Eating, Continued

How eating began to change my life

Posted Sep 28, 2009

Memories fade so quickly, even those of the months I might well think of as the most significant of my life: the months in which I began to change how I ate and thereby who I was. But some episodes are still as vivid as yesterday. One such episode began four days after my first day with extra food. I was speaking at a literature and linguistics conference in Sheffield, in the north of England, and I was to stay there for three nights, Wednesday to Saturday. Reading over my diary of those days now, with a cup of tea on a sunny Sunday morning while my boyfriend still sleeps, I'm intoxicated by the sense of change I felt then, fearful but exhilarated. And I'm also amazed, as always when I look back like this, at how different everything was then: the solitude, the late late nights - and, above all, the obsession with food and the ripples it spread out over the rest of life.

The trip began, as most changes to routine did, with exhaustion. I hadn't managed to get to bed till half past five the night before, and then left too little time for all the last bits of packing in the morning, and for the first time had to eat (my breakfast pain au chocolat) in a hurry, before going out and continuing with life - rushing to the station, reaching the platform sweaty and shaking with exhaustion. On the train, I was slightly overwhelmed by the incessant noise of food wrappers crackling and smells of buffet-car coffee, ‘but I feel so differently about them now', I wrote that evening: ‘not like before, longing for whatever they're having, even while despising them and marvelling at them - just resenting the bombardment on ears and nose, mainly.'

I had to keep my coat wrapped round me against the air-conditioning, but by the time I'd reached Sheffield, caught a local bus, and walked the last little way to the conference centre, I was drenched in sweat from my ridiculous burdens (‘ridiculous' was my word then; weirdly, I feel less judgemental of my ill self now than I did when she was me). I had with me my huge rucksack laden with all the food I'd need for the three days, and a hot water bottle to replace the electric blanket I never slept without, and all the other accoutrements of anorexia: kitchen scales, ‘foody' magazines to read whilst eating, my special knife, fork, and teaspoon. Then I had to persuade and cajole and get angry and wait at reception and go back again in order that the empty kitchen at the end of my corridor be equipped with even a single saucepan and plate, so that I could make my own food at night there. I was glad I'd brought cutlery with me.

I'd been to a poetry reception with the rest of the delegates in the evening, but asked directions so that I could walk back alone, while they all sifted themselves easily into groups and went out to find restaurants. I cooked my vegetables in the empty kitchen, and did the rest of the preparation crouching on the thin carpet of my room. In my diary I described the scene and my feelings thus:

As I crouched on the floor with a newspaper spread out as my kitchen work surface at around 11.30, I wondered how anyone could want to do anything else. No one else could comprehend how I could want to do this, though, I suppose. And I do still want to. And can't believe my weight will ever (reach a stage when it must) cause me to think differently.

The doctor at the eating-disorders clinic had made much of the magic of weight regained: how at a certain point (around a BMI of 19, she said was usual) one's thinking suddenly softened and allowed one properly to contemplate change. (I've written more on the psychological necessity of weight restoration here.) But for now there remained that gaping gulf between what I did and wanted on one side, and on the other what I knew other people did, and, I supposed, did because they wanted to. I was daunted by the impossibility of changing one's desires. And the thought still remained, insidious, that perhaps I'd just stumbled across something that ‘ordinary' people would jump at if only they could see it: that they didn't really ‘want' what they did - eating their three square meals a day, going to restaurants with colleagues - but were conditioned into believing it was the only way of doing things.

I can never quite understand, now, how it always took me so long to prepare my feasts and get round to eating them: it was two in the morning before I was in the usual (obsessively recorded) raptures about ‘that bread, fat, garlic, salt' and how ‘absolutely divine they were': ‘squidgy salty fatty doughy pungent...'. Then one of the Krispy Kreme doughnuts from my best friend E. And how could any of the other people, out in hot noisy restaurants, possibly have the pleasure which that creamy sweet stuff gave, eaten in bed in the near-dark with the overhead light off so I wouldn't have to get up again afterwards, and only the yellowish glow of street lights filtering through the curtains? The duvet cover was sticky with doughnut filling when I lay down, resolving not to have any breakfast in order that there might be a chance of eating some lunch with other people, and wondering what my weight would be when I got back home on Sunday.

The next day was weird enough, though the day that followed was to be more momentous still. What follows is the beginning of my diary entry for the Thursday:

Oh God, what a strange and difficult and exhausting day it's been. I've eaten so much, and such weird things, and with other people I don't even know - a whole brown petit pain and some couscous and nice salad at lunchtime, with a cappuccino, sitting between two interesting but obese people.

Then I'd had wine at a book launch, a private tea-time snack of flatbread with mozzarella, smoked salmon, and prawn cocktail (tiny amounts of things left over from my cruise on the boat with my mother the week before; things I'd bought for her and couldn't see go to waste). And when I was cooking again, in the harsh fluorescent light of the always deserted kitchen, I'd rifled through the dustbin, as I often did to check for foodstuffs, and ate the ham from a hardly touched sandwich, shocked at the waste - and then found 'another even worse, rescued almost whole'.

I couldn't begin to understand how people could think and care so little about food that they could simply throw it away. They must have decided they were full halfway through eating, or not even thought, just been in a hurry - they must not have cared about the expense (I marvelled, in any case, at how much those readymade sandwiches cost). None of those things was conceivable to me. I had a haul of pastries from the conference coffee break, too, ‘and irresistible caramel shortbreads from tea time - don't know whether people noticed me gathering up masses, hiding them away in my bag - along with another roll from lunch, which I'll have shortly, and an apple...'. And I'd carefully stashed away the sachets of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate and the bar of chocolate left by the kettle in my room. The idea of food being wasted was as intolerable to me as the thrill of free food was irresistible.

I felt alien to everyone else there. Partly intellectually: I'd hoped this conference would be more congruent with how I saw the future of literary studies, and was ‘heartbreakingly disappointed' that it wasn't, really - and yet I suspected that it was I who was at fault. I'd thought I felt at home in academia, but perhaps it was just Oxford and my well-insulated, perfectly honed lifestyle there where I felt comfortable. But mostly I felt alien because of the food and all that it dictated. I made myself go out for walks when my legs were already aching, I retreated to my room for naps because I'd slept too little, I didn't even consider going out for dinner in the evening, when the most fun and wine-fuelled discussion would be happening. Nonetheless, I knew I was making progress: I felt how weird it was to come back from a walk and eat, before even making a cup of tea,

and how weird, too, that it seemed already quite ordinary, when less than a week ago I couldn't have believed it possible without mental agony of the first degree - or without a whole cognitive revolution. I suppose in a way the latter must have happened. However hedged about with conditionality that last inference was - it must be true. It's just frightening to admit it, naturally. But glad I managed lunch.

It was all still so precarious, my belief in the progress that had occurred, and more precarious still was my faith in the reality or desirability of what might come next. And I continued to turn to the old ultimate sources of comfort:

People must spend such a fortune on conferences like this, eating and drinking out every night. They must spend such a lot on life... Such weird tastes in my mouth... But I am still pretty thin really...

It was all OK, because I was saving money, and I was still thin. And then I went to fetch my near-frozen soya milk from the freezer (I thought I'd burn more calories if I ate it ice-cold, in tiny spoonfuls), and tried to forget the talk I had to give the next day with the distraction of cereal, followed by E.'s favourite doughnut: chocolate glaze with multi-coloured sprinkles. Bedtime had been creeping earlier and earlier: ‘Wonder how much it's to do with eating more, and earlier'. I know now, of course, that it was everything to do with that. I'm rarely up later than eleven these days, and all those years of thinking myself a night-time person are disproven.

I started this blog entry with the thought of what happened the next day, Friday. Having talked about the mental struggles of the decision to eat again, I wanted to say something about the physical difficulties. On this day, my digestion first declared that it really couldn't cope, and it wasn't quite normal for the next couple of months. I woke at 8.30, and for the next three and a half hours alternated between sitting on the loo with awful diarrhoea and lying in bed twitching with pain that gradually softened to an aching discomfort. It was strange and frightening: it made me wonder, on the one hand, why on earth I was doing this, eating, if this is what happened - and on the other hand it made me shockingly aware of the fragile state my body must have been in to react like this to less than a week of pastry breakfasts and teatime sweet things, and now a bit of couscous and salad. This is good, nourishing (if overly sugary) food, I thought helplessly, and this is what it does to me. My body needs it, but needs it so much that it rejects it. It all felt wrong. I felt punished for making the right decision, and fearful of what more might be in store.

By eleven I was calmer, hungry more than anything else, desperately tired but not sleepy. At noon I forced myself up to go to lunch: 

and then an even more terrifying event. I ate a huge lunch. With other people. ... I was lying here dreaming of bread and hot chocolate to calm my stomach - but then those plates of cheesecake and whipped cream were so appealing, and I couldn't secrete it in my bag as I did the shortbread and cakes later on - and that helped me to go on eating it, the whole huge slice, right to the end - and then walk out with my tray and pass other trays with half the slice still left, and know I'd eaten more than them - and had the hot chocolate, too, which was glorious, reminiscent of ski holidays long ago - and though I collected rolls again, I actually instead ate a whole plate of couscous, rice salad, and beetroot, with a little salt - and a glass of water - and talked to the two agreeable guys, one on either side, about Kafka and ‘slipstream' literature and cyberpunk and Borges - and it was so much easier than explaining why I'm not eating, or pretending to, or wondering whether anyone's noticing that I'm not. Of course there was terror throughout, and much more afterwards - all the afternoon talks I sat through (five of the six) it was hard not to be distracted by the fullness of my stomach, straining against my waistband. But it's OK. I've done it, and am now ready to make my normal food, and am scared about [my talk] tomorrow, but can't do any more than practise it once more, and keep it running through my head.

James, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: James, via Wikimedia Commons

It was such a novelty to have eaten whilst doing other things - talking to interesting people about things I knew lots or nothing about; this was what conferences were for, and I felt it at last rather than acknowledging it abstractly. The tyranny of comparisons was still there (all these people hadn't eaten the whole slice, and I had), but I could counter that with the logic of all the data that were missing and necessary for such comparisons: what did all those people eat for breakfast, were they hung-over or not keen on cheesecake or needing to lose weight - and how could any of that be relevant to me, who'd spent all morning shitting and all these years half-starving? The aftermath of eating an unplanned and unusual amount was always the worst: living with the effects of the food, mental and physical, with the delights of its taste long faded. But it was all part of the plan now. That alone was what made all of this possible.

Despite all these events, I worried about a possible 50 calories too many in my night-time food; I wondered again how people could want to go out in the evenings; I revelled in sitting with feet warmed by my hot water bottle surrounded by yet more food; and as always I found the food ‘unbelievably gorgeous'. It was so strange, to go to bed and not know exactly what the next day would hold in terms of food and therefore its whole arc and mood: ‘I wonder whether there'll be pudding tomorrow, whether it'll appeal, whether I'll have it (the first day was a perfectly untempting fruit salad).' I was so completely unused to admitting any sliver of contingency into my concept of the future, near or far or immediate - unused, above all, to acknowledging the existence and the validity of appetite, or whim, or ‘seeing what I feel like', and of listening to and acting on that ever so ordinary sort of impulse.

When I came home the next afternoon, I was high on the success of my paper, high on having talked all the way home to a guy from the conference and then to complete strangers. I spoke to a fat woman who revealed after about five minutes that she'd just had a gastric bypass. In return I told her all about how I'd just eaten with other people for the first time in years, and then laughingly showed her the kitchen scales I had in my shoulder bag. 

But mainly I was high from having had a whole, hot, two-course lunch, and from having changed so much. I felt as though I'd returned from another world, a world where I'd ‘lived so freely, unrigidly, unmeasurably, uncertainly. ... Oh, all the things I've eaten, people I've talked to while doing so - I needed all those complete strangers'. There'd been no one to watch me, to praise me or to worry for me. No one at the conference cared, and so I could just be, for those brief moments at lunch, someone who ate normally.

Even as I made my food in the old way that evening, glimpses of a future seemed to open out, a life in which I could do ordinary things like eat lunch in the course of having a job, say. ‘Who would have thought that life could change so quickly, so much?' I asked myself, even while realising that to anyone else, from the outside, it would still look pretty similar. I still looked forward to breakfast in the morning, and a whole string of breakfasts stretching through the summer:

Unbelievable. Thank God. Yet I still don't want to go further. Will/would it keep getting better? I can't give up this end-of-day pinnacle. I can eat with others only if this remains intact.

I couldn't conceive of a life where there was no nightly ascension to this peak of physical ecstasy in eating, but instead just the dull punctuation of mealtimes, little hills along the flat as opposed to my high mountain peak. I was so scared of putting on weight: 'I know this honeymoon period of eating more and not putting on weight can't last. It may already be at an end - and only tomorrow will tell'. (In the end it was less, after all this, than it often had been before.) I weighed out all my usual foods with the same precision, a quite arbitrary habit now, after all the unweighed things I'd had over the past days. (I reflect more on arbitrariness and control, and saving money, in this post.) Yet for the same meal I ate cakes from the conference that had no calorie counts, and this (so unlike even a week ago) didn't really scare me. In such small steps I found my way back to mental and physical health.

By this time I'd been up for twenty hours, and was quite shattered, but I was full of hope as never before: ‘It's lovely to be back. Everything feels tidy, hopeful, satisfying, strength-giving. ... How unlike anything I can remember I feel like now.'

It was all almost ruined by a phone call with my father the next day, pouring doubt and anxiety over everything, greeting my elated description of the few days with a warning not to go too fast and with criticism of the unnatural ‘high' he could hear in my voice. His immediate reaction to the cheesecake episode was ‘don't overdo it, a worried interjection urging caution, asking whether it hadn't been too much' - and then surprise at how easy I'd found it, comparing me with another anorexic woman we both knew. When he mentioned her, all the old uncertainties resurfaced: ‘I still can't help wanting, partly, to beat her in patheticness, even while we both know strength lies in the other direction'. I was so angry I wanted to scream at him, and so upset I cried for hours.

My most vivid memory from those days away, though, apart from the agony of hours-long diarrhoea, is of waiting at Sheffield's railway station on the way back, and of a man I'd met at the conference who

found me sitting on a bench on the platform in the sun, and wouldn't come and sit with me - but bought me an enormous raspberry and white chocolate muffin, and presented it to me fervently - and I ate some of it, just sitting there in the noisy station with people all around, and not having planned it at all, and vaguely aware that I was about on target for the 500 calories, but of course not really knowing - and terrified at how much has changed, I've changed.

The man must have been as upset at my thinness as I am now by women like I was; he must have been too shy to do more than press the thing into my hands; and I was able then to sit in a warm, sleepy, trance-like calm and eat bits of muffin while the world drifted past. And a little bit more of me changed with every bite I took.