I have not written a first-person piece in a very long time and I do not intend to make them a regular thing. There are many other stories to be told. But the time was right for this one.
“I have been ready to give up my anorexia for a long time […] If I am to make the most of this life, I can’t be anorexic in private and tentatively successful without.”
It is three years to the week since I wrote these words, in a piece for The Times newspaper, pictured above. It is 10 more since I first felt the false succour and satisfaction of starvation, the cool relief of the sense of control it awarded. I thought I would be safe with starvation. It protected me from the need to feel many things: fear; anger (mine and that of others); love; disappointment. Soon, this logic became easy and default. Why would anyone live any other way?, I bellowed inside.
Fast-forward 13 years. I have had two rounds of in-patient hospital treatment and have been under near-constant medical supervision of some kind or another. There have been so many therapists, counsellors, psychologists, consultants, GPs, that of course I cannot remember all their names. But I know I would be dead without them. Yes, I would have been dead a long time ago, some way or another, without them. I am thankful to them.
Anorexia’s verse and chapter is that it is normal to make oneself sick after eating; it is normal to refuse any sugar or fat; it is normal to turn down any social occasion involving eating
Here, in this recovery, there is discomfort such that I cannot describe. I have made myself something resembling “normal” again, and that is a very difficult thing for anorexia to cope with. It does not want its disciples to be normal. It wants them to be very ill. It wants them to focus solely on following its doctrine and its counsel. It pretends it is the norm: for example – the verse and chapter is that it is normal to make oneself sick after eating; it is normal to refuse any sugar or fat; it is normal to turn down any social occasion involving eating; it is normal to think about suicide and how-many-ways-can-I-hurt-myself-today. By convincing its victims that this is how everyone behaves – and those who don’t, well, they are somehow weak and stupid – it gives the anorexic a false sense of strength, and superiority.
This, of course, only serves to further distance the followers from others, who may not see this at play. Relatives and friends see the behaviour as obnoxious, and rightfully so. Anorexia is, really, a very lonely place to be. But sufferers have the illness for comfort. That makes everything fine.
So now, after years of cruising on numbness, I have allowed myself to sit with the discomfort of feelings.
It turns out that this is a wonderful thing. It has enabled me to make bold decisions about my life: I have quit my stable job in London, moved to another country, and found great satisfaction in working and learning. I no longer feel like an outsider at social events – I am no longer clearly the person who has a serious health problem and needs to see a doctor.
Prioritising living above keeping feelings locked in a box controlled by food and hatred has allowed me to travel to Turkey, Greece, Lebanon – where I am currently – Sweden and more, telling stories and working in a way that would have simply been impossible within the sad limits I enforced for so long. This new methodology has allowed me to stand up to government and corporate grey suits whose agendas I have somehow managed to upset in the course of my work. Relinquishing the need to people please – a distinctive trait of the illness – has been enormously satisfying.
But at the same time, I miss awfully the comfort of anorexia.
All those years ago, as part of my first recovery process – oh if I had known how long it would last! – I wrote two letters to my anorexia: one to the illness my friend, the other to the illness my enemy.
To my friend I wrote: “I am never alone with you. You’re my greatest comfort, and I know you’ll always be there when I turn to you, with a solution to my problems.”
It is a grim but discernable truth that I have felt this way again in recent weeks. Maybe it is some attempt to swallow the sadness and the loneliness of moving away from one of my most steadfast companions.
As I have spent time mourning other relationships that have not worked out – oh how people are confusing! – I have felt awfully seduced by my eating disorder’s reliability. It never ignores me. It always tells me what it feels and why. It is angry with me because I have eaten too much. It orders guilt because I crave chocolate. It deals punishments for failure to work, or weight gain. It is always there and does not leave me crumpled on my bed in the middle of the night, wondering where it has gone, or why I was not worth its time.
I live in a city surrounded by one and a half million other people, many of whom live in circumstances far less fortunate than my own. I am extremely aware of that. I enjoy my life here, in Beirut, far more than I did in London. And yet as I move further and further away from my anorexia, and do normal things, such as make attempts at relationships with other people, I feel great sadness and loneliness.
I am sometimes tempted right back into my lethal anorexic ways, which I resist. But their allure is still frightening close.
One can live surrounded by 100,000 lights from 100,000 windows, and feel the loneliest of all. That I have so much to be happy about makes the grief – and grief for what ? – all the worse.
I am sometimes tempted right back into my lethal anorexic ways, which I resist. But their allure is still frighteningly close.
A fortnight ago I showed a close friend the silver foil packet of my Venlafaxine, the strong anti-depressant that I take in order to function normally.
“You must take these every day?”, he said, horrified.
Yes. If I will not let anorexia control my feelings, I will let the wonders of modern pharmacology do so. Maybe I will go without them one day. I am not sure when that will be.
The sub on that piece in The Times did a fine job with the headline: he or she summed up there feelings I have not been able to condense so well in more than a decade. I have finished with anorexia, but it has not finished with me. For now I need to concentrate on not giving into the temptation of my anorexia, however lustrous his allure. That way I can make the most of this life.