I didn’t pick my moment well. We were standing in the middle of the vegetable aisle at Harris Farm, in front of an over-spilling tray of truss tomatoes, shortly after incurring the ire of a short and beefy man in a four-wheel drive whose parking spot I’d inadvertently taken. It was a Saturday afternoon in early January, one of the busiest times for shopping centres everywhere; there were kale-packed trolleys pushing past us and prams nipping at our ankles, Christmas carols still piping through the speakers. R had said it to me several times already, although usually when he was drunk, and often when he couldn’t quite remember the next day. I’d been more cautious. Because I had never said I love you to anyone before, even though I was thirty years old. I’d known R, by that time, for about nine months.
On the morning of the day that R and I had been seeing each other for six weeks, I told him that this was now, officially, the longest-term relationship I’d ever had. I said it glibly, the way I all-too-often do when I’m saying something that pains me, but that I don’t want to recognise as painful, and he quite literally stopped in his tracks (he has a habit of doing this, I came to realise). How do you get to be thirty years old, he asked, without having a relationship longer than six weeks?
I had told him some of the particulars, by then, I’d had to. But it was another seven months before I used the word anorexia. It’s still not a word I use much, both because it doesn’t quite fit with the entirety of my experience, but also because of the shame that I still carry, that I’ve still not been able to shake.
By the time I met R, I had been unwell, in one form or another, for ten whole years. For all but one year, that is, of my adult life. When I was nineteen – anxious, lonely and uncertain like many or most others at that age – I developed a rare physical condition that involved unconscious and uncontrollable vomiting after meals, which, combined with my personality and perhaps my existing predilections, slowly morphed into the disordered eating that I’m still trying to overcome today. When we met, I had been attending a twice-weekly day program in a psychiatric hospital for four months, headed by a doctor who believed that at the root of all anorexia is a fear of vulnerability, of intimacy, of the possibility of rejection; a fear we allay by making ourselves impermeable and untouchable, unimpeachable in our hunger.
I was learning how to be in a relationship, whatever that might mean, with no practice at all, at thirty. And it was a strange and utterly confusing thing. I often felt like a teenager, because the only ideas I had about how relationships might work were teenaged, but it’s with these that I was trying to be an adult, and to relate intimately with another adult. I felt like everybody else has been doing this, by now, for fifteen years. This hurt, of course it hurt, because it reminded me of everything I’ve lost to my disease. But I realised too that it was special: first love only happens for anyone once, and for me, the memory of it wasn’t fifteen years old.
One afternoon R came to meet me in the park that’s almost halfway between our houses, so that we could have lunch together at a newly renovated (and totally hipsterfied) pub nearby. We walked together slowly, talking quickly, and R put his arm around my shoulders. I must have stiffened, because R squeezed my upper arm and smiled. I thought at first you didn’t like me doing this, he said, but you’re just not used to it, are you? I wasn’t, of course I wasn’t. Even this simple gesture was one I’d never experienced before. I was conscious of the people walking past us, thinking that they could see, could tell, we were together, whatever that might mean, and it made me feel examined. I didn’t say this, I just willed myself to soften.
Early on, one of R’s friends mentioned to him that it was never me who touched him first. He meant it as a warning, because he thought it meant I wasn’t really interested. It took weeks for me to soften. I couldn’t even bring myself to say those silly and affectionate sweet nothings in the early days of our relationship, even when I felt them almost bursting in my chest; I was too embarrassed, felt too exposed. Instead, I sent R photos of poems that might say them for me – the first of which was titled ‘What She Could Not Tell Him’ – and I remember hesitating, even then, because the sentiment felt too revealing, as if even other peoples’ words might show too much.
In those early days, too, I didn’t know how to be looked at; I’d squirm under R’s gaze, or catch myself pulling stupid faces to disarm it. Over the years of my illness, I’d grown so used to people double-taking, looking at my scrawny body and then quickly away. I wasn’t used to being the object of someone’s gaze, I was used to being abject. I felt different in my body, looser. I bought new clothes: tight pants and short shorts and over-bright lipstick, and I felt like an adolescent girl experimenting with her own sexual power – and at the same time like a thirty-year-old feminist, deeply ambivalent about how much I liked it.
I’d never walked around before with someone’s arm strung across my shoulder, curled around my waist, someone’s hand tucked into the back pocket of my now-tight jeans. Which is not to say that I’d not been involved with anyone before; aside from that previous six-week affair – which took place elsewhere, in a fairly religious and sexually conservative country where men and women only touched in public on secluded park benches, their upper bodies and faces hidden behind black umbrellas so that they could not be identified and shamed – I’d had flings, although not many, and often far between. Then too, I’d never known what to do, how to play the game. Like most people with a predisposition to disordered eating, I hate uncertainty and any kind of transition or change, so would often come on way too strong in an attempt to circumvent those early stages of not knowing what or even if the relationship might be. At any sign of awkwardness or imperfection or minor failing I would call it quits. I never broke it off, because that too I didn’t know how to handle: I simply disappeared.
I’m aware too that these encounters were always slotted in between the rituals of my illness; it was possible for me to go for coffee or a drink but not a meal, to spend a few hours, but not a whole day, in company. I’d be cagey and evasive about this, both because my illness was mine and mine alone and because it also seemed too awful and too strange, too frightening, to speak about, let alone share. The self that I presented to the world, and to these lovers, was one that had both shaped and been shaped by my illness, its rigid set of standards, measures and controls. I’d be brash and bolshie and defiantly crude, talking too much and too flippantly, and I’d shut down entirely whenever anything threatened to get intimate. I had a carapace, and one that was uncrackable. (R would say to me sometimes, when I undercut a moment of tenderness with an unthinking joke, hello there, sarcasm, can I have my girlfriend back?)
The problem with intimacy, I think, for me and for so many others with these illnesses, is two-fold. Intimacy has to be predicated on a vulnerability to judgment or to rejection or to hurt, when it is often a fear of precisely these things that leads us to disordered eating in the first place. But more importantly, intimacy is always out of our control. Within our illnesses, we live ordered, meticulous and always measureable lives, we know ourselves and our world because we constrain it and keep it regular, narrowing our focus to repeating rituals of hunger and food. But these rituals and rules are so irrational they don’t stand up to outside scrutiny; we can’t keep them and their comfort and also be intimate with anyone.
And then there’s this: one of the physical effects of chronic malnutrition is a complete and total shutdown of the sex drive. This makes sense, biologically: in any time of famine or shortage the last thing an animal should do is reproduce, especially if that animal is female. The ovaries and the testes, like the stomach and the heart, physically shrink. Hormone production stops entirely. For so many years, I watched my friends do irrational things, illogical things, sometimes downright stupid, self-abasing things, in the pursuit of lust or the name of love and didn’t understand how they could lose their minds so completely in the thrill of the chase. I didn’t realise they were at the mercy of their bodies, ironically enough because I was too. I didn’t seek out relationships, or fight for them, because I had no biological imperative to do so.
Nonetheless, the second-longest of these flings occurred when I was physically at my sickest; it was winter, and I was wearing two layers of long-sleeved thermal shirts, two jumpers, stockings underneath my jeans. He’d joked that undressing me was like playing pass-the-parcel but grew gradually more quiet as the parcel of my body grew smaller and sharper before his eyes; when we slept, he folded a blanket up against the scythe of my shoulderblade before he held me. I was untouchable, and never truly naked.
Terribly excited and incredibly unskilled, I made so many mistakes when I first met R. At first, I gave too much, and far too often. I made R coffee and drove him to work for a 7 am start on the mornings after he’d spent the night at my house, even though there’s a train station at the end of my street. I visited him on weeknights in his studio, where he was working on a series of commissioned drawings, and sat amid the chalk and charcoal dust reading and watching him work, often until after midnight, struck by the strange idiom of drawing that I couldn’t quite understand but found fascinating. There was huge charm to this, of course, and perhaps it is a part of any new affair, a certain degree of putting regular life on hold, just for a bit, and getting swept up in the romance of it all. And it was romantic, magically so: early on, I stayed alone and dozing in R’s bed, while he worked his two-hour early morning shift and I knew that he’d be thinking of me, waiting there, wrapped up in his bedsheets, until he could return. I should have been at work and writing – I write best in the mornings – but I wasn’t and I didn’t care.
None of this is bad or wrong, not in and of itself. It just didn’t seem like the grown-up, adult way of going about things that my friends and peers appeared capable of when they started dating people or feeling their way into relationships. It simply felt teenaged – and R and I both said this at the time.
I know that when I met R, I was greedy for love. I was eager to love, because I felt somehow that love might be a sign that I was finally recovering, finally moving back towards a life uncircumscribed by hunger and its rituals and demands. Perhaps no person ever meets another without these kinds of agendas or desires, unconscious or otherwise. Certainly, by thirty, no person ever meets another without carrying some baggage, some old injury or disappointment. R had only just come out of the eight-year relationship for which he’d migrated to Australia in the first place. Perhaps we were both keen to love, at the time that we met, but even if that’s so, it was soon unimportant. I mention this greed only because we didn’t, maybe couldn’t, take things slowly when we first met.
But I know as well that I gave too much too frequently because I thought I both could and should abandon my routines – which I still hold a bit too tightly – in their entirety. I didn’t want to make concessions for my illness so I made no concessions for myself at all, didn’t take time or space I needed to do those mundane but necessary tasks of adult life – washing laundry, buying groceries, marking student papers – let alone the solitary, quiet things I love, like reading and writing and aimlessly walking. I thought that this was how I might learn a healthy flexibility, away from all my habits and rigidity; unsurprisingly, perhaps, all that happened was I soon became exhausted, and felt the urges of my illness trying to reassert themselves as a result.
I didn’t yet know how to ask for space, or even that it was acceptable, let alone necessary, to do so; I felt at first that my need to be alone sometimes was my own failure. It didn’t help that R is not an introvert, like me; nor that he’d also been used to living with his partner rather than living a life separate from the person he was dating. But the larger problem was that I still hadn’t learnt to disappoint or dismay the people I was close to: not my friends and not my family, and certainly not my lover.
This too is common in people with these kind of illnesses, which are often borne, in part at least, out of an unconscious suppressing of our own wills and desires in order to please, in order to be acceptable and accepted, to be needed, to be liked. Appetite is, of course, the most obvious of these desires – and it is the one desire which, when ignored, has the most visible and physical impact. We fear, I think, that if we acted according to the whims of our own despicable selves, we’d be seen for the ugly, selfish and somehow deficient creatures that we feel we are at heart.
Learning to recognise our desires is as much of a struggle as learning to eat again as we recover. Instead we do what others ask of us, whenever they ask (and often when they don’t as well). In the first weeks that R and I were together, I was still acting in this way – following all suggestions, going along with every plan, being acceptable – before I realised that this bending of the will is just another kind of shutting down or shutting out, another kind of disappearing.
What this all meant, most often and most markedly, is that I’d never before had the chance to learn how to fight, nor to recognise how important fighting properly is to any adult relationship, romantic or platonic. The first time R and I fought, it wasn’t even personal – it was about politics, and a quite minor political difference at that – and I started sobbing in my kitchen before even a single nasty word had been exchanged. The first time we fought in earnest I was a snotty wreck within minutes and I couldn’t speak, partly because I couldn’t find the words (I sometimes think I write because it’s easier than speaking) and partly because it felt so awful to be fighting that I acquiesced entirely. It didn’t help that R has a short-fused temper and a fairly dirty fighting style, but it was only almost a full year later that I started to learn how to speak up and hold my ground; worst of all, to say those sometimes-necessary things that I knew R would disagree with, or might hurt him. The first time I did this, I remember thinking, as I walked home that afternoon, that the depth of courage it takes to be an adult in ordinary, everyday life is just astounding.
I’ve often thought that the main reason that teenage angst is so intense and difficult is because all that feeling is happening for the first time, so there’s nothing to compare it to, no way to judge magnitude or meaning as we muddle through. In this sense, my recent experiences were not much different. It’s impossible to fully think or feel when you are hungry, and I know my illness served, at least in part, to dampen down my emotions for so long that I’m unused to feeling so much and so often as we do when we let ourselves love. (I let R read this piece as I was writing; let him choose his own pseudonym because he didn’t like the one that I’d selected, even though I secretly thought that his choice was daggy. This too I’d never done before. I’d never shared my writing while it was still imperfect and raw, before it was polished and finished, and this too terrified me, felt both exciting and so strange.)
But I realised too that nobody, however old, however experienced, ever really knows what they are doing when it comes to intimacy, to love, that every mating dance is nothing more than a wild and frantic flailing around, clinging to the hope that it looks something like a choreographed plan, or simply that they don’t fall over in the process. I sometimes think that it’s a wonder that anyone ever gets together at all. And yet we do.
I’ve spent years now slowly recovering from my illness, being told by doctors and psychologists that no person is ever really inviolable, that our very selves are always in part constituted by the people who reflect them back to us when we interact with them. But it was only with intimacy, by allowing R, and other people too, to see the parts of my self and my illness that I thought most horrible, that I fully began to understand this. Because no one found these things as awful and embarrassing and ugly as I did. I hadn’t even realised that I was ashamed, let alone how deep my shame ran, until I saw something else entirely in the mirror R held up to me. I also know that I wouldn’t have been able to see whatever it was that I found there had I not already been working so hard to recover on my own.
To show oneself, entirely – this is the real thrill, and the real challenge, of intimacy at any age. And I know now that the reward is not to find someone else as a result, but to come closer, far closer, to finally finding your self.