Anorexia: Crap illness, great metaphor

As a teenager, the actress Celia Imrie suffered from anorexia. Years later, in an interview with the Telegraph, she expresses regret at what she put her mother through:

I’m so angry with myself for putting her through that. Because it was my own fault. I had made myself ill […] I get very angry now – and quite unsympathetic – because it’s such a terrible waste of time and energy.

Part of me feels sorry for Imrie; it’s sad that she bears this burden of guilt. All the same, another part of me wishes she’d keep her feelings to herself. These might be her personal sentiments, and as such they’re valid, but they also happen to chime in with a broader undercurrent of opinion about anorexia, and it’s one that causes real harm.

In 1987 I was hospitalised for anorexia. I was twelve at the time. I realise many people think the treatment offered to anorexics is incredibly complex, rooted in deep psychological exploration, but back then it was simple: tube-feeding and the withdrawal of privileges such as parental visits, books, medical staff speaking to me and eventually even having the light on. Occasionally nurses broke the vow of silence, but only to tell me how selfish I was for putting my parents through all this. After several months I’d eaten enough to leave what was, not a psychiatric hospital, but a normal children’s ward. I lasted five weeks before readmission. A few days later I was transferred to an adolescent psychiatric unit. It was like the children’s ward, only worse. I stayed there until spring of 1988 and managed to dodge further hospitalisations until 1995. That time was better. It didn’t work miracles but you’d still be surprised how effective treating anorexics as patients rather than as self-centred, manipulative harpies can be.

Today I came across Rachel Cusk’s ludicrously offensive analysis of what she terms the “anorexic statement” in the New Statesman. Thankfully I encountered it via Lucy Britton’s brilliant refutation of it, otherwise I might have totally despaired. Cusk is completely up her own arse, not remotely interested in the experience of eating disorders yet intoxicated by the idea of finding a suitable metaphor and revealing it – ta dah! – to an audience just as willfully ignorant as she:

The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt.

All of which sounds like a hell of a lot of effort for anyone surviving on one Cup-a-Soup a day. As Britton writes “Cusk’s poetic descriptions of anorexia may look pretty on the page, but clearly many of the behaviours she sees as resultant from a seemingly petulant, controlling and diva-like mind are in fact the psychological symptoms of starvation”.

For years the lack of understanding that surrounds eating disorders has troubled me as much, if not more, than the experience itself. I often feel the treatment I received for anorexia was far more traumatic than the illness itself. Moreover, I’m convinced there is a link between these treatment methods and the not-quite-an-illness definitions that people such as Imrie and Cusk put forward. Anorexia is presented as a choice. Those who choose it are willfully causing distress to others, therefore they deserve to be punished. This will sound self-indulgent – and suitably self-absorbed, as befits a former anorexic – but I think a part of me was crushed during those first two hospitalisations. I learned to talk in a whisper and even now, in day to day contact, I never quite feel I’ve got my voice back (except when blogging, when I never shut the hell up). If something so terrifying, so passive and so unintentional is perceived as an act of aggression by those around you, you tend to watch your step in future.

As Britton writes, “there are so many nuances it is impossible for Cusk or I to come up with a universal “Anorexia Statement””. Indeed, and if it was – if I could present my experience as applicable to everyone – it wouldn’t be very impressive. My anorexic mindset was never absorbed in philosophical musings on “a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire” (thanks, Rachel – I take it you’re a pretentious writer and not an eating disorders specialist). Basically, my anorexia was pretty fucking naff. I started out wanting to be as thin as Nancy Reagan, and then later Kylie Minogue (look, it was the 1980s). I thought about food all the time and had an obsession with Shape French Set Yoghurts (again, very 1980s). My chief ambition to begin with was to get slim enough to wear a new Chelsea Girl swimsuit on the school exchange trip to La Rochelle (a trip I never went on. Even now, the sight of Encore Tricolore pains me). You’re probably waiting for the point at which all this silly dieting stopped and the illness became authentically deep and meaningful. But it never did. It just lasted and lasted and was boring as hell. It became focused on different body parts and the related “thinness tests” that went with them. I developed random fears (does bath oil sink in your skin and make you fat? If you touch an animal and animal molecules somehow get transferred to you, does that mean you’re no longer a vegetarian? [NB science was never my strong point]). Other than food, my main obsession was with not freezing to death. I liked radiators, a lot. I think of school and I think mainly of where the radiators were and how important it was to be near them as much as possible. How are you finding this “statement”, Rachel? Is it messing with your metaphor?

Perhaps it means I wasn’t properly anorexic after all. Maybe I was just a superficial selfish twat as opposed to a deep, meaningful one. I mean, I did have “properly” bad things happen to me along the way, but I’ll be honest: I think I may have been anorexic with or without them. Who knows? Anyhow, the important thing was being thinner than Kylie and saving up enough calories for the Toffee Crisps I was allowed to eat every Friday providing I’d obsessively touched all four corners of my bedroom 27 times beforehand. Oh, and arranged my pig cuddly toys in a specific order or else I wasn’t allowed to consume anything. “Sacrifice the concept of normality”? Honestly Cusk, you don’t know the half of it.

9 thoughts on “Anorexia: Crap illness, great metaphor

  1. I have just read Cusks article, bloody hell does that woman get paid by the word???? I have to say by the end of the article I had no idea what point she was trying to make and what she was thinking she was admitting to.
    Apparently whatever she thinks she was admitting was worse than what her friends had experienced (big raised eyebrow there)
    Mostly I got the sense that some people will say anything to get their name in print.

  2. I actually am not in the least horrified by Cusk’s analogy; in fact it makes excellent sense IF one does NOT consider anorexia to be a mental illness. If one assumes that anorexics have their head screwed in right and that they are not mentally ill, then obviously one will seek to explain anorexic behavior with some sort of rational thought-process. To me, Cusk’s conclusion is quite rational – if and only if one doesn’t believe that anorexia is truly a mental illness.

    I have never been an anorexic, so I can’t at all speak to what goes through the mind of an anorexic. What that having been said, I don’t think you could have spoken to anorexia being a mental illness more clearly than in this quote:

    “Anyhow, the important thing was being thinner than Kylie and saving up enough calories for the Toffee Crisps I was allowed to eat every Friday providing I’d obsessively touched all four corners of my bedroom 27 times beforehand.”

    Obviously, you were not thinking clearly. I would definitely believe you if you said you were mentally ill at the time.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope that you’ve had all the counseling and support you needed to come back around.

    1. I think from the outside anorexia is hard to understand. Cusk confuses the effects in terms of behaviour with what people with anorexia actually intend to do. I don’t think it’s an illness in which you get the outside perspective that she ascribes to sufferers. Starvation, and efforts to maintain a state of starvation, are too all-consuming for that.

    2. I think it’s quite evident that you have never been an anorexic.

      I have been. I consider myself to be in remission.

  3. I’m back again, re-reading this — and just as bothered as I was the first time around.

    For me it started after my dad said I was fat. I don’t think I was. I don’t know that it matters either way. I knew no one would ever love a fat hideous person like me with a jock’s muscled legs and the ability to ski 10 to 20 mile trails. I mean, nobody, right? So I started to starve myself. I was 12.

    I was a child back then: a child who had been forced to grow up fast, but a child nonetheless. I wanted my daddy to love me and to approve of me, something he had not done since I hit puberty. (It was around this time I turned away from science, his field, and it was because he turned away from *me.*)

    I’d say I am in remission now. It never quite goes away. It is not consciously about power, although I am known among my friends for an obsession with having complete control over myself (no one else, though: I really, *really* don’t want control over others).

    So, as someone who was there, I find it offensive and painful and insulting and angering when people who evidently have no damned clue what they’re talking about pop up and start jabbering about my body, my life, my flawed vision of myself. (Incidentally I still have the jock’s legs and the muscular arms. I am still deeply unsure of them.)

    1. I was around the same age when it started for me. I think there can be so many different influences, but it angers me, too, that the effects of anorexia (as in the responses it provokes) are mistaken for desired results. It’s so ridiculously simplistic.
      I am starting “proper” treatment for all these issues next week – for the last time (I hope) in 25 years. If I gain any wisdom through this I will try to share it, but it’s all so personal to each person. And it’s definitely not all about a sodding metaphor.

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