I had breakfast this morning! Now don’t worry, I’m not about to turn this blog into some kind of written version of early Instagram. There won’t be posts entitled, “Look! It is sunny” or, “Someone drew a face in my coffee”. No, I mention the seemingly ordinary fact of my eating breakfast precisely because it is not ordinary. Over the last couple of months I have, basically, stopped eating.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. I’ve always liked exercise and keeping in shape, but from time to time this seems to gently warp in my mind, slowly turning into something hugely damaging but still, somehow, masquerading as a desire for well-being. For extended periods I will eat one small meal a day and that’s usually only because someone is there to see me do it. I combine this with attempting to derive the energy that a rounded diet would normally deliver from the sole source of coffee. A few days into this inspired health regime, my brain is flickering on and off like a broken neon light, I’m so sensitive to sound that I flinch if I’m walking near traffic and my concentration is so poor that it takes me half an hour to leave the house because I can barely get dressed without losing the thread of what I was doing. But I’m not hungry. No, of course not. And worse, I’m loving it.
That’s the problem. Or one facet of the problem at least. Part of me manages to consider this behaviour to be a victory of some sort. I’ve spent whole days surfing on a secret wave of near hysteria that hunger is pulsing through my head and actually gone to bed thinking, “Ha! One satsuma all day. And nobody noticed a thing.” In some internal scoreboard I just had a massive negative calorie day, which is apparently good to the new Anti Chris Party government in my head. Of course, people probably did notice, at least indirectly. When I left my job a while ago, I gave them three dice that they could use to replicate my input into discussions after I’d left. The first one told you whether you were talking to “Grumpy Chris” or “Happy Chris” and determined which of the other two to roll next. One of those featured extremely positive and the other negative, responses to any proposal. It was a joke, but there was a truth in it and I don’t think I need to see a graph correlating my food intake to my mood swings to know what was going on. Which is the strangest thing about it for me. I consider myself reasonably self-aware and certainly scientifically literate enough to understand that I’m doing myself no good. After all, you don’t exactly need a biology Phd to understand that food is kind of useful in your daily life. So where does it come from?
Obviously, there’s a word that I’m avoiding using, which is “denial”. Oh no sorry, “Anorexia”. I’m avoiding using it for a few reasons. Firstly, it seems like a word that people just throw out there as if it’s one thing that’s the same for everyone, when in fact it must surely be an infinitely complex issue that is sparked by different pressures and manifests itself in different ways, for everyone it affects. The temptation would surely be to think that now I’ve identified it, that’s job done, when there’s so much more behind the word itself to understand. I’m also worried about appearing to trivialise what is for many people a truly destructive problem, something that can ruin lives. I know I am far from being the worst sufferer of Anorexia. I DO eat reasonably for long periods, even though sometimes I can feel a part of my mind calculating how much I’ll have to deny myself later to balance the books. But that moderate strength doesn’t mean I shouldn’t address it. It isn’t trivialising the issue in general to say that my case might often be quite mild, or that I can cope. But it is still ignoring it. Because mostly, I admit, I just don’t want to admit it. I want to hide behind my shield of “fitness” and “discipline”. So I take pride in the fact that I’m still functioning with so little fuel in me, but then at the same time deny that I am deliberately starving myself. This unwillingness to put a name to it is, sadly, probably rooted in the thankfully threatened but still prevalent dominant perception of “manliness”. This is another thing by which I’ve mistakenly assumed I was largely unaffected. I’m not the sort of laddish bloke who’s going to think that eating disorders are for teenaged girls or that men don’t get sick apart from that curiously gender-specific form of flu they often encounter. And yet, it has taken me a long time to edge my way to the conclusion that I have got a real psychological problem, or at the very least an extremely unhealthy relationship with food and self image.
The most insidious thing about this problem is how it can twist itself in my head. I can’t speak for anyone else who’s struggled with this sort of thing, but it doesn’t feel to me like I’m fighting a destructive urge within myself. The internal logic is so complex and complete that I actually feel like I’m doing myself good, when in reality I’m not trying to stay fit, I’m trying to stay thin, because that is what, on some level, I am suddenly using as the single indicator of health. I tell myself that I’m just keeping in shape, fighting the onset of middle-age spread, being responsible even. So any attempt to counteract the idea in my mind meets with accusations that I lack the strength to do what is necessary to make me…whatever it is that I seem to think this process will make me.
My attempted solution so far has been comprised of long and unproductive attempts to rationalise my way out of it and present myself with an argument so compelling that it instantly banishes all doubt from my mind. These determined and analytical efforts have finally produced an insight worthy of the name, which is that the worst person to help me with being stuck in a closed loop in my own head, is me. So this is Plan B. I’m telling everyone about it. Yes, all three people who read this blog! The plan is that maybe, the next time I’m in the office for lunch, I’ll feel like I have to eat something or people might mutter things to each other. The theory is that I’m British enough to be so worried about being the target of frowning and whispers, that I will instantly fall on and conspicuously consume any food nearby, possibly even any people who just aren’t moving much. I freely admit that leveraging the insecurity of a fear of embarrassment to cure an eating problem doesn’t appear to be a completely positive way of addressing the issue, but the one thing that racing round the same thought patterns in your head for a while does do, is give you a handy sense of your own weaknesses. What it doesn’t tend to give you is the tools to fight them. Those you often need to borrow from someone else.