Anorexia and the Invisible Changes to its Immovable Rules

Anorexia: how the arbitrary becomes absolute, and vice versa

Posted Apr 24, 2010

I'm spending some time on my own at the moment, for the first time since my boyfriend and I have been together, so I have a degree of control over what I eat and when that has been a little odd: uncomfortably reminiscent of when these things had such immense importance, and of how routines became immovably destructive and took such great efforts of will to dislodge.

I'm interested especially in that concept of the ‘immovable', because although during each ‘phase' of my anorexia everything seemed unquestionable as it was, in fact between these ‘phases' changes occurred which somehow I never quite noticed: I suppose I always thought them temporary innovations until sometime much later I realised they'd become ‘normality'.

One instance of this phenomenon was the main evening meal. For a long time there was a strict rotation of three ‘menus': muesli, pasta and vegetables, and apple and breakfast bars (all followed by chocolate). I suppose back then I ate the cereals with ordinary semi-skimmed milk, and I fried the vegetables for the pasta and would grate a little parmesan on to them. When I was living on the boat with my brother, during the final year of my BA, I always worried about whether he'd be out on pasta nights, so that I could cook without being disturbed, and without having then to retreat to the back cabin to eat it before it got cold (with the other things there was more flexibility because they weren't hot). One night I wrote in my diary: 

didn't feel at all like cooking this evening, but must stick to my routine and guard against resorting to cereal every night out of laziness. And at least J. [my brother] was out and returned only when I was halfway through cooking -- though even eating in here, sitting on the bed, makes me feel slightly sick when it's real food. Anyway, another four days before I have to cook again... (09.02.04)

I'd forgotten, though, until I looked back through my diary entries, how a fourth type was added to the sequence: one day J. was here all evening, driving me half mad with the frantic mouse-clickings of his computer, meaning too that I couldn't cook -- but I had Shreddies [breakfast cereal] and UHT instead (27.11.03, xx.7 kg). As an isolated incident it was nothing: fortuitously, I remembered the kitchen cupboard's deep-buried bounty of stale cereal and long-life milk to turn a crisis (what can I do if he won't go away and I can't cook?) into calm. But once a second similar crisis had made me repeat the emergency response, it was no longer reserved just for emergencies; its attractive simplicity had called to be absorbed into the everyday, and had been accepted, and then was no longer debatable. It's a lovely example of the ease with which the accidental could be embraced into the fold of ritual, and all remnants of the arbitrary (a response to a crisis, a one-off measure) could be so quickly shed.

I was still able to bend the rules regarding order: In E.'s absence [a girl I lived with on the boat in my second year at university], and in the absence of enough milk for muesli, I did my standard pasta and veg (07.05.02). There was an admission of contingency here, in sometimes simply not having the right things available. A few years later this would be unthinkable. If such unforeseen changes did occur, though, I'd always rehearse to myself how to get back on track (into the right order) when I did so, because the order had a reason: there was meant to be a crescendo from my least favourite meal (the cereal bars) to my favourite (the muesli), with pasta not immediately before muesli because it felt bigger, and I wanted to be properly hungry for the best... Sometimes, because of that pressure for the best meal to be perfect, I'd end up (half deliberately) deferring it: I'd miss muesli because J. was in, or I'd been out for coffee that day or had to the next (extra calories spoiling the perfection), and have the other three twice each, storing up for myself the glorious prospect of muesli for dinner two nights running.

Occasionally I'd done that, or otherwise messed around with the order, so many times that the original pattern was lost to view, and I would forfeit that double muesli as overly decadent anyway. And at some point, maybe a couple of years later, the cooked meal faded away entirely, leaving a different triad: cereal, apple and cereal bars and other stuff, and the old favourite, muesli. The miscellaneous meal was the only one that acquired a set calorie-value, to be met with mixing and matching of various sweet things from my many secret hoards. The cereal at some point became All Bran because long hours scanning supermarket shelves told me it had far fewer calories per 100 grams than any other; and it had soya milk to go with it, while the muesli had skimmed, made to go further with water. And then I'd reckon on a certain number of cups of tea per bottle of semi-skimmed milk, and save up what was left for the muesli nights -- so would end up trying to have ever less in the tea, so the muesli would be more wonderful... It always surprises me when other people with anorexia say they don't like eating: for me it was the ultimate point of existence. And all these torturous calculations were in the service of heightening the pleasure ever further.

As for quantities of everything, by the final years of my illness everything was set in stone -- but then at every other stage it had seemed that way too, and the changes always took me by surprise, retrospectively. When I went to live in Germany in the third year of my Modern Languages degree, I found a flat-share after a few weeks, and on my first evening in the new place I went to the cinema with my flat-mate and his girlfriend, and had muesli in my bedroom once I'd bid them goodnight. On my first morning I tiptoed around, washing and making tea without waking the others; in the afternoon, 

I did my first proper shop, getting oil and garlic and onions and veg and pasta and milk and apples and all such other essentials; in the evening I cooked my first real meal in my new kitchen -- my first real meal, in fact, since I've been in Germany -- pasta-and-veg-style reality, anyway. Actually, it wasn't that nice -- I felt a little sick afterwards, perhaps just not used to such bulk anymore. (02.10.02) 

My stomach had already shrunk since whenever I'd last been on my own and making such meals -- the summer term of my second year at Oxford, I suppose: only four months ago. But since then there had been all the messy last throes of breaking up with my boyfriend of four years, and so now, past normality was already excess. The next evening I fell back on the muesli that I'd come so excessively to rely upon that I could hardly stomach anything else. Mostly for the sake of keeping up appearances, if only to myself, I still made concessions to circumstance: daring, in extremity, to listen to hunger: Have eaten too much this evening, but after a weekend of permanent cold and hunger I felt a craving for real food, especially for vegetables -- and for chocolate (01.12.02). But even here my ‘too much' was probably only the unchanging standard, and felt too much only because for days I'd had so much too little -- and should therefore have had even more, too much relative to my normality rather than only to the preceding deprivation. But prolonged hunger is too easily sated, in a superficial way.

After the ski holiday with my parents I talked about in a previous post, I'd agreed to start eating more so they would stop worrying and let me stay in Germany alone. But it was some time before I could bring myself to add anything substantial to my diet. I suppose I knew, in the early days, that what I'd decided on was hardly a get-fat-quick regime: This morning I weighed xx.8kg -- I wonder if, after my first day of the new ‘normality' (afternoon apple added, though not the second potential snack) it will have gone up or down or neither. Must get to at least xx point something by the Sunday phone call (02.04.03). With the setting of the weight goal (I don't remember whether I suggested the number, or my parents) it was pretty clear that the potential snack would have to become the actual, if the possibility of weight gain was itself to move from possibility to actuality. But I somehow must have had a pathetic confidence in the effectiveness of my minuscule measures, even as their effect was proven equally minuscule: Had gone up by a mere 100g this morning, to xx.9. Ate a really enormous apple today, though... (03.04.03). I think the irony of that ellipsis meant I knew, though, that that enormous apple had been selected precisely for being so innocuous, for being one of the foods one can eat more of with impunity -- if one wants to stay thin. I was still thinking within the constraints of the mindset I was meant to have abandoned, but I knew I was doing so. I knew I couldn't get fatter on apples -- which is why I was able to choose them, but why, too, they soon had to be supplanted by more strictly forbidden fruits: cereal bars and pizzas and double rations of bread.

I'd lost 0.4kg this morning -- back down to xx.5kg. That spurred me on to eating more than I have for months (except in S. and T.'s [my mother and father's] presence) -- including a two-course breakfast of big banana and Pocket Frühstück [a German brand of cereal bar], about midday on the terrace after a morning of emailing. If I haven't put on weight again today I don't know what I shall do -- I can't really eat much more than this. We'll see. All fingers crossed. (04.04.03) 

There was still the same ironic deprecation of the two-course breakfast where the 'courses' were such pathetically small single items. But that self-aware irony was still combined with the pathetic sincerity that declared the impossibility of any greater achievement. I could eat twice as much as this -- I had before and I would again, without a thought. For the moment, though, the only possibility seemed what was happening right now.

Finally, I gave in: I went to the supermarket to buy extra bread and full-fat milk to ease my fears of failure (11.04.03). And it's remarkable how hard that prelude to true action was: the simple admission that the carefully calculated quantities of bread in the cupboard were now no longer sufficient, that I'd have to spend more, give out more (money) and accrue more (food, drink, flesh), fill more space in the kitchen in order to fill the internal space -- every oscillation of give and take had now to be released from constriction.

I admitted how everything in me resisted that release, and tried desperately to degrade it to triviality:

Have spent an inordinate amount on food this week -- goes against every sort of grain I consist of, to be spending more in order to consume more; consumption both financial and calorific have never been my favourite things; but I mustn't think about it -- four or five euros here and there doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, of my survival and my staying on here. (11.04.03)

And then, at the first lunch when I'd decided to have twice the usual amount of bread, I forced that same fear of failure to overcome that of bloatedness, and ate twice as much bread as usual -- and I did eat it, and it was OK, if my stomach did complain a little at first; I think, after all, 200g is only what I used to have every lunchtime on Lancer [the boat in Oxford] without a second thought.

Turning past normality back into present normality was the strategy I employed as a last resort, when I had no option but to change things. In order to bear the change to that meal whose pleasure I had thought would be ruined by any alteration, I had to summon all the logical supports I could to the willpower that now declared: turn two slices of bread into four. (As, soon, it would also declare: turn low-fat spread into butter.)  Reminding oneself that something terrifying was once normal can be a hugely potent tool.

Normality was elusive not only in terms of quantity of food, but in terms of its timing: for years, by then, I hadn't been having breakfast, but in Germany, teaching at a school in the mornings, lunch drifted further and further from lunch-time:

My appetite has rather been thrown off balance today by the lateness of lunch -- it was four o'clock by the time I'd got home and unwrapped myself from my many layers and chatted a little to H. [my flat-mate] ... and made lunch and sat down with it -- and then I wasn't exactly hungry at dinnertime, but knew I was really, and indeed ate as ravenously as ever, and even tore at some cake H.'d thrown into the compost bin, partly because I hate to see things wasted like that, partly because I wanted sugar I suppose. I know it's my fault that I simply can't listen to my body anymore, that I have to tell it when it's hungry. Normally I'd rather have it that way. (12.12.02) 

Susan Blackmore, used with permission
Source: Susan Blackmore, used with permission

I knew I was hungry really -- and so I could eat. But I could allow myself to ‘know' it so rarely. Why not simply more often? Sometimes cold (it was a bitterly cold winter compared to the English ones I was used to) or exertion (I cycled a long way to school each morning, and walked at weekends along the river, trembling with cold and weakness) made it seem necessary to acknowledge hunger more often -- not to listen to my messed-up stomach, but to tell it what it was permitted now to say. But somehow before the concerted parentally driven recovery effort a few months later (which made a good deal of progress, though in the end it didn't last), nothing ever came of it other than the merciless need for perpetually less, perpetually later.

Back in Oxford again for my final year, times for eating would be defined by a gradual drift later and later: they slipped so quietly I barely noticed, except when I caught myself out writing something that sounded far too normal: Very weary from a day of essay-writing, but I should finish the current one on the role of ‘ich' in Christa Wolf by tomorrow lunchtime or so (funny how it's still lunchtime, when lunch for me happens at eight in the evening) (12.02.04). And I'd often, thereafter, deliberately play that bleakly humorous displacement game, with or without the inverted commas of acknowledgement:

I know eating breakfast thirteen-and-a-half hours after getting up probably isn't healthy, but so it is at present (05.08.04)

faint almost to shakiness in my pre-‘lunch' reading (20.07.04) -- shaky because lunch was so late as to need scare-quoting

my three meals have been eaten in even closer succession than usual: ‘breakfast' at ten, ‘lunch' at eleven, ‘dinner' at midnight (10.07.04).

Soon, though, that last structure would be normality -- and by the end, I mightn't wake up till 4 pm, not have my first cup of tea till eight, perhaps stop working at three or four in the morning, and have cereal bar and low-cal chocolate drink then (approaching breakfast time from the other end, I suppose...), and all my ‘meals' in one as dawn came.

The other night, I went to a little gathering of some of the other people staying here, and had wine and nibbles there, and then my boyfriend rang for a chat, and I was aware, as I put the phone down, of an echo of the old addictive pleasure I used to take in everything having got so late that I must eat, now, everything all at once, without further delay. In the past, however much I resolved to bring things earlier -- to have my cereal bar by two, say, instead of three -- I couldn't help loving failing, because it felt like succeeding: it felt like having been strong, and the reward for that being to enjoy eating, quickly, with all the justification in the world.

That confusion of strength and weakness, of the state of being in control with that of being under the control of something far more powerful than ‘oneself' (whatever that is), is perhaps at the heart of all these paradoxically static yet fluid rules and habits: why one hundred grams of bread could alternate so rapidly between impossibility and normality; why lunch-time could be as immovable at one in the morning as at one in the afternoon; why the inability to cook pasta because my brother wouldn't go out (how I hate myself for having put him through all that; him, and H., and E.) could cause as real a panic as the prospect of being forced to cook pasta would do a little later.

It was all totally arbitrary: the point was to have rules, and to abide by them at any given moment. If tomorrow the rules were different, so be it. Obedience to self-imposed arbitrariness was power, and was the point of everything. And because it all resulted in my weight gradually dropping over the years, the vacillations were absorbed into the grand scheme of things that was: watching the numbers go down -- while not even really realising they were doing so. In the final irony, each new bodyweight low was instantly normality, and only weakness today could mean that tomorrow's number was the same as today's.

I haven't weighed myself for a few weeks now, and dinner is about to happen now, at 8 pm -- and I don't know yet what it will be. Not muesli.


(Seven years later I wrote what in some ways serves as a sequel to this post: 'Why your mistakes matter less than you think', which explores the idea that there exists an ideal straight line from which all of life's chance happenings are deviations.)