Today and yesterday a wild snowstorm has been whirling through the pine trees around the house. I’m at a ski resort on Lake Tahoe in northern California, skiing for the first time in the States. We’ve had glorious warm spring sunshine and driving horizontal wind, deep new snow and wide-flung views of the crystal lake and the Nevadan plains.
I’ve written a lot about skiing before—I’ve told one story of my illness and recovery through family ski holidays (Parts I, II, and III), and the easiest way for me to make sense of the beginning of my anorexia is through the hangover that concluded a teenage ski trip and made me revel, for the first time, in hunger. But I realised one thing on the first day of this trip which I don’t seem ever to have said in those other posts. Nothing makes me feel alive the way bombing down a sunny piste does. The speed, the exhilaration, the white and the blue, the fear at the fringes, the wind in my hair, the strength flowing through my legs into the edges of the skis and down through the powdery surface of the snow—there is nothing that crystallizes aliveness into a single extended moment like this does. I am utterly happy, and if this now could stretch into eternity, it would be a bright unending godless heaven.
This is not the first time I’ve had this realization. Indeed, every ski holiday I’ve been on, when I’ve been well, I’ve had it. This is why, despite the environmental awfulness of the ski industry, and the expense of every aspect of a week’s skiing (travel, accommodation, ski hire, insurance, blah blah blah), I do it annually if I possibly can—and would do it twice if I had the cash. But the thing is, I never remember the sheer wonder of it when I’m not skiing. This year, I was thinking I really should give it a miss because I have no income and a ski trip seems stupidly decadent. Most of me couldn’t justify the expense; just a tiny part of me kept thinking—I think this will be worth it. But like imagining being too hot when you’re freezing, or being too full when you’re starving, it seems impossible for me to believe in this form of perfection when I’m sitting at my laptop working, or even doing something closer to it like hiking in high places or driving fast with the roof down.
And this makes me reflect on something that characterizes anorexia, more and more the longer the illness lasts: the impossibility of imagining life being otherwise. My now-ordinary tapestry of similar days spent working, chatting, reading, lifting, chatting, shopping, sleeping, laughing, walking, are like a much more harmless echo of the long dark days of silence and hunger and nothing but work which were my later anorexic years. Both are normality: both impede the imagination of other more intense ways of being.
In itself this is no problem. In a way, the difficulty of remembering, believing in, comprehending the magic of an out-of-the-ordinary experience is inherent to its magic: if you could wholly recreate it in the mind, at a distance, it probably wouldn’t be so special. But I think there’s a sense in which we need to make an effort to let the default version create space for the extraordinary. We need to remind ourselves at least to acknowledge the existence of the extraordinary, even if accepting its unimaginability. And this applies in health as well as illness. More crucially in illness; more joyfully in health.
While ill, the extraordinary things you make space for despite not being able to believe in them might be elements of what other people would call normality: eating a biscuit with your tea, drinking a cocktail, spending a whole day on the sofa reading, accepting a last-minute invitation from friends, having a barbecue outdoors in company. And what does making space for them mean? It’s one of the many bootstrapping exertions recovery from anorexia requires: buying the biscuits when everything in you resents the expenditure on something you hate and fear and despise and secretly love the idea of eating; saying yes, and saying no, when almost everything in you wants to say the opposite.
Perhaps part of this skill is learning to attend to the submerged 1 percent that still remembers, or has the capacity to imagine, that letting go of your daily routine could be a pleasurable relief, that doing something unplanned with your day could be fun, that there is such a thing as fun, that the fun/pleasure/flavor/rebellion of the martini or the macaroon could outweigh the fever of guilt and desire for annulment that you predict will come later. That you could choose the fun despite its cost, knowing (even if not quite believing) that each time you do, the fun will be greater and the cost less.
And what about driving recovery onwards beyond the in-between space of managing to eat more but everything still feeling like managing, on to the wide-open territories where life feels like it’s being lived not survived? This must be partly about keeping on listening for the long-forgotten reminder that there are pleasures greater than, or different from, the quiet everyday ones that are now so newly and warmly cherished—that living has wild excesses and hidden corners and splendid expanses that invite fearless and frivolous exploration.
In the early days of recovery, the varieties of exploration are more predictable, circling often around matters of food and exercise. As the months pass, and then the years, the circle widens to encompass other kinds of self-compassion, spontaneity, silliness, and adventure. Beyond a certain point this is no longer about living healthily or otherwise; it’s just about living.
The moments that stray beyond everyday contentment will take as many forms as human passion and imagination do, but I wonder whether there might be a special role for the most physical of them. This links back to my post on the importance of making more time to experience one’s body as subject rather than object. So much pushes us the other way—into making ourselves into objects of aesthetic criticism, on the one hand, and into being distracted far from the capable reality of our bodily existence, on the other. It’s therefore no surprise that skilled physical activity may often be the thing that makes us feel, above all other things, free.
Here I think of the psychological concept of flow. In the 70s, the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his colleagues were interested in artists who got so absorbed in their work they forgot everything else. Some of the artists described those immersed experiences using water metaphors, and so the term flow was born. Flow is focused and energized immersion in the performance of an activity—a common synonym is being "in the zone." The activity needn’t be an intensely physical one—for me, playing the piano used to bring about a flow state, and writing occasionally does. But the characteristics of flow include those that may often be elicited by activities that demand whole-body coordination involving moment-to-moment feedback: intense concentration on the present moment, a merging of action and awareness, and a sense of personal agency. From these follow great pleasure, a loss of reflective self-consciousness, a changed experience of time, and a disregard of other needs and desires, because meaning is contained within the task itself. All this combines to create a sense of effortlessness within sustained effort.
Crucial to the emergence of flow is a balance between the levels of challenge and skill: something other than flow will arise if you’re doing something you find very easy or very difficult. This, I suppose, is why for me it’s hurtling down the piste that encapsulates the experience, even though negotiating scary moguls or the unpredictable drifts amongst the trees gives me great pleasure too – I wouldn’t want to do those for eternity.
Like any other great pleasure, flow can be addictive; flow can oversimplify the complexity and ambiguity of life. But insofar as it forms a counterpoint to an everyday that has quite enough of those complexities and ambiguities, it is not just a pleasure but also an enrichment. As Csíkszentmihályi puts it, "The flow experience, like everything else, is not 'good' in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strengths and complexity of the self" (Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, 1992, p. 70).
So, there are two things that need doing if moments like this are to be cultivated. The first is to develop, or relearn, the skills that make them possible. This holiday it’s been beautiful to feel well, strong, capable, dependable, as well as to feel my old skiing ability return and grow; it’s been great to have implicit faith in the solidity of my muscles and the plentifulness of what I’m eating and the robustness of my self and my skill. And the second is to put oneself in the way of the challenges which will test that skill: to turn towards the slopes just a degree or two steeper, to reach out to the opportunities that lie a little further out from contentment, where joy is.
When it’s early days yet in recovery, joy may come rarely, and when it does, come from a balance of skills and challenges that feel sometimes tiny, sometimes great: the entirely innate but so long misused skill of eating, the so familiar but alien challenges of new foods or new environments for eating. Sometimes the skill and the challenge will feel entirely mismatched, but sometimes the match will click into place, and the exhilaration of something like flow will come quite unexpectedly – from the short-long moments of eating that so recently unimaginable croissant in the sunshine.
Perhaps applying the concept of flow to these moments of recovery eating is a bit of a stretch, but for me, the first pain au chocolat in daylight had all the key qualities: focused concentration on the act of eating to the point of all my awareness being subsumed in the action, despite the importance of the light and warmth suffusing me; a profound sense of personal will being exercised to make this happen, now, in this way. From these followed unimagined pleasure, the feeling of time slowing and expanding as I ate, and a novel disregard of what was to come, because this eating was the most intensely meaningful thing conceivable.
And despite the superficial similarity, it had almost nothing in common with the anorexic eating episodes which had preceded it the night before and would succeed it that coming nighttime and for many still to come. Instead of the meticulous rituals of food preparation long before eating, there was the simplicity of warming the pastry in the oven and putting it on a plate before stepping outside to sit on the front bench of my boat and – just eat it. Instead of the highly deliberate distraction with lightweight sections of magazines, I actually focused, intently, on eating. Instead of the actions and the pleasure being bound up with compulsion born of hunger drawn out all day, this action felt willed, and the pleasure came not least from that willed rebellion against ancient rules. It felt like I was doing something completely new, that required of me new skills; and so the skill-challenge balance was tipped to just the optimal point of flow. The only thing that doesn’t quite fit the flow model is the fact that I think my reflective awareness of myself was greater rather than lesser in the new morning eating: instead of being wrapped up in blankets at the dead of night, eating ravenously with no thought of another human being, now I was outside in the light and very aware of doing something that should be normal but which was the most terrifyingly non-normal thing I have ever done.
Nonetheless, the differences are telling, and act as harbingers of many more fluid experiences to come, later in recovery and beyond. They also act as a warning: it’s quite possible to perform any given action in a manner either conducive or opposed to the emergence of flow. This is an important caveat to what I’ve said about physical activity: if there’s no skill required (e.g. you’re treadmill running), if the purpose is not intrinsic to the activity (e.g. you’re doing it to burn calories), if your mind is elsewhere (on your next meal, or your last, or something else you’re worrying about) – perhaps, in other words, if you’re doing it with the anorexic mindset in place, flow will not arise.
But all it takes is a little shift, and it can and will. Maybe in the days when darkness crowds around, there can be comfort in the very reminder that there really is such a thing as experience where nothing matters but this, right now. And if this idea is a comfort, let it also be a spur.