Portrait of a Hunger Artist

The anorexia began innocently enough, until eating became the point of living. Precisely because it was so special, it had to be made more perfect by hunger.

By Emily Troscianko, published March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

"You are welcome in our new home, but your anorexia isn't," my mother said to me one day in April 2008. How dare she imply that there was any distinction between "me" and "my anorexia"?

I couldn't imagine my life without it, nor did I want to. It dictated everything I did and was, from going to bed almost when other people were getting up, to the solitude of my existence on a boat in Oxford, studying and starving, to my absolutely nonnegotiable daily bike rides and my constantly being cold—and my incomparable pleasure in the plate of bread and low-fat margarine and boiled vegetables in bed last thing at night, followed by cereal with skimmed milk diluted with water to go further, and finally mouthfuls of creamy chocolate to send me to sleep without hunger.

That was life; that was me. How to say "I" could come to their new house, and "it" couldn't? Her words made me so angry, so upset—and so scared. I was 26, and for 10 years I and my anorexia had grown ever more inseparable.

But my mother and her partner were moving and they told me they couldn't face the idea of me and my illness coming like a black shadow over their new home. He couldn't bear my cooking for the family and never eating, sitting there and watching them eat, or my nocturnalism; she couldn't bear any of it, least of all how it threatened their relationship, too.

I wept. But a few months after that conversation, I did make the decision to start to eat more. And it felt like I was bidding good-bye to my closest, most loyal friend.

That friendship began so innocuously I'm not sure I can identify a proper beginning. I do remember the end of a family ski holiday in France. I'd had one too many vodka-and-Cokes in the hotel bar. The apres-ski haze of warm fires and hilarity ended at the hotel toilets. The next morning the others got in some last skiing while I sat in the car feeling ill. Then the queasy hairpin bends all the way down the mountain, and in the evening all I could stomach were a few salty crisps.

The next day, on motorways and the ferry, I had a few more crisps, but I felt a weakness that at once demanded more food and made "more" too much effort. It was a new weakness that mutated into an almost-strength, which was no longer physical but manifested itself in ways like this: "You sure you don't want any dinner?" "Yeah, still don't feel very hungry, I'll get myself something later." And then I wouldn't.

Looking back over my diaries, though, I realize that wasn't really the beginning, but rather a stepping-stone along the way to starvation: learning how exhilarating hunger can be. The power to keep on deferring eating felt like a true triumph, even as the hunger itself became more oppressive.

Deferring food was proof of strength, so it was a victory always to be a little later than yesterday. There was always a perverse pleasure in staying hungrier longer. So the day's single meal would be at two or three or four or five in the morning.

One winter it went all the way around the clock, several times, so for a week or so I'd be going to bed at 9 or 10 in the morning, and then soon bedtime would be back around to 10 at night. This does not make for a good mood or many social opportunities. Waking up to a wintry sunset is one of the most depressing things in the world, especially when you must now have a bike ride and work eight hours or so before eating.

Starvation was the very thing that made food so sublime. I couldn't imagine any pleasure that could replace that of chocolate in bed at dawn. I knew that the sense of power, self-control, and superiority was all just my entrapment in the rigid mind-set of the starved and frail. I knew that the purity I idealized was every night belied by the feverish inspection of my stools, and by the demeaning obsessive-compulsive habits of counting and checking and memorizing and tidying that were infiltrating my brain and dragging me further into exhaustion. Yet understanding simply could not translate into action.

As to the causes of it all, there are the usual nature-nurture suspects: my parents' genes (my father stopped eating at age four in protest over his parents' arguments; my mother inherited her mother's debilitating penchant for guilt) and all the ethereal cheekboned catwalk girls. But the thread woven through the years was a line I found much earlier in my diary: "the flat stomach I've always wanted."

Through the years of my increasing starvation, I would look in the mirror and see the curves of my thighs and breasts gradually give way to sharp outcrops of hips, ribs, and sternum, and elbows become wider than the arms they held together. But I really only cared about one thing: my tummy. Right from the beginning, I'd turn this way and that, in light and shadow, pressing it in, breathing in—imagining, in the early days, being the person I was when I breathed in, and imagining staying that person when I breathed out.

Eventually, I did become the image of my imaginings. But by then I had become someone quite different. The almost-flatness of the tummy was a perpetual torment: One can always breathe in more, make it flatter still, or concave; one can never quite become the person in whom breathing out and breathing in make no difference. After a decade of losing weight so gradually that I hardly noticed, maybe I finally did reach the impossible concavity of the tummy that isn't, that doesn't contain or speak of past contents, past consumption, but simply declaims, right now, its perfection.

As my tummy withered, all sorts of things became untenable. The cold—it started at the fingertips and worked its way inwards, so that throughout the winter, and the end of the autumn and the beginning of the spring, there was an awful core of cold, which knew that warmth comes from movement but which wanted only to curl up into itself; which turned walking and sitting and lying into variations on huddling; which kept muscles taut with resistance against the outside; which saw in every activity, every location, only sources of heat or threats of cold.

It, or the fear of it, or the attempt to preempt it, was always there. A room would be reduced to its radiators, an evening outing refused for the frosty distances between bedroom and bar.

My trousers began to settle on my protruding hips instead of at my waist, and so trailed below the heels, as if my body's shrinkage had been in height as well as width. Tops began to hang shapeless, and bras became superfluous. But while all these things became too big, they were at the same time too small: They offered too little protection against the eyes of other people—who saw only bones—and against the cold.

My wardrobe now filled up with cardigans and trousers. Where once one layer was enough, now I needed two or three. Having done so much to denude the body of its padding, this body, so overly "purified," now had to be encumbered with layers of external insulation far less efficient than fat. And then even when summer came, I couldn't embrace it with open arms; I feared that all the energy hitherto expended in the attempt to keep warm might now be converted back into the fat that could warm me so much better.

Along with coldness, tiredness, and hunger came solitude. Social contact dwindled firstly because it can't be separated from food and drink, and then doubly so due to the gulf of mental separation. At first, I found it hard to talk at all about food and eating, or not eating: It was so private, so shameful, so glorifying—but simply unspeakable. An evening in a bar or a friend's family dinner—simple past pleasures—demanded excuses for not eating, which multiplied in inventive excess.

Even the seemingly unthreatening walk or shopping trip or cinema outing was precluded by a brain that counted hours not working as hours lost that had to be made up. A tangle of emotions grew between old friends. There was envy—of thinness on the one hand, and of carelessness on the other. There was resentment—of just this thinness and this carelessness. And scorn—of fatness or absence of control, which amounted to the same thing. Ultimately, I envied, scorned, and resented other people's inability to comprehend me, and made every effort to prevent their comprehending.

With my family it was even worse. On and off over the years, my father tried to persuade me to eat, with what I saw as emotional blackmail that swung between tears and rage, pity and fear. He feigned indifference—"I don't care if you eat it but it's there if you want it"—while silently screaming how he was being destroyed, and sometimes screaming it aloud: "I'm not going to let you kill yourself without a fight, it's a crisis point, you have to eat some dinner." There were moments of pure paternal tenderness—the unreserved will to help, to protect—and unreserved daughterly love and gratitude. But when the immediate danger was past these moments would fade. Gradually there was nothing but distance between us.

With my mother it was less dramatic and, for a long time, far more intimate. She never tried to force anything as he did, and I relied more and more upon her patience in letting me stay at home, not sending me away as he thought I should be. She, more than anyone, made deep and sincere attempts to understand. Together we would pick apart the pseudo-logic, uncover hidden paths of obsessive reasoning. And every time she would be ready to hug and hold and support me when the excavations brought tears and shameful despair at the exposed absurdities.

And so when she told me "it" wasn't welcome, I was devastated. Somehow, though, I needed to know this more and more deeply until the blackness and the narrowness became unmitigated. The thought of infertility and bones breaking with brittleness in my old age had to surface once more, hauntingly. I needed the obsessive compulsions to feel ever more like madness and the weakness to make just one more flight of stairs feel insurmountable. I needed a moment in a dressing room, seeing myself like a corpse sticking out of a silk dress I could never wear. And one more compulsive half hour in a supermarket, not being able to stop myself from checking every package I saw for nutrition information when all I'd come for was a loaf of bread. I needed my mother to tell me I could come to her new house, but not laden with all this.

Even when, at last, I decided this all must go, and my friends took matters into their own hands and found me an eating disorders clinic, I didn't believe it could. Eating was the point of living, of getting through the next interminably long day; precisely because it was so special, it had to be waited for, made more and more perfect by the hunger that would grow deeper and deeper so that nothing else mattered.

Rather than trying to visualize some unimaginable end-point, I simply had to decide to eat 500 calories more every single day, without fail. I didn't really believe anything would happen. Yes, I might put on a few kilos, and although that terrified me it wouldn't change who I was. Food would still be the ultimate point and pleasure of life, made perfect by infinitely deferring, restricting, and meticulously, secretively orchestrating the eating of it.

But then emotions came back, and I fell in love, and one night there was the first night without chocolate last thing. Funny that learning to do without food should in any sense be part of the recovery from anorexia. But it is; the most terrifying and thrilling thing I've learned in this last year since I began to eat again is that food is the means and not the end, a part rather than the whole, and that life cannot be as simple as simply longing for another day of hunger to be over.

Not long ago, I was sitting in a high-ceilinged apartment in Berlin with a cup of tea and my laptop, my boyfriend lying on the bed reading, interrupting me now and then with talk of where we might go and eat the next night, our last evening before we flew back to England. We had eaten at a restaurant the night before, too, and did so almost every night we were in Berlin. It was a holiday, after all, and we were treating ourselves.

I still get overcome with how miraculous it is: the repeated miracle of eating with other people, at a normal time of day, and of having eaten thus for days and weeks and months now. Sometimes it still feels unreal. But gradually, now, it's my old anorexic self who feels like she never really existed.

Read Emily Troscianko's PT blog: A Hunger Artist.

4 big Myths about Anorexia

1. Anorexics don't feel hungry.

Of course they do. Hunger is the point, after a while: It's the great tormentor and the great addictive high.

2. Anorexics don't like food.

In general, anorexics love eating as much as they love being hungry. The eating, too, becomes the point: Eating can only be as perfect as it should be if you're hungry enough, if it's late enough, if you've prepared the food meticulously according to your own immutable rules.

3. Anorexics look in the mirror and see a fat person.

Of course they don't. They're not stupid. You look in the mirror and see your ribs with their thinly stretched coating of papery skin. But what you care about is some tiny, specific aspect of your body that has always to be more and more pared away: inner thighs that must be more and more fleshless, or wrists that can be encompassed with the other hand with more and more space to spare. Anorexia isn't body dysmorphia.

4. Being thin is all that matters to an anorexic.

Being thin is in fact often only a minor matter compared to everything else that drives you. Control is probably at the center of it all. Control of food and eating might be the most obvious anorexic behavior, but the control illusion stretches its tentacles into all the rest of life—how much you work, how much you spend, how many people you spend time with—until going out for a drink on a Saturday night is as impossible as not having the next day and week and month planned into nothingness. Control equals strength, strength equals denial, denial equals simplicity, simplicity equals purity, purity equals perfection, perfection equals perfect control. It's the ultimate illusion; simplicity and perfection are equally inhuman.