The Fear of Food
My life is dominated by a fear of food otherwise known as anorexia, an illness that killed former UK reality TV star Nikki Grahame.
The writer supports The Hope Exchange, a group of people who provide food for the homeless in Cape Town. Please help them here
It is midnight in London. I do my secret clandestine walk to the kitchen. And there it is, as silent as a sarcophagus, chocolate on cream, rummy, an alabaster-coloured confection, veined with blood-dark cherries, licking good.
We are a ménage à trois, living in a deeply low-grade flat in Fulham. Alexander, a hot young barrister, with an exquisite politeness that could make anyone angry, Bart an ex-Guards officer who shows early signs of a cholesterol problem and drives a minicab, and me, a med student.
There is a cat in a cage and a bird that flies around. The barrister’s reasoning, which will one day make him a judge, is that the bird needs protecting, not the cat.
We have no money. Bart has pawned his only suit and is wrapped in a green chenille bedspread. We talk about food and running away to be glimpsed years later standing on a railway station in Algiers. But we are stuck.
The bath is in the kitchen with a piece of wood over the top which we use as a table. The flat is almost entirely food-free. There is no fridge. We buy cigarettes for which we pay by cheque (Alexander has a Coutts bank account which we envy) which takes three days to clear before the tobacconist asks us for the money.
We read but only have three books: The Catcher in the Rye, Vesuvius by Ronald Firbank which we don’t understand and Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter which tells us how to bake a kipper in a jug.
I am secretly in love with the hot barrister from the Inner Temple. He is in love with his ex-girlfriend who he invites to tea.
She comes, carrying a large box of profiteroles and a gateau. She has a sinister elegance that changes the temperature of the room, thin as a pin, with her tiny waist clasped in a vice-like grip of an ornamental belt; her feet in scarlet stilettos look like the hooves of a young deer.
She says the unforgivable words: “Doesn’t matter what I eat, I just can’t put on weight.”
I vow never to eat again. From then on, my life is dominated by the Fear of Food otherwise known as anorexia, an illness that, after Nikki Grahame of Big Brother fame died of it in April 2021, has its fingerprints all over contemporary media.
I forget about studying and instead make unedifying lists of what I have eaten each day. I found one of those notebooks recently. It reads, Breakfast, apple, piece of cheese, two biscuits. NO BUTTER.
My go-to food shop is the local chemist. In my years in Callow Street, Fulham, I never enter a food shop. I live on slimming biscuits that taste like carpet offcuts and Okinawa Flat Belly Tonic.
Sometimes Bart jokes, “Let’s go Oriental and have Okinawa Flat Belly Tonic for dinner.”
The chemist also provides shelter for my ol’ dreamboat, the weighing machine. I was nine stone, then eight stone, then seven stone. It never lets me down.
There is nothing like losing weight to put one in a good mood.
Everyone in the flat dreams of food: puddings that look like plans for formal gardens. I dream of capons stuffed with morel mushrooms and chestnuts.
To an anorexic, everything – economics, morality, love, sex, virtue, industry – is threaded into food.
I am circling the drain, but nobody seems to notice I am dying.
My rich aunt in Knightsbridge sends me a daily letter. She – like most people – has a copper-bottomed belief in the “good breakfast”. Sorry, three generational anorexics (my ma, my grandma were all gold medal anas) does not respond to a letter from a rich aunt suggesting breakfast and who is, in any case, going to leave her money to her Portuguese maid.
Anorexia responds to nothing. I am hanging on to the edge of a bridge that I have already fallen over. My teeth are as carious as water caves and hair is growing on my back. A friend at the hospital suggests a Jungian Sandplay therapist. A what?
After a while most anorexics realise that unless they eat, they are going to die. This is when they start eating but step up the exercise to Olympian levels. “Food in, food out” as Bill Johnston, the famous Joburg rider, used to intone.
I become more and more isolated. My only away trip is a midnight totter to look at the still-uneaten cake. Once, I meet the devastatingly attractive barrister in the kitchen. “You look like a serious mistake in a nightie,” he says.
Now I wear kid’s clothes. Tiny sweaters, weeny skirts, teamed with rock star heels, half child, half adult. I have more dates than ever. In a shop the assistant says, “Goodness how lucky you are to be thin.”
Yep, I’m dying, and I love it, thanks for asking.
Although I looked like a blown egg, men find me irresistible (this is the subject of a paper I once wrote). I dine nightly in super-smart restaurants with young doctors with chiselled features, scooping most of the meal into a large bag with a waterproof inside; a crayfish once popped its head out.
Alexander and Bart wait on the stairs for me to arrive home with dinner. Anorexics like nothing better than seeing other people eat. Like trash divers they become skilled at disentangling escargots from bouillabaisse.
Many celebrities have had anorexia in some form, some like Nikki Grahame have died. The day Jackie O learnt that she had terminal cancer, she went out and eat three desserts in her local restaurant where she dined daily but had never eaten a pud before.
As an anorexic said to me recently. “Dying is awful but being thin is worth it.”
This is dangerous talk. It is so fatally easy to deceive oneself.
Over the years I became a lackey to food, desolation, isolation and introspection. Any early promise vanished in the obsessive, head down anxiety of an intractable mental condition.
They say you never get over it; I wish someone would pass the message to my waistline. DM/TGIFood
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