How to label the self

My eating disorder’s origins are unclear. My three earliest memories of its beginnings are: me at twelve years of age, donning a Target crop top embossed with the word SPORT in blue and gold. I’m jogging up our street, wearing only it and a pair of maroon school shorts. I’m out of breath and doubled over after just ten minutes. Then there’s me getting my period for the first (and only) time a few weeks later. I try to hide it from mum and feel virulent disgust. Third is my decision to only eat freely on the weekend. I decide that I will starve myself during the week, but that on Saturday, I can eat whatever I like. Banal, suburban beginnings.

It progressed, nonetheless. In a short while, after many compliments, I was starving on the weekends, too. I lost a stack of weight and soon enough I was sitting in family therapy sessions at the children’s hospital.

It followed me through from twelve to twenty-one and beyond.

I’ve written about my ‘disease’, as we called it at Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous (ABA), twice before. But these narratives, as Fiona Wright laments, couldn’t seem to

hold together the complexities of recovering, of making mistakes, and slipping backwards, of forgetting and relearning and forgetting again, of compromise and conditionality, or even the incredibly slow, repetitive and exhaustingly mundane nature of the process of getting better.

My writings always wanted to account for the cause and to bundle the recovery process up neatly. They were also, I now realise, about wanting to be seen; about wanting this integral part of me be both known and reconciled. The only way I wanted to be seen however, was as victor, triumphant. Resolved. Okay. Better. In control. And the only way I could bear to write about my illness was through a lens of linearity. Strictly sickness to health with no scape for contradictions, compromises, slippages and disgust.

My writings were perpetual half-arsed attempts at moving beyond secrecy. I never showed them to anyone bar two close friends and my mum, all of whom knew about my ‘disease’. I never claimed the label ‘anorexic’. I deliberately eschewed labels and spent an honours year writing a thesis on why diagnostic labels are antithetical to understanding the same complexities I adored and perceived so clearly in Sylvia Plath’s writing, but couldn’t manage to sit with myself.

In the past three years I’ve entered the most consistent phase of ‘recovery’. Yet, that consistency has spawned intense confusion and frustration. I gained thirty kilos, turned thirty and came out, as Magda Szubanski so eloquently phrased it on The Project in 2012, ‘gay, gay, gay, gay and a little bit not gay, gay gay gay’.

It’s true that, like Fiona Wright, ‘for so many of the years I was unwell, I was too savage to love, and kept all of my appetites satiated.’ My obscene hunger dulled feeling and desire; there was simply no room in my ever-shrinking, increasingly androgynous female body. I dated effeminate boys and had a longish-term relationship with one. I wanted to want it, them. Men. But it’s hard to know what you want when all you know is denial.

Throughout my adolescent years and early twenties, I hid two integral aspects of myself because I was disgusted by them. The minutiae of my eating disorder were ugly: heating ice-cream up in the microwave and almost drinking it down, suffering migraine headaches and vomiting in taxis from low blood sugar, chilblains in summer and chronic constipation year-round. I attended AA meetings for anorexics and overeaters and lied about where I had been. ‘At meetings’ or simply ‘out’. And I conjectured that gayness was the same: girls don’t date girls. That’s disgusting. Even more disgusting is girls fucking girls. And they didn’t. Not in Perth in 2005. I developed crushes on my friends but barely noticed them because I didn’t trust my feelings (or perhaps is more apt: I didn’t trust that I had feelings to trust).

I’ve often felt torn between the yearning to be understood and the hunger to be invisible. I so desperately wanted people to know why I behaved the way I did (I’m sick) but I was simultaneously horrified at the prospect of them finding out the truth. I wanted to stay hidden, but not really. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately perhaps, there’s no hiding with anorexia; though the desire for invisibility is possibly what motivates the behaviour, the irony is that you become increasingly visible by the severe-ness of the body. I remember getting dressed for badminton in the communal change rooms of my high school gym. I was fourteen. I was wearing several layers beneath my uniform. As I pulled off the last one I felt the other girls inhale.

This yearning to be understood and simultaneously invisible is and was characteristic of my gayness. I wanted to claim ‘anorexic’ but abhorred it at the same time. I intellectualised myself out of this difficulty by rationalising that ‘anorexic’ was an ill fit because it belonged to the medical establishment and failed, as it does, to capture the idiosyncrasies of my experience. Likewise, I both yearned for and recoiled from ‘gay’ because I knew it to be true, but I’m thirty and binaries are so nineties.

In recovery I’ve felt the need to explain myself. To say: ‘this weight is because I never had a puberty’ or ‘this weight had to happen because I starved myself for 15 years … are you familiar with the Minnesota Starvation Experiment?’ But where is the space for this story? Does this story need to be told? There’s no economical way to tell it I know. In the same way that coming out has felt both contrived and vital. Who cares?

I used to think acceptance was the goal in recovery: ‘God, give me the courage to accept the things I cannot change.’ And that it was enough if I created a little memorial home for it within me. But now I think it’s both more and less complex than that. Acceptance means little when I hide the formative stories and prohibit my own access to the economising labels that give them (however rudimentary) form.


 Image: Stanley Zimny / flickr

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