design. A black and white still capturing fear as it frosts over. A negative filter applied on this small, safe miniature of life.
At least that’s something to show. At least this life – my life – would have something in it. Signed, Anonymous.
Without it, the future would just be an empty space. A waste.

I behold the mess anorexia is making of my life, revulsion wells up behind my eyeballs.
My past was vandalised by the hands of life, then patched up badly by anorexia. She swung me low into the present, shedding the extra layers I couldn’t bear anymore. Anxiety and opportunity ebb away as my tongue becomes blunt and numb to Life’s bitter taste. This is the anorexic design.
Ellie clings to this illness because it used to work. It used to be helpful, it used to be something. If I lay anorexia down, I may not find another tool to fight Life with. Ellie needs Anonymous to sign her name, because I myself have no pen to write with.

January: the month Reality makes it’s return. Yet this January, recovery lead me to discovery. I found a future: blank and unassuming, stretching across the vastness of my life that has yet to be fulfilled.

I catch my mind’s eye wandering over the Future. This torn and tortured mind, lingering over blank space. Terrified of trying to make something of it, to vandalise the rest of my life with recovery.

My pen is poised, lingering over this blank space. Just do it. It must be a matter of just doing it. Get the future over with.
I just want the pain of weight gain to be over. For these would to heal over and for the scars to fade into nothing more than words on a blog post. If only I could just do it. Just put the weight on and see how you feel.
Recovery is surely just a series of blots across perfect possibility. And then the wait to see how it turns out, when the emotion dries out.
All my tools to start working on the future are lined up. My harp is tuned; watercolours set; meal plan written out and goals sketched out. New things may help smooth the present into the future.
To start, I just need to do it.
It could be so beautiful. Just how you want it, Ellie.

I can’t wait to touch the future.
I can’t wait to see what could happen if I was allowed to sit and play my harp, learn arabic, paint. There will be no stopping me, and no stopping time.
I can’t wait to see how it feels. Please don’t let it feel how it looks from back here. Don’t let it be that full and fat.
Oh Ellie, it won’t. You won’t feel fat.
Fat is not an emotion.

Sour Cherries

It always starts this way. Here, the world curls it’s toes over the edge of reason. The stable ground underfoot cracks, and breaks away. This is how it will surely end: with the beginning of a panic attack.

There is an intrusion. A thought starting to circle sluggishly at first, swooping around my mind with a great whoosh. Faster, faster. I can never keep up.
Then the ground breaks. Anxiety begins to build. Towers of hours top up the day. Waffled thoughts pile on thick slabs of anxiety, paving the way between mealtimes. Reading Ellie-numbers or working through the tough layers of anorexia at the clinic. A sugared rush to keep to my schedule – you’re late – a sudden drop in pressure to bake the day dry. Flashbacks glue together like treacle. The aroma of burning bridges when Anonymous makes me cancel, again. Then it will finally arrive. A single cherry crowns the day. It always starts like that: when the cherry plummets, tearing through folds of creamed reason. Ellie topples over. Only a molten, sticky mess it left to wade through. Wade through it I must, because Ellie is in there. Somewhere.

I can carry the cherry around awhile, sometimes. Together, Anonymous and Ellie totter along, bickering over what to do. Ellie would choose to ignore it, cast it aside. Anonymous though, is hungry. She’d rather devour every last feeling-filled morsel, spraying crumbs all over an unfortunate family member who happened upon us.
I become exhausted from carrying it around all day. Limping through each hour, pushing that small splinter of panic deeper into my side. How I wish I had pulled it out earlier, examined it, and flushed it away. How I wish the affected area could be cleaned of any worry. Too late now: it has turned the day rotten. Inevitably, it will hit a nerve. My legs buckle under the weight of the world, and so I simply let it crumble around me. Poison brings out the world in black and white: it’s all, or nothing.

Breakfast is particularly susceptible. I am careless in guarding myself against anxiety in the mornings. Perhaps it is in the twilit minutes waiting to be fed; perhaps feeling fresh and over-excited. Perhaps it is wishing the day had never arrived.
In any case, it is not a comfortable way to carry my self through the day.

Behold, a trigger. See, just over there: a waft of cooking from the kitchen. This piece of edible substance giving off an odour.
Go.
A gas is inhaled. Garlic; cumin; the buttery scent of pasta. Something fishy in the air. The air licks my face. Can you feel it sinking? Into my hair, into the follicles. Burrowing into my cells and diffusing into my bloodstream. My skin saps food from the air, and the kcal begin to topple into kg.
Panic clots up the narrow openings of my anorexic mind. I am pushed into a place where reason fears to tread, and I cannot see. I can’t see how I can begin to save Ellie from the oncoming tide of pain. This Anonymous feeling pulls me under. There the world must end: here, when I am made the prey of an anxiety attack.

It doesn’t always work this way. If only there were a simple step-by-step criteria for the perfect anxiety attack. If only I could predict what and where and who – if only there was some warning: a why.
Anxiety’s system is broken. Sometimes, it takes all day to warm up. Only peaking when everything gets too much. Others, it lashes out and grips me from behind. A solo flight riding on shock: gotcha.
The system of panic attacks is broken, because it just doesn’t work. The moment is jarred by self harm or screaming: but it only backs away a little. Waiting around the corner the to get me the day after, or the day after that. I am being preyed on by my own self-defence.

Every week I tear cherries from my chest. My doctor will not help me clean up the gory splatters left behind. They are a mark in history, she said. They can tell us what happened, they can help us learn.
Sometimes to understand what happened, one must start at the end and work backwards. The end is all I have: the here and now.
Try and stop the here and now sink into my imagination. Swallowed up and churned about with what is real, and what is not.
I can get there before Anorexia. I’ve managed before, and I’ll try again next time. Even if I fail, again.

I waited for my family to return from their trip to the curryhouse. A ceasefire had been negotiated whereby my family would strip down when they arrived home, thereby confining the carriers of smell into the utility room. Anonymous licked her lips nervously, already catching the scent of vindaloo in the air. She was building up for a big one.
It doesn’t always have to end this way, Ellie.
I barricaded myself upstairs, and listened as jollity and jackets were stripped off and stuffed into tomorrow’s pile of dirty washing. The air neutralised, and I tried to communicate with what was real. I listened to my family help me. I smelt the pong of madras pollute the house until my brother opened all the windows. Gradually, reality ate away my anxiety, and I emerge. Limping away from that cherry.

Picking Ellie up after a crisis can take time. I explore her limits: temples, palms, squelching eye sockets. Fingers stretch to her end and toes wriggle. Earthed on the floor. Here is where you end: this is real. Here is the beginning. Start again.

I swallow the future in anticipation. Anonymous tinkers at the present with her wise imagination, applying this and accepting that. Going over and over every possibility until she is certain of every fiction, checking and double checking, round and round and
round, what if no stop yes but no please no
Stop.
That thought never leaves. It festers, gradually provoking my worst fear into coming true.
It’s like asking someone to stop, please leave – but they just carry on.

And on I am carried. Backwards: in a flash, the present presses play on the past. Hard.
My flashbacks don’t just leap upon me. Some of them creep. Tripping along, wading through another dull day. Then I realise I’m being watched again.
Re-minding is violent. Attention is torn from sense, the here from the now. It is hurled back to another place, another time. Old stomping ground now overgrown with barbed judgements, and great memory blocks. I remember, I remember. I remember when it was dismembered.
The smell arrives last. Weed. Waste. Skin and sweat; soured sex. It lingers, perving. Long enough to stuff another cherry in my mouth, but not long enough to give me any answers.
Stuck under my skin, reliving it again and again. And still, I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I still don’t understand what happened to me, what I let happen.
You let this happen.

Something made me ready to topple into Anorexia at university. I was fertile for it, having been exposed to a few bad apples here and there, treacherous conditions and being left out in the cold. University was a very rotten cherry, topping a building mental health crisis. The more I explore it, the more I realise that university aggravated my illness, but didn’t necessary cause it. I have always had anorexia, but she didn’t always have me.

My psychologist assessments will start soon. The first approaches like a nurse with a needle. This might hurt. Turn back, look back.
Sharp scratch.

Cross your mind, pass Anorexia. Look back, what Anonymous told me was derelict is writhing. Breathing, and furious. Memories grown rancid with neglect, regret. I don’t recognise a single event: this is just a jumble of words, smells, sounds. And feelings, so many feeling. Disorderly and drunk from the sedation of starvation. These memories are still woozy, but they are waking up. I can feel it, they are coming back to get me.
It’s real. It just seems so real.

My feeling have gotten fatter in recovery. The extra kg I have gained recently have ripped the banks of memory open wider. Banks of reason falling into the mad rush of anger, sorrow, joy, confusion. I feel dilated. I feel fat. Too big for the here and now.
So I stopped.
But Ellie, you’re not fat yet. I’m halfway to weight restored, and now I am terrified to taking the next step. The ground might break.
And how will that end?

Yet Ellie has forced me into the new year, eyes on the horizon. There is much to keep her busy: going back to school, going back to yoga, going back out of winter. Going back.
She is trying to edge forwards a little. A job interview and spanish evening classes embellish the return of recovery. Return it must.
I can’t stay this weight forever, that’s just too much to bear. I cannot make a story out of numbers.
There is more for me out there. If only there was somewhere easier to start, than this end.

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Being published in the Sunday Times was rather a positive start to the year!

A Stranger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precision Theory

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.

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Feast your eyes.

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.

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Let’s be having you then

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.