Falling through Glass

 

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self-portrait//circa 2008

[An essay on anorexia, femininity, adolescent pain & writing the body]

I distinctly remember the first time I watched someone apply liquid liner to their eyes. We stood in the Debenhams toilets before a sheet of unavoidable mirror. She emptied her rucksack of trinkets and tools, drew out a plastic wand with a fine-tip brush and skimmed the gooey ink skilfully over her lids, making curlicues of shimmering turquoise. Her irises were a kind of violent hazel, whose flecks of green seemed to swim against the paler blue. She was very tall and for a while, very thin. She had a nickname, a boyfriend and sometimes she shoplifted; in my head, she was the essence of teenage success. Only later, in the maelstrom of a drunken night out down the beach, do I discover she’s heavily bulimic.

A year or so passes since this first incident, watching my friend slick her eyes with electric blue. I have since learned to ink my own eyes, draw long Egyptian lines that imitate that slender almond shape I long for. My makeup is cheap and smudges. I have grown thinner and people are finally starting to notice.

My mother goes quiet when we do the shopping. She tells me to move out the aisle and I ask what’s wrong. People are staringshe says. I turn around and there they are by the stacks of cereal, mother and daughter, gesturing at my legs and whispering: stick insect, skeleton. A feel a flush of hot pride, akin to the day in primary school when I got everyone to sign my arms with permanent marker—this sudden etching of possession. I am glad I lack this conspiratorial relationship with my own mother, reserving comments on others for the page instead, for my skin. My pain and frustration are communicated bodily: I slink into the shadows, sleeping early, avoiding meals. When people stare, they imbue me with a visibility I desire to erase. I should like better to float around them intangibly, diaphanous, a veil of a name they can’t catch. Instead it rests on everyone’s tongue, thick and severe: anorexic.

It took a week for all the names to fade from my arms; it takes much longer to erase a single label.

In the television series Girls, Lena Dunham’s character reveals that she got tattoos as a teenager because she was putting on weight very quickly and wanted to feel in control of her own body, making fairytale scripture of her skin. In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Skin’, an old man gets a famous artist to tattoo the image of a gorgeous woman on his back, the rich pigment of ink like a lustrous ‘impasto’. Years later, art dealers discover his fleshly opus and proceed to barter, literally, on the price of his skin. The story reveals the synecdochical relations between the body, the pen and the value of art. Everything is a piece of something else, skin after skin after skin. In Skins, Cassie Ainsworth gazes into the camera: I hate my thighs. With black marker, she scrawls her name onto her palm; she’s got a smile that lights up, she’s in love. Everyone around her rolls cigarettes, swaps paper skins like scraps of poetry. It feels dirty, the chiaroscuro mood of sunshine and sorrow. Her whole narrative purpose is the spilling of secrets, of human hurt turned to vapour, smoke. Wow, lovely.

For a while, my name mattered less than my skin. There were levels of weight to lose, dress sizes which signified different planes of existence. Over and over, I would listen to ‘4 st. 7lbs’ by the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards’ lyrics spat over a stomach-churning angst of guitar: ‘Self-worth scatters self-esteem’s a bore / I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’. That summer, ten years ago now, I would walk for hours, the sun on my skin. All the fields stretched out before me like fresh pages of impossibility; my life was a mirage on the flickering sea. I thought of liquid turquoise ink, the friend in the mirror. I started to forget the details of her face, so she blurred into the impressionist portraits I wrote about in school.

Midsummer’s eve; I laid down in one of those fields. With bone-raw fingers, I counted the notches of my spine. Even in free-fall you never feel quite free.

I was obsessed with Richey’s ghost. He disappeared decades ago and they never found evidence of his body. I wanted to evaporate like that, leave my abstracted car somewhere along the motorway; step into the silence of anonymity. Richey wrote screeds of furious notes: ‘I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina’. There it was: the dark evaporation of resentment and envy. Around this time, Bloc Party released A Weekend in the Citya record that uses Edwards’ lyric to express the racial frustration of being made Other by a racist society. I was acutely aware that the figure of a ballerina, the doll-like white girl, was a divisive source of symbolic desire. We inscribe such societal alignments on the female body, and shamefully I was more than ready to fall into place, to shed the necessary weight. But what I wanted was less the bloody violence of a crippled ballerina, and more the success of erasure.

In Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz,the protagonist Alabama trains to be a ballerina late in her twenties, too late to ascend to any real career success. Here was ballet, the pre-adolescent world of waif-thin bodies and she was a mother, a woman—someone who once gave birth, who was strong in flesh. She reaches this frenzied state of beautiful prudence, honing her body to the point where every movement and thought is guided by the waltzing beat, the perfect arabesque: ‘David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought’. I could attest to that. Ben and Jerry’s, swirls of it marbling the toilet bowl, clots of sweetness still clear in your throat. Fitzgerald’s sentences stream towards endless flourish. Alabama makes herself sick with the work, her desire is lustily bulimic. She gets blood poisoning, finds herself hospitalised with tubes in her body, drip-fed and cleansed by the system. I thought of how I wanted to photosynthesise, survive on nothing but air and light. Like a dancer, I was honing my new ascetic life.

Sometimes at night, the old ticker would slow to such a crawl and I thought it would stop in my sleep, sink like a stone. A girl I met on the internet sent me a red-beaded bracelet in the post and in class I’d twirl each plastic, pro-ana ruby, imagining the twist of my own bright sinew as later I’d stretch and click my bones.

I was small, I was sick. I used to write before bed, write a whole sermon’s worth of weight-loss imperatives; often I’d fall asleep mid-sentence and awake to a pool of dark ink, flowering its stain across my sheets. Nausea, of one sort or another, was more or less constant. Waves would dash against my brain, black spots clotting my vision. I moved from one plane or scale to another, reaching for another diuretic. I tried to keep within the lines, keep everything in shape.

Often, however, I thought about water, about things spilling; I drank so much and yet found myself endlessly thirsty. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, trying to drown, being spat back out by the sea: I am I am I am.

 I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. The familiar litany.

Something buoyed up, started showing on the surface. People could read the wrongness in the colour of my skin, all that mottled and purpling blood like a contrast dye my body had been dipped in. Against my pallid aquatic hue, I used to envy the warm and luxurious glow of other people’s skin. I sat on a friend’s lap and he freaked out at the jut of my bones. Someone lifted me and we ran down the road laughing and they were like, My god you’re so light. The sycamores were out in full bloom and I realised with a pang it would nearly be autumn. Vaguely I knew soon I would fall like all those leaves.

Anorexia is an austerity of the self. To fast is to practice a refusal, to resist the ideological urge to consume. To swap wasteful packs of pads and tampons for flakeaway skin and hypoglycaemic dreams. Unlike with capitalism, with anorexia you know where everything goes.

The anorexic is constantly calculating. Her day is a series of trades and exchanges: X amount of exercise for X amount of food; how much dinner should I spread around the plate in lieu of eating? It was never enough; nothing ever quite added up. My space-time melted into a continuous present in which I constantly longed for sleep. The past and future had no bearing on me; my increasingly androgynous body wasn’t defined by the usual feminine cycles—life was just existing. This is one of the trickiest things to fix in recovery.

Dark ecologist Timothy Morton says of longing: it’s ‘like depression that melted […] the boundary between sadness and longing is undecidable. Dark and sweet, like good chocolate’. Longing is spiritual and physical; it’s a certain surrender to the beyond, even as it opens strange cavities in the daily. The anorexic’s default existential condition is longing: a condition that is paradoxically indulgent. Longing to be thin, longing for self, dying for both. The world blurs before her eyes, objects take on that auratic sheen of desire. Later, putting myself through meal plans that involved slabs of Green & Black’s, full-fat milk and actual carbs, the dark sweet ooze of depression’s embrace gradually replaced my disordered eating. I wondered if melancholia was something you could prise off, like a skin; I saw its mise-en-abyme in every mirror, a curious, cruel infinitude.

In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus asks: ‘shouldn’t it be possible to leave the body? Is it wrong to even try?’. What do you do when food is abstracted entirely from appetite? What happens when life becomes a question of pouring yourself, gloop by gloop, into other forms? What is lost in the process?

I started a diary. I wrote with a rich black Indian ink I bought from an art supplies store. The woman at the counter ID’d me, saying she’d recently had teenagers come in to buy the stuff for home tattooing, then tried to blame her later when they all got blood poisoning. Different kinds of ink polluted our blood; I felt an odd solidarity with those kids, remembering the words others had scored on my skin for years. Tattooing yourself, perhaps, was a way of taking those names back. In any case, there was a sense that the ink was like oil, a reserve of energy I was drawing from the deep.

Recovery was trying to breathe underwater; resisting the urge of the quickening tide, striving for an island I couldn’t yet see.

(…What I miss most, maybe, is the driftwood intricacy, the beauty of the sternum in its gaunt, tripart sculpturing. Thinned to the bone, the body becomes elegiac somehow, an artefact of ebbing beauty…)

I think about beef and milk and I think about the bodies of cows and the way the light drips gold on their fields sometimes and how I’d like to curl up in some mossy grove and forget that all of this is happening. Sometimes I worry that my body is capable of making milk, making babies; its design is set up for this nourishing. Hélène Cixous insists women write ‘in white ink’ but I don’t want to be that plump and ripe, that giving. I want scarification, darkness, markings. I want Julia Kristeva’s black sun, an abyss that negates the smudge of identity.

I try to find loveliness in femininity, but my hands are full with hair barrettes, pencils, laxatives, lipstick—just so much material.

As Isabelle Meuret puts it, ‘starving in a world of plenty is a daring challenge’. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recently, I logged onto my Facebook to find an old friend, a girl I’d known vaguely through an online recovery community, had died in hospital. Her heart just gave up in the night. People left consolatory messages on her wall; she was being written already into another existence. Another girl I used to know posts regular photos from her inpatient treatment. She’s very pretty but paper-thin, almost transparent in the flash of a camera. Tubes up her nose like she’s woven into the fabric of the institution, a flower with its sepals fading, drip-fed through stems that aren’t her own. She’s supposed to be at university. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald, of broken ballerinas. A third girl from the recovery forum covers herself in tattoos, challenging you to unlock the myriad stories of symbol. Someone I know in real life gets an orca tattoo in memory of her sea-loving grandfather; she says it helped to externalise the pain. My own body is a pool of inky potential; I cannot fathom its beginning and ending. I wish I could distil my experience into stamps of narrative, the way the tattoo-lovers did. I am always drawing on my face, only to wash the traces away. I must strive for something more permanent.

Recovery, Marya Hornbacher writes in her memoir Wasted,

comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up and there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect.
And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.

Every meal, every morsel that passes the lips, we tell ourselves: You are okay. You deserve this. Must everything be so earned? Still there is this girl underneath: the one that screams for her meagre dreams, her beautiful form; her starlight and skeletons, her sticks of celery. I try to bury her behind sheet after sheet of glass, lose her in shopfronts, the windows of cars and bathrooms; I daily crush out the bloat of her starched hyperbole, keeping the lines plain and simple. Watching others around me, I try to work out other ways of feeling full, of being free. There is an entry from 2009, scratched in a hand I barely recognise in the final page of a diary: ‘Maybe we are only the sum total of all our reflections’. I wonder what kind of sixteen-year-old wrote this, whether she is happy now and if that matters at all.

Places of Memory

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Glasgow Uni spire seen from Kelvingrove Park

There is a sense in which selfhood is just a scattering of remembrances, remembrances dependent on places. Everywhere in which I have been encodes some trail, some trace of memory. As a child whenever we went on walks I would magic things into being, imagining worlds on top of worlds, layering enchanted spaces and creatures upon the reality of adolescent landscapes. I’d see fantastic beings darting in rocky streams, strange birds sweeping from forest canopies, a thousand intriguing microbes, exotic in colour, swirling on the ground amidst the paws of my (real-life) dog. And even as I grow older, shedding away these whimsical worlds, I keep the magic of perception, imbuing the places I visit with a mental significance. As some store their spatial memories in smartphones, clicking them into flattened snapshots, I try to inscribe them in my mind as networks of sentiment – of senses, thought and memory. There is this particular spot in Kelvingrove Park, with the perfect view of the Glasgow Uni spire and a quiet pool of sunlight that occurs in May at about 4 o’clock; the spot where after my first year exams I sat lazily making daisy chains and reading Laurie Lee’s nostalgically beautiful Cider With Rosie. There is that salt smell and clacking of pebbles, the quick breeze that is Brighton Beach and with it many far off summers, of paddling cold feet and minty sticks of rock. Weird innocence. There is that favourite place in Culzean, a small jutting of cliff that looks out to a glittering dusk-covered ocean and the eerie mound of the Ailsa Craig. So many times I have sat up there with various friends and family and each time I am a different person, bound together perhaps only by the chains of associations set off by this location. Although I was brought up in the country, my mind is also a sprawl of urban spaces: the wintry, bustling streets of Paris at New Year, the seagull strewn alleyways of Ayr, Glasgow’s gritty pavements and eclectic skyline of the modern and the gothic, Edinburgh with its panoramic view of hillside, castle, parliament and sea. What makes all these places somehow special is my relationship to them both cognitively and spatially – in other words, psychogeographically – a sense of pulsating interconnections based on walking, on exploring the world on foot.

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Ailsa Craig

Someone who has written extensively on his psychogeographic travels is the author Will Self, who ambles everywhere, in the search for new perspectives of space – walking famously from his house in England to New York (albeit with the help of an aeroplane), exploring the curious border spaces between urban and rural, airport and field. Self worries that in the contemporary world of globalisation and machine transport, we are becoming increasingly confined to ‘micro-worlds’ which offer restricted, miniature universes of hotels, airports, clubs and bars that bear little difference from city to city, in the sense that they are being used for the same purpose, and we rarely escape them. The frequency with which tourists, travellers and the like will take a taxi cab, subway or train rather than exploring on foot results in a limited perspective of urban space. There is no chance to stand back and observe one’s situatedness in relation to the built environment, to gauge one’s relationship to north, to the cathedral, the river; to form the intricate networks of association and recollection that pattern themselves around street-walking. I want to make a plea for this street-walking, not just as a fitness alternative to the stuffy mundanity of the gym but as an exercise in perception, in self-formation. (Sometimes, sounding pretentious or perhaps overly poetic is worth getting my point across, especially if it’s a pretty simple point about the joys of that most archaic of sports: walking.)

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street in Dowanhill

I feel like I’m naturally bad at driving. I don’t like being in control of a dangerous vehicle; yes, that’s one reason, and a reason certainly more justified after delving into J. G. Ballard’s dystopian account of sex, violence and dangerous driving in Crash. The car, as a vehicle of speed charged with the excitement of modernity – see Marinetti’s ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ – is the antithesis of the slow pacing of walking. With a great driving instructor, I took lessons for over a year and while I enjoyed the freedom of leaving my small town and gliding (at my shy snail’s pace) along country roads, I don’t think I’m cut out to drive powerful vehicles. Even a bike I manage only at a push. I spend too long getting distracted by pretty sunsets, sheep, or the name of a passing cafe.

So I guess rather than machine-obsessed Marinetti, I’m more aligned with the modernism of the flâneur, the original ‘street-walker’ who spent his/her time sauntering the streets (usually of Paris) and losing his/herself in the crowd. Charles Baudelaire describes the flâneur in The Painter of Modern Life: 

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.

There is something strangely ‘natural’ in becoming a liminal figure, between observation and participation, haunting the city streets and drinking the atmosphere of the crowd as if it were the very sustenance of life itself. Moreover, this sense of haunting can be literal, as stepping among a wealth of sensations recalls dreaded memories and fugue states of psychological wandering, as the narrator of Jean Rhys’ novel, Good Morning, Midnight suggests:

Twelve o’clock on a fine autumn day, and nothing to worry about. Some money to spend and nothing to worry about.
But careful, careful! Don’t get excited. You know what happens when you get excited and exalted, don’t you?….Yes….And then, you know how you collapse like a pricked balloon, don’t you ? Having no staying power….Yes, exactly….So, no excitement. This is going to be a quiet, sane fortnight. Not too much drinking, avoidance of certain cafes, of certain streets, of certain spots, and everything will go off beautifully. The thing is to have a programme, not to leave any thing to chance – no gaps. No trailing around aimlessly with cheap gramophone records starting up in your head, no ‘Here this happened, here that happened’. Above all, no crying in public, no crying at all if I can help it.
Thinking all this, I pass the exact place for my after dinner drink. It’s a cafe on the Avenue de l’Observatoire, which always seems to be empty. I remember it like this before.

The narrator, Sasha, speaks in ellipses, in the strange silences and drifting prose of a vagabond, losing her mind to the networks of memory that haunt and map out her present.

And while Rhys’ flaneur is at times made painfully aware of herself by her own solitude amidst the Parisian crowds, sometimes in the city, one actually craves the claustrophobia of people and buildings and even the nasty proliferation of pigeons. It is maybe a kind of sublime, where one forgets one’s self in the overwhelming hustle and bustle. I remember my first time walking into Glasgow city centre on foot via Argyle and St Vincent Street. Standing breathless at the crossing of the A804 I looked up to the massive glass-coated buildings, beaming off bright April sunlight. There’s a feeling there that I don’t think I’ll ever quite replicate, that of a young adult from a little town, now encountering for the first time alone the vastness and slightly daunting excitement of the metropolis. It is a vision of the city infinitely different from seeing the big buildings from the safety of the backseat of a car; a vision that seems much more urgent on foot, with the vehicles rushing around you and the commercial structures seeming so much grander from the pavement. And it is funny now, how I walk past these buildings so often and they seem diminished; I have adopted more of a blasé, Simmelian attitude to an urban environment that once appeared so compelling. The only solution to this, of course, is to explore new places, gain new perspectives.

It isn’t easy to explore new places when you are notoriously bad at navigation. I didn’t take Modern Studies over Geography for nothing; I genuinely find it a problem grasping my location through maps, to mentally situate myself. Instead of compass coordinates or street names, I tend to place myself in relation to strange landmarks: a telephone box with wild flowers sprouting out the side, an antique shop where the man sits outside polishing wood and making sandwiches, a crumbling wall or peculiar tree that grows by a river. My brain is more of a mesh of colours and markers than a standardised map of labelled coordinates; I know my space through unstable nodes of remembered landmarks which shift and change  and alter my spatial awareness. Perhaps this is why Glasgow (or even just the West End) no longer seems the same, huge place it once did when I first came to uni. Perhaps this is why I always tend to get lost in new places, because I can’t follow a steady route without getting distracted by the allure of a pretty residential estate or a path that detours miles along a canal.

An example of this is my sense of Victoria Park. Victoria Park often comes up weirdly in Limmy’s Show as a place where the fences demand repainting, but that isn’t my only notion of it. Victoria Park is a strange place in its location: a kind of island of green surrounded by motorway. And it is quite difficult to get to, requiring knowledge of the underpass and the correct entrances. I’m better at it now, but before I used to set out for it, following the trail set out by my portable Google Map, and then get confused and lost, ending up wandering aimlessly around Whiteinch. I don’t really know why I forgot how to get there, after the first time I stumbled across it. It flashed in my mind only as a bizarre mirage, almost like Mirage Island from Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire, appearing to me only on certain days when the weather was right and I was in the proper frame of mind necessary for navigation. I actually had to search online for photos of the place, to make sure I really had been there, to make sure it existed at all. The seeming elusiveness of the Park gave it an ethereal quality that remains today, even though I have now memorised exactly the route to get there.  And it’s not that difficult at all, really. Barely thirty minutes from my flat. Yet arriving upon that still, wide silver pond with its hordes of swans, I feel like I have found a peaceful, otherworldly territory. And then I hear the Glaswegian accent of a fellow walker with his dog, and the illusion shatters somewhat.

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Victoria Park in autumn

Glasgow is peppered with these secret spaces, and as the old etymology goes, it is in a strong sense a ‘dear green place’. There are so many parks and walkways I have yet to discover. I have found canals and strolls along the river, where you could be anywhere – until you spot a stunning piece of architecture peeping through the trees. And like all the places of my childhood, I feel like Glasgow is now a part of me: I have a  hidden history that exists among the old buildings, the pretty parks and streets. I don’t think I’d have such a strong sense of rootedness if I hadn’t explored the city always on foot; if I’d always gotten the Clockwork Orange (the subway) rather than meandering through various roots to town, would I have stumbled upon Park Circus, or the spring blossom that lights up Great Western Road? Living in the country is lovely, but when you are in a city, all it takes is a walk out the door and down a few streets and suddenly you are part of a crowd; not just a crowd of people, but a crowd of forgotten memories and historic spirits, of buildings that bear the souls of all those who have set foot inside them. The city has a certain music to it, different from the birdsong and breeze and tractor groans of the country, lively and beautiful and ambient all the same. Personally, I believe that you can only experience this music in its pure form by using your good old legs and walking the  metropolis. I’d like to end with one of my favourite passages of psychogeography, from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus is discovering Dublin for the first time:

Dublin was a new and complex sensation. […] In the beginning he contented himself with circling timidly round the neighbouring square or, at most, going half way down one of the side streets but when he had made a skeleton map of the city in his mind he followed boldly one of its central lines until he reached the customhouse. He passed unchallenged among the docks and along the quays wondering at the multitude of corks that lay bobbing on the surface of the water in a thick yellow scum, at the crowds of quay porters and the rumbling carts and the ill-dressed bearded policeman. The vastness and strangeness of the life suggested to him by the bales of merchandise stocked along the walls or swung aloft out of the holds of steamers wakened again in him theunrest which had sent him wandering in the evening from garden to garden in search of Mercedes. And amid this new bustling life he might have fancied himself in another Marseille but that hemissed the bright sky and the sum-warmed trellises of the wineshops.

Yes, I’ll leave you with that lovely, assonant image of sun-warmed trellises and bright skies and wineshops…because it’s always nice to imagine a sunnier world on top of the real one.

(all photos taken by me)