Reading Habits of the Anorexic

By Ben Sixsmith

For all that anorexic people avoid eating food, they think about it greedily, lavishly, gluttonously. Their own food. The food of loved ones. The food of strangers. They devour a mental meal that rarely, if ever, ends.

I was anorexic: emaciated, freezing cold and counting raisins before I could bring myself to eat them. I had moved to London to study Creative Writing, two decisions. The place was alienating and the course was pointless. Treading water – putrid, stagnant water – dieting distracted me. As I dropped out of the course, went home and wallowed in gloom, I became more obsessive and self-destructive. Some anorexic people can go through the motions of their lives but all I could do was take long, joyless walks and read.

“Read”. I didn’t read books from beginning to end. I barely read them for themes, or plots, or characters. I read them for food. Literature can serve all kinds of needs. Kids skim through classics to locate sex scenes (a habit broken by exposure to J.G. Ballard’s Crash). This little addiction was more perverse. My own meals were fantastically, fanatically limited but I pigged out on the food of fiction, history and memoirs.

There was Ian Fleming. His Bond books were a sensation in the 1950s, not least as, in austere post-war England, their lavish descriptions of enormous breakfasts, club lunches and fashionable dinners were a vicarious feast for pleasure-starved Britons. So it was for a young anorexic, who could maintain his pathological ascetism while imagining luxury and indulgence.

The obsession grew. I found less obvious examples: Henchard’s thick, rum-spiked porridge in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the sad breakfast of a retiree in Amis’ The Old Devils and, most morbidly, Winston Smith’s lunch in 1984. Pinkish stew, a lump of bread, a cube of cheese, a tab of saccharine, a cup of milkless coffee and bad gin. I suspect it sounded less revolting to me. Certainly, I would not have allowed myself the bread and cheese.

I had always loved to write: poems, stories, articles and songs. At my worst, all I created was a “food diary”; a meticulous account of everything I had eaten. Reading it, I felt a perverse sense of accomplishment. Amid the shambles of my life, faced with a narrow future, here was order, here was purpose and here was achievement. The biological roots of the illness are mysterious but it feeds off disappointment, and self-hated, and fear. It is a cramped, airless form of escapism.

A delusive one as well. The sense of order and purity is bogus. I felt as if I had transcended hunger and desire but thought about food with a desperate, overwhelming need. Anorexic people are not automatons. I must have told jokes, and exchanged gossip, and commented on the weather. Still, food dominated my imagination. I was like the puritan who abstains from sex while still obsessing morbidly over the sins of the flesh.

I broke out of that stifling little world eventually. Looking back, years on, I am repulsed less by the thought of my weak, shrivelled body than my weak, shrivelled mind. It was a totalitarian dystopia of one; aridly incurious, monomaniacal and grim.

One of my favourite books is John Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, which folds travel writing, art criticism and political analysis into a thrilling meditation on Costra Nostra. Robb loves food – fish, pasta, cakes and ice creams – and describes it in rich detail. But he writes as vividly of art, and literature, and landscapes, and crime, and human beings, with their loves, tragedies, struggles and crimes. It is strange. It is chaotic. It is sad. It is cruel. It is exciting. It is warm. It is life, in all its colours, and its textures, and its tastes.

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