A History of Anorexia while Skiing: Part One
At last no longer too thin to ski
Posted Apr 01, 2010
I've just got back from a ski holiday with assorted family and friends. It's been delightful because for the first time in a decade I've really had the energy and enthusiasm to ski: I've revelled in the sheer physicality of it for the first time since becoming anorexic (aged sixteen) and recovering.
Last year I'd begun to get better, but was too tired and weak much of the time even to want to ski more than a couple of hours a day, or, during those two hours, to do much more than sail gently down untaxing slopes. Ski holidays are interesting: they represent a heightened state of ordinary life, with the whole family (including my long-since separated parents) gathered together as it never normally is; and they're dedicated to the pursuit of an activity which is just physical, not intellectual. In this second sense, they're quite unique for me. And they require, of course, more sustenance through food that ordinary life does (when I was ill, this would become a major point of contention between my parents and me). Finally, by chance, during my school days my birthday often fell within the annual ski trip, making everything seem all the more significant, somehow. Enjoying myself so much this time makes me remember how anorexia came increasingly to ruin this, the only sport I ever liked.
We've always skied. My parents met while representing their respective university ski teams, and have taken my brother and me skiing almost since birth: first in rucksacks on their backs, where we'd sit and whisper ‘faster, faster!' in their ears; then between their legs, then at ski school, and finally all together as a family. And skiing was one of the first things that, after my parents split up, they started being able to do together again. I always hated hockey and netball, and tennis was only slightly better because it didn't involve being in a team -- but I never loved it as I did skiing. I was distraught as, gradually, I began to dread skiing instead of delight in it: fearing the impossible cold, having too few muscles to ski fast any more. In fact, you could chart the whole progress of my illness through the annual ski holiday: the improvements and regressions, the battles over food, the enjoyment and the misery.
In the early days, love of skiing almost compelled me to get better. Age 16, my parents' worries about my physical state started to threaten my ability to ski. One evening in late autumn, a few months before that season's trip, I wrote in my diary:
I'm sitting here in bed like a fucking invalid. At dinner today I just suddenly couldn't eat, my body repelled the food I'd been looking forward to for hours. I just came up here and collapsed into tears. And T. [my father] came up and was sweet to me. What he said about skiing scared me, though -- that he didn't think it likely I'd be able to go if I stayed in this state -- I hadn't thought of that before. He brought me up a plate of chopped, peeled apple with sugar, said he didn't care whether I ate it but it was there if I did. How did he know I felt just like eating sugar? How would I survive without him? (26.11.98)
Skiing became a reason to eat, a reason to thank my father for bringing me food rather than hating him for it. As the trip approached, it made me desperate, the realization that perhaps I'd ruined this great pleasure for myself for this year (and perhaps forever):
I realized today, walking home, that I really couldn't ski at the moment -- and we're going in three weeks. I had pasta and parmesan again for dinner -- I felt bad, but not so bad, afterwards (02.02.99)
I don't want to ‘take it easy'. I was always the one who never got tired, went off for a whole day on my own, skied the hardest runs and came back for more. I don't want to be like a fucking invalid sitting in cafes watching other people do what I could be doing better. I've brought it on myself, I know, but that doesn't make it any easier to bear. How can I have fucked myself up so badly? (16.02.99)
I, like my father, had already started to mourn the demise of Emily the Invincible, even while admitting such idealized strength wasn't sustainable -- that I myself had made it crumble. ‘Sorted' had always been my epithet, and all the more so now I'd been accepted into Oxford, but I felt a mess.
I'm sure my father was still worshipping his well-rounded, cheerful, indefatigable daughterly idol even as its gilt was already flaking. But as I saw it, he kept believing that the goddess needn't have fallen, whereas I rapidly stopped believing that she ever existed. It was as if my supposed perfection (the notion that I'd made a seamless transition from childhood to adulthood, as my father told me a day or two before my sixteenth birthday) had granted me adulthood, and that when I lost that perfection or proved it lacking I regressed to childhood -- and became a child resented more than loved: in my diary now I'd write about how he doesn't respect me any more, he regards me more as a troublesome kid than a friend (05.03.99); about how he made me feel guilty, inadequate, afraid (02.03.99).
In the month preceding the ski holiday that year, my diary was reduced to little more than the record of nausea induced by the food that was meant to enable me to participate:
the Snickers doesn't taste quite as bad as yesterday's; I was so hungry (24.01.99)
T. made me eat two eggs and two sausages tonight -- I felt like throwing up. And he says tomorrow he's going to make me some real food and I've got to try and eat it. And he started saying things about porridge for breakfast, and trying to persuade me to eat meat again... (30.01.99)
Still exactly the same weight -- I have to eat even more. I'm going to start eating some bread and cottage cheese when I get back from school, and more nuts at lunchtime. That should do it. They want me -- or T. does -- to try Complan. The idea terrifies me -- it'd make me feel like someone who's really ill -- an invalid or something. I just want to be normal, I want food not to matter any more (07.02.99)
It's interesting how often the concept of the invalid comes up, and associated with how much venomous resistance. I suppose that's partly about the difference between being ill as a child or an adult: while you're still a child, people get more involved, impose more things on you in the attempt to help, and that was what I (mostly) resented and (occasionally) appreciated when I felt invalid-like. Partly it was also about the difference between the start of an illness and the later stages of it: to begin with, I would still let myself be frightened into taking action, could still believe that the stakes were life and death. Although I'd dig in my heels when the urgency of all this frightened me, at that point I still believed, and believed people who told me, that there was no alternative, that it was now or never -- whereas later I'd lived for too long like this to be tricked into panic; I would know that recovery could always be deferred, so needn't ever really happen, or be necessary. I think that's one of the things that keeps you most trapped: the loss of sense that there's really any urgency.
But in the run up to that year's ski holiday, I had the immediate, urgent motivation of preserving the pleasure of skiing that I later relinquished along with all the rest, and there was that same apocalyptic attitude that said I really couldn't ski as I was. But starting that very year, I came to realize that you can force yourself to do almost anything, even deep in illness ... if you don't mind doing it badly. All my insistence on intellectual perfection which drove my anorexia made me make do with second best in everything else: I skied, in the years that followed, not with the untiring power and energy and fun and fearlessness that I had before, but cautiously, gently, weakly, safely; not exulting in speed but uncomfortable in cold exhaustion, grateful for a ray of sun.
And so I even shattered the myth that I needed to eat more when I skied. I skied so sedately and wrapped up so warmly that it was all less strenuous than cycling through Oxford's streets to an early lecture. And so I normalized what used to be the yearly holiday from normality. As for the normality of food not mattering, I stopped wanting that normality. Whereas back in the early days I had to take only one step to move from wanting change to achieving change, soon there would be two steps: I had firstly to make myself want. And that step would take me another ten years.
So, the skiing in 1999 was pretty bad: lots of secrecy around eating, and little plastic bags of the only things I could bear. The next year, in 2000, I'd been seeing a child psychiatrist for some time and making an effort to eat, and the holiday was a little better: the diary entry for my birthday is little other than a menu of French delicacies, but the words that had usually peppered such lists of mine -- ‘sick', ‘bloated', ‘guilty' -- are nowhere to be found: I was ‘stuffed' but happily so:
Fabulous day -- I'm completely stuffed with champagne, cheese and chocolate: T., S. [my mother], J. [my brother] and I just got back from a birthday dinner where we had fondue with ceps followed by a special chocolate gateau they'd had inscribed with my name. I've had no presents really, but it's seemed such a special day -- croissants, baguette and apple tart for breakfast, a good (if cold) morning's skiing -- mushroom omelette and vin chaud at lunchtime; then the sun came out a little in the afternoon and after skiing we went to S.'s flat for birthday cake and tea; then a hot bath and then dinner and a joint... It's so good to be able to eat with everyone else, comfortably. So utterly different from last year when I lived off Mars Bars and nuts and raisins and muesli all from England, and tiny portions of pasta and parmesan... I couldn't be normal... (20.02.00)
Of course I'm not sure it counts as normality to detail the day's intake so religiously, as if to miss a morsel would be to miss, too, what made it all so special. But the isn't-this-so-much-better-than-last-year satisfaction seems partly justified: that year I ate portions of and enjoy two birthday cakes, while the year before I'd avoided tasting even one. I could ski, too; the cold came only in brackets; speed is good. I feel free, just for a second or two (22.02.00) -- and that, after all, was the whole point of it, the exhilaration and pure rush of air and motion that all the croissants and baguettes were fuelling.
Increasingly, the annual ski trip became the time at which I'd try hardest to get better, or at least to prove to my parents that I was trying. This meant that food was at the forefront, and the same recurrent themes of difficulty appeared every year. So, the following year, in 2001 (aged nineteen),
I feigned a headache and truly did feel sick, so S. and T. took turns carrying the courses up to my room, some of which I ate. T. was a bit worried about my calorie intake. I just feel constantly sick. I'm not used to having to eat this much of such rich food -- or of anything... I felt I couldn't ski and didn't want to eat so why the hell was I here? (22.03.01)
Today it's raining again down here, but they did promise sunshine. That's what I'd really like -- warmth and a bit of a suntan, not another lunchtime spent drying clothes around a fire. (23.03.01)
And yet in between I could write about a very good dinner and, on the last night, a cheerful dinner -- wine-tasting experiments, photo-taking, exchange of email addresses and so on; I could appreciate the food in itself, and the sociable antics clustered around food and not marred by it; and I could eat, on the morning of our return home, a nice relaxed breakfast of coffee, bread and butter and pains au chocolat in the station buffet (24.03.01), keeping up the breakfast habit even when the day promised no opportunity to ski off its calories, only sitting and standing and sleeping away the journey in trains and planes and taxis and departure lounges.
That was the last year I managed such enjoyment; two years later there came a frightening climax in terms of my illness and my parents' recognition of it. To be continued tomorrow.