The Steepest Hill
by Sophie Renouf
I am lacking. I am too much. I have too much of this, not enough of that.
The first time I make myself sick I know what I’m experiencing is an adrenalin rush. Don’t ever do it, my sister said, it’s addictive. I pick it up like you pick up smoking, starting with a little experiment. But then, like with smoking, the relationship you have with it changes. It becomes something you have to do; I go into a coma-like trance, and try to fill the emptiness, then try to empty the emptiness back out of me. I feel powerful: I can turn back time.
I can still stop whenever I want.
I bow my head slightly, then look up and into the eyes of my new friends one by one as I say, ‘I used to have an eating disorder.’ I almost enjoy this theatre.
And as I say it I believe it to be true; when telling people about bulimia I talk about it in the past tense and so saying, feel that I have murdered it.
It must have died a thousand deaths only to be reborn, more devious, more slippery, more sticky.
There is the me who my university friends see: funny, confident, strong. Then there is the me alone in my room with a bin bag. There it is, tucked away within my secret narrative, sewn into the tapestry of things I tell myself to keep myself safe.
Maya, my therapist, asks me to share the times I have ‘checked’ my body this week and it reads like some tragic poem. In the building on the way to work, in the lift, in the toilets, in the mirror while I’m having sex.
Maya says, ‘Do you think all people look at themselves naked in the mirror?’
‘Yes . . . no . . .’
‘What do you think other people use the mirror for, Sophie?’
I don’t know. If there is some universal rule about how much time one should spend in the mirror, then someone should have told me.
I tell her about how, when I was six years old, I used to run around my room in circles and then stop and check in the mirror to see if my belly had ‘gone down’.
She smiles to show she recognises the tenderness of the image, that I was cute, that she sees and shares the affection for myself in the humour of this story.
As it turns out, people use the mirror to see if their outfit looks ok, to make sure their makeup is in place, to squeeze spots (but not too much). These are acceptable things to do in the mirror.
“When telling people about bulimia I talk about it in the past tense and so saying, feel that I have murdered it.”
At the Maudsley a girl in cycling gear sits in the waiting room. She turns to me and gesturing, as if to the entire building, with all its firm-but-nice therapists and remembering-to-smile receptionists, its protocols and procedures and photocopied pages, its big neat draw of treatments with different therapies filed away – one for me, one for you – says, ‘Does it work?’
‘I don’t know.’
I answer honestly and return to my book. I’m not visibly disappearing like her but I’m not really here. I feel sympathy for her but I am not like her.
This is just an accident, some freakish thing. It got stuck like a splinter of wood when I was still a dumb teenager and now I have to come and pull it out.
Maya says, ‘What would happen if your boyfriend knew you still make yourself sick?’
I say, ‘You told me I don’t have to tell him anything, that it’s my personal life. It’s separate.’
I feel like her face darkens, but it’s probably just the light changing in the room.
‘I can’t make you do anything,’ she says. ‘It’s up to you. What do you think would happen if you told him?’
I find out later that what happens to me next is called a ‘hot emotion’. The prospect, the suggestion, of telling him that I still make myself sick sometimes seems so wrong I start shaking.
‘He’ll . . . It’ll be like I’ve been lying . . . I have been lying . . .’ I can feel myself losing control, the tears are coming. Somewhere, distantly, I think about how I’m starting a new job soon and I’m a fraud. If I can’t cope with this, how can I cope with anything?
I feel a grief pouring out of me, one that I didn’t know was there. I imagine myself naked before him, before her, before the entire universe. She waits.
I can’t speak. We end the session with me mumbling, and Maya tells me later she didn’t expect to see me again. She thought I’d never come back.
Part of me doesn’t trust him not to be disappointed, even disgusted. It’s a small part. A bigger part of me trusts him enough to spew everything in front of him, tell him all of it. But I know how much I trust him doesn’t really matter; I have to tell him and my telling him is about me.
As I say it he calmly blinks and waits, and then stretches out his arm to bring me to lie beside him in the bed. Another layer of shame falls away. Maybe the thickest, stickiest layer. And it’s not him that peels it off, it’s me; I shed it like an old coat that’s been sitting on my shoulders making me hot.
And I realise it doesn’t matter what people think. It’s not about their reaction, it’s about my own judgements. Ugly, narcissistic, incomprehensible, even violent; I let them all go.
I’ve just left Maya after the first of our monthly ‘catch-up’ sessions. In the session I suggested that she have a room of mirrors where the floor is just one big set of scales. This would force everyone to confront their biggest fears. She could watch her patients from the other side, track their eye movements to see where they look and for how long. It was a light-hearted session.
Now, I’m cycling up a steadily inclining hill. It feels like I’m bouncing the world from one thigh to the other. It hurts. I’ve got that sharpness in my chest and my mouth is open wide to get as much air as I can. And just when I think I can’t take it anymore, I’m at the top, cruising along flat ground with the cars. Now I’m about to go down Dog Kennel Hill. Ever since Theo told me about how his friend was cycling down this hill and his front wheel locked and he went over the handlebars and his teeth when through his chin, I always get off my bike and walk down, or gently hold my breaks all the way.
Today I will let go. Coming up the hill was hard work but coming down the other side is scary. What if something jumps in my way and I have to break suddenly? I have no control over the speed, all I can do is steer.
I let go. I’m watching myself, from somewhere behind my eyes, surrender to a magical combination of fear and relief. I feel the wind, I feel the air fill my lungs and I feel gravity doing its job. I glide in the natural order of things. I am full and I am empty and both are okay.
Sophie Renouf | @sophierenouf