Anorexic, my sister had said. The word hadn’t stopped ringing in my head since she said it. When I first heard about anorexia, I never planned for it to become my thing. I didn’t connect to it or dwell on it or decide to try it out for a while. All I’d known was that I was empty, unremarkable, unexceptional at everything, and that it would be hard to find love, friends, work, a place in the world at all, if I didn’t find something by which to define myself – and then I’d found it.
I think to me, being unremarkable was the same thing as being unlovable, and if I didn’t have love, I wouldn’t want to live, and if I didn’t want to live, I’d eventually die. And I really wanted to find a way to fight that urge to die.
People see eating disorders as slow self-destruction, but the intention is quite the opposite. It’s a stab at life, at asserting oneself. It’s a fierce, war-like struggle to battle all the voices – internal and external – telling you you’d be better off dead. I hadn’t planned for this to be my path, was shocked to hear that dangerous, spiky word affixed to me by my sister but okay, now I’d found it, and here we were, and I didn’t know how – nor did I care – to find a way out of it.
Aren’t I simply asking to be left alone? Isn’t it my life,
my unfortunate body? They have their own lives and bodies, and I have never tried to interfere with those
“You’re a horrible, selfish person!” my sister Emily screams at me, her cheeks red, her eyes blazing and filling with tears. She is blocking my exit to the front door, instructed by Mum to make sure I don’t go out for a cycle while she makes a quick trip to the shops.
Mum has started actively banning me from exercising, asserting that I’m too thin and it’s dangerous for someone that weak to go out on a bike on narrow country roads. Weak! On the contrary, her regime has provoked a fierce, rebellious streak in me, a surge of energy that I channel into openly resisting and defying her demands. I don’t feel pity for the cute little cakes she tries to guilt me into eating any more, or for the mask of anxiety and fear she seems to never take off around me. I feel contempt for her interference, for her pathetic displays of weakness, weeping on the phone to her friends or appealing to my sisters for help in handling me. I scoff at Emily’s responsible-older-child act.
“This has nothing to do with you,” I spit back at her. “You don’t tell me what to do! I’ll just go out the window!” I grin, dashing through the door to the sitting room and fumbling with the catch on the window.
“I hate you!” Emily screams, pursuing me. “The only person you care about is yourself!”
“I just want to be left ALONE! ” I roar, forcing Emily to step back, my temper snapping, my heart thumping, as I try to smother something raw and tender below all that red-hot anger. I cannot understand what they’re all talking about with their melodramatic assertions that I’m “dangerously thin”, that I’m risking my life with my diet, when right now I’ve never felt more energised, more driven and even though sometimes the hunger pangs cause spells of lethargy and I can’t ever seem to get warm any more, no matter how many cardigans I pile on, right now I feel like I could fight anyone off with my bare hands.
Too thin. It feels like they are mocking me when they say these things, pantomiming some other sick, vulnerable girl’s life, someone who is actually close to death and in need of medical attention, when behind closed doors they are throwing back their heads and laughing at this elaborate ploy to drag me back down into being my fat, useless old self. I just can’t see myself in the things they say about me, refuse to indulge this ridiculous atmosphere of danger and urgency they’ve concocted around me, when right now I feel vibrant with health and more purposeful than I ever have before. From the corner of my eye, I see Mum’s car pulling into the driveway.
“You’re ruining Mam and Dad’s lives!” Emily throws at me, sniffling, before she turns on her heel and runs off to get Mum’s help. I don’t waste a moment, bolting out the window, racing to the garage, wrenching out my bike and making straight for the road, not looking back. Tears are streaming down my cheeks now, and I tilt my head to hide my face as cars pass, trying to look like a normal, happy person on a bicycle, not a hysterical, anorexic nutcase.
Our dog Lucky has joined me on the road, prancing along beside my bike, tail waving frantically, tongue lolling happily, the sole supporter and ally of my outdoor sports career. Watching this happy, buoyant presence calms and soothes me. Animals. They are so simple, so nice. They don’t care if you eat breakfast or not, if you gain five pounds or lose 15; they don’t even care if you eat other animals. And they won’t abandon you when you’re being a selfish, ruthless, conniving bitch, ruining the lives of everyone who loves you. They’ll just continue lolloping along, asking for nothing more than your presence and kindness, a few squeezes of affection.
“Ruining Mam and Dad’s lives.” Emily’s words echo in my mind as I pedal further and further away from them. It’s true: I am. Consuming their happiness, throwing out their food, absorbing all their thoughts and peace and hard-earned comfort.
Or – my mind fights back angrily against this blanket, unfair accusation –are they just overreacting? Am I really asking for that much? To have the freedom to look after myself, to go for a cycle, to eat what I want, to sort out my own life? Aren’t I simply asking to be left alone? Isn’t it my life, my unfortunate body? They have their own lives and bodies, and I have never tried to interfere with those.
An hour later, I wheel my bike back into the garage and then slip quietly through the back door and into the utility room. I can see my sisters working studiously in the kitchen, the surface of the table entirely covered by the contents of their schoolbags: thick, dog-eared textbooks, calculators, dictionaries, copybooks, Shakespearean texts. Perfect children hunched over complex words and numbers, their faces masks of concentration. I try to slip by unnoticed, but Mairéad glances up, her expression hardening when our eyes meet, and then returns to her geography homework. Emily refuses to look at me, but I see her anger in her reddened cheeks, her furious concentration on her calculator. Anger and disdain radiate from both sisters.
“Hi,” Mum says just as I reach the door to the living room. She is distant with me, sad, though offers a weak smile as she rinses some vegetables by the sink.
“Hi,” I answer stiffly, unsmiling, then hurry to my room.
All I want is to quietly withdraw from life – which is too difficult, too painful, too much for me to get a handle on – and all I am asking is that they leave me to it, to the safe, comfortable anaesthetising routine I’ve developed that feels much easier than living fully
My sisters’ fury is weighing on me. They seem to really hate me most days, and though I maintain a needle-pointed focus on my goals, let nothing and nobody deter or distract me from my daily routine, the atmosphere of collective vitriol they create still seeps in through the cracks of my armoured defences and hurts the vulnerable softness underneath.
Selfish, that is their primary complaint. That I don’t care about the family or the stress I’ve brought into their lives, or the aura of fear and anxiety that hangs about my parents all day, every day. I am a spoiled, self-centred brat, as far as they are concerned. And while, in some ways, they are right about that – I don’t have the space in my mind or my day to sit and think about other people or what they need, and this is an entirely selfish, isolated way to live – in another way, I’m not asking for anything at all, and isn’t that the opposite of selfish?
I don’t want people’s food or attention or sympathy or help. I don’t expect people to like or love me, and I don’t waste my time looking for it. If they could only feel all the self-loathing coursing through me, the visceral self-disgust, the ardent wish to be rescued from the unrelentingly awful reality of being in this body, maybe they’d be selfish too. All I want is to quietly withdraw from life – which is too difficult, too painful, too much for me to get a handle on – and all I am asking is that they leave me to it, to the safe, comfortable anaesthetising routine I’ve developed that feels much easier than living fully. Is it so selfish to self-preserve?
I put my sisters’ scowling faces out of my mind as I nestle into a corner of my bed, and crack open Goblet of Fire for the third time that year. My Harry Potter books are the only things that stop my mind obsessively running through the calorie count of foods I’ve eaten that day or devising clever methods of avoiding eating certain meals at friends’ parties. The magical world is the single place I can go where I’m not confronted by images of glamorously wasted young women, girls as skinny and malnourished as I am, but who have made a career out of it.
The books give me a break from the atmosphere of tension and unrest that pervades any time I enter a room. Nothing else seems to still the relentless whirring of my mind in the same way Harry Potter does. And where my art, my friends, my dreams have faded and fallen out of my life, somehow Harry Potter remains. I read them over and over during this period, picking up Philosopher’s Stone to start the series all over again as soon as I have finished the last page of Goblet of Fire.
Mum tries to diversify my reading materials every now and then, bringing home books with brightly patterned covers and cheesy titles like Nobody’s Perfect or Love Yourself First!, written by “girls with similar problems”, but she ceases these efforts when I start citing the calorie-burning tips and extreme crash diets I’ve picked up from these memoirs.
Half an hour into the second task of the Triwizard tournament, I hear a soft knock on my bedroom door and permit Mum to come in. I don’t lower the book as she perches at the foot of my bed and looks at me.
“How’s your book?” she asks, her voice soft and tentative. “Great,” I reply.
“You must have read it 10 times by now,” she says, conversationally.
“Almost,” I tell her, lowering the book. “I think it ‘s more like eight.” She nods and smiles, amused. “Well, you’ll be more than ready for the fifth one to come out then.” It’s the winter of 2002, and the next book in the series is due to be published on June 21st, 2003. I’d reserved a copy in Eason’s, our local bookshop, the day after it had been announced.