Ali Millar lives and writes in the Scottish Borders. She has an MA Creative Writing from Edinburgh Napier University where she graduated in 2012 with the class medal, and then had two children in rapid succession. Her work has been published in The Evergreen and The Festschrift, additionally she has worked as broadcast journalist for Summerhall TV at The Edinburgh International Book Festival where she interviewed Etgar Keret, Michael Rosen and Dorthe Nors, amongst others. She is working on her first novel, more of her work can be found here.
The following piece explores anorexia from the perspective of a teenage sufferer. Anorexia is an illness I’ve battled for many years to understand, firstly as a sufferer, and later in recovery stages, I’ve wanted to understand the pathology of the disease and not just reduce it – as is all too often the case – to a simple set of symptoms.
Sufferers display a great deal of strength, strength of mind that can often be perceived by those on the outside as dangerous, and I wanted to explore why the danger, why the fear, whilst at the same time giving sufferers an authentic voice. Anorexics aren’t simply people who make themselves thin, they are struggling with the psychological and physiological effects of starvation along with a complex set of problems presented by the illness itself.
If anyone finds the following to be triggering or is worried about themselves, friends or a family member then please don’t hesitate to approach either Beat or Penumbra, organisations who are designed to help and to give advice and who helped me through some challenging times.
At 36 kilos and 5’5” I am the instrument of my own trauma. I am hardly able to stand, I cannot take a bath on my own, I am so starved I cannot think straight.
That’s not just the disease talking either, there’s this thing that happens when you don’t get enough food, your body shuts down, your brain shuts down, and you’re not in control of what you’re doing, not really.
It’s just what happens when you’re metabolising things, when you’re losing weight really efficiently, not like in a weight watchers count the points way, but in a really good focused way, like every food’s a sin way, what happens is your body uses up the crap it doesn’t need first.
Fat is crap.
That’s the first to go. It eats that up the quickest.
Then it starts on muscles.
That’s when you really get thin, cos your muscles go too. That’s when your bones start to show and when you begin to feel like holy fucking Christ, finally!
That’s the last of the healthy stages.
They would have you believe – the powers that be – that that’s not a healthy stage. Don’t listen.
Then, once your muscle’s all gone, or going, turned into your body’s own sugar, the real fun begins. Then you start to actually eat yourself, and not just the extra shit you were carrying cos you went to the chippy that night and didn’t have the fucking self discipline to say no, or the muscles you worked hard for running round and round the lake, every fucking night, hoping they’d notice – not that they did – no no, your body turns on itself and starts to eat up your organs. Pretty fucking neat no?! Like, your liver and your kidneys, gobble gobble, then your brain, your actual brain, and then your heart, it’s just another muscle.
That’s why most days mine feels like a bird about to burst through and out its cage. The days it feels anything at all that is.
They say I’m being stubborn, saying no all the time.
What they don’t tell you is about this test they did. Pretty fucking fucked up if you ask me, where they starved these otherwise healthy men to understand, understand I don’t know exactly what, but he told me about it last week when he was here, but my mind started to go off for a walk, seeing as there’s only about two thirds of it left, he said, even the men in this test started to behave like you, and then he gave me my new name, the collective noun for people like me, he said the men where so hungry they couldn’t actually eat, and they behaved all weird the same way they say I, we, do.
I lose my point all the time. I’m supposed to be journaling for the way it’ll help my mind. But then I’m eating my mind and if last week there was about two thirds left, how much am I down to now?
Thing is, what I needed to say was, no, what I need to say is –
If I am this small and this weak and getting weaker then why is everyone so afraid of me?
I see it all the time – like I’m some kind of alien species, like I am a dangerous woman.
Like I am a woman.
I always liked the bad girls. Rahab in the bible story, she was a proper whore, or Snow White’s wicked stepmother, or Cruella DeVil, or more recently Courtney Love, so I kind of like the idea of being a bad girl. Only I am also a chicken, a good girl who gets good grades who always eats all the left overs and all the scones and all the pudding and if you take her out for ice cream will always eat all the ice cream too and so I am not good at being the bad girl and even now I feel a little uncomfortable with people thinking I am and making the faces they do and even writing the word fuck as many times as I have here is also making me feel like I should rub it out but I will not because no one is going to read it anyway, it’s an exercise for him but tenner bet, he puts it in my file and pours himself another glass – I am a regular little cynic.
Only I am talking about myself in the wrong tense, I was a good girl. I am now this dangerous thing. At college, when I try to walk up the stairs, tried until two weeks ago to run cos there was still stuff to run off, I was still on 47 calories of fromage frais a day, they look at me with these big eyes and I hear them say stuff like she’s disgusting and the other day one of them told me right to my face, which was brave I guess, that I made her feel sick. No bad thing I wanted to say but didn’t.
I reckon it’s something else.
I think they are scared of me.
He said if I can get better from this and it’s a big if, if I can get better from this, then I’ll be stronger than anyone else.
That means I am dangerous, if I am stronger than them, it means I am not like them.
I know things a 17-year-old shouldn’t. I know I am eating my brain, and my heart and my lungs probably too, my bones certainly. I know chances are I won’t ever have kids, I know I’m fucking it all up, all the time. What I don’t quite know is why I’m doing this, or how long I have to do it for. I don’t know if I’ll get out of it alive. I don’t even know if I’m doing it to myself, or if it’s doing it to me.
I don’t know either if it’s inside me. See, they gave me the collective noun, does that mean I have it, and so can get better with no traces of it left, or does it mean it’s in me, and so I am it. If I am it, can I escape it? And which is worse, to be it or have it? My mind cannot think straight, does not know how to tell better from worse.
They are scared of me, for my strength, my otherness, the way my bones poke my flesh, they are scared because I walk around looking already dead, looking like we all will one day. I see it when I look in the mirror, I am something else than I was before. They are scared because they know they are weak and my danger lies in my strength, in my being less and more than they are.
Maybe they are scared because I am all skin and bone and hip bones that touch the wall before any other part of me does, maybe they are scared because I am already more woman than they are with their curves and painted on eyebrows because I am beginning to understand all you are is the story you make yourself be. Right now, I am this story, and if I get out of this one, one day maybe my brain will grow back the lost third and my heart might stop jumping around so much, and maybe then I’ll turn myself into another story.
That’s why I’m dangerous. Because I’m getting to the heart of what it means to be alive by being nearly dead. Maybe that’s why they look at me like they hate me, why they tell me I make them feel sick, why they tried to stuff a sausage roll in my mouth. Maybe it’s their lack that turns my sickness into a thing of great danger.
Or maybe, it’s just that I look weird, because I do. I look like the kid outside the bakers with no change to spare. I look like the photos from when they liberated Auschwitz, where he says they behaved the same way, because starvation becomes a pathology of its own, which my mother and grandmother do not believe. They say, I have made this up, it is another of my manipulations.
But until I am ready to embrace the next incarnation, I will stay close to the flame, until I am ready to spread my wings I will keep myself shuttered up.