I've been busy today, Tuesday, but every now and then thinking back over Saturday evening, and being overcome with strange waves of anger.
My father and his girlfriend had come to visit, and in the evening a friend and her boyfriend (who'd just come back from a business trip) joined us. They'd said they'd come at six, but by seven we'd gone to the nearby pub to pass the time, and it was half-past by the time they arrived, with sausages and chocolate soufflés for dinner. We had another drink with them, and then came back to start cooking. My boyfriend did everything, while we sat and had wine. She said she had a headache, but had wine nonetheless, which seemed to cure it, and then she said how hungry she was: ‘When he's away, I just don't bother to eat', she said, ‘so I'm really starving now!' I smiled, and tried not to be irritated. She'd come to lunch with me during the week, and had repeated the same thing several times: the notion that one might not ‘bother' to eat had seemed strange to me then, and I'd asked her what she meant by it. She hadn't really explained, just said that this time he'd left her some really easy things to eat, but she still hadn't ‘bothered'. Nor had she slept: her whole existence seemed to break down in his absence, with food the first thing to go. She'd talked also about her new job, starting today, long hours at a hospital with no real meal breaks: she said she'd be living off chocolate soya-milk during the day. Now, in the evening, she ate quite a lot of peanuts as we waited for dinner, and became more and more loquacious as the wine went to her head. And as she talked, my eyes were drawn to her tiny waist under her clingy black dress, and to her slightly spidery fingers, and yet her ample breasts: the perfect figure, in many women's eyes. In mine, I suppose, as I watched her, and felt, for the first time in a long while, fat and inferior. The upsetting thing was, I suppose, as much about echoes of my own past as about her: the combination of slimness with food-related weirdness tapped directly into some now-conquered but not killed-off part of me that responded with thoughts of competition mixed with resentment.
It was almost ten by the time the sausages, mashed potato, and gravy were done, and by then I was too hungry to want to eat. It had been a long time since lunch, I'd slept too little the night before, and I felt sick and upset at her talk of not eating for the last week. thank God my boyfriend and I were sitting at a separate table, since there wasn't room for us all at one, and I was able to hide my nausea from her and the others. I managed to eat a bit, but it was a great effort, and all the time I was aware of how she was eating, the fact that she'd asked for just a tiny bit of potato, wondering whether she'd feed her boyfriend some of hers. She waxed lyrical on the onion gravy, and congratulated my boyfriend on it all, but when pudding came she insisted her boyfriend eat most of it, and he sat and ate, and she said, when some sweets were put on the table, that she'd be ‘bursting out of her dress' if she had any: she, skinny-slim in her black dress and knee-high boots.
She talked, on both occasions, about how much her boyfriend needs to eat to avoid losing weight: about how he likes a good lunch when he goes away on business, and what a hearty appetite he has. Here again, she seemed to project her eating onto him: he could eat in her stead, and she then needn't. She told me about going out to lunch with a friend during the week, and reiterated how she wasn't much of a ‘pudding person', but how there'd been a vanilla pannacotta that had been simply the best she'd ever tasted, not too sweet... I was washing up when the puddings were eaten this time, didn't want to know whether she had any. I wanted them to go away, and to sleep or cry or both. My boyfriend hugged and comforted me out in the moonlit night, and we shared the soufflé and had some sweets and by midnight they were finally gone.
Episodes like this make me wonder whether I shall ever be able to cope with equanimity with things like this; whether I will ever be less acutely attuned to the food-related quirks of everyone I know; whether I've really made as much progress as, the rest of the time, I feel (and know) I have. When I reflect, I know I'm still getting stronger: a few months ago I really couldn't have eaten anything in that situation, or stopped myself from screaming at her. But it's funny how all one's calm, all one's hard-won wisdom, all one's simple indifference to the silly habits of another woman with her own problems, can dissolve when there's a little hunger, a little tiredness, and a few un-thought-through words. I don't know whether it angers me more or less because she was one of the main drivers of my own recovery. It was she who found the eating-disorder clinic, came with my to my GP, helped and talked and cajoled, but now she seems completely oblivious to the fact that there was ever anything wrong. Maybe my recovery seems so complete that she assumes there's no need to self-censor, but surely given all her reading she wouldn't think there could be no traces of vulnerability? Maybe she just doesn't think about it at all. But why does she have to go on and on about not eating, or how much her boyfriend eats, or how fat she'll be if she eats any more of this, or how she can't eat carbs or anything much sweet - why, if she has even a minuscule sense of whom she's with and what their needs might be?
Maybe these are just the cries of the wounded, the self-doubt of one who thought herself stronger than she is, but ever since I haven't been quite able to eat, unproblematically, without thinking of her alone for a week without eating, without all the old compulsions to (impossible) comparison and competition coming back into play. The soft reassuring sensible words of my boyfriend, and the memory of where all that led me before, are what best keep me from feeling worse - them and the whole of a life whose fullness demands food, and of which food is one fulfilling part.
All this reminds me of how many conditions and ways of living there are that might go under the heading of an ‘eating disorder': how unhealthy relationships with food can take so many forms, and go in many people so long without needing to be addressed. Or even how relationships like that of my friend and her boyfriend so often include tensions and strangenesses like this, which are more about power relationships or fundamental anxieties or cultural norms than they are about the food itself. Then I suppose it's only chance and circumstance that determine whether it'll become a defining feature of that way of life, to the extent of damaging or destroying it. In her case, probably it won't, but the unstable opposites of not eating when she's at home alone and raving about creamy desserts could so easily tip one way or the other into a sickness more like mine was. There's such complexity in my life now, compared to how it was for so long, but the complexity brings an equilibrium of many mutually balancing parts: instead of just loving food and loving hunger, or going without and then going into ecstasies about, there's all sorts of other stuff that makes neither of those poles last long, or matter much. The recovery continues...