(So sorry it's so long. If you want me to split it up I shall. I didn't want to because it's a letter, but if it's unmanageable just mention it and I'll put some page-cuts in.)
I never told you this, but I’ve been wearing braces on my teeth for about a year now.
My teeth used to be like old tombstones, all crooked and leaning over. They’re much better now, but they used to be pretty bad. Elspeth, even though she trained as a dentist nurse when she was young, if ever she was young, wouldn’t pay for me because she didn’t want the hassle of arranging two dentists. So it was Tony and Colton who agreed to set it all up for me—half against my will, of course.
I like one of my dentists. When I go to the other, and lean back in the chair, I find it disturbing that he sits with his legs just a few inches below where my head is resting. He has a huge wart on his cheek.
I thought braces would murder the confidence I have been gradually building up for the past goodness-knows-how-many years, and though the first time I looked at myself I was only kept from retching by the fact that the nurse was holding the mirror, and I was wearing my favourite jeans which I didn’t particularly want to associate with vomit.
But I was wrong. Braces only sped up the process of me gaining in confidence. I just found that I didn’t care so much about my inhibitions any more. “I have braces, what of it, stop looking at me”—that attitude became the cheerleader of my unconscious.
Or maybe the feeling of belonging. Though I reckon I act pretty maturely in most respects, I’ve always been the short one. But teenagers wear braces. So that ugly wire round my teeth makes me finally a teenager and one of my own.
Before I got my braces, and when I was moaning to someone or other, your Felix said to me, “But someday you’ll have really nice teeth and that’ll be great.”
And Miriam, who hasn’t been a brilliant friend since the afore-mentioned incident, despite her never-failing wit, told me later, “Why, don’t you like them? I love people with braces. I think they look really pretty.”
You probably think this is all completely irrelevant, and to some extent it is. I just wanted to tell you.
And there’s something else I never told you. Something I can only write down because it scares me too much, and when I’ve tried to tell others they never believed me.
And that other thing is that I’ve been battling with anorexia ever since I got braces, perhaps before then.
I know you’ve heard it before. It’s the classic link between braces and eating disorders over again. I apologise for this inexcusable and timeworn correlation on my part. I hate clichés. It’s a shock to me that I am one.
I was never a big eater, but suddenly my entire menu was halved. I can’t eat anything hard, chewy, crunchy or sticky. I can’t eat things with skin or things that are dark in colour. I am always, always cleaning my teeth out with my tongue and being nagged to distraction by random bits of food that are completely stuck and will not get out and go away.
I eat very slowly. I eat labouredly. I eat with small bites and in some cases I cannot eat at all. When I have dentist check-ups I cannot eat anything but custard and mashed potato for days on end, and those things choke me so that I cannot breathe.
I find it really difficult to eat. And yet it’s not how most people say it. In most cases the anorexia sufferers feel embarrassed eating in front of people. That’s an eating disorder where they think they’re fat.
I can only claim a bit of that. I’ve always been skinny. But now we’re older, some of the girls are losing their puppy fat and becoming really quite beautiful. I watch enviously as we change in the changing rooms, sucking my stomach in and wishing my skirt was tighter and my skin was more smooth and tanned-looking.
Of course I’m jealous. I was always the skinny one. I must defend my reputation. I must be the skinniest as I always was, or else I lose a sector of my childhood. I lose some portion of myself.
I started denying dessert about three years ago. Don’t surprise yourself. It’s maturity’s greatest misconception that youth cannot perceive. It’s true. No one questioned that I just didn’t feel hungry any more for sugary things. I was growing up; I had probably stopped growing. I’ll never get any taller. So I might as well get skinnier to balance it out.
In fact, my case is that I must eat in front of other people. I must always eat, otherwise I hate myself. I mustn’t worry any of our parents. They don’t need it; my probably-imaginings aren’t worth it.
Besides, I don’t actually have anorexia. I’m only fighting it. That doesn’t count, does it?
So that’s it. They mustn’t find out. I must be healthy and pretty and set a good example for the purpose of outward appearances. I’m clever, aren’t I? Clever people don’t get eating disorders. Because that’s not at all clever.
I’ve always scorned those who brag about not having eaten ‘in days’ and all this. I thought only idiots did these things, got disorders, ruined their own lives. So I scorn myself. It’s all my fault.
And my friends would scorn me if they knew, because they don’t understand it. I ask for support time and time again, but because I can’t tell them straight and make them care, they never give it to me. They might blame me for not being able to say it out to them, tell them what’s wrong, but if I did they wouldn’t help me. Do they really expect me to say it? They wouldn’t believe me if I did.
I’d feel so stupid if everyone knew what goes through this darned cranium of mine. I’d pound my head to a pulp if it weren’t for the fact that I’m not sure I’d reach ‘pulp’ consistency before my brain shut down altogether and it could no longer facilitate the pounding action. If I decided to do that, I would not want there to be a possibility of salvation afterwards. I’d want to do it properly.
Finally, I wouldn’t want anyone to know because they’d probably all try to help without really knowing what they’re up against. So don’t please try to help me, Sarah. I’m sorry, but you can’t. I’m going to fight this one myself.
I’ve always hated teamwork in school projects, because I know I can do it better myself. I hate it when my partner insists on typing, but I agree with the thought, “Sure, I truthfully don’t actually mind who types at all—just don’t be surprised if I’m correcting you at every sentence. Whoever types is going to get it right and use proper vocabulary.”
I know this isn’t proper vocabulary, but if I spewed my beans with a clinical attitude the result wouldn’t be nearly as gorgeously chaotic as it is when I give my beans the freedom to roll wherever they feel best. Am I trying to create chaos? Surely I’m trying to order my thoughts. Never mind. I don’t know what I’m doing. I just don’t like food.
The word ‘food’ makes acid pulse through my cheeks. My stomach churns as if trying to make butter using water.
The very thought of eating induces the bile to gurgle at the back of my throat. My tongue arches over my tonsils, my lips are pulled like a drawstring bag with stress—and I scarcely know it till I feel them growing dry and run my tongue across.
I drink a lot. Not alcohol drinking. But water. I am always drinking water. It fools my brain into thinking it cools the stress. Really it just drowns my fears. It bloats me so that I cannot eat if I tried. I am up all night going to the loo, and still I am thirsty; still I down cup after cup of sour tap water.
I love it. I love the power of hunger but I also crave to satisfy my thirst.
You know Jean has eating problems. She eats too much. She loves food. She loves cake and curries and coffees. She’s always been on diet plans and things—you must’ve seen them. Her latest strategy is to blu-tack signs to every cupboard door in the kitchen. The signs read:
NO! HAVE A
It’s to stop her picking at snacks, and though I’ve not been taking snacks or buying chocolate for a long time, my stomach turns every time I see those signs. They don’t just act for her; they act for the materialisation of my mind.
“Okay, then, I’ll have a drink,” I agree to those signs; and I tip three glasses of water down my throat and wish it would just please hurry up and hydrate me before I fizzle out altogether.
I’ve been getting convulsions at night. While I try to relax at night and breathe long and slow, every so often my diaphragm catches and jolts and my whole body tenses up. Then I might wake up in the middle of the night, scared to sitting upright with wide eyes like a rabbit caught in the headlights, a lump on my head where I hit it on the bedboard on the way up. My chest is bleeding and my knuckles red where I have been striking the wall, and I’m shaking and sweating all over.
My veins in my thighs get palpitations and my stomach sometimes swells and blushes like an angry red balloon. My eyes fill every time I feel emotion—be it surprise, amusement or disappointment. I have anecdotes for each, where I show it no other way but these tears that I cannot control or explain.
How has this come to be? I have nothing to worry about. My life is wonderful. I have four parents, far more than most, and a sister and fantastic friends and hobbies and a lovely life. What is wrong with me that my body has been doing this to me?
And nobody knows but you—and still I cannot think about eating starchy foods without cringing my neck and preparing to puke.
I hate the taste of every food—every food! I cannot eat anything and enjoy it. And I want to enjoy it! I want to be able to eat. It’s just not working for me right now.
I run. Always. Every day I run.
I’ve been a sprinter for all my life, but I was roped in to do the fifteen hundred metres on Sports Day last year, and since then I’ve wanted to be a long distance runner too. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to do well; not to stop, but to win. So I keep on running and running. It’s become an obsession.
Sometimes I can’t find the energy to get up out of my chair and lace up my trainers. But then I make myself so I can become better at running. I must do it. I can’t let myself miss one evening round the block or I’ll ruin the cycle forever and I’ll never be able to run again. And I want to run. It gives me power and determination to keep going and pushing myself through whatever might come.
And then when I come back I’m fatigued and hungry, so I must eat to keep me going through the night. I cook myself a small portion of rice and down it, because it’s tasteless, and I vaguely enjoy it.
Small portions are good. Large portions of starch intimidate me till I’m just plodding on and on, mouthful after mouthful for an hour or more. I get so tired of chewing. I’ve figured it’s better time management to quit this monotonous mastication and do something truly productive. If only I knew what is ‘truly productive’.
Then I go to the bathroom and clean my teeth as excessively as my loathing for the mintiness of your average toothpaste will allow me. Then I drink and drink till my stomach feels sufficiently full and the taste of mint and rice has gone away. Then I go to bed and pray half-heartedly that I’ll make it through the night.
I generally manage about twenty minutes of trying-to-relax time before I need to empty my bowels.
I had really bad insomnia in Yeighvor. Now it’s lessened somewhat, presumably because of the change in scenery. But during that period I just got exhausted of my incurable sleeplessness. Again, I concluded that I could make a better use of my time if I stopped trying to sleep and added a few hours onto my working day, rather than just lying in bed till all hours and making myself even more desperate and more fatigued.
“Are you anorexic?” some immature boy asked me just the other day.
I felt the tears coming on and turned my head to the wall with a dismissing gesture as if acting disgusted.
And my friends answer for me: “She’s just naturally skinny! But you can see she isn’t anorexic. It’s pretty obvious.”
Yup, I think so. ‘Pretty obvious.’ Healthy, aren’t I?
Well at least my appearances work. No one suspects. Except that boy. But he was just being silly and nosy and trying to be funny. He doesn’t really think there’s anything wrong with me.
There isn’t. There isn’t anything wrong with me at all. As I said before, I don’t have anorexia. But that’s not to say its demons don’t visit me. I must eat to keep up my façade, my deceit. I show no qualms at eating in front of people, except for making disgusted faces, because I do not enjoy the taste of food.
If offered something unnecessary, I never accept, afraid. I leave as much as I can get away with; for instance the bits of jelly round the edges of the pot, because it’s ‘all hard and nasty’.
“I don’t know how you have such a big lunch,” I tried to tell Guita one time. “I find it hard enough to eat what I do eat, let alone all what you eat.”
She looked at me funny, but as I proceeded to eat everything in my lunchbox without any further remark, she gave up on serious suspicions. I felt her watching, and could tell she didn’t believe me. I could tell she thought I was faking it all for attention. I could tell she thought I was imagining my dislike for food just to try and define myself in this waning world.
Maybe it’s true. I probably am just hankering for attention. Most people are. Why not me as well? Just because you’re clever and skinny and don’t drink alcohol doesn’t mean you’re perfect. ‘Cause I’m not. Not perfect at all. I’m a mess.