If you have ever studied someone on a diet, you may have noticed that they have an uncanny fascination in food. I recall a friend of mine, who would gaze lecherously at the leggy ladies on the underground posters, so much so that I knew exactly, which position his head would be in at any place on the escalator. Then, one day when I was with him, I noticed that instead of nylons, bras and swim wear, his attention was being held by bacon, sausages, and even whiskey advertisements. When I questioned him, as we waited for our train, he admitted that he was dieting, happy in the misplaced belief that I had noticed how much thinner he was becoming. Of course, I did not tell him how I had made my deduction. I have noticed the same phenomena among smokers who are trying to quit. You can often see them, gazing in hypnotic stare at anyone who is smoking, enjoying the inhales in a masochistic trance. They even develop a rhythm similar to the smoker’s, breathing in and out with a sighs as the smoker inhales and exhales his smoke.

When I was an anorexic I developed a similar fascination for food. Sometimes I would take a detour into Woolworths where I would wander along the ‘sweets’ (candy) counter gazing at the toffees, Smarties, marshmallows, fudge, and chocolate;  or I’d stand in a cloud of delight outside the baker’s shop literally eating the odor and image of all those nutritious cakes and biscuits. Once, when I had been hanging around the Woolworths’ counter for over fifteen minutes, my longing got the better of my upbringing and my fear of getting caught, and I stole a toffee. I slipped it quickly into my pocket. I un-wrapped it with my hand, thrust into the pocket. I don’t recall how I manipulated it into my mouth, but it got there. I remember its bitter sweetness and how I hurried guiltily from the store to spit it ungraciously into the gutter. Where, now was the girl who once worried for weeks about a simple little lie at school? She was buried in my subconscious, far distant from the girl I had become.

I parlayed my interest in food into a passion for cooking. I tried to take over from my mother, herself a gourmet chef. It gave me a thrill to be surrounded by the very substances which I needed but would not let myself touch. I created delicious and unusual concoctions which I would hardly taste. I even made sure to spit the morsels which I tasted during preparation into the kitchen sink. I thought of myself as a professional wine taster who swills the wine to get its flavor and then spits it out. I wanted to watch other people eating my creations. I would throw a crying fit if anyone wanted as little as I was eating or if anything was left over. It was almost as though I was trying to ensure that nobody else could rival my emaciation. It was a sacrificial prayer.

I have noticed that starvation also increases one’s senses. Smells become stronger, colors brighter, music more encompassing. It is akin to being on a continuous high. Since I emerged from my starvation period, I have never heard The Water Music played more beautifully or seen a more brilliantly hued Azalea. I theorize that this phenomenon is so that the starving animal is more equipped to acquire food in its weakened condition. I was weakened although at the time I didn’t realize it. I moved slowly, found walking upstairs a burden and was unable to keep up with the rest of the family when we shoveled snow.

If I shut my eyes and let myself fly back through time I become that girl of seventeen-going-on-eighteen. My body shrinks to five-and-a-half stones (77 lbs). I can feel my hip bones projecting through my skirt as they did then. I thrust my pelvis forward in an unnatural stance and glace down at my flat chest to see them sticking out with their angular symmetry. I touch them gently with my hand, not too hard for they are always bruised and any little bump hurts, but hard enough to feel them through the fabric. Then I run my hands slowly up to my sides, randomly counting ribs, and letting them slip across my neck feel my collar bones making a crisscross below my throat. I have an empty gnawing feeling in my stomach, and so I readjust my tight elastic belt, worn today outside my school skirt to prevent it from falling off, but worn on other occasions under my outer clothing to minimize hunger pains. I look forward to tonight’s bath when I will lie in the water and look down my flat front to my hip bones projecting like two mountain ridges with a smooth sunken valley between them.

My mind becomes fuzzy as I think about my next meal, I am always thinking about my next meal. I have a few more hours to wait. I plan how I shall spend the time itemizing the seconds so that I can help them to pass less painfully. I know that if I study and get totally engrossed in something that I will, at least momentarily, stop counting time. As I settle down to my study, I rationalize that I am too thin, that my parents are right, that I ought to stop dieting and eat. I make a resolve to eat at the next meal. With this comforting thought nagging at the back of my mind, I focus on my study.

At last, the next meal time arrives. I had to pass the last half hour outside walking up and down to prevent myself from rushing off and stealing something, anything, to eat. The meal begins. It smells delicious and looks good. I catch my mother’s eye about to announce my big decision, but something inside me snaps. I look down again thinking to myself that if I eat ‘normally’ she will, in some obscure way, score a victory that the ropes of my destiny will pass out of my trembling hands. I need to have control over my destiny. This is my life. I ask for a small helping. After the first ravenous mouthful, I force myself to eat slowly chasing the food around my plate so that it looks, as though I am eating more than I really am. So, here it is the substances which I have been looking forward to for at least three hours, and I am rejecting it. I burst into tears. I am in misery. I want to eat it and cannot as though under a spell. I want someone to comfort me. I feel so alone. I would like to rush and bury my head in my mother’s bosom, feel her arms around me, her hands caressing my hair, her voice gently chasing away my troubles and cleansing me. No-one offers to comfort me. I am spoiling yet another meal. I am blatantly disregarding their explicit advice and instructions. I remain unhappy un-consoled.

Hours later, in bed, I cry again. I cry for the passing of my freedom and the days of irresponsibility. I weep for my parent’s love which my rational tells me is still there, but my distorted mind tells me is lost, destroyed by me. I try to pray to God, someone who will show me a way out of my dilemma. I ask for an escape without making me into a fat idiot who will face up and take responsibility for the damage inflicted on self and family. No-one answers my wet prayers. I curl my cold limbs into a fetal position and turning my pillow to a cool dry spot fall into a troubled sleep. I fall asleep knowing that tomorrow I will make the same resolves, try again, but that there will be no solution and that the day will end just as today had ended. There will be the same battle in my head, the same hot tears pouring down my face.

In the middle of the night I awaken and creep around the house. I like the hidden lonely peacefulness. I go downstairs moving quietly so that I don’t disturb my light-sleeping mother. I go to the kitchen. Everything is silent. I bask in its secret charm and gaze out into the garden, eerie in the darkness. The plants are strangely lit, from the side glow of a nearby street light, and by the sky where a moon plays hide-and-seek with fast-moving fluffy clouds. I leave the window and go into the pantry. I look under the cake dome, under a pie dish lid, into the fruit dish. I leave them all and go to the sink to draw myself a large glass of icy cold water. I boil a kettle to make a hot-water bottle to cuddle. Relaxed in my solitude, I return upstairs hearing my mother turn as I pass. She calls out sleepily to me. I don’t answer and her steady breathing returns. I lie in bed; the hot-water bottle is pressed hard into the burning hollow of my empty stomach. I sleep.

An Epiphany – a short story

Mother paid off the taxi and she and I climbed steps up to the front door to the building in which Dr White’s office was located. The elegant terrace of Nash houses swept away in repetitive harmony as the buildings shone regal and impressive in the morning sun. I paused to look up at the Georgian fan-light over the door while Mother rang a bell and we waited to be buzzed in. The fan-light was a six segmented half circle with little circles in the empty spaces. I would have liked to draw it except this visit to Dr. White was too important to allow any delays. He was the London specialist we had travelled over 300 miles for an exclusive consultation.

The suite was on the second floor. When we entered we found it to be even more sumptuous and elegant than we had expected. It was the summer of 1964 and this was the first time I had been in the office of a private doctor, one who was not part of the National Health Service. The luxury was expected and yet surprised me. A large bowl of stocks stood on side table against one of the walls their rich aroma permeated the room, while soft classical music wafted from somewhere. We gave our names to the receptionist and had barely sat down before a prim nurse stepped into the room. She introduced herself as Robyn and ushered us into the inner portion of the suite. Its decor was friendly and residential with dark wood paneling, elegant pictures, high ceilings and a gleaming polished wood floor. Robyn took my height and weight. I weighed in at 77 pounds. We confirmed that we were here to get Dr. White’s diagnosis as I was twenty years old and had still not reached menses. Robyn took my history meticulously noting down the information that when I had been given the pill as an experiment by one of my doctors in the north everything had functioned. I undressed and put on a robe. It was voluminous and did little to disguise my bony frame.

Dr. White came in. He was professional and quiet spoken and listened patiently before giving me a thorough exam. When he had finished he nodded and patted me on my knobby knees and instructed me to get dressed and said that when I was ready he would see us both in his office. His office was equally sumptuous and he sat behind a large desk. On the side of the room opposite the door were a pair of glass French doors opening onto a small balcony with a wrought iron guard rail. I gave them a quick glance before focusing my full attention on the doctor. He looked at us motioning us to sit as he gently shook his head. We complied and I returned his gaze staring into his dark eyes thinking how very dark they were.

“I agree with your previous doctors,” he said “I find nothing wrong.” His voice was reassuringly quiet and professional.

Somehow this is what I had expected but not what I wanted to hear. “But, there must be something you can do.” I pleaded, ‘Something, anything, I can’t go on being a freak without sexuality for the rest of my life.” My eyes clouded and I had to fight to prevent myself from crying in self-pity.

He nodded and gave me a hint of a smile, “Yes there are many tests which we could run and measures which might need to be taken but I don’t recommend anything until your anorexia nervosa is cured. When it is cured you should wait a year and then consider coming back to see me. I doubt that it will be necessary.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I shifted forward in my chair to perch on its front edge and to look more closely into his darkest of dark eyes.

“You have anorexia nervosa,” He said, “Until that is under control and you have a normal body weight it is pointless to run any further tests.”

“Anorexia nervosa,” the strange words rolled on my tongue, “what is anorexia nervosa?” I asked. I glanced at my mother who was being abnormally quiet then gave my full attention to the doctor.

He smiled kindly and gave us a textbook definition.

Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric disorder characterized by an unrealistic fear of weight gain, self-starvation, and conspicuous distortion of body image. The individual is obsessed with becoming increasingly thinner and limits food intake to the point where health is compromised. The disorder may be fatal. The name comes from two Latin words that mean nervous inability to eat.

The description fit. This was a moment of epiphany. Eureka, I had an illness with a name and already I knew that I could fight it. The words ‘The disorder may be fatal punched me in my flat chest – this was worse than lack of development. I smiled nervously. Dr. White got up and shook mother’s hand. Then he took mine and looked me in the eyes. “Take care of your anorexia and everything will function normally. It’s that simple.”

As we walked down the steps to the building I realized the profundity of his words. Now I had an excuse, I wasn’t a disobedient daughter who wouldn’t eat. I wasn’t a naughty child to be spanked. I had anorexia nervosa and I could and would fight it.

And fight it I did – alone. At first it wasn’t easy, but gradually over the next year I managed to bring my weight up to 120 pounds. Slowly my body filled out and became more female. Menses didn’t come that year but we didn’t go back to Dr. White. I knew that there was no need. Over the next two years I gained another 5 pounds, until New Year’s Day 1969 my menses happened. I was twenty-three and a half. Dr. White had been right.