For the second time this summer, I'm sitting looking at the Mediterranean from a Greek balcony, and thinking about how times have changed. This time I'm on the island of Corfu, which for many years was the site of family holidays. In the early years, I went off in the evenings to hunt down the local nightlife, and had flings with Greek waiters. Latterly I was barely awake early enough to drag my mother on a tiring ‘death march' (as my brother termed our afternoon sorties in the greatest heat of the day) before it was sunset and everyone else's day ended with a taverna meal, which I'd sit through before staying up most of the night preparing to eat my own carefully measured meal. The last time we came was in 2008, to a luxurious villa just up the coast from where I am now with my boyfriend. At the time I was (although I didn't know it, or dare believe it) in the midst of the process of finally deciding that life with anorexia was so untenable that I had to try to escape it. On this blissful holiday now, sitting on our sunny balcony between swims, meals, and long stretches on the sun-loungers by the glistening sea, reading novels, I have read through the diary entries in June 2008, when we were here last. What leaps out on every page, in every paragraph, is my fear, my anxiety, my obsessions, my weakness. What I find now so hard to comprehend, though I remember it so clearly, is how all that felt like the only possible way of living, how certain I was that to change anything would make life unbearable.
Anorexia's days were numbered now, for me, after ten years living with it. I had been with two different friends to see GPs in Oxford and in Bristol, and had been in touch by email with the eating disorders clinic which one of those friends had found out about for me. My doctor had advised that I should try anti-depressants, to counter the effects of my starvation-induced depression, and the deputy director of the clinic had said that, should I decide to enrol on their treatment programme, I would also be advised to take them, so as to make me more able to deal with the challenges of weight gain. I decided that there was nothing much to be lost, and that if I could take a pill and be thereby seen (by myself and others) to be taking some action against anorexia, without having to eat more, that could only be a good thing. I wrote in my diary: ‘I think I'm anxious to do something - the only thing I dare do for now'. So I was prescribed a daily dose of 60mg of fluoxetine (Prozac), and started taking it a few days before I left for Corfu, at four in the morning with my first food of the day: ‘a big plate of food, and four pills to take. I hope they don't do anything too horrid - or render me unrecognisable to myself. They even look frightening, little green & yellow torpedoes of the unknown.' The next day was very scary I felt ‘dizziness, weakness, mental distance & confusion' - to the extent that I wasn't sure whether I'd even manage - or should try to manage - my immovable daily bike ride (although I did go anyway), and even walking felt hard. Those symptoms continued, though they grew milder, for a few weeks. And as it turned out, precisely those symptoms helped, on holiday, to engender minute alterations to routine, tiny bends of my private rules, that marked the first real progress in making the decision to get better.
Me in Corfu, 2010 and 2008
Going on holiday was always far more stressful than it is for people who don't eat at weird hours of the night, who don't have to take the majority of their week's food with them, who aren't frightened by any upset to routine, and who aren't too physically brittle to absorb unforeseen circumstances without being weakened. Since the flight was an early-morning one, I couldn't eat the day before, because I was unable to countenance the thought of eating and there then still being things to do other than sleep. Having my usual 4 or 5 a.m. food and then having to get to the airport would have felt like eating breakfast, which was something I hadn't done for years. So on occasions like this I had to go without proper food for 36 hours or so, allowing myself on the plane just the Go Ahead cereal bar that I usually ate accompanied by a low-calorie chocolate drink. And even this had to wait until all the palaver of the food and drink trolley coming through the plane had finished, for the duty-free boutique to stop selling, and for the woman next to me to doze off - and then, finally, ‘after 27 hours without food, I finally bit into the yoghurt & wholemeal & sultanas...'. ‘Intoxicatingly sublime', I described it as. It was a sugary piece of biscuit with an artificial yoghurt-flavoured coating. When I tasted one again recently it seemed very sweet and rather dull, but back then, as the daily marker of the imminent end of fasting, it was almost unsurpassably delicious. It was more than simply a taste; it was a quieting of deep but clamorous hunger, and a promise that more food was coming.
Everything about the journey was difficult. Everything about everything was difficult. I was terrified by the delay in my huge rucksack appearing on the carousel in arrivals, contemplating the horrific possibility that I might have to survive - not without my own clothes, or a few bits of lovely old jewellery I'd brought with me, but without my skimmed and soya milk, without my calorie-controlled muesli and All Bran, without my low-fat margarine and my Go Ahead bars and Highlights (low-calorie drinking chocolate) sachets, and, above all, without my electronic kitchen scales. The bag did turn up, in the end, but not before I was badly shaken.
I arrived to join my mother and her partner at the villa around noon, or 2 p.m. Greek time, and then I had nothing on my mind but finally eating. I wanted to talk, be sociable, drink in the sun, but more than anything I needed to eat, so instead I snuck off to the kitchen to prepare last night's dinner, and then to my bedroom to eat it and fall briefly asleep, until it was time to get up for the sunset and some port with the others. Then, having sat through their dinner with them, I ate again, after what seemed to me the impossibly short and decadent interval of ten hours - and somehow managed to take so long over it that by the time I'd finished it was 4 a.m. again, and the whole anti-social domestic pattern of my life was set up again abroad.
This is not a strong start to a holiday meant to be restorative. But despite the seemingly implacable transfer of destructive routines from home to holiday, there were hints of change even in these events. The clearest sign of change was that nothing felt quite right anymore. For a start, the food didn't taste amazing, and this was unheard-of for me. Partly it was because I was too hungry, and ate too quickly (though still interrupted by compulsive bouts of diary-writing about the eating): ‘I'm halfway through eating; have never been so desperate for food - though made sick by it - all too warm, too salty'. Partly, too, it was the fault of the heat, and the fact of the bread and vegetables for my early meals having come all the way from England, but it felt more fundamental than just that. During my second meal, I wrote that ‘Everything tastes wrong here - sickened me again, I think from the powdered pepper this time. But all too warm, somehow nauseating, till I reached the final bread stage - & even then the fat was too soft... Ah well, hope my milk & water are well chilled. [...] I wonder what the hell my poor body really makes of all this'.
I'm shocked - and bored, too - reading back over the entries from the only holiday I had that year, and finding nothing much there except emotionally charged descriptions of food and eating. It's no surprise, of course, either in recollection or in consideration of the state I was in then, but it is relentless. I'm slightly sickened, also, by the sorts of foods I ate, specifically how much sugary stuff I could take in one go - and by the fact that however much I ate, I always came to the end still longing for more. I had a rotating series of three different daily menus, two of which included cereal, but the other of which incorporated a changing collection of foods adding up to a certain number of calories. They'd started relatively sensible - some fruit, some savoury things - but gradually the fruit diminished to half an apple (every three days), and the rest was a litany of refined sugars and hydrogenated fats: ‘Bowl of custard, crumpets, iced buns, apple, pink wafers & choc fingers'. It's an awfully odd contrast: the skeletal thinness in the photos that testifies to my extreme self-starvation, and the lists of ‘dinner' ingredients like that, which most people would think of as ‘fat people's' foods.
The crucial thing about all of this was that normally, food was an unchangeable delight. Nothing mattered more than food; there was never enough food, but that was what made it perfect. Now, though, the perfection seemed to be at risk, and that was partly because I was responding, at last, to the fact of there never being enough food: I was eating with other people again, and this upset the precarious balance of everything else. Not in a dramatically normal way, but in a way significant both to myself and to those who had sat through years of my refusing everything but a piece of bread and a glass of wine at dinner, and latterly even the bread. I ate ‘a fragment of Sue's [my mother's] biscuit' on our first walk together, ‘as I did of her crabmeat, part of the little starter I made for them'. I drank too: ‘Frightened at drinking so much - nearly a whole glass of red wine, & then one of port - & eating - delicious bread at the Avlaki restaurant, of which I stole another piece for my dinner, nervous at its being the same thing I'd just eaten, but loving it - & swordfish, a big lump of S.'s - frightened at delighting in all that, & craving more, even while hating the uncertainty of accepting as opposed to denial's pure simplicity. But S.'s sadness as she told the owner that I "live on air", & her shrug of the shoulders, made me persist; she said yesterday how it does feel very different, even just bread, as opposed to only wine - there being sth. on a plate, getting smaller.' The bread was frightening because, as a small but definite introduction of the arbitrary into the planned, it inserted a mockery into the centre of those rigid rules: the same bread that I would measure out to the gram later in the night was that which I was eating now, unmeasured, so why bother with the weighing later? The unquestioned metaphorical association of denial with simplicity and purity also surprises me now: wasn't it obvious to me that the creeping away to weigh out secret foods, the hoarding of chocolate and biscuits and the wrappers of any food I'd ever eaten, the panic at the thought of being without my kitchen scales or my foody magazines or my skimmed long-life milk, the perpetual bad temper, the nightly inspections of my crap in the loo, were as far as one could imagine from simplicity or purity?
In part I think it was the Prozac which permitted me to do what I hadn't been able to for years: to eat things that weren't part of the plan, to succumb to the invitations of the contingent. And this expansion extended beyond food, to work, the other constituent of my life. I was giving a paper at a conference a few weeks later - my first big academic conference - and I had intended to do lots of work on my talk during the holiday (not acknowledging that that more or less defeated the purpose of having a holiday), but as it was, my brain wouldn't play along. The drug made my mind feel hazy, spaced-out, dizzy - and frighteningly apathetic: ‘My brain is terrifyingly limp. But the colours - the blues & greeny-greys - are intoxicating. The warmth. The wine & port & bread. Woke in a panic about my Sheffield talk [...] But I'm so lucky to be here. Lay on the sofa in the shade after lunch, thinking about perception & Kafka - slightly nervously, at the slowness of my brain - but partly able to sink into the languorousness of it. Time is different here as well as all else: heat, colour, sound. Should the drinks & food therefore not change also? They will, a little: new vegetables. New bread tomorrow. Discussed with S. going back to cooking real pasta meals for myself; couldn't face it, to begin with.' It was a potent combination, the loveliness of the Mediterranean location and the effects of the anti-depressants. The combination made me feel high, almost trippy, and able, therefore, to do things without thinking too much (until afterwards), things I'd stopped myself, with my infallible will power, from doing for so long, and now couldn't quite bring myself to keep avoiding. I was confronting, at last, the logic of the proposition that if everything felt different, eating should change too.
Suddenly I felt physically weaker than I ever had done before. The afternoon walk with Sue was not negotiable, but I came closer than I ever had to not being up to it: ‘Frightened at feeling so weak, lying on my veranda sofa at 3 pm, that I couldn't walk at all, couldn't drag myself up to put on my shoes & work out a picnic [for my mother], couldn't even read more than a page of Vile Bodies, before sinking back into torpor - yet then, after two hours' walking, feeling I could still carry on indefinitely.' The drugs and the early summer heat at last made me acknowledge the fallibility of my own body, the lengths to which I'd pushed it, the impossibility of carrying on doing so for much longer without something going seriously wrong. My weight, when I'd last weighed myself before leaving, had been 38.9 kg, which made my BMI 14.1 - hardly tenable for life, let alone for demanding post-graduate studies and long hikes in the hot Ionian sun. It makes me scared now to think how fragile I was, how the slightest accident or infection could so easily have killed me. Then, though, I was scared simply at feeling tired, as though that was the start of all my routines - all of my life - slipping into a mess of indolence, greed, and uncertainty.
A friend joined us for the second half of the week, and we went for long walks, alone or with my mother, and talked and talked around the subject of anorexia. I wish I'd written more about what we talked about, rather than all the minute details of the things I ate and didn't eat. We kept meeting and talking throughout the time, three weeks later, when I finally decided to start eating more again, but the hot walks in Corfu, hardly noticing the scenery go by, discussing the self-help book I'd reread and lent to him, felt like the start of a new phase, as though, unlike all the years till then, all this talk might sometime really translate into action.
The defining quality of that holiday, though, was fear. The word comes up again and again in what I wrote then: ‘I'm scared; it's going to be so hard, eating. In the restaurant it was necessary to me to be able to look at all those people with plates and feel different. [...] I have a sense of infinite privilege at being here, but of the fearful necessity that lies ahead - & the fear of its even being one day really fully declared a necessity - or of not being able to do that, ever... [...] I'm terrified by how much I've eaten today: two licks of creme egg [a chocolate egg filled with with a gooey, sweet filling], up on the plateau above Spartilas, before the long descent, some scraps of bread at dinner, the first bite of S.'s pudding (the dramatically successful Maltesers mousse we made yesterday), & a scrape of the dish in which the filo parcels I made had baked - plus all the red wine & some white port before dinner. I'm terrified of my weight being back up to 41 or 42 when I return & weigh myself in Bristol. [...] Terrified they might drink my skimmed milk because both the real sorts have gone off - but suppose I can manage somehow if they do, angry as I'll be [...] I woke feeling awful - terrified about my [doctoral thesis] chapter, the unknowable extent & nature of KK's [my supervisor's] critique of it, & the [conference] talk, too, still - though perhaps when I return to it it'll seem better &/or easier.'
That's been the real miracle about this holiday now, with my boyfriend: the complete absence of fear like that, of the anxiety that has been so prevalent since the real fears faded, and instead the ability to do things other than work, for ten whole days. I brought a couple of academic books with me, but haven't touched them. I brought lots of fiction with me, and have revelled in it. It's the first time I can remember since childhood that I have spent days completely without school or university work impinging. I wrote in a blog entry this spring [link] about how in order to further my recovery from anorexia I need to focus on, amongst other things, widening the scope of my life, on valuing things other than intellectual achievement, and at last it seems possible to me - possible that life could be beautiful, fulfilling, and serene without constructing anything more lasting than each moment's happiness. Eating is nothing but a delight, on this sunny balcony and in these simple tavernas, and neither hours-long walks nor nocturnal food routines, nor even the thinking of great thoughts, are necessary for it to be thus. I never dreamt a summer holiday could be like this. I thought all that rubbish was as good as life got, and I thank all the forces of chance, friendship, love, inner strength, chemical assistance, and blind despair and hope, that I made the transition from then to now.