How can I fully describe the chaos, misery and misrule of an anorexic’s thinking? The mess and devastation of an illness that, while starving a body of its flesh, strips the mind of all rational thought?
Imagine a healthy mind as a library. The books are shelved in glass-fronted cases, alphabetically and by subject. High, shuttered windows give a view of the sea, a garden square, or chalk downland. There is an armchair, with a table and lamp, and a polished top stacked with favourite titles. In an ordered mind, this light, tidy library is a refuge, a retreat from a tiring world, a room where you can sit and read and gather your thoughts.
Now let me describe a different sort of library, this one belonging to the disordered, anorexic mind. The bookcases have fallen, their glass fronts smashed, their contents in disarray across the floor. The windows, too, have shattered. Rain and damp have got at the books, spoiling their bindings and soaking the pages. What is to be done with a room as desolate as this? What is there to salvage? It is not a retreat, it is wreckage. At fifteen, this was the state of my mind.
Anorexia is an illness of wretched isolation. It traps you inside your thoughts and those thoughts become more and more frightening, less and less in your control. You want desperately for someone to help, to heave cases upright, set your chair by the window, return books to their shelves, while at the same time fearing more than anything that intervention might mean being forced to eat. I would sooner have taken my chances with the chaos than be made to eat a baked potato.
It has been the work of the last five years to pick up each of those mind’s library books in turn and shelve them in their rightful place. To learn – and it has been a long, hesitating lesson – to eat not with grudging duty, but with delight. It began with Siegfried Sassoon’s boiled eggs. My curiosity was piqued. Dare I say my stomach rumbled? I wondered: were there other writers with as hearty an appetite? There were.
This is not a book about the anguish – and it is anguish – of anorexia. This book is about what comes next. About the pouring in of sunlight after more than a decade of darkness and hunger. About Charles Dickens giving me the courage to try a spoonful of Christmas pudding. About crumbling saffron buns on a walk with Laurie Lee, and spooning yogurt, honey and walnuts at a breakfast with Patrick Leigh Fermor. About keeping the cold out with Robert Graves’s bully beef, and picking teeth-staining mulberries with Elizabeth David. About (rapture, this!) stirring whole milk into my porridge with the Swallows and Amazons. About ginger biscuits broken in half with Virginia Woolf.
I want to write about the solace of reading, and through reading, putting my mind’s shelves in order. About restoring my library, one book at a time.
This is an excerpt from the 2018 shortlisted book by Laura Freeman. Read more