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.