My best friend jokes that it’s a good thing I knew I was supposed to have nipples or I would have picked mine off by now; I understand insecurity.
– A Lady (“one of several rotating ladies who know everything”, @ The Hairpin)
“And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight – isn’t that a strange thing? That absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you’re less fearful and less anxious and generally stronger as a result: isn’t it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you’ve experienced before?”
– Sylvia to Enid on the boat in The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
by Olaf Hajek via Animalarium
For over ten years I’ve suffered from bulimia nervosa. This is a self-destructive disorder that munts a person inside and out. The word bulimia (which came into modern usage only in the 70s) comes from the Greek boulimia, meaning “ravenous hunger”, or more literally, “ox hunger”. The hunger of an ox! This seems apt to me – during a bad bout, you feel more animal than man. Bulimia is a compulsive disorder, so is free of any rational thought. When you’re in the calm spots between bad phases, you make artful plans and promises, but when you’re in a bad phase, they’re the first things to go. You’re disconnected from reason and from the notion that you have a choice. You continue like an automaton until your body crashes. A day or two of deep gloom follows, then in time, a sense of calm and normality returns. This feels beautiful. You are a delicate bloom. This is the time of plans and promises. You feel like you’ve shed a skin and are clean again. It’s to do with the promise of tomorrow: everything can change when it comes.
However, being bulimic means falling and re-falling from grace; the whole situation is built upon constantly falling down.
At the Wall by Catherine Ryan
The temptation is to write about it in metaphors. The hounds have been set upon me. Thinking metaphorically can be helpful when reminding yourself that bulimia is not you but a behaviour that you can, in the end, and perhaps over a lifetime, learn to control. It’s a symptom of “body dis-ease”, the term psychotherapist Susie Orbach uses in describing body anxiety – the widespread (though predominantly Western) crisis in understanding “what bodies are for”. But no matter how clever you are at removing yourself from the disorder – giving it a name or speaking about it in the third person, as some sufferers do – the truth is that it belongs to you. (Clearly I still struggle to accept this, given my insistence on writing this in the second person.) Bulimia is a bastard; it is also my bastard.
Trying to reassure myself, I’ll think: everyone is blighted by some disorder or dysfunction in some way. Aren’t they? Sure they are, all of them (even though the more rotten you feel, the more happy-faced they seem). Many of us feel an overpowering estrangement from humanity, for instance. Supposedly such feelings, and the ability to recognise them, are what make us human. But knowing I’m not the only one doesn’t excuse such self-destructiveness, it doesn’t mean it’s an OK way to get by.
More specifically, many, many people struggle with how they feel inside their own bodies. Feeling all right with your body – all of it – is a lifelong process. As The Hairpin’s A Lady puts it: ‘There’s never a moment where you’re like, “Oh, dip! I just completed all the credits for my body-acceptance diploma!”’ However, my realisation over the past year has been that I can no longer call this behaviour an ordinary, shrug-it-off part of the process of getting better. It must change. I’ve spent ten years faffing around. There is almost certainly an easier way of hauling this self through space and time.
I say faffing around. But also I’ve been grappling for some kind of recovery and understanding, I guess. I’ve sought out the literature, the memoirs, the cognitive behavioural therapist, the nutritionist, the freaky outdated pamphlets and glamourised magazine articles, and the many websites and blogs written by a new generation of fearlessly outspoken women. In this time I’ve come across a social media whose focus is Orbach’s body dis-ease. Some blogs and forums are supportive and sound of mind; others are quite disturbing uncensored outpourings. Many promote body acceptance and intuition; others promote a perverse competition in misery.
Social media can be a valuable way to reach out from any stigmatised disorder. And I’m glad it offers so much support for those who need it, and of course I am forever grateful to Princess Di for opening up awareness to the sad fact of bulimia. But I feel that it’s possible to get lost in this gauntlet of sharing. You can start going round in circles in your head, delaying the changes you need to make in your ordinary world. And although I risk buying into the stigma here, I believe that such a disorder is not something to be celebrated, not something to be proud of, not something to be cultivated to provide access to a community. But better to celebrate being strong enough to stop it and to belong more fully to yourself.
from The Creation by Christian Montenegro (via Animalarium)
If you engage with the social media wisely, it can indeed help. It has helped me to become more aware of how I behave, and maybe why, and what I can do to look after myself better. (It’s the equivalent to a ‘fresh eye’ check on a manuscript at editing stage. Some embarrassingly obvious errors can get through – you’re so accustomed to the work you don’t see them anymore – until someone else points out the face-saving corrections you need to make.) It’s reminded me that people can and do get better. And I’m grateful to the articulate: when someone gives words to something that you can only slump wordlessly before, half the battle is over.
From Joan Didion’s short essay ‘In Bed’ (about migraine):
We have reached a certain understanding, my migraine and I. It never comes when I am in real trouble. Tell me that my house is burned down, my husband has left me, that there is gunfighting in the streets and panic in the banks, and I will not respond by getting a headache. It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, cancelled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up. On days like that my friend comes uninvited.
This is true of all kinds of ailments. Our bodies hoard small frustrations and stresses and are slowly wound down by the guerilla war. Hence: know how to take care of yourself. Realise that the smallest kindnesses to yourself are saved up also. These instructions, too, are an ongoing process.
It now feels right to taper off my engagement with all the talk about eating disorders. Occasionally, I’ll read a “body positive” blog post and if there’s any insight there that I can use, I’ll grab it and run. But that’s it. I hope that this reflects my retreat from the disorder, which is not straightforward or seamless, but which is happening, and one day may have happened.
I also focus on, and save up, the brief moments that crop up now and again: when I wake up with a clear head and eyes that don’t hurt to open, when I’m riding my bike and feel strong, when I tell myself things will get better and believe it: maybe one thing I’m grateful to this thing for is that I now better appreciate moments of not feeling crappy. And in this way we ride to victory! Or if not there, then to the end. On the back of whatever beast is available at the time.