The difference between the autumn terms of this academic year and last seems to embody my recovery more fully and vividly than anything else. Last year I spent all my time, except two hours a week in which I taught translation to undergraduates, on my boat working on my doctorate. I'd already begun to eat more then, but the major effect of that had so far only been greater hunger. So yes, I'd have to go out for my daily bike rides, and to buy food, and to see friends now and then for coffee, and I'd go twice a week to my therapist; but food was at the forefront of my isolated mind all the time.

I'd go home and eat my carefully planned snacks, to which I'd look forward all the time in between, and I'd work on my thesis. It was the chapter on emotional responses to fictional texts, and it seemed apt, because I was gradually coming to sense that I felt emotions myself again, after years of the flat monotony of tiredness and fragility. But all the time I wondered, both nervously and curiously, what was changing because of my eating more, and what that would mean, and not really believing anything ever would.

And now---everything has. The beginning of this term was a social whirl: drinks evenings and dinners and all imaginable sorts of gatherings, for students and Fellows and lecturers, with sparkling wine and sherry and crisps and port and chocolates, and all the things to eat in between. I felt almost guilty, leaving my boyfriend here alone so many evenings---but then he was here to come back to, and tell everything to. And now it's settled down into the routine of giving tutorials and classes and having lunches in college and coming back for dinner with him, and still despite the greater calm I have none of the sense of isolation that I did before. Being involved in other people's lives so much more---having a hand in the education of those who are, for a brief while, ‘my students'---is challenging in a quite different way from the work on the thesis: it demands breadth of knowledge rather than depth, and the ability to talk and listen as much as to read and write.

Lunches with my colleagues, too, are a crucial part of the week, and of the mental state that I inhabit now: the fact that the lunches at college are quite out of my control in terms of content and company, yet immovable in time and place, gives them an agreeable fluidity-in-fixity: they're reassuring, yet still never fail to yield the little thrill of remembrance, every time I walk in and go to the canteen to choose what to have, of how impossible this would have been for so long.

To have an array of foods before me, and to have to choose from them, in front of so many people, despite their not being in the least interested, and to decide precisely how much - or not even decide, just take a few spoonfuls until it looks about right. And to have to sit down next to whoever's there already, and make more or less small-talk, and eat while doing so, and then decide whether to have the ‘proper pudding' or the fruit salad, or the cheese, and to be able to see the other people who have just salad every day, or who take little bits of bread away with them for later, and not wonder or worry about them eating less, or more strangely, than myself. And the idea of anything that's not eaten going to waste, but not going to get seconds to prevent it. And then of getting up afterwards and going back to work---marking or teaching or whatever else---and the meal being over, and not important now or later or before, really, in any sense other than its being quite nice, usually.

It's quite remarkable. I can still recapture all of that terrified anxiety so easily, yet I feel none of it. The only thing that keeps me still tied to that time is the thesis, really. It feels like the most visceral bond remaining between the old me and who I am now. It is what gave me a sense of purpose and direction throughout all those dark months; yet it's also what made that darkness deeper, for it was the reason and the excuse to keep everything else off to the edge of life, to devote myself all the more wholeheartedly to making that single piece of life-defining work all it could be. It was the substance that filled the hours between getting up and finally eating, or, in the latter months, between one carefully planned episode of eating and the next. It was what made everything possible---but what made everything else impossible. It made life bearable, but unbearably hard.

And even now, I've had to keep so much energy somehow still alive, to fit in the last bits of editing and altering between teaching commitments, knowing that if I ever let it drop, let the ball fall, the momentum cease, I'll never be able to regain it again. It's a part of me that, however much its content matters to me and makes me proud, has gone forever. As a finished product it will be a bleak yet gleaming reminder of all I went through to create it, but for now, just on the cusp of completion, it's more than just a reminder: it's a haunting companion whenever I sit down with it. Especially if I happen to be tired or hungry while I'm working on it, I have flashes of how it used to be when it was only the thesis and me.

How glorious it'll be when it's finally gone, and become an inert object in its soft binding. I hope this was the last weekend I'll ever have to work on it---and then, at last, it'll be me on my own, without the crutch and the crippling weight that my thesis has been for so long.

You are reading

A Hunger Artist

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