Spring Summer Internship 2011
(where I don’t enter a fast-track grad scheme, or go on the road with Kerouac)
In this funny ward, we’ll sit together and read the dissidents and listen to Pink Floyd and build dens out of hospital sheets, and we can hide there, us, the crazy diamonds, in our tepee huts, and we’ll call it a literary retreat, or an intellectual hibernation, and not a sickness. We’ll go Oscar fucking Wilde.
It’s a poor excuse for a clinical wasteland. Festering, near-vaporurised girls threaded up with IVs and wasting and sickness, hunched over in wheelchairs with creaking bones and scratchy hospital gowns and tubes pouring out of their noses. I think I’ve joined an extended tea-party of tarnished has-beans. Both juvenile and ancient, a difficult disjunction because the adult expert part doesn’t want to embrace the forced changes (eat, function, live). But as children, we want the attention and the tantrum. An eating disorder ward is full of performatic antics, you know. The coy child and cruel adult. Here. we play with food, chew, spit, puke, moan, groan, and hold our distended stomachs like famished famine children. We talk about defecation, and enemas, and constipation, with glorious abandon, mostly just to shock the Nigerian agency nurses, who ask us for diet advise in exchange for hair braiding. We forget about the normal and become a savage little tribe of ravished Medeas. Social niceties and norms diminish. It’s like a Mallory Towers for the starved.
There is too much time here. Nobody reads, brains too full of food. Some people knit, furious, futile gestures aimed at preventing gnarled digits from becoming entwined down throats. The toilets stink of Movicol-induced-shit and puke, rims coated in a light film of floating branflakes and sweet n sour chicken.
They say that I am the product of a warped logic, bred by the books that I used to read. I employ, very carefully, the ‘rationale of anthropology’,’ spitting up snippets from Mary Douglas and Malinowski and Freud, all of which demonstrate- and I emphasise this point- solid textual justification for why I cannot and will not drink the milk on my mealplan. But I do drink the milk, twice daily, for months on end.
I become an intellectual pusher, announce plans to hold small seminars in Psychological Skills group, on topics like ‘Feminism and Eating Disorders’ or ‘The Depiction of the Thin in Literature.’ I hang on to all vestiges of my mind, pretending to still be the great-and-wonderful Cambridge scholar. I stomp up the stairs. I am a free radical. I am a rule breaker. I talk about autonomy and empowerment and liminality and transitional spaces. I am, I tell myself, far too smart for this bullshit.
There is much performance. I’ve become part of a crazy little trope of ravished monsters. Detachment from the ‘real world’ has bred an odd confidence that displays itself in the cultivation of collective sartorial license. Our tribe distinguishes itself from the starched whites of the real patients in the hospital. We tattoo our skin with henna, and festoon hair with peacock feathers and flowers and beads. We look ready for anything. We talk about our summer plans. Mostly they involve festivals and friends. As the weeks progress, the ward places limits. Glastonbury is off.
We intensify efforts to etch out identities. On the Outside, it was easy, being Thin. Here we have to work hard. When faced with a lapse in control over food, the body gets reinvented and rewritten. We take up new coping mechanisms. We cut our hair and poke and pierce and sketch little trees with medical scalpels on our wrists. Small subversive gestures, considered to reassert power; we think that we’re reclaiming the body. A coming-of-age rite of passage. It feels like small teenage rebellions,
We spend our days in frivolity, hands kept busy in distracted pursuit, knitting endless scarves for a cold environment that’s alien in our rancid greenhouse.
We become brave in our tribe. Joy takes revenge on the Positive Affirmation Board, and infiltrates it with her own brand of positivity, like ‘Illegitimi non carborundum’ and the staff praise her for her Latin skills.
There were the extremes- the best at being ill. The best at being better. Or the inbetweeners, decisionless, stupid, stuck. Most of us.
There is rampant sexual repression. There is copious nicotine consumption. Taking a shit becomes a celebrated achievement. I try to talk about high-brow subjects. I get distracted. I read Heat in the gassy cess-pit.
The outside world becomes unreal,hyperreal. In July we watch burning cars in Belfast, and later, looters donning sportsgarb rioting in the big cities. Our empathy is limited. We have our own issues here. Routine and structure courted, and if disrupted, we will run amok. Mark our words, we say. We’re strong independent people. Watching the clock like little anti-cinderellas, we hold our own court. Like lofty queens, we say, this is control.
There is too much nostalgia, a pining for the past whilst experiencing each passing moment as a grand and very tragic defeat. Displaced people. Some regress into childhood, playing with playmobile and puppets, colouring in Disney pictures, whilst chewing on thumbs. We watch Bambi and one girl hallucinates on the audio-visual over-stimulation. She later tells me that she was sneaking shots of vodka.
Others take on guise as slutty lolitas, wearing fishnets and slumping around the smoking shelter for that doctor who’ll offer up whiskey for blowjobs.
We get accused of hiding food, vomiting in bin-liners, putting faeces on the toothbrushes of those who we hate because they’re skinnier. The therapists tell us that we are all caught up in a vast net of black and white thinking. Abbreviated conclusions, they say, are a particular predicament for us. We are locked, they warn, in our own thinking. We have no mid points between step 1 and step 10. We catastrophise. The walls of our minds are painted in black and white. There is no grey. We have a faulty brain. The left side, or maybe it’s the right. We can’t see the ‘wider picture.’ Complexity is abbreviated through these practiced patterns. We are too emotional. We are emotionally void. Do you know, they say, that many anorexics are slightly autistic too. We are all borderline, or maybe bipolar, or just hysterical. We are avoiding the real because we are too scared of growing up, taking on responsibility, living and working, and dating, and marrying like Real People should. We have deliberately ceased our menstrual patterns because we don’t care to be women. This includes the boys, too. We like disorder because we cannot deal.
We are cocooned here. It’s vague, and transitional, and utterly comforting. A strange landscape where it’s ok to be high or low or up or down or happy or just sad. Subsequently the outside world becomes terrifying. But it’s a world that is both mad and haphazard and yet brutally honest. Here we can hurl half-eaten pears in self-indulgent chaos and it’s fine.
But Pat, we discover, is dying. Not from food- which she gets plenty of here- but from the lack of, from before, which caused the cancer in her breasts to multiple, and made her ineligible for chemo. Now the cancer’s eating her up, because she wouldn’t or couldn’t eat, and now it means that she’s lopsided with one breast on and the other dumped in a medical disposal bin. She petrified. So she sits and pisses herself and watches Deal or No Deal with Noel Edmund. But she looks like Patti Smith and used to be a hippy back when she was young and fine. She starts to eat cake, flaring out arms like a praying mantis, stopping the lunch trolley in motion, and scooping up with weathered thumb and forefinger bits of treacle tart and custard. ‘Just wanted to see whas it like’ she drawls.
They shock her twice weekly. ECT. Eeee Sea Tea. Crack Swish Boom Sway. Archaic patriarchal procedures, aimed to make hysterical females mute and sedate. But its different now. Pat still has cancer, and she’s still tiny. And unlike most of us- young, spoilt, fearless, looking like prototypes of the Olson twins or an extra from 90210, well, she, she doesn’t need to pretend to bullshit her way out. Because she’s going to die there, either from the anorexia that’s entirely fucked her body, or from the cancer that maybe, maybe could have been stalled if she had just bloody eaten. The Health and Happiness facade means piss all. It’s not about archaic visions of the Cuckoos Nest or the self-indulgence of the Sexton-Plath-Woolf brigade. For her, it’s about sheer survival.
I thought there would be a kind of crescendo moment, where I’d gain a trophy and graduate from the school of anorexia, but there wasn’t. Five months of eating over-boiled peas and carrots at noon. And pills, many have assertive names like Foreval and BuildmeUp and Calcichew, and which taste of parmaviolets or maybe banoffee pie. And smothering food in illicit salt, or folding sandwiches into panties, because it felt revolutionary, even though it wasn’t, and dancing and cartwheeling across the enclosed garden because again that felt radical and we could pretend that we were protesting at Woodstock, when really, actually, all that we wanted to show was that we were faulty adults. And we wanted to shame those who were to Blame and Responsible for making us this way, just because we didn’t want to admit that it was us, ourselves, who had created these dysfunctional and very horrifying little creatures.
But there were no Wild Furies that heralded an epochal change. Just, maybe the slow realisation that this is not life, to twice-daily watch Gilmore girls, and Come Dine With Me, and to sneak in sachets of sweetner, themselves stolen from the hospital coffee shop. And that ultimately, it was boring, really bloody boring, to be a displaced person.
No Howls. Still, a rite of passage- not an amphetamine-fuelled American roadtrip, but still, a voyage across a weird non-space, liminal borderland, site half-way between life and death. We stopped, and some came to restart. Some died there, and some will die there. It’s the marginal, crossroad conundrum: cross through the mirror to the weird looking glass world where everything is mad and quirky and you change sizes and have mad tea parties with weird eccentric characters. Or stay on the boring side of the Normal World. And find that it’s as boring or as banal as you want it to be. After 5months of this liminal wonderland, you leave, not because you’re cured, which is tricky, because you know you’re not going to sashay out of the doors howling ‘The Circle of Life’ . But you’ve learned things, and you’ve been able to let down the academic defenses and frown, to turn the microscopic examples into opportunities to weep for the macroscopic issues that lie at the heart of why you’re actually sad. Missed opportunities, wrecked relationships, messed up plans. It was a time to grieve and mourn. To dress in black. Like the Victorian ladies with their crazy black lace mourning veils. And you can tolerate variety now. Oranges, for example, are not the only fruit. Pears are nice too.
And so, after 5 months of learning how to eat a sandwich, you graduate from the school of anorexia. And yes, it all feels very tenuous, and you feel like you’ve been given a crooked version of recovery. Because you are not cured, see, but you are, at least, functioning. And you don’t die, not yet. And in that time, you’ve listened to far too much Dylan in the rain, and smoked more cigarettes than you ever need to again. But you think, when you are actually on your death bed, you’ll probably say, no flowers please, just caviar.