How sad is sad enough?

How sad is sad enough? How thin is thin enough? How lonely is lonely enough? These are apparently important questions if you want to have a voice.

Today I found myself reading the Daily Mail (I was visiting my parents, so please don’t judge me). Two articles caught my eye: one on a woman whose pregnancy had apparently cured her anorexia (“I knew for the sake of our little one I would have to finally put it all behind me”), another by a female journalist who describes herself as unable to stop starving (“however unbalanced my own diet may be, I can’t imagine ever not living as a functioning anorexic”). I haven’t linked to either of these, not least because they include calorie counts, lowest weights and photographs of emaciated states. If I were still struggling with an eating disorder, I’d find such details triggering. Even without a diagnosed ED I feel bad enough.

Almost twenty years after my last hospitalisation for anorexia I found myself scanning the pieces and thinking: was I ever that thin? Was my weight ever that low? How often did I eat that little? Was my recovery fraudulent since it wasn’t on behalf of an innocent foetus? In fact, was I ever ill at all? Was it real anorexia or just pretend? I still worry that I wasn’t hardcore enough. In treatment I met women far thinner than me, some of whom even died. Now they really meant it. As for me? Well, I’m never quite sure whether I earned the right to have my pain taken seriously (sometimes I even wish people had taken photos of me naked, just so I could look back on how thin I was really).

I first became ill in the late ‘80s, before social media, before pro-ana and before Closer, Heat and Now were keeping track of every single female celebrity’s weight. Obvious thinspiration was harder to come by but I found it where I could, not least in the “coping with anorexia” books my parents would occasionally try to foist on me. Every time I’d do the same thing: scour the book in search of the personal testimonies. Were these women thinner than me? How many hospitalisations did they have under their belt? How close had they come to death? Compared to them how real was my pain? Had I made it yet? It wasn’t a deliberate competition; I just felt a desperate need to be one of them, to know that I wasn’t completely alone. I always came away feeling they were indeed better than me and that I needed to try harder.

Increasingly I think no mental disorder – anorexia, depression, schizophrenia – can be easily divorced from its political and cultural context. By that I don’t just mean “blame the parents” (but probably do, a bit) but that both the illness and the diagnosis can be shaped by structural oppression and social prejudice. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial thing to say these days. However, what does this mean when it comes to listening to sufferers? Without drifting back to some R.D. Laing-esque faith in madness as truth, how do we engage with the protests of those in despair? And who do we listen to the most? The thinnest, the saddest, those closest to death? Surely they “mean it” more than the mere amateurs?

How you interpret your despair when you are at your most despairing is difficult. You are not necessarily at your most honest, nor closest to recognising what really causes you pain. Nevertheless, you feel your pain keenly and what’s more, people can see. I think this is part of what motivates the romanticisation of self-destruction on pro-ana websites and elsewhere; you might have a valid reason for pain and anger but to be truly authentic, you need to give people blood and bones. In an age obsessed with performance rather than more complex truths, people are not interested in supporting you unless you give them something dramatic or something to watch.

This horrifies me. I don’t know how vulnerable young people survive today, with both teenagers and adults circling around them, willing to take on the truth providing it is surrounded by agony, drama and blame. Those who feel a fraud – that their pain is not good enough, their membership to the group not validated, their sense of injustice ignored – are under enormous pressure to hate themselves harder and we want them to (otherwise, god forbid, we’d have to listen to everyone who feels alone! We’d have to think of all pain as valid!). It’s so much easier to be sucked down the rabbit hole.

And I’m feeling all this and I’m 39 and I’ve only read a few pages of the Daily Mail. There’s a whole world out there, promising everything providing you destroy yourself while people watch. It’s heartless and it’s harmful. It really needs to stop.