Yesterday I discussed a ski holiday that represented a critical point in the progress of my illness: it was the point at which my parents got more scared about what I was doing to myself than ever before, the point at which I resolved to eat more - and did, for some months, till everything went wrong again. It was the point at which I acknowledged, perhaps, that not eating was a part of me that couldn't be lightly got rid of.

By the following year, in 2004, I was back in Oxford, with my Finals exams rapidly approaching. I'd been seeing someone at the university counselling service to help get through the stress of exams without losing too much more weight. For that year's ski holiday, my mother S., her partner A., and I went to stay at my aunt and uncle's new chalet in France.

The view from the chalet

By this time, even the basic upheaval that travel caused to my routines of eating and sleeping had become deeply problematic: I don't know what to do. I'm sitting here in my bedroom in the chalet on a golden bedspread described by its owners as gruesome, but I think rather fine, and feeling I could quite well go to sleep now, or at least after half an hour and some chocolate - but I still ought to eat another meal. We didn't arrive till after nine, I didn't eat ‘lunch' till ten - now it's quarter to twelve - and it's been a long day of lugging suitcases, negotiating moving walkways and motorway exits - I think perhaps I need sleep even more than I need food. Perhaps I should eat just the snacks I failed to fit in today, and chocolate, and declare that enough. Or could I face the whole meal now? I think not - but maybe I should make myself. No, biscuit, sultanas, chocolate, sleep. Good, a plan. Terribly sad how much the question of me and food has already impinged on the plans for tomorrow. I feel guilty - but also so miserable at being here, at the thought of skiing, of eating tomorrow morning, that the guilt is stifled in self-pity. Which is equally pitifully inexcusable (21.03.04).

It feels strange to read this diary entry, because at this point I was still eating something in the daytime: no breakfast, or barely any, but still a lunch of sorts, though it crept later and later into the afternoon. Not long after this, the whole of that evening's dilemma of not having time for eating, of meals in impossibly quick succession, would become my immovable normality, my ideal: a few more years, and no more than half an hour would pass between my finishing the first part of my single evening meal and going down to start preparing the next part; and by the end (the last three years or so of my illness, I suppose) they were all one entity, with gaps only for writing in my diary how glorious eating was. What on that first evening of the holiday I couldn't make myself do, i.e. eat the main meal, I later permitted myself to do, felt it the ultimate indulgence to do. Yet already what I could face or not had nothing to do with natural appetite or digestion, everything to do with the appetite dictated by will.

Despite the inauspicious start, the first day's skiing was better than I'd feared, despite off-piste hopelessness; and I managed to drink tea and eat a NutriGrain bar before leaving [I'd agreed a set of rules with my mother; the first rule was that I wasn't allowed to ski without eating breakfast], and to avoid all other food till we returned [I drank mineral water in the mountain restaurant at lunch]. Feel terribly guilty at having done only a couple of hours' work - after food, while S and A. had G&Ts and dinner; but I know I shouldn't [preserving a personal routine of eating made it for the first time possible for me to try to preserve my own routine of working as well as skiing, in the gaps where the others ate and slept (and sleeping in the morning while they ate...)]. If my weight's gone down tomorrow I'm not allowed to ski [that was the second rule]. I'm not sure whether I hope it will have or not - though I don't expect it to have. S. seemed to enjoy herself, despite endless complaints about her boots - and A. [who doesn't like skiing] was chauffeur and shopper and photographer and I think contented too. It was lovely when the sun came out and made the snow sparkly, and warmed my face and made me think it all worthwhile - but a stray cloud and the calm was gone (22.03.04, 41.8 kg).

One of the most important things my therapist explained to me in my recent course of treatment was how numerous and complex are the factors that determine one's day-to-day weight loss or gain. For years I assumed, as I suppose most people do, that if one eats more than usual one day, one will weigh more than usual the next. But the relation isn't nearly this neat: it depends on one's bowel movements, on fluid retention - which in turn depends on one's state of hydration, one's hormonal state, the weather, even - on the sort of food it was and how long it takes to be digested, and so on. The expectation that each morning's weight should be an accurate reflection of all that had happened the day before was the cause of a lot of anxiety and confusion: Somewhat surprised to have gained weight, after a day's skiing and no more food than usual - though it went some way towards proving my theory that skiing is little more calorie-burning than my usual cycling (23.03.04, 41.9 kg). The rule about skiing only if I hadn't lost weight was perhaps a stupid one, in retrospect: it intensified the assumption of a causal relationship between yesterday's calorie-consumption and today's weighing-scale figures, and added extra ammunition to the battle over whether skiing required more energy than ordinary life or not. But the effect of that rule on how I viewed food - as more or less necessary rather than optional, however much I resented it - must have been to some extent positive. However much I ate, though, the plague of cold was never far from my mind and fingertips. The first day, I'd grown cold on the highest slopes after lunch, and thereafter could enjoy nothing - and let S. drag me up for an extra run, and down to try to ski to our front door (through back gardens and over ditches), when I should have said no and taken the bus - but I'd got to the stage where decision-making, independent thought or action, were impossible - it seemed easier just to follow her than to even think about catching a bus alone. I felt just the same, with tears of angry exhaustion streaming down behind my dark glasses, as I had ten, fifteen years before, a little child led repeatedly into last-lift-catching scrapes by my parents' greater enthusiasms.

That evening I wondered whether I'd pass the weight test in the morning: More snow is forecast for tomorrow, all day - I almost hope my weight will preclude the skiing, though again I doubt it. I was wrong to doubt, as it turned out: I was forbidden to ski, but had a pleasant day, reading, tidying the kitchen, walking down to the village to buy postcards in the snow... - a day as I had dreamt of in the Italian mountains the previous year, but never thought a ski holiday could ever really contain. Almost wish I needn't ski tomorrow - but I've eaten lots and won't have the same reason not to (24.03.04, 41.6 kg) - and I was loath to start lying, for that might lead to new pressures to eat more, thence to more pretence... The day after, I did lie, though, because I thought the lie white and immaterial as the snow - and almost justified by circumstance and by my mother's actions: Began the day with tears after S. was impatient to leave when I hadn't even had tea yet - I left in the end without eating or drinking anything, amazingly survived the day reasonably well, despite the cold and the still-falling snow, but I think I might not be able to face the same again tomorrow - though the sun is finally meant to appear in the afternoon. I just wish I could be happier (25.03.04).

I read such entries and wonder how my parents could bear to keep inviting me to come with them, paying for me even, when I made things as awful as this. The only answer is, I suppose, that it would have been too painful an acknowledgement of the state I was in: almost a relinquishment of hope: if Emily stopped coming skiing, we'd have to give up on her. The next day there was no sun, and I could face neither skiing without eating, nor eating before skiing - which would have meant perching on my bed in the minutes before putting on my boots, filling my mouth with the taste of what was meant to make me ski better, of what I would be constantly conscious of ‘skiing off'. When I'd been forced into this position the day before, the taste of that familiar cereal bar was a taste corrupted: normally it was a well-earned afternoon indulgence, but now it represented only a surrender to morning obligation, guiltier than the other despite being imposed from without; it was a taste that would trouble me all day, decaying in my mouth as the aftermath of weakness, as resentment, regret - and sad irritation with all of this. It was a taste I wouldn't wash away with toothpaste, for even while I longed to negate the eating as it had been, I couldn't bring myself to negate it as it might have been, as it usually was, when the taste was sweet and I wanted it to linger. I didn't want to abridge the usual evolution of eating and having eaten, even though its course was already critically altered by the unaccustomed hour.

So in order not to have to face this situation again, I cited the eternal fog and general achy weariness as reasons, and S. set off alone, and I spent most of the day working. Can think only with relief that tomorrow's really the last day - though it's all been better than I'd feared, and being with S. and A. is lovely. I long for the day when I no longer need to be working or feeling I ought to be (26.03.04, 41.8 kg).

Graduating at the end of the year, even tireder

Another three months, and my exams were over, and I could finally collapse - and did. I spent that summer writing an autobiography of my illness almost all my waking hours, and eating in the night when no one else was around; and deferred my Masters place for a year on grounds of ill health, till I felt strong enough to return to Oxford and all its memories of fear and weariness and unnegotiable days of starving. Most things in life were simply things to be got through in order that I might sink into the longed-for bliss of eating on my bed with trashy magazines and my ever-present diary. As for that pernicious feeling of ‘ought' - it's outlasted all the food-related rules in the realm of 'work': I still can't help feeling that anything other than work is somehow less worthwhile, less valid, something to be earned (by working hard), something decadent and frivolous and slightly despicable. At least now, though, I have the strength to enjoy other things when I do try them, rather than weakness always ending up confirming that nothing else is worth the effort, because it isn't much fun, and doesn't have the ‘obvious intrinsic value' that pertains to reading, writing, thinking.

What I wrote on the last day sums up the tenor of my state of being at that time: the sun did finally emerge, but I'm simply too weak and miserable to enjoy anything much. The day seemed unbearably long when contemplated from a ten o'clock cup of tea - skiing even till half-three seemed an eternity - though the warming rays were a pleasure (27.03.04). The smallest thing could make a day seem unbearable: just the fact, for instance, that tea wasn't being consumed in order to help the pages of a book or an essay go down more easily, and being given structure and meaning by the mental activity it supported, but simply had to be gulped down as the morning's only sustenance for a physical activity whose only ‘purpose' was pleasure, and which for me was therefore pointless.

So in a week of two rules I'd twice kept to the breakfast one, and made the weight one into a medium of my own wishes. And in a week in France I'd made no more concession to the national cuisine I'd once delighted in than to swap granary bread for pre-baked baguettes - for they were of just the right weight, and exempted me from the vagaries of eating the real bread bought early with pastries by the others, of depending on them to buy it and not eat it all, having to ask and wonder and worry.

Back in Bristol, my brother met us at the bus station, and whisked home the three variously infirm and encumbered travellers with an ease that made their suitcases look filled with feathers: a fit, bronzed, and enthusiastic young man, whose holiday was clearly at the other end of the spectrum from ours, in activity, sociability, everything (28.03.04). That year he and I were living together on the boat in Oxford, he too having gone there to study, and his philosophy of easy-going insouciance was something I spent dark lamp-lit hours bitterly condemning for how it clashed and interfered with my way of living. And yet in all my cursing of it, and him, I knew just how empty the existence was that I pitted against his. That emptiness could hardly be better expressed than by my last remark on the holiday and on homecoming: Anyway, I do look forward to sleeping late, having a shower, going to Waitrose [our usual supermarket] - setting myself up for some quiet time at home (28.03.04).

And this year? As I said, it's been splendid. I was very tired from a busy term and my doctoral viva at the beginning, and took the Sunday off, sitting around reading and watching The Sopranos with my boyfriend. And I was nervous about skiing: aware of how unpractised I was compared to the rest of the family, not wanting to seem weak or inept. But as the days passed, I loved it more and more. I felt again the thrill and ease of speed and brightness and the cold air that no longer penetrated my every fibre; I wore my ordinary furry jacket and velvet trousers instead of the proper yellow ski suit that had always failed to keep me warm despite its thickness; I ate and enjoyed breakfast and lunch and all the wonderful meals people took it in turns to make; I drank lots of wine, and loved sitting up talking into the night, liberated from routine and from the immediate pressures of work and weariness. I even tried some off-piste stuff when it snowed on the last two days, not doing it well, but loving the challenge, and feeling my legs do as they were asked and it not really mattering much if they didn't. There were some social tensions, as there always will be in a large group: there were parental weirdnesses over food which maybe I'll talk about next time, and a few awkward moments of other sorts; but in general none of that mattered much. It feels quite flat being home now, without the clear light and openness of the mountains. But the great thing is that the scope of things I can do and love doing has been expanded one small but ever so significant bit; the trend of my life getting ever narrower has at last been meaningfully reversed.

You are reading

A Hunger Artist

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Recovery from anorexia is simple (if not easy): Part III (Making the plan)

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Recovery from anorexia is simple (if not easy): Part II (Making the decision).

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