Having the Strength To Cope with What Life Throws at You

Keeping things in proportion, and keeping on eating

Posted Oct 19, 2009

Yesterday morning I had a horrid shock. I went outside and where my bike and my boyfriend's should have been, under their little shelter by the landing stage next to the boat, there was instead just an empty space. The planned quiet Saturday-morning ride to the gym followed by some food shopping was suddenly postponed for what felt like hours of wandering round looking hopelessly for bikes or clues, digging out old receipts, ringing the police... We were plagued by the usual feelings of anger (with ourselves and the thieves and by extension the rest of humanity) and sadness at the seclusion of the marina having been violated, and at the loss of the two lovely bicycles -- his a present from me, mine a present from my mother. It was all a depressing shock that left us exhausted by teatime, but throughout the day and now, in retrospect, I've been comparing my reactions, and my ability to deal with them, with how it would have been when I was ill.

It's easy -- when you're still suffering from anorexia yourself, or when you never have done -- to imagine that such an illness affects only the food-related parts of one's existence. But although that's where it starts, and is the most obvious sphere of sickness, in the end it's no more than the epicentre to deeper patterns of turmoil. I remember incidents comparable to this one: getting a puncture on my bike, or locking myself out of the boat (which we did last weekend, and were laughing about with neighbours within the hour), or losing something or forgetting to do something. I remember how the anguish would stay with me.

I would be plagued by the need to make amends -- to search feverishly, or write excessive emails of apology, or whatever it was. (To make life try to revert back to a straight line, as I explore here.) And I would be haunted by the thought of the expense entailed (taking the bike to the shop, or having to replace a lost book) and, above all, the time lost. The concept of wasted time (unpicked in more depth here) was a dominating feature of every day: for a while I recorded the number of hours I'd worked in the day, but even when I stopped doing so, the mental tally was always running, and the total was never high enough.

The notion that time could be wasted was perhaps most pernicious when I was doing things that were supposedly ‘fun', for I'd always have to be weighing up the relative value of this 'amusement', and my at best moderate enjoyment of it, with the work I could have got done (how many pages of the relevant book I could have read by now, how much more of the essay or thesis chapter I could have written instead of coming here to drink this calorific cappuccino, for instance). But the feverish anxiety when I was trying to deal with some mishap was, in the long term, equally destructive: how can I be so stupid as to have allowed this to happen, so that I'm failing to get on with work, and all I'm doing is wasting my energy. I'm wearing myself out, and I can't bear it, because then later I'll have even less strength for thinking and writing, when I need to have more, because I've lost so many hours sorting this stupid problem out.

Then I'd probably have to postpone eating further than ever, to compensate even partially for all the lost time, but making myself more worn-out still. And the mental turning-over of the event and its causes and consequences in an exhausting attempt to reconcile myself with it all would never stop -- never, that is, until at last, however far into the night, I finally let myself sink into bed with a food magazine and my plate of savoury food and my cereal and chocolate to follow, and forget at last. The more dreadful those cognitive entrapments become, the more one relies on the ultimate escape of the perfectly orchestrated late-night feast, and so the more inescapable those traps become...

That's a crucial thing about anorexia: it admits of no contingency. Everything can be, should be, and must be planned to perfection. If food and the situation of its eating cannot be perfect, don't eat. If going out with other people isn't both exhilarating and intellectually stimulating (and how can it be, predictably; and how can it be, anyway, if you're always tired and hungry and cold), then don't do it, but stay in and do work, whose point is clearer and whose success will be the fuller the more time is devoted to it. If you could possibly omit that teatime cereal bar from your daily ration, then do so, because your power, your thinness, will be the more complete, and if you could bear it today then you must be able to bear it every day. There are no half measures; no compromises; no flexibility from one day to the next. I feel sick when I think of it now, the brutal stasis of a life that insists on ultimate progress through complete uniformity, with that awful bleak meal, starting with boiled vegetables and ending with desperate mouthfuls of chocolate, at its epicentre, yet absolutely separate from all the rest. I wrote years ago:

The necessity of the food spreads to separate all its situation from the contingencies of what surrounds it. This idea of it being worth eating suggests that eating is done not because it's necessary, but because there's a positive reason for it: if eating, for any reason, cannot be a pleasure, better not do it at all -- to the point where it becomes impossible to do it at all, where -- in company, or if the food is of the wrong sort -- the mouth, the stomach, imbibe the rebellion of the brain: they create nausea, the skin becomes feverish, the body feels trapped, the food is the enemy. Sensuously pleasurable when submissive, its slightest insubordination is shattering pain and panic.... The food itself? The black sun at the centre of this ritualised constellation.

It's all about the food, but ultimately the food is the least of it: the negative blackness at the heart of a sunless subsistence, the agony that is called pleasure.

Now, to expand the metaphor (and read here my thoughts on illness metaphors and their effects), it's just one part of a constellation of things that matter. We've borrowed (old rubbishy) bikes, it's all in the process of being sorted, we ate lunch and dinner that day and have kept on doing so, and have got immersed in the new week's events. The regret, sadness, anger, haven't vanished yet, but they have their place, and their place is not at the centre of things, where only the perfect feast can possibly dislodge them, temporarily. It's all right to let things come and go as they will, without dictating that everything must be perfect -- at least in pretence -- before I next let myself sit down to eat.