Friday, 10 February 2012

Always eat pudding

I have gone off on a tangent in the thing I am attempting to write, and that tangent has, for once, not involved staring into space and googling 'tarsiers', but has taken me to go and look up the psychiatrist I saw for a year when I was twenty one. It's ok, it's not supposed to be that kind of thing I'm writing: god, that would be amazingly boring and awful. Mainly it's about cake, honest.

Being twenty one, self-absorbed and miserable, I don't think I really gave him much thought at the time: Once a fortnight I took the train from Waterloo East out to grimy Hayes in Kent, and wrangled with him about whether porridge with water, a pitta bread and steamed vegetables was enough food, or whether I was chewing too much chewing gum for its laxative properties. Then I would go back to my rather solitary existence between the chilly beauty of the Radcliffe Camera library and my neat college room and read novels and scrutinise my hips, or go driving around the unlovely Oxford ring road, distant and distracted, in my tiny car. I would write a minutely accurate, neat diary of everything I ate for him, and bring it in the next time, proud not to have "cracked" and binged; proud of the meagre, controlled, ricecakes and apples existence documented in my green squared notebook. I had kept to the rules; I liked rules.

But he was there, and he was a safety valve of sorts, and the thought of him kept me going for the remainder of those fortnights. More than that, I liked him: he was tough enough, but he was also kind, and pragmatic, and he had a dry, understated sense of humour. I got the impression he was never terribly worried about me; that he thought this - the bulimia, my very shut-down, tidy unhappiness - was just a hiccup, it was all going to be fine. Maybe that was part of the way he operated, part of the therapeutic process: from my perspective it was both helpful and hopeful. Soon, his demeanour seemed to say, your life will crack open in unimaginable, thrilling ways, you'll escape this shell of caution and there will be other, infinitely more important things in your life than the shape of your thighs.

In reality, it took me a very long time to shake most of those habits I was stubbornly encoding in my mental hard drive. I have now, I think, 16 years later, but for years I could still find a rather sterile sort of comfort in cutting down on food, drinking too much coffee, feeling the hard reassurance of the prominent bones of my sternum. It did get better, yes. Life happened, and things changed and my priorities shifted. Even so, I still had occasional relapses as recently as 2008 and it's only in these last, what? Three years? (such a short time!) That I have felt largely free of food anxiety, neurosis, oddness. Even now, I'm not completely complacent: I got fat (or rather, fat for me) this summer, from being anxious and sedentary and drinking too much, and it ate away at me. I felt lost, worthless, not myself. Eating disorders are opportunistic: when you're low, they can creep back. They're hard to shake completely.

Anyway, the point is, the seeds of shaking mine lie with Gerald Russell, and I was thinking about him, and I looked him up. He's retired now, as you'd expect, at 84. I knew already that he was rather venerable, and responsible for the clinical definition and first description of bulimia, but I knew nothing more, so I had a poke around the dusty corners of the internet. I came across this rather extraordinary interview with him, which I think gives a small sense of the fantastically humane and lively person I met back then. He was born in Belgium, which rather delighted me, for obvious reasons. He fled to France in 1940 with his family and was evacuated via Dunkirk ("a horrible experience"). He describes a vicious air raid before they left, and uses the rather memorable, and very particular, phrase "it was the first time I personally stepped on a body".

(I also rather like the deadpan description of why he ended up specialising in eating disorders:

"When I moved back to the Maudsley, all the dyslexics seemed to be living north of the river in London and they wouldn't cross the river. Whereas the anorexic patients did cross the river".)

Anyway. He seems to be a rather extraordinary man and I am exceptionally grateful to have stumbled into his consulting room: I would have crossed a lot of rivers to see him. You would have thought he might have better things to do than treat yet another tightly wound middle class perfectionist, but he gave no hint of it. I remember almost nothing we talked about, but I remember he was practical and funny. He didn't seem much to care about my childhood or my inner torment: he was very much about fixing, and that seemed like oxygen in my suffocatingly careful existence. I only remember one specific piece of advice, or instruction he ever gave me, and it was this:

"I think you should always eat pudding. I always eat pudding".

There was some rationale to it, I recall: it was punctuation: a full stop at the end of a meal, to tell your brain that you had finished. But mainly I liked the glorious, happy simplicity of it. Always eat pudding.

So I do. Because I still like rules, maybe more than I should. But now I also like puddings.


soleils said...

I like puddings, too.
And I loved reading this.
And I think I would love this man if I met him.
Thank you for sharing this. It is precious.

jonathan said...

Well. That is a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you. And... what about your man the phsychologist/ neurologist, I knew nothing whatsoever about that area of clinical study (well, about any area of clinical study) before, but it is clear from the interview you had the good fortune at such a vulnerable time in your youth to come across a practitioner posessed of rare intuition, intellect, and generosity of spirit.

ganching said...

Agree with Jonathan that this is a lovely, honest piece of writing.

(My word verification is physiwhich seems somehow apt.)

Nellig said...

This is absolutely brilliant. One of your best, and that's saying something.

This piece would be perfectly at home somewhere like the LRB, or Salon, or Intelligent Life.

Waffle, you are very, very good.

B said...

Hopping on the you are amazing train. This is touching, funny, honest and relatable (and concise and well written, but that goes without saying from you).

Also, I love pudding, too.

Chuski said...

Waffle, I read your thing on child birth in Ared at the hairdressers this morning. Your writing is fab, particularly this last entry, we are privileged to have thisnwindowminto waffledom. Thanks, and Bon courage

katyboo1 said...

Beautiful. You. And him.x

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, moving, beautifully written - perfect illustration of why I've devotedly followed your blog for the last 4 years.

Dara said...

Thank you for your honest and always courageous glimpses into your world. You are a brilliant and a gifted writer.

Z said...

I agree with the others, a fine piece of writing about a wonderful man.

And, my love, those of us who have never suffered from an eating disorder also feel worthless and out of kilter with themselves when they gain weight. It's not nice feeling fat, even if it's just a few extra pounds. So if you are concerned that it's a symptom of yours, I think you're just being normal.

Laura Jane said...

Vintage stuff Em, lovely to read.

Such a respectful and affectionate tribute to him, with all the perspective that he knew you would gain.

I'm sure he'd be delighted to know he'd made those years bearable.

Persephone said...

Sometimes it seems that we've been dropped into the maze like laboratory rats, but if we're lucky, people materialize to help guide us through. I've been so grateful for those persons in my life and in the lives of my daughters. Delightful to hear about one of your maze-guides.

Joi said...

You make writing seem so effortless. A wonderful, enviable talent.

Stacy said...

What a pleasure to read. It's nice to remember that we are not the exact same people we were at age 21, that some things we do grow out of.

As an American, the word pudding conjures up other things, but I'm married to a Brit who shares a firm belief in dessert (or pudding), in many shapes, preferably with apple.

Em said...

I like pudding and rules. So thank you, this is a lovely post. x

connie said...

So moving Emma.

Xtreme English said...

Very interesting! Thanks!! pudding, eh? I can like that....

Sniffle said...

It sorta never really goes away – it can’t – living ambiguously – but if you’re like me, you know this ambiguity and now, know the fucker better - seeing it for what it is why it reappears. The benefits – there are two I know of - the realization and that I, somehow, understand something which others struggle with. I watch the childers and others I love, and when I’m not wrecked, listen and listen again and then some more listening and prodding and prompting veering them away from a place I sorta know

Annie said...

I love the way you write. It's so airy and brilliant. Thank you for the share. Always.

Johnners said...

Such an evocative piece, thank you. I don't want to go back there, but you get tired fighting it off sometimes, so to read something so delicate and full of understanding like this does help enormously.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing, obviously from the heart. Looking forward to seeing your first book in print. You have the gift, for sure.

Anonymous said...

That was a very wise and touching piece!

Alison Cross said...

Lovely, lovely post - very evocative of your life then and your relationship with food.

Always eat pudding? That's a maxim I can adhere to. Frankly, given half a chance, I'll eat your pudding too. I didn't even know that I HAD bones in my sternum ;-)

Ali x

Margaret said...

This is so beautiful and evocative. I'm glad you eat pudding now.

Pat (in Belgium) said...

You left off a word.
It's "always eat pudding FIRST" to which I would add "especially if there's (preferably dark) chocolate in it".

Sarah said...

Bit of a tear in the eye here! I'd agree with Z that even those of us who don't suffer from eating disorders judge ourselves too much by our weight and how we think othrs perceive us. And having been a not very happy and somewhat self obsessed 20 odd year old, the joy of being a battered but happier (and occasionaly wiser) nearly 50 year old is not to be underestimated. Being reminded how far we have come and that the scars contribute to that is invaluable - thank you!

Anonymous said...

Did you see???

So cool!!

Winston said...

Cake and pudding are good. I love the 'Mournful dog picture of the week, "unparelleled Savagery"'. How's Satan?


Christ on a bike. I have no heart, but I cried a bit. I kiss you.

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