This month I began a diet. That in itself isn’t worthy of note; we’ve more diets than we’ve brain cells. Low-carb, low-fat, South Beach, Natural: a cavalcade of calculated calorie-counting schemes. Mine, however, feels particularly discombubulated. After aeons spent interrogating every mouthful, I’ve been forced to realise the benefits of gaining weight.
Me and food have had a somewhat turbulent relationship. I was a comfort eater: crisps and chips warm baths that I’d sink into, drowning out the grim schooldays. Bored at home I’d spoon great mounds of sugar onto rice crispies; every cloying ladle driving me, and them, to greater peaks. Gobbling kids are sneered upon but when you’re young and cheerless what else can you do? Head down to the local boozer for some cheeky pints?
Every now and then I’d diet: nothing major and, indeed, nothing all that foolish. So it was last May when, casting heedful eyes at larger jeans, I thought that I’d trim up. This was rankly unsuccessful through the summer months, as late arousals and missed breakfasts prompted heavy twilight grazing. Once at University, however, controlled eating, and, especially, a ban on fructose sodden tidbits, started to ease off my light but nonetheless obnoxious paunch. Sometime after that my wires got crossed. A great, sparking mass of raw and tangled threads.
University was stale and isolating, which junked me at one of life’s dispiriting impasses. Thus, I stewed; void of inspiration to mix the cerebral pot. For reasons yet to be untangled, discipline was wreaked upon my food. All that bland and boredom-quenching mastication left me sickened. It felt complacent; a dull surrender to inanity. So, I chopped back meals, endured hunger and succombed to my inner tyrant.
Anorexic regimens are marked by cruel absurdities. At one point, hunched beneath a rigid daily sugar limit, I was nearing an Atkins diet – without the meat or eggs. At another I’d count single raisins in my palm; agonising over the gulf between a sober ten and a generous twelve. Once I’d squandered time with grazing; now, averse to such indulgence, I consumed it scrutinising the particulars of food: rigging up miserly diets with a Priest’s fervour and a chemist’s heed. I was no more inspired but, then, for a lot of the time I was too engrossed to care. Deprivation was as much a hobby as a habit.
In the months that followed, my astonished body shrank away. First it was just the tummy, hastening a welcome retreat; then the cheeks caved in, the ribs emerged and the waist drew tight. I was gratified but not particularly interested; just relieved there wasn’t too much flesh hanging around. Nor was weight a prime concern: I remember finding out, somehow, that I tilted the scales at the same point as a Playboy model. Fairly thin, I reasoned, but one has to bear in mind the silicon. Over all I cherished the refined scantness of my diet; food was an encumbrance that I’d learnt to master.
Or so thought the captive. It was a somewhat frigid spring and with my outlandishly ethical parents cordoning off the thermostat I blamed global warming for the chill. Curled up next to a heater, the urge to gift them with copies of The Real Global Warming Disaster was a powerful one. Anything to ward away the goddamn cold. My blue hands and lips should have pointed to a likelier cause: my insides were shutting down; more torpid than a drugged sloth. I was getting abruptly tired: weakness striking with the force of a swift kick to the genitals. Dabbling once more in cricket, the scale of ruin was plain. My arms flopped about slackly; my legs were thrust askew and buckled. Standing in front of a mirror, tracing chicken bone limbs and birdcage ribs, I knew this shrivelled body was causing of grievous pain, and the enemy didn’t lurk in the cheeks or midriff but the skull. I’ve been lucky: not so far down the slope that when I grasped out I couldn’t find a hold. (Realising that my BMI was lower than Christian Bale’s circa The Machinist also came as a much-needed jolt. That might sound fatuous but anyone haunted by the sharp arising of his spine as he bent to the fridge will empathise.)
At first my diet barely rose: a piece of bread; a few snatched raisins; the odd disgruntled slice of cake. It felt like I was downing portions fit to sink the Bismarck. After months of counting grapes and nibbling on lone dry bagels what seemed orgiastic was a spare, coldly measured diet. Enough to make you put on weight, perhaps, but only if you’re small, sedentary and of the fairer sex. This restless beanpole wasn’t going to add an XY chromosome. Out walking, debating whether to brave a pre-tea apple, I realised that my efforts had been, well – totally fucking hopeless. Looking back, it had to be an incremental rise, but the idea that I’d pack on pounds was a generous gob of self-deception.
Since then my intake has been developing in heaps and mounds; all that keen-eyed scrutiny focussed, this time, on building up a larger, balanced and, yes, tolerable diet for recovery. This regime has not been pleasant: food and sedentariness conspire to churn a thick, revolting bloat. I feel like a pregnant antinatalist. When you’re losing weight the discomfort is gratifying; trying to recover, it mingles with a sour, residual shame. What’s uncomfortable for me, however, is excrutiating for more hapless souls. While eating isn’t yet pleasurable, it’s made easier by the knowledge that it’s, well – in a good cause! The assaults of cold and lethargy have petered out, and I’m clear that anorexia isn’t just disabling, it stultifies; it’s tedious.
Reading through a novel I’d engross myself in mealtimes: breakfasts in The Old Devils; snacking in Portnoy’s Complaint; even the insipid slop from 1984. Copiously studied as George Orwell’s life has been, few, I’ll bet, have paid such rapt attention to his dietary habits. The plucky stream that was my novel fell to stagnant drops of text; I lost interest in books and films; lost interest in people. While my body quietly starved, all of my mind was food: swelling with my own and other’s meals; what could be replaced or lost. Fleeing that dull appetence I’d stumbled into mental gluttony. That, I think, above all else, is why I’m keen to leave the edge. I’m no optimist – won’t turn and stroll into the light – but there’s a world to be explored and I’d prefer to venture with a blossoming mind than a withered frame.