"And teenage tears sting my eyeballs, in a town where I wasn’t born” – A New Decade, The Verve
Yeah yeah, I’m aware that what can constitute a human is an incredibly plastic thing, shaped by many factors. But here I just want use it to refer to the ability to show feelings, except just fear and anger
For some reason this only seems to occur later on in the evening. And seems to be bubbling up far more frequently of late, like air bubbles from somebody finally submerged in water.
One recent evening springs to mind. Because on this evening I was reminded of why I have found it so hard to feel human/part of the species (rather than merely knowing I am) throughout my adult life.
This scenario was on a train heading back from Manchester, anesthetized by drink, after a boozy meet-up meeting a friend there being rounded off by a can of cider for the tedious local stopping service back to Sheffield (any excuse to reach the required level of numbness).
Manchester will always be a funny place for me; like London, it gives me a feeling of part of my life being left incomplete; not just the degree courses I left incomplete in these cities, but also a potential life I never managed to live in them. Something was in the way.
Whilst in Manchester, the something in the way was one year through materializing as Anorexia Nervosa, or something that most closely resembled it.
However, catching this train, now far less introverted, 11 years older, and drunk, I was some distance away from these days (for better or for worse? well that’s not as clear cut a answer as you’d think).
Northern Rail had provided us with one of their Northern Fail trains, where you can’t hide a single facial expression from the rest of the carriage.
I found myself sat behind a young female student, probably in her late teens, the same age I was when trying to complete a course in Manchester. She had a book which I couldn’t help but notice the content of without either staring at my feet or out the window into a pitch black landscape.
The book was titled Overcoming Anorexia. Then I noticed she had an all-too-familiar look: that of the slow healing of starvation, of being painfully thin but with the bruised and beaten look of the half-skeletal anorexic body finally disappearing under rehabilitated flesh.
I began to feel a lot of empathy for her (not something my general fearful, frustrated goldfish bowl-self usually finds easy) when I saw that she had stuck a sheet of white paper over the book cover. She was clearly so ashamed or frightened about the world finding out she had been inflicted with this destructive thing. So much for it being ‘fashionable’ to be anorexic, it can often feel extremely humiliating.
However, despite this, it didn’t feel intrusive and disrespectful that I was more or less reading the book with her. Quite the opposite, because it was a shared world, a world we both inhabit, although it was one shared in silence – you can never break that silence, if broken the response would be incredibly defensive and dismissive. The anorexics world is an incredibly lonely one. A self-made tomb between life and death.
I said inhabit rather than inhabited because I never really left it, even after 10 full years of not being properly anorexic. I still usually experience the world from within a lonely goldfish bowl (from which I watch the commencing and departure of human interactions, but as something unobtainable). Yet, the train scenario made me feel overly emotional in a way I’m not used to. Despite the drunkenness maybe having a part to play I felt momentarily human. I saw her reading the chapter on how the disorder damages relationships with family and friends, I thought about the stress/worry this disorder puts families under up and down the land, and silently wished her luck with it all as she got off the train.
The same fears that caused it still form the self-made tomb between life and death (you can never really feel alive – you drive through life, but it always feels like it’s through a window). A fear of so many things webbed so seamlessly together by the bullet-pace of the world. And an impulse to avoid the hell of empty/dead time, when you suddenly run out of ‘tasks’ to complete. Once I ‘gave in’ (as it felt) and could no longer keep the regime up, after a brief spell when I felt life could be properly felt too emotionally turbulent to maintain, I merely re-channeled my compulsive behaviours into the way I made art, my increasingly politicised way of thinking, even the way I walked, and (unfortunately) the way I do social drinking. It can’t go on, I need to become human again. But the longer you leave it, the less you have to go back to. I don’t believe we maintain a ‘core-self’. Yet, the emotional response I felt to seeing this student reading the book was a sort of affirmation that there is still something there that isn’t just fear and anger.
“I am twiggy and I don’t mind the horror that surrounds me” (4st 7lb, Manic Street Preachers)
Perhaps it was erroneous of me to come to understand the politics of anorexia, rather than spending that time trying to properly deal with it on a personal level. But I didn’t - it is a political issue. The odd thing was that when I saw these student reading the self-help book, I was unusually quite inside over books that ignore the politics – I just hoped she’d get through it, in whatever way. I wish her luck. But I have to deal with it politically. After all, it is the fallout from my anorexic spell that probably drove me towards being politically-minded more than anything.
Anorexia is both a response and an embodiment of the dark side of society’s unspoken demands of us. It isn’t a timeless human condition, but a reflexive response to a certain type of world, a world of pressures, demands, fears and horrific inhumanity that we are forced to witness through our media-pummeled eyes. It is intrinsically bound up with our cultural values of hard work, the good citizen, and the pure/innocent person who abstains from ‘indulgence’, which has still persisted, and even intensified under an era where ‘greed’ was claimed to be virtuous. But it’s persisted because these days thinness is also associated with success, as the richest, most successful generally maintain lifestyles that keep them at a socially-approved level of thin. To be skinny is bound up with success – to be unsuccessful in our ‘X-Factor Society’ is be a non-person.
In addition to ‘hard work’, the need to feel ‘pure/innocent’ is a crucial factor to kick-start the spiral into anorexia. To be conscious of the horror in the world, and our unwilling participation in it, is to feel guilty; guilty for being tainted with the knowledge of our unhappy planet. Whilst to be overweight, ‘lazy’, gluttonous, is to be guilty in the eyes of society. To be alive, to sweat, defecate, smell is to be guilty in the eyes of society. Sacrificing ones life to the pursuit of the model of ‘innocence’ that is skinny, becomes an unacknowledged impulse and inflicts many unfortunate sensitive (still mainly young female) humans.
This is the violent age of global financial capitalism. It’s media technologies are a concrete realisation of its ideology of market individualism. We are pitted to compete against an increasingly fast, violent and unstable world, and our response is to wage war on ourselves, make our bodies the world, a world we (feel we can) control. The writer Laurie Penny puts it well in her book Meat Market, saying ““when you are anorexic, your world shrinks to the size of a dinner plate”. Regarding the invisible flows of financial capitalism, and the flow of digital media, which is an expression of this dominant system, I’d go further with the violence it deals out, and say that the bruised, crushed-tin look of the war-against-the-self of anorexia, is in fact a concrete abstraction of the violence of capital flow.
Yet, in spite of this I have a life to live. And I can’t ignore it anymore as it’s bubbling over in the only way it can do so when it is repressed – destructively. Suddenly you realise 10 years has gone, and you begin kicking and screaming to get out. I can understand the political implications of Anorexia down to every last electrical node attacking the psychological state, but when I saw this student reading that book I realised “it’s nowhere near enough – life has to be lived”.