A History of Anorexia while Skiing: Part Two

My twenty-first birthday, skiing in Italy and struggling to eat

Posted Apr 02, 2010

Yesterday I talked about what the family ski holidays meant in the early years of my illness. 2003, when I was 21, was something of a turning point. I'd just split up with my boyfriend of four years (at least in part because of my being ill), and was teaching in Germany for a year, as part of my degree; I was lonely and miserable and not eating was a way of dulling the pain, stopping me feeling anything much. It was difficult making the transition from a solitary, completely controlled, at least superficially adult life to being with my parents, being a daughter again, and a daughter to be worried about.

This year we went to the Dolomites instead of the Alps, stopping over for some quiet wintry Venetian sunshine on the way. In the hotel in the mountains, I shared a room with my mother, and, sitting in bed on the first evening, I wrote of how I was dreading the first real skiing breakfast - the first breakfast at which I really will have to eat something, or they'll shout or cry or not let me ski or something (16.02.03). After the first half-day's skiing we'd been graced with a mountain-top sunset, and I'd toasted it with hot chocolate. And at dinner we'd talked of happiness/contentment, how easy it is to be the former and hard the latter -- and of course I'm neither, but only just keeping my head above misery -- and hoping they didn't see it.

Just before dinner I was still hoping -- but I sensed my head had sunk below the surface. I came in and bathed and dozed. And then cried. Silently, so as not to wake S. [my mother], and painfully and briefly. The day had been terrible and should have been wonderful:

Have I destroyed for myself the only physical fun I have ever been able to have? Through starvation and illness? All I could think of, all day, was the cold, was the next opportunity of becoming slightly less cold. I could barely speak, barely move my muscles, barely ski, barely function on any level except the most basic. And I felt sick -- physically, from slight constipation and the discomfort of having all muscles, including stomach ones, perpetually clenched in frozen stiffness -- and psychosomatically, from the thought of the breakfast, the chocolate, already consumed, all the meals that had still to be consumed. After my bath I felt weak, dizzy, hardly capable of staggering to bed. I feel uglier, weaker, duller, than ever before. And almost twenty-one -- ought to be a high point of my life. And my obsession with thinness, or more deeply, with a frail illusion of control, has ruined it for me. I feel so guilty for not being able to enjoy all this. So guilty and so stupid. And guilty, too, for not, on one level, caring enough. Wanting M. [my ex-boyfriend] to fill the emptiness inside me, not really health and pleasure and exercise. Just him. And fear -- they want to buy me new skis and boots for my birthday tomorrow.

I felt fear because I didn't deserve it, because I didn't know whether I'd be able to ski tomorrow, because I knew I didn't want to. I knew that the idea of sitting on more cold lifts, feeling face and fingers and bones turn to painful then painless, aching ice, terrifies me. I want to say this all to them and don't know how or where or when to start.

The feelings of guilt and stupidity and fear were half for myself and half for my parents, partly social and partly of a deeper grain. I felt guilt at spoiling their pleasure by not sharing it, and, more deeply, for not wanting to share it -- which was my own stupidity, my own loss, but which must be defended like a right. I felt fear of ingratitude but greater fear of the cold -- and fear of telling them everything and of not being able to.

Tom Troscianko, used with permission
Me, trying and failing to keep warm.
Source: Tom Troscianko, used with permission

But after dinner I wrote of how I'd stopped trying to keep up appearances:

Found a way and a place and a time to say it -- in tears, in the restaurant, after dinner -- it all came out. And it all feels better now. Less terrifying, less constricting. What happens tomorrow seems less critical. Though I have to weigh myself, it may decrease rather than increase the obsessionality.

That hope turned out a vain one. I weighed myself in my nightie before breakfast, S. peering over my shoulder -- xx.5 kg. Less, I think, than I ever was before; below, I think, the level at which Dr. S [a child psychiatrist I saw for two years] used to say one ought to be hospitalized (17.02.03). All these boundaries and points of no return were often hard to take seriously, though -- too negligent of the individual, I suppose. A year later, I took many of my Finals exams at Oxford hovering around that level. Should I have been lying in a hospital bed instead of consummating my successes? I think it's easy for panic fatigue to set in, if enough people cry wolf and it keeps feeling like the wolf in question (death or dramatic disintegration) is still nowhere to be seen. Of course, what's really happening is that the wolf is there, lurking in a dark corner somewhere, but because you can't see it or even really imagine it you don't believe it's anywhere near. Your capacity to care about anything, including your own death and dramatic disintegration, is also dramatically reduced, of course, so nothing quite impinges the way it should.

No one made a great fuss at first -- but I felt that whenever I wasn't with them they were talking about me, scared and concerned -- and by teatime T. [my father] was saying I shouldn't go back to Germany, but to Bristol with them, stay at S.'s and be looked after. I was frightened that he -- and she too -- thinks it necessary. I suppose I've got used to a slow depletion of strength -- hadn't realized how far my weight had dropped, though knew it had to some extent... The weighing was meant to be a way to render all this painful, tedious discussion unnecessary -- but I suppose no one was expecting the numbers that turned up.

Ate lots of dinner, was made to cry again by T. saying I'd eaten nothing, that this amount of food was just a joke, pointless -- and by S.'s valiant defence of me and my minor achievement. The evening ended in a somewhat uneasy, half-antagonistic, half-regretful silence. I'm frightened now of everything -- of weighing myself tomorrow, of having gained weight, of not having gained weight, of T., of skiing, of not being able to ski... No more talk of deportation back to Bristol, though, at least.

My father rapidly lost all sense of proportion, it seemed to me. He would cry out that I must be rescued, but that angered me because it felt like he was ignoring the helpless kind of fear that induced in me. Probably, though, all he was doing was expressing his own fear in the most honest but also the most caring way he could. It angered me too, though, that he thought calling my meal a joke could serve any purpose at all. And that he'd seemingly lost the ability to admit ignorance: he had no idea what numbers of calories were here being expended and consumed, but assumed skiing was infinitely more taxing than life in Dresden. He forgot, I thought, the admirable efficiency of the half-starved body. Actually, though, I still don't know which of us was closer to being right. It doesn't really matter: I was eating far less than I should've been, on a mountain or in a city. We both knew that, and were at loggerheads because we both knew it. 

After the holiday ended it stayed difficult between us. He would soon visit me in Dresden and be delighted to see me eat, not realizing that every day I spent with him, eating to his applause, I was losing the weight I'd gained as part of the increased solitary meal plan created in response to their desperation, because now I was eating only with him and nothing more. And then, later still, he would reproach me for those visits, for his ensnarement in my manipulative wiles. It took me a long time to forgive him -- as, no doubt, it did him to forgive me.

Anyway, the day after this weigh-in, we all skied together, and for far too long, till it was all empty of the littlest of pleasures -- I couldn't think of a single reason for my being here at all, or at least dreamt of sitting around in the hotel with a book all day, taking a little walk and a little swim and little meals, soaking up the sun without the exhausting dullness of real protracted exercise (18.02.03). The skiing was so oppressive because it was, calorifically, an unknown quantity that I gauged to be less energy-consuming than they did; but being unsure of it, I was unsure, too, of the other crucial quantity dependent on it: food. My dreams of days with a little walk and a little swim and little meals were dreams of knowing how little I could safely eat. I would walk as I did in Dresden; then I could eat as I did there. And instead of that simplicity of the familiar and the minimal there was all too much. Too much to be eaten and fretted over; too much crying on my mother's shoulder after breakfast; too much of the weight of knowing that these excesses of being here were only the beginning of what would have to become those of life in general, that this wasn't a holiday from life but the return to and resolution of it.

That was why these innocuous days skiing were so frightening for me: The idea of tomorrow terrifies me and the day after tomorrow is too distantly daunting even to contemplate (18.02.03). When each meal is a great incoming wave with its swell of apprehension and crest and curling crash of consumption and ebb of satiated torment, it's hard to believe there might be a lull long enough to escape the beach and head for the open waters. And who'd want the open waters anyway, with their dull repetitions of gentle rising and falling? I couldn't imagine that anything but food could possibly create structures of anticipation and enjoyment and their aftermath grand and fulfilling enough to make life worth living.

My conviction that life couldn't be bearable any other way has a stark and shocking irony to it now, given how painful life was then:

S. woke me in the middle of last night, hugged me and wept and said she couldn't sleep because she was frightened and didn't want me to die. It terrified me. Made me realize the selfishness of it all. We tried, after exchanging some words of meagre comfort and sincere affection, to sleep, but it wasn't happening -- after a while I suggested we turn on the lights and make tea -- we sat up -- I felt hungry and suddenly, newly, afraid of hunger, made S. rummage around in my ski-suit pockets for a chocolate sphere of laughably miniature proportions -- I sucked that and after weak Earl Grey we did fall asleep again. (18.02.03)

It's funny how circumstance had transformed that little chocolate ball from something hoarded away to be eaten secretly, guiltily, admissible only by its size, into something eaten purely demonstratively, for an audience, and inadequate now in its size, not legitimised by it.

The next evening I carried on the performance, with a less risible prop:

Have eaten a row of Ritter chocolate in order, I hope, to make S. less scared -- she gives me some sort of immediate motivation, for the fear she instilled in me last night has faded, replaced by the too-deep habits of denial and guilt and obsession and nausea -- but her tears, and the memory of them, persist and help. (18.02.03)

The fear that came from my mother was separated from that of my father by the tears that accompanied it -- hers seemed a fear transmitted and shared, while his felt like one angrily inflicted. One made me eat, the other instilled in me a frozen conviction that anything I ate could only be too little and too late. In the absence of anyone else to eat for and with, to make happy as I made myself healthy and beautiful, I had at least a mother to make less sad.

And all this when, before I left Dresden and my teaching work, my mother's partner had written that ‘S. looks awful tired; please take care of her on the slopes.' And I had promised that ‘I'll make sure she skis no faster than I can, and always let her have the bath first...'.

Instead of supporting my mother through things, I was the invalid needing nursing and finding every day and hour and minute a trial of strength:

I've almost survived the skiing. One more day. I've even managed to enjoy little bits of it, in between hunger and nausea and weakness and cold and frustration and occasionally tedium -- the tedium of physical exercise filling hours normally devoted to books; but the more familiar world of mental occupation does seem inviting. Though I know I mustn't slip back into exactly the old routine of -- well, eating mainly. But I'll manage. (21.02.03)

Waiting in the check-in queue at Venice airport on my way back to Dresden, life ahead had again to be contemplated, and above all, what and when and how and how much I was going to eat, to reassure my parents that I didn't need to be brought home and hospitalized. 

S. asked about my weight-gaining plan, about its practical details; she impressed upon me the necessity of putting on just a few kilos, enough to get something in reserve, to ward against the danger of an illness -- even the most usually benign -- which would otherwise kill me -- a tummy bug or chicken pox or even flu. She said I couldn't fight anything right now, and she's probably right. (22.02.03)

To concentrate on the little details was what was needed, but there was a weird disproportion in scale, indeed many disproportions, all conflicting and connected: just a few kilos was truly a small amount in the grand scheme of normal weight and my vast distance from even its outer edge; but it was simultaneously a vast difference in every step away from the black line of collapse: 

I'm at the moment 19kg below the average; and 3kg above the danger-of-imminent-death line -- just a bit closer to the former won't, so to speak, kill me -- whereas closer to the latter might do just that. Funny how numbers mean so little and so much. (31.03.03)

A few kilos felt dauntingly huge -- and rightly so. The first steps had to be small ones, the practical details of a snack added here and there. But however negligible those kilos were relative to what would ultimately make me properly healthy, they couldn't be put on with an extra banana a day: the amount of food that had to be eaten was significant, and to me then it felt unfeasibly surreally more than what even the greediest glutton could ever eat in a single day. And then to do it all again, day after day, seemed the height of both gluttony and madness...

In practical terms, though, I think the plan for those weeks and months included extra fruit and cereal bars and weekly weight reports. (You can read more here about effective meal-planning for starting recovery.) And as soon as we'd all said goodbye, and they'd boarded the plane for England and I the one for Germany, I felt unspeakably drained.

Sitting under the painfully fluorescent strip lights of Frankfurt airport, half replete on a sandwich and an apple and wondering where I ever found the strength to ski so many hours in a day, where today I've just been feeling snuffly and nauseous and vaguely headachy... I'd lost a tiny bit of weight this morning, and when I wanted to eat only an apple for breakfast S. repeated her declaration that she didn't want me to die, that this first non-skiing day was the beginning of my test of will and determination. Tearfully, recognising her reason, I ate the standard bowl of muesli. (22.02.03)

It was funny how the customary and the inconceivable could change places so quickly: a week before, the idea of calling a morning bowl of muesli standard, even in discussion of its difficulty, would have been unthinkable; and now as soon as the skiing was over, that normality was instantly precarious again. (The near-invisible changes to those arbitrary rules that make up the apparently unshakeable normality of right now is something I explore here.)

I did manage to put on some weight in Germany; it was the only truly concerted attempt at recovery before the one that finally really worked. But then I went to Switzerland for the summer, and had a miserable time there, and fell back into all the old patterns. It was almost as if all those tears and all that terror had never been. The unbearable and the unremarkable often merge into one another like different shades of grey.

My birthday, in the midst of all this, was a bleak affair, all the more so because its main ingredients were so perfect: skiing and snow and food and champagne and the feeling I ought to be happy, the wish that I were. But the ability only to stave off tears with small smiles. To fight nausea with the sight of loving parents... (20.02.03). Not much of a twenty-first: I was far more child than grown-up all the years till my twenty-seventh, really. And not in any of the ways that make childhood happy.

Tomorrow I'll conclude this ski series by talking about the following year's holiday (2004), and how its various difficulties contrast so starkly with the way things were this year.