It is never really about thinness. It is certainly not about fashion, or fitting in, or models. It is facile to call it perfectionism, because it is not striving for a perfect body. It is an act of erasure, but also of tactility and isolation. That is what I miss.
I confessed – not voluntarily. I said the words in a mushroom-beige doctor’s office in front of our family GP with my mother sitting toad-like beside me, mouth curled, spittle-venom voice demanding “Say it” and I did. From my own mouth in my own body, lips parting, tongue hitting the palate and teeth, air reverberating vocal chords, “My mother says that I have to say that I am anorexic.” The doctor nodding, stripping me to underwear, weighing me, and that was how I became Mentally Ill.
That is the strange thing about Diagnosis. Nothing changed in that room, barring an official recognition. My mind stayed the same (no subtle brag of the heart here, it flutters inside my ribs, the mind is the organ that beats as consistently as a metronome) but before I was Well and then I was Ill. My body was the same walking in as it was walking out, but now it is considered a pathology, a condition, something to be fixed. I knew it was something that needed to be fixed, that is why I stopped eating. I was excising the bad parts (wastefulness, indolence, presence) in order to be clean (quick, ethereal, less). The trouble with doctors and everyone else is they have no sense of decency. They eat too frequently, lips wet and shiny with grease of unearned gluttony. They are unseemly, loud, as though they feel they deserve to take up space in the world. I can quiet that feeling.
The quieting comes at a price. If this were a folk tale I would give up my voice and bargain with something ancient and primal to feel as I do. The sensations are total; I walk up flights of stairs and feel my vision spark into incandescence, I stand up on the pedals of my bicycle and the air seeps through my jumper and caresses my ribs. If I keep up my end of the exchange (it is simple: not eating is an inaction), I can feel everything the world has to offer sevenfold. Cold turns my fingers purple, chases my blood into the depths of my torso, coagulated iron drawn to the polar north of inside of me, curling solid and viscous, my skin white and brittle to the air. Heat pulls me out of myself and up into the summer sky, my blood and body breathe with the seasons as long as I don’t eat. It seems a small price to pay to feel this much.
What is the quiet? Pare away the rituals of eating and time stretches; the body adjusts to something slower. Background hums are deadened, I become fragile as ice or the blue silence of an afternoon in midsummer. The body changes. I am furred with lanugo, silky. My breasts shrink against my sternum, and when I shave my pubic hair I become sexless and invisible. The less there is of me, the more space my mind has to think. I do not need to take up space.
When I am good and do not eat, my mind is generous. Without the insulation of fat, I can feel my nerves firing, electricity lighting up connections I did not know existed; I can feel a breath suffuse my alveoli with oxygen and turn my blood into champagne; I can feel the true physicality of objects against my skin. When the world is quiet everything is beautiful and clear. The membrane between myself and the environment becomes permeable, sensations are filaments that pierce the skin and let my emotions leak back out. I do not want you to mistake these sensations for happiness. They are intensities.
When I am forced to eat, I am punished. Oil oozes from pores and my skin is too tight for my thoughts. My mind shrieks and the world spins at a different tempo and there is nothing but noise. To eat is to rot inside myself, black mould growing up through the throat, slime heads releasing conidia into the sodden substrate of the self. Fat yellow fungus fruits inside my intestines, and at night I can hear it inching its way around my swollen belly, wet destructive rotting Armillaria pushing its way to the surface of my skin.
Yet, I cannot explain the noise. The diagnosis of anorexia nervosa does account for screaming or decay or intense awareness. The body is simply a problem to be fixed, and mine has been exposed, weighed, and found unsatisfactory. The GP refers me to a psychiatrist and a therapist and they set out meal plans for optimal weight gain (the screaming is loud now, feverish) and a chart is set up to map the increase in weight with goals, and I have been reduced to my madness and numbers on a scale. My stomach is swilling with rotten food, but to let a flicker of disgust cross my face is taken as an admission of The Disease. My mind is incensed and sad – it is not being killed by these people, it is being bricked up alive in a closed cell, left to scream inside the prison of my head. This is, apparently, recovery. They say when blood oozes from between my legs every month I will be better.
I became adept at pretending I was Well. There was a sacrifice – incarceration or seeing my weight creep up and the screaming, unbearable noise – that has balanced out into a delicate truce between my body and my brain. I know how much I can eat without the rot, and to keep my mind at a steady, palatable volume. It was never about thinness. It was about control. And freedom.
Sylvia Warren is an editor and works in medical publishing. Her work has been published in OX Magazine, Minor Literature[s], The Island Review, and The Radical Art Review. Twitter