The Elephant in the Room

"Life with an eating disorder, if you can call it life, is similar to a puppet show. You are the dancing, smiling puppet, and your disorder is the puppeteer. It calls the shots and pulls the strings. It tells you when you’re going to eat and how much. It even writes the script, putting its own values where yours used to be. All of a sudden, you don’t care about your health, your friends or your dreams. All you care about is being thin, and you don’t even really know how it happened, when, or why." - (


1. Support Group Tastes like Green Tea

There’s this lie that someone once told me and it’s been bugging me ever since. There’s this lie that says nothing is more beautiful than a skeleton. It’s been bugging me because I am sitting in a room of skeletons and there is absolutely, unequivocally, nothing beautiful about it.

There is nothing beautiful in the way that we are gathered here today like blown hinges and plastic bags and fuses. It is not handsome that the air vent in the ceiling does not regulate the temperature enough to clear the sweat from my palms - and the way we are stacked tentatively on top of chairs is not exquisite. I think we're all afraid that the chairs too – like all other certainties – might be made of eggshell.

So, no. I do not find the blanket swaddling, or the anatomy lesson charming. I do not see that there is anything beautiful about the fact that I am sorting people into cardboard boxes based on their skinniness: healthy, anorexic, healthy, anorexic. I’m very conscious of skinniness these days; no one escapes my classifications. Even me, I suppose.

The biggest problem with this lie - 'Nothing Is More Beautiful Than A Skeleton' - is that it is hard to not let it be true. Because there are days when I look at myself in the mirror and admire the fact that my bones bruise out of my cheeks and my knees and my shoulders. I look at those little outcrops of bone that peek from my wrists and my elbows and then I decide that I do not mind bones so much after all. I’m not anorexic. I’m just conditioned by a society that believes in skeletons. Sometimes I manage to make myself nauseous with the fact that I delight in the shallowness of my stomach while my sister is kept alive by a tube that’s been forced down her right nostril.

She coughs and I look up, dazed. I have not been listening, but she is paying her dues in earnest attention with all the bronze-coloured coins she can spare. We rearrange our coats to cover her knees; they are trembling but that might be by design rather than cold. Aoife is not beautiful anymore, that’s one thing I’ve confidently established, and somehow the rugged legs and the tremble in the air and the frailty of everything makes me wonder whether my sister has been admitted to an old people’s home by mistake. Teenage girls and porcelain dolls shouldn’t sit on shelves like they’re already out of date.

The room is a sad room. It’s a conference room above an Adults’ Mental Health Unit which none of us are old enough for. I suppose they decided that a change of scenery might be nice, but the phoney fronting of a blue-and-green-frosted mental ward does not detract from the loneliness of the place. Downstairs in the lobby a woman is singing to an audience who have long since stopped listening. The room has a brown floor and a darker brown padding to the chairs and a long, unfriendly table which is made no less sterile by the fading marker pens and sheets of clean white paper strewn across it. The air smells of green tea.

"There’s not really many calories in green tea, are there?" Aoife once said while we poured drinks over a mid-summer dusk. I had coke. I think we were on holiday - France, or somewhere like it - and I know for sure we were sitting under a white lattice gazebo with my Aunt and Uncle. Aoife had Jasmine Tea and if I’d known anything I would have recognised the way that – while I drowned my own thirst in sugar – she filled herself up with the number zero.

Part of the problem with Aoife is me, actually. My sister and I weigh about the same but my height means that I just about escape being ‘underweight’ like her. The difference is that I consume enough to feed a family of three each day and she doesn’t. The pair of us compete in a skinniness race that I don’t even realise I’m running in. She's attempting to be first across the finish line, but even when she wins she's going to lose. She's going to lose everything. And that's the problem.

That’s why we are invited to an Anorexia Support Group in a sad room that smells of green tea.

Mind you, I find most places sad at the moment. For me, sadness is a kind of medicine that I keep swallowing because guilt is force feeding it down my throat. I am guilty of my sister’s illness, I am guilty of liking bones, I am guilty of selfishness and wanting to be loved.

All this extends into one of the cruellest vicious circles I’ve ever known because I am sad because I am guilty and I am guilty because I am sad. Because I am sad my mother has devised a system whereby I have an old postcard of a Cornish fishing village on my filing cabinet and I have to move it to the window sill whenever I put a razor to my wrist just so that she knows. So that she knows that she has another goddamn thing to worry about on top of everything else. This causes me to be guilty of distracting my mother from her true priorities, and of adding extra woes where none were called for. This in turn then causes me to be sad because I am sad about my guiltiness.

Sad is not a very good word, I decide as the last chairs shuffle into place and the Head Psychiatrist stands up to speak. Some people would choose the word depressed but I prefer not to self-diagnose so I call it sadness. We have a poor enough prognosis as a family without the shackles of another Mental Illness claiming us. And unfortunately, it's so very hard to unlock the chains when your Emotional Disorder has long since thrown the key down your throat and made you swallow it. 

The Head Psychiatrist is called Jan. She wears green tights with a brown skirt and I sort of wonder if she’s done it to try to make the patients feel better about their appearance because surely no one would wear that for fashion. I realise that I’m not really listening to her spiel about how groups like this are proven to be key to recovery and how recovery is more a new place than a return to an old perfection and I force my thoughts to sleep so that she can give me hers.

“Sometimes,” she says, “anorexia is not a bad guy that can be beaten. We can’t always believe in miracles.”

I tuck my hands in under my knees and flick my foot back and forth. I decide she’s not saying anything particularly useful as I’m actually quite familiar with miracles – sometimes my sister even eats things.

Support group is a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous, I suppose. AA is like this fellowship of drunkards who have given up on being drunkards, and I guess it's a bit like the fellowship of the ring in a way because it's a small band of people dragged together to conquer something unconquerable. If AA is a band of struggling alcoholics, trying to wrestle their way out of the holes they've filled with booze and bad breath, then support group is some families trying to drag their kids out from graves that society dug them. The difference is that probably one in four of the kids sat in here will never have the strength left in their arms to force their way out of the hole. Also, there is very little anonymity when it comes to mental illness.

Next to me, Aoife shudders under the cold from the vent, her breath catching in her throat. I nudge her shoulder and she turns to me and smiles, weakly. She doesn't like this place anymore than I do.

I smile back because it's the least I can do, and then Jan claps her hands together and calls for the room to split into groups. We're doing what we're told and we're not thinking for ourselves as we move to our separate corners of the room, and to be honest with ourselves, we don't want to. Aoife thought for herself, and look where that got her. Look where that got all of them, sitting in their chairs with their bones bursting out of them. And me, I thought for myself, and look where that got me - with a razor to my wrist and splatters of blood on my creamy white bedroom carpet. I don't mean that I painted myself with the red of my veins; I just allowed a few beads to dribble from the incisions I'd made. A few too many, I suppose.

My father wasn't pleased with me at all. They were relatively new carpets, just put in a year before, and I knew fine well how much he's always hated mess. I don't think he was angry exactly, just disappointed because you plan to get married have children and live happily ever after. Anorexia and self harm are never on the agenda.

I end up standing next to Aofie, my mother and father, a boy taller than me with a look on his face more vacant than mine, a girl who's probably his sister, an elderly woman with streaks of blonde fading into the white-wash of her hair, and her son, Peter. I think the woman's name is Sara, but I've not seen the boy or girl before.

We are meant to be drawing round our hands and writing "things to look forward to" inside our outlines, but no one moves. The boy stares at our group, his expression lazy and sloppy, like he's so far past caring that reality no longer registers. It sounds awful but I sympathise, and when his eyes brush over my sister to rest on me I try for a grin. I think smiles are like parts of yourself that you give away, sometimes. Like you're packaging up a small sliver of happiness, and sending it out to whomever you want, with no return address on the parcel.

The boy snatches at my smile, but he doesn't say thank you or nod in acknowledgement. Instead he scowls, and his features harden and sharpen like he's removed a veil from his face and he's seeing the world for the first time. His face goes from a fuzzy, buffering YouTube video to the latest attempt at high definition, and it gives me the full force of his undirected vindication.

Or maybe his anger has a direction. Maybe it's not lost or misplaced at all, and maybe he fully intends to take its wrath out on me, for whatever reason he's decided is halfway to plausible. He grabs at his sister's arm and he tugs, gentle despite the otherwise apparent fury in his eyes. Hatred surges through him in a tidal wave of raging despair that's going to knock him over if he doesn't take control of the scrawny surfboard he rides. It strikes me that maybe if he lets his rage and hatred go there'll be no part left of him he can control at all.

Perhaps, though, I'm just deluding myself. That's possible. I delude myself a lot. When Aofie first got diagnosed, I would sit under my bedcovers at night and pretend that everything was okay and we were still going to go on holiday to France and play at happy families.

"Stephy," the boy says, and she bites her lip and then nods and lets him pull her away to join another group.

Sara makes a face. "Alright, Peter?" asks Sara, and her son nods, using a marker pen that barely works to draw the shape of his unbearably skinny hand. The marker pen's line is faint, and it reminds me of him, and the fading print he's stamping on the envelope of life. Aofie takes her piece of paper and when she draws on it the line her pen makes is a vibrant green and it looks garish against the plain colour of the paper. Her pen is brand new, and draws a crisp, clear line.

In a way, that's worse than the rubbish fading pen. The beautiful, bright, thin line that Aofie traces around her hand is everything she aspires to be and everything that she isn't.

I'm watching my sister and she knows I'm watching her, and she forces me to take out my own surfboard. I'm hurting, and aching, and then I'm joining the boy riding his ocean of pain.

I want to scream, but I don't. I can't, because this support group is not for me. This is for Aofie, and my parents don't need anyone else to worry about, anyway. Even if I could scream, would I? I don't know. I'm not sure.

I take a piece of paper, and I draw around my hand.

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