In 1993, over the Christmas break, a woman faked her own abduction and then falsely claimed to have been raped. Her reason for doing so? Publicity, perhaps. A misguided need for attention. But also an attempt to get away from the holidays. The woman, a bulimia sufferer, simply could not face this time of year.
When the news of the fake abduction broke, I remember most people, my family included, being scathing. What a waste of police time and money. What a great deal of worry caused to family and friends. As if an eating disorder can be an excuse! And yet, while I couldn’t exactly understand the woman’s actions – and still can’t – a bit of me wanted to try. As a sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I recognised the panic that Christmas can cause and I recognised, too, the lack of comprehension that sufferers face.
My parents are not unsympathetic people. I can only imagine how hard it is to have a child who is suffering from an eating disorder. All the same, the love and concern is always mixed with frustration. Whatever goes on at the heart of the illness, in its external manifestations it can still be really bloody annoying. Hence desperately misguided articles such as Rachel Cusk’s The anorexic statement. Hence brutal hospital regimes based on little more than force-feeding and emotional deprivation. And hence my parents believing that the odd “meaningful” comment about Lena Zavaroni or Karen Carpenter would suddenly prompt me to see the light and change my behaviour. When you are anorexic, you’re not sitting down plotting out what people’s responses to you should be – and yet to them, you are so extreme and so demanding, they can’t believe you just want to be left alone.
As an anorexic I both loved and hated Christmas. I’d save up calories for it – I had a little record, an exercise book I’d covered in pink and silver wrapping paper – and with each meal missed I’d add a little something for Christmas Day. Not once did I think “I’m 16 years old – what the fuck am I doing? What am I trying to achieve with all this?” When you are so hungry and so focused denying the hunger, things like that don’t cross your mind. Then Christmas Day would come at last and I’d devour my allowance and for days afterwards I’d feel like I’d been punched all over. Every part of me, unused to such a feast, would ache. Then January would arrive and I’d be cold and miserable, with a whole year to wait until I could truly eat again.
Christmas with bulimia is, if anything, worse. On one level, perhaps you ought to feel at home. After all, everyone is bingeing. Maybe just this once no one will notice next time you find yourself unable to stop! And yet, it’s not like that at all. No one else is bingeing in the same way. Eventually, they stop, exhausted, to fall asleep in front of Coronation Street while you try to keep the noise down as you miserably retch up Christmas pudding, desperately seeking the brussels sprouts “markers” in the festive puke (top tip: take your paper hat off before you start. There’s nothing more pathetically poignant than watching it drift into the toilet and then scooping it out again with your bile-covered hands).
Perhaps all of this sounds like self-pitying nonsense. Thinking about Christmas and eating disorders reminds me of the Star Stories Do They Know It’s Christmas? spoof. I’m George Michael, bloated and dumb, wailing about Christmas but not having a clue what real distress is (“famine, ooh, famine, it’s really bad, yeah, famine, especially at Christmas time”). It’s that same level of self-absorption and cultural blindness, the privileged assumption that my distorted priorities should matter to those who have “real” problems – or at least it feels like that. And I know it is hard to sympathise with people with eating disorders. While recovering from anorexia, I watched another woman literally starve to death and the truth is, she really pissed me off. I knew that what motivated her was a tremendous fear of food, but her words and actions still appeared calculated, deceitful and manipulative. Even her death did. I can imagine, therefore, that if you have an anorexic seated at your Christmas dinner table, it will piss you off, too. Why can’t she just fucking eat? Why does she have to be so miserable, so panicked, so controlling? It’s because right now, she doesn’t have a choice, but that’s not how it looks to everyone else.
Anyhow, this year I will aim not to throw up my turkey. Or my mince pies or my stuffing. But there will be others who are doing so and what’s more, there will be family members who see the behaviour as an accusation against them, but it’s not. It’s simply fear. Perhaps the best that anyone can do to get through this time is just not read too much more into it.