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.