In The Hunger Artists, Maud Ellman suggests that the process of writing, with all its elements of narration and selection and focus, consumes the writer, draws her back into illness.
You are nineteen when you first write about anorexia. You are wandering through a series of dark rooms gazing at slices of the human body suspended between slabs of acrylic. Normally squeamish, you cannot handle even the suggestion of gore, but with the moisture sucked from the tissue, the sheets of dried flesh and organs desiccated and sterile and no longer human—you can manage. It is the body simplified and reconstructed, backlit in an air-conditioned room.
That fall, you are also enrolled in Abnormal Psychology. Your visit to the Bodies Exhibit overlaps with your unit on eating disorders. Two days earlier, nestled within the criteria for anorexia nervosa, you’d seen something familiar: Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat…undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or lack of recognition of the seriousness of the current low body weight. You noted: lack of recognition of the seriousness. You’d underlined the words in blue pen.
Faced with the body deconstructed and sterile, you come back to this idea of an eating disorder, its shrinking and brittle effect on your flesh. At home, you write: I think in numbers. In calories, pounds, grade point averages, and SAT scores. In the inches marking a red measuring tape I keep hidden in my underwear drawer.
You read that narratives of addiction tend to follow a prescribed structure: onset, rock bottom, recovery. Both indulging the drama of pain and leaving out the truly ugly.
At sixteen you noticed a thin layer of flesh spreading across your abdomen and became obsessed with the way the skin folded when you sat down or bent over. Being you, you did some research and learned about things like calories and basal metabolic rates, figured out how to lie and reduce your diet to six different foods. Eight months later, you are twisted before the bathroom mirror, peering at bruises that dots your spine where bone had rubbed against the backs of metal classroom chairs, leaving marks dark and tender as ripe plums. Your fallen hair dusts the sheets and the floor around your bed. Over the three years that follow you continued to lose and gain weight while maintaining an obsession with calories and double-zero everything. But the possibility of an eating disorder does not occur to you until you find yourself in a lecture hall confronted by a PowerPoint presentation. The words—anorexia, eating disorder, starving—had never been used in your vicinity, and therefore the possibility did not exist.
Kim Chernin wrote in her own meditation on eating disorders: I had no language or vocabulary for what was happening to me.
You write about anorexia twice more over the next few years, inspired by the hold illness continued to have over you. First, you re-tell the story with color, reimagining the desperation and flirtations with suicide inspired by psychology courses that noted, among other things, the adequate amount of Tylenol to swallow: It’s difficult to see clearly when you are turned inward. Later, the writing takes shape in an undergraduate honors thesis that weaves together your recollections with an analysis of other anorexia memoirs and their narrators’ representations of illness, recovery, and aftermath: This thesis, then, comes as the end of my college years approaches. It represents a new stage of my journey, an attempt to synthesize my knowledge of self, research, and theory to produce an exploratory honors project that examines the interaction of memory, writing, and anorexia.
You read the classics: Wasted, Stick Figure, Solitaire. Scour the psychology journals and thinspiration sites. The language, both the medical and memoir, appear in your writing.
But all this writing has an unintended consequence, reframing a lifetime of memories within the context of your eating disorder, creating an identity inextricably linked to disease. Reflecting on your childhood prompts particular details to rise to the surface, memories reorganizing and reshaping themselves with new meanings. You remember that you had always been a picky eater, and perfected food-hiding by the time you were five, concealing slices of fish in your napkin, carefully arranging the top layer of the trash can to mask the dinner you’d discarded. You had always been repulsed by fat, and as a child spent most of dinner hour carefully pulling away specks of fat from the bite-size pieces of steak on your plate, requesting everything well-done, your chicken dry and white-meat only, skimming the globs of oil that appeared on the surface of soups, dissecting slices of bacon. And you remember that you had always been acutely aware of your body. In elementary school you were required to attend chapel, and you obsessed over how the flesh of your thighs spread out on the wooden pew, thick and soft. You soon decided to wear board shorts whenever you went swimming to cover the expanse that was your nine-year-old butt.
It’s said that anorexia is a symptom that grows from a desire for control, and manifests in control on the most basic of levels. But for you, the writing is control. On paper, you can reshape and reimagine the experience. Try to make sense of what happened. Try to explain what it is to exist after an experience so defining you forget who you are without it.
As Sylvia Plath wrote, Here I am, a bundle of past recollections and future dreams, knotted up in a…bundle of flesh. I remember what this flesh has gone through; I dream of what it may go through.
Some theorists believe that who we are is a matter of how we narrate our stories, the framing and reframing of experience into something meaningful.
Even in psychologists’ offices, when asked about your loneliness and how you got to where you are, you are composing the story.
Often, you feel like two different people. Sometimes you’re the scholar, composed, quiet, straight-laced. Someone who’s got her shit together. Other times, you’re swinging between rage and despair, picking fights with your husband, pinching compulsively at your thighs and picking at your nails, lying in bed with racing thoughts, hiding food and licking spoonfuls of marmalade just to have the sweetness on your tongue. You barely have time to write, so instead you tattoo scale numbers in black rollerball on the inside of your left wrist.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes anorexia nervosa as the want of appetite, which is funny because for you, so much of it has been about desire.
Today you hover quietly in the purgatory of the partially recovered, physically healthy and no longer restricting, but still plagued by obsessive thoughts and a lingering fear of your own body. Caught in-between illness and health, stuck in that liminal space preceding revelation or despair.
A therapist once suggested you write phrases on an index card, instructing you to read them whenever you start to obsess over food or experience the guilt that often follows a slice of birthday cake or a bowl of mac and cheese. You know that those thoughts don’t make sense, she’d explained. You have to remind yourself of that. These lines are supposed to disrupt the cycle of negative thinking, providing a dose of logic meant to cut through your eating-disordered mantra. In your session you were given examples of things you could say: starving is unhealthy, I look fine as I am. The important thing, she said, is that the words come from you.