*Content Warning: Eating Disorders*
We went down by the railway tracks and lit a fire. Mostly Colleen lit the fire. She was also in charge of liberating all the waste wood from the construction site next door. I was in charge of drinking beer and being encouraging. And maybe a little bit in charge of full moon spells? At any rate, the organizational tasks were evenly and fairly distributed.
There’s a place called le Champ des Possibles here in Montréal, something between a public park and an empty industrial lot, where people have fire circles. It is just so rad that you can do that here. Though the police come and shut them down sometimes. The city and a co-op manage the Champ together and the city wants tighter regulations, while the co-op wants to safely maintain the wildness that makes the place special. Which way will it go, the Champ des Possibles? Will its energy be channeled into something rare and wonderful in a modern city, a place where humans can build and gather around a fire, as we’ve been doing for 300,000 years? Or will we snuff it out – the strange pull of flames in the darkness, the beauty of friends’ faces in warm and flickering shadows, the communion that happens there – because we don’t trust each other.
The fire was a kind of a purge, a kind of a promise. We brought notecards and sharpies so folks could write down and burn the things they wanted to let go of and maybe set some intentions. One friend chose to renew her hexes. Hey, you got to be the witch you got to be. For me, the fire was about channeling the hard stuff of the last year into something meaningful, maybe for creating an illusion of control.
Anorexia is also a mode of channeling. I look back at the time in my life when I was starving myself and I see two things – I see the mental distress of having a suicidal, alcoholic parent all bottled up, because we’re bad at that shit in Ireland, and I see the constant bombardment from magazines and TV of idealized thin women. While the mental distress at the root of the anorexia was personal, the form it took was cultural.
Anxiety might be the anorexia of the 2010s. I see so many young people suffering, and I hear the older generation saying “nobody had anxiety back in my day!” with the implication that generation snowflake is inventing pathologies for itself. Of course this isn’t true – there have always been people who had panic attacks – yet there’s probably something in our surveilled and social media documented cultural moment that channels distress into this particular kind of dysfunction.
Anorexia was where my mind went so that it didn’t have to think about the suicide notes and empty Bacardi bottles. As I fuzzled out of sleep, my first thoughts were calories. Breakfast: two weetabix, 100ml milk, 200; Lunch: two slices brown toast, lite vegepaté, 200; Snack: apple, 50; Dinner (always the hardest because Mum was watching, but hoorah for vegetarianism) weightwatchers frozen veggie lasagna, 210, half glass milk, 50, orange, 50. Total: 760 calories. Not bad, but could I do better? At night I’d count it all over again, and plan the next day’s meals, and the day’s after that, and I would fall asleep counting, until I woke up counting.
There was something very comforting and even pleasurable about these anorexic thought patterns. Something meditative. And – of course – it came with rewards (smaller jeans, lower numbers on the scale, compliments until, well…) and a sense of achievement. My anorexia took immense self-control at first. Then it became an addiction, and was the opposite of self-control, and the pleasure of it evaporated as I realized I was sick.
I’ve written before about getting better, about how using the qualities that made you a “good” anorexic in the first place can help you beat it. But just 6 months after that article was published, at the end of a really fucked up relationship, I had a relapse. I was busy – finding jobs, moving countries, writing books, dealing with legal threats from right wing Catholic crazies – I didn’t have time to work through my shit, so anorexia channeled it for me.
I made myself better again, but felt a little less smug about it, knowing that knocks could still take me down.
Then came the Annus Horribilis, with John dying, Jess leaving, and Dad copying John, and I discovered something about anorexic thinking. Used right, it can be your friend.
There I was, on my own in “our” apartment, Montréal winter, my family far away, waves of grief just knocking me the fuck over and threatening to pull me out to sea, trying to keep my head far enough above water to swim to work occasionally. Of course anorexia came knocking – that’s exactly the kind of time it loves to pay a visit. But some Mammy voice that lives deep in the guts of me said to anorexia: “Not this time, darlin’. Not now. You’ll break her.”
I needed a fix though. I needed somewhere for my mind to go, to stop it returning to the same unbearable things. Thoughts needed bottling, not forever, just ‘til I could screw the cap off bit by bit and let some fizz out so everything wouldn’t blow up in my face, ’til I could pour the pain out in increments and sip it.
Anorexia came to the rescue.
“What are you going to make for dinner?” Anorexia asked. “Pasta,” I answered, askance. “Yeah? What kind?” “I dunno, maybe something with mushrooms.” “How about a portobello and parmesan lasagna?” “Sounds complicated…” “Ina Garten’s got a recipe, let’s go find all the ingredients, and maybe stuff for a side salad – what would be good for a side salad?” “Um, a Waldorf? Apples, celery, roasted walnuts…” “Attagirl,” “And a nice baguette, and maybe I could invite Shagha over to eat with me…” “Uh-huh, and what are you going to make for lunch,” “Something with haloumi. Haloumi and beetroot salad. With hummus and pita….” “And breakfast?” “I’ve been meaning to learn how to make hollandaise, and I’ll poach some eggs and then maybe on Thursday I could invite Max and Leh over and experiment with something veggie, like jerk tofu, with mango salsa, and coconut rice and, and, and…”
And I went to sleep planning recipes and I woke up planning recipes, and I spent 8 hours making a beef bourguignon and feeding all my delicious misery to my friends. I made risottos and bean stews and roast chickens and eggplant parmesan until my freezer was bursting. It was totally obsessive and the thought processes felt identical to anorexia. Only helpful. Healing. My brain had ingredients to tot up, culinary improvements to imagine. And, when I felt able, I’d call it back from the frying pan, let some fizz out of the green glass bottle of Irish emotion and taste the bitter liquor inside.
Anorexic thinking is possibility. Distress has to go somewhere. You’re going to crack up sometimes, because life’s like that, but can you channel your crazy into curry rather than dropped dress sizes and panic attacks? Is it hubris to think you can control it? Is it Pollyanna-ism of the most delusional nature to believe that the eating disorder you struggled with through your teens and twenties was actually a gift, an unattractively wrapped set of skills that got you through your first (and hopefully last) depression?
At the full moon fireside, I told the friends assembled that it was exactly a year since John died. And I burned three cards. On the first I wrote
I love you John
I love you Jess
I love you Dad
And watched it burn.
On the second I wrote:
I’m grateful for the knowledge that just feeling okay is actually fucking wonderful.
And on the third, I set an intention, borrowed from a Scottish theologian:
Be kind – for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.