Friday 19th July 2008 is a date that I will never forget: it was the day I decided I had to start to eat again. Eat more. Eat more properly. It was the day I said goodbye to starvation as the unquestioned companion of my days and years. My mother and I were bringing my narrowboat (really my father's, but I've been living on it in Oxford for years now) back from having work done at a boatyard upriver, and we only just got back to Oxford in time for my second appointment at the eating-disorders clinic. At my first appointment, a month before, I had asked for more time to decide, but agreed to start taking anti-depressants. Now I was told that if I wanted to join the programme, I would have to get my BMI up to at least 15 (at this point, it was 14.6). It was clear that the doctor didn't really think I'd be able to do it, but she let me try, if I wanted to and felt able to. My best friend came to help me decide.
I can still cast my mind back to feel the terror, but I probably can't do better in explaining it than to let my diary entry of that night, long and feverish and above all frightened, speak for itself. There's all the unchanging stuff - the delaying of eating by writing; the obsession with food and bowel movements and the time; background anxiety about my thesis - but it's all already subtly unhinged, because I now know it isn't going to stay like this, even if I can't imagine how it could be any different. The entry begins with the sentence I quoted last week; but then in the second sentence the meaning of the first is already revised: everything has changed.
‘40. 1 kg. 1.27 am: All is changing. All has changed. Today is my last day of starvation - and I feel as though I'm losing, bidding goodbye to, my most beloved companion. Yet already all has changed, today hasn't been starvation; I drank so much wine so quickly with E., talking about the appointment, the need to reach 42 kg by 4th September, the practicalities of how to do it, and now I still feel quite disconnected, weirdly blithe at all the mess here, and I've eaten so much today already - crisps at lunch time, a whole brownie with the coffee we had while waiting for the taxi that never turned up, bread when I got back from seeing E., then the licked lid of the prawn cocktail, then a slice of brie, then a bit of S.'s [my mother's] muesli, then a handful of cooked rice, then finally just now the After Eight I'd taken from the hairdresser and, as ever, left to go squishy and sticky in the depths of my bag - I found it, unwrapped it, ate it, felt an undercurrent of fear - mustn't go down the binge-eating/bulimic route - but mostly the indifference, the ease, the pleasure of eating it. And so - I'm to have a breakfast of pain au chocolat (241 calories), and an afternoon tea of custard tart (235). E. had to try to chose stuff for me, and then buy it for me; I couldn't. He's been unimaginably generous. [...] S. got back home at 11ish; we spoke and I told her tomorrow's provisions. I don't know how terrified I am.'
It was funny: although I'd made the decision to start doing things differently tomorrow, it was as if my body and mind were decided, and eager, even, to change today. I could never have eaten all those extra things in the daytime otherwise. Yet that doesn't mean the fear was any less; rather, it was an almost surreal fear, because for so many years that which it denoted - eating again - had been so completely unthinkable; and, I suppose, because it was self-inflicted. And also, perhaps, because over the past month especially, I'd had to contemplate this day, or a day like this, and see whether I could bear it.
I realized that worrying about my academic work was actually a luxury of sorts: it would prevent me from having enough time left over to think too much about the immediately important stuff:
‘I don't know whether I shall manage to turn my mind back to my [thesis] chapter - I said to KK [my supervisor] I could hand it in today, but I must get it done before the conference; it might help to have something real and important to distract from all this real and important but not necessarily cognitively accessible stuff - I mean, better probably to think less rather than more about it all.'
My supervisor, later, said as much: how helpful the framework of the doctorate might be in preserving a sense of continuity if all else threatened to collapse. She was right: only now, in the last throes of pre-submission corrections, do I feel not only how it (those 80,000 finely crafted words on the writer I love most in the world, and what literary criticism should be) sustained me, but also how it and its like - the academic ideal - kept me ill longer. Being able to think, read, and write on my own without interruption was a practical consequence of the anorexia that made its other effects weirdly easy to deal with, to explain away. It created a sublime backdrop of purposeful asceticism to throw the sordid foody details into bright and meaningful relief. The eternal low-calorie Highlights chocolate drink and Go Ahead ‘yoghurt break bar' (whatever that means), for instance, which marked the transition from the drinks-only part of the day, to actually eating - only of course on this day that boundary had been blurred:
‘Anyway, Highlights and Go Ahead - weird weird weird to have eaten so much, and so many different things, already. But what I can best do now is get to sleep as soon as I can. To be up by a reasonable hour and not start a stupid pattern.
Texted E. - can't ever thank him enough.'
Gratitude to old friends is a pervading emotion these days. That, all intertwined with guilt. For now I've tried to accept that the best way of expiating that guilt is to live as fully and happily as my new circumstances allow. Maybe later there'll be something more I can do, or say.
‘2.27 am: I've nothing to keep me from eating, now. My attitude to this feast is already different - I suppose I'm just slightly less desperate for it, less totally empty - though a dramatically expansive loo visit this morning. Don't need to go to the toilet block. Will check bike on roof, and then sink into last weekend's Times Magazine and my plate of bread and veg.'
I always wanted to be as ‘empty' as possible before I began to eat, to make the eating all the more intense a pleasure. On that momentous day, of course, this wasn't wholly possible anyway, but I still had to note down the details, every detail about what usually happened before eating, or needed still to happen, and then how it would be when I finally did begin. I always ate on or in bed, and always with some ultra-light reading matter on my lap with it. I gather this is almost ubiquitous amongst anorexics, and that often it's one of the first things to be tackled. Even reading while you eat, as so many people do, is problematic if it's part of the whole constellation of perfection that surrounds the meal, and makes the food, by extension, perfect too: invested with a whole ideology and its attendant rituals and relics. The crucial question must be: can you eat without any of that? I certainly couldn't. And the worst thing, at that late stage, was how I had to write in between every ‘course' - sometimes in between bites - of how glorious it all was, almost as if to reassure myself that it really was. Or simply to make it all last longer - but thereby very nearly ruining it:
‘3.15 am: Lovely food, swiftly eaten. Wonderful sesame rolls - still amazingly soft after all this time.'
The gleaming edifice constructed on pebbles of precision - the weighing of the cabbage and lettuce leaves, all the other timings and orchestrations - was so quickly revealed in its fragility by any single failure to place a single ‘pebble' correctly, even once. Once you've eaten a chocolate brownie at normal people's teatime, why on earth weigh out your low-cal margarine with such care? It took more than that to make it all crumble, though:
‘The arbitrariness of the amounts far more perverse-seeming after the day of untrammelled tasting, but that didn't spoil the pleasure, just made me feel its precariousness as I did so.
I should try to record all this as best I can.'
Increasingly, my friend and I played silly little games with food, to make it all seem more of a game than an existential shift. We both knew the stakes, though, and his part in the playing showed how he cared. He was a default vegetarian, but we agreed he'd go and eat a steak:
‘A reply from E., full of sympathy and offering to report back on his steak-frites when he's had it tomorrow night - his kind readiness to do something new and weird in foody terms as I do.'
He made me feel less alone, and less deadly serious, in my endeavour. And that allowed the other element that went along with the fear - the longing - to whisper a little louder than it would otherwise have done:
‘In a way, just in a tiny, scared, guilty, whispering way I'm really looking forward to it, the hot chocolate croissant before my bike ride. Is this really me? What am I turning into?
For now, though, lovely low-cal soya milk to finish. Still as me.'
I was ‘an anorexic', not just ‘someone with anorexia'; more than that, anorexia was Emily, and its trappings were her life. How to give up all that without becoming someone else entirely - or ceasing to be anything much? There was exhilaration in looking into that void of identity, purpose, and joy - perhaps because part of me knew how perverted all three had become. Perhaps the fear was muted, too, in part because I didn't believe very much would change: I might eat two snacks before my midnight feast every day, and put on a bit of weight, but that didn't necessarily mean anything else must change, did it?
I'd come to think of the obsessive-compulsive habits that haunted me as 'sluts', because I despised them so much, even while I was seduced by them:
‘The sluts really are going - even if the wine is helping tonight.
3.55 am: Have Fry's Turkish Delight, Cadbury's Creme Egg, and a mini Twix - 16 calories too many - but now that matters less. God, I'm trying to put on weight now, aren't I?'
I was always surprised that people could call what I did 'starving myself', because to me it seemed that I ate plenty, once I did eat: certainly more luxurious amounts of pure chocolate than other people could grant themselves without feeling anxious or guilty. That was one of the main things keeping me entrapped: the sincere belief that I enjoyed food more than a normal person ever could. In a way that was true: it was an agony of delight, eating. Now of course it isn't; but it's a varied and lighter thing, an act of daylight, of spontaneity, sometimes, or of simple communal planning - or a celebratory act. It's a chosen thing, not an immovable necessity. It's something I share with my boyfriend, and my family, and the friends I still have and am acquiring. I love it now for all it isn't, as much as for all that sunny variety. I love it because I don't have to think about it so much.
By four in the morning there was nothing left to say, but I kept writing:
‘So much to do tomorrow. Starting with getting bike off roof, and putting wheel back on - maybe I'll do that and then have my croissant.
All this chocolate now, and not even getting light at all really yet outside. Earlier than for a while - since the 6th or so?
Was only eating bread etc. this time yesterday, when S. went to the loo (she asked today about my bedtime, was upset).'
I'd probably have flicked back through my diary for all that, comparing times. All for the sake of the culminating chocolate hit - the pure sugar rush that my therapist later told me was perfectly calculated to let me fall off immediately to sleep despite my under-nourished state. Over the years I'd found the only thing that would work to let me starve and sleep at once:
‘4.07 am: The Twix actually the best, the others rather synthetic - but very satisfying. Suppose I'm just scared about the morning. Or afternoon. Whenever it is. Breakfast. Breaking my fast - which will have lasted so short a time. Is sleeping fasting?
An hour earlier than yesterday.'
I said last week that I would talk about this farewell to hunger and starvation, but also about leaving it further behind me, and beginning to live. I haven't got that far yet - there seemed enough to dwell on here for one Sunday-afternoon blog post - but next time there'll be space for the state of ‘beginning to eat more', if not quite that of ‘beginning to live more'.