Full Text: Interview with Jimmi Campkin, “Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders.”

01/09/2014 at 20:02 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


1) How did you two meet: under what circumstances? Was it in a “neutral zone”, or through friends? Was she open about her illness, its symptoms, or did she try to conceal any parts initially (to try to appear “normal” / to keep two elements of her life apart) ?

We met via the internet and a slightly snarky response to a rather lame attempt to appear to have wisdom. From the beginning, R was open about her illness, although not to the extent of how much it still had a grip. In the early days I was led to believe that she was further along the journey of recovery than she actually was. We did a lot of things when we initially lived apart that we stopped doing when we moved in together. Looking back now I presume that, when we lived apart, she could endure the weekends ‘normality’ and then make up for it during the week out of my sight. Unfortunately this confused me somewhat when we moved in together. I thought she was back-sliding, when actually she wasn’t. It was just that she didn’t conceal the extent of the illness any longer.

2) Was there a distinction between who she was as a personality, and the anorexia? How often did the lines blur, and what caused this to happen?

I initially tried to deal with R’s anorexia by treating it as a demon that occasionally controlled her, like a Jekyll & Hyde arrangement whereupon the actions of one were individual – the ‘normal’ person exonerated from the behaviour and habits of the ‘demon’. R was always insistent that she didn’t want to personalise the illness, which my analogy certainly does. It’s too easy to say that R switched between Anorexic and Non-Anorexic like a train switches rails, or a Victorian mad scientist switches personalities. Better to say that the anorexia was a bassline endlessly chugging away in the background of a song. Sometimes it would be loud and overpowering, sometimes it would be barely audible, but it was always there. It almost always got louder in times of stress – i.e. anything outside of the comfort zone. R’s life was regimented in black and white colours, which is oddly ironic considering her creative flourishes, synaesthesia, et al. Routine was key. Spontaneous acts, even (paradoxically) planned spontaneous acts would cause stress and with stress came the symptoms.

In terms of distinctions between personality, anorexia probably exaggerated some character traits that are woven deep. R makes emotional connections that are not just social but knee deep in the mud (and clay) of predecessors to which she has no blood relation or any family history. She spoke many times of just wanting to go off travelling and not have a fixed abode, but I never believed that. I think, much like me, that she enjoys the thought of travel but always wants a home to come back to. And in that way, anorexia exaggerated that desire to have something concrete. Something very fixed. Even if it is something as (seemingly) trivial as a particular route from the house to the town centre. It’s not enough to say it is about control, because anyone can control their own path. It is about knowing that a path is always there. R seemed to want to keep revisiting it, in case one day it wasn’t there any more – the terminal fear of the harmless nostalgist made into something more destructive. Why, for example, continue to measure a slice of bread when the chances are that every slice of bread is within a few grams of each other? Because there is always a chance that one day it won’t be. In her mind, this was important. R needed the reassurance.

3) What was her behaviour like when with you? Did you live together, and form a “safe zone”? Were there any particular routines or habits she had, which affected your own behaviour (overly or subconsciously.)

We never discussed a ‘safe zone’, but given our tight surroundings it probably would’ve been impractical. I’m sure she had safe zones in her own mind that she never let on about, and that’s fine. In terms of influencing my own behaviour – I knew that we could never just do something off the cuff. In terms of what one might call stereotypical romance, a surprise meal at a restaurant might be one girl’s idea of a dream Valentines date but I knew that this would send R into a spiral of anxiety.

I abided by her routines and worked my life around them. I knew when she would have dinner, when she would shower. I knew that, if we were walking to town, we would go a particular way. If I didn’t feel like walking that way, I’d go on my own and R would lose herself in music. It wasn’t a particularly big deal. Walks in the countryside were loosely regimented as well – there were a thousand routes we could take, but once we’d decided on a route we’d stick to it. Again, not a particularly earth shattering thing to deal with, and probably sensible given my sense of direction when wandering from the beaten path.

I was always conscious of knowing when to give her space, but at the same time wanting to judge when a kick up the arse was needed. I could tell from her body language that she would be irritated by my presence when she weighed her food, even though I’d seen her do it a thousand times. It was an open secret.
I suppose I did become less spontaneous around her, but I can’t pin that solely on her and anorexia. There were other considerations as well – money, long hours at work, general and periodic depressions linked to the previous. Nevertheless, the need to maintain routines was a part of it.

4) Did her behaviour differ in public surroundings, from when you were alone together – particularly if food was involved? (e.g. attentive and affectionate, clingy and needy, standoffish, nervous, panicky etc.)

R was never comfortable in a restaurant. Even in our favourite Thai restaurant, which was usually empty, she would be eager to eat and leave. On the whole though, our public arrangements tended to involve one of three scenarios – a pub (in which rum and coke would dull the spikes in her back), the countryside (in which barely a soul would be met) or London (where the imagination can run riot.) How much R tolerated crowds, especially strange crowds, I could never know. I know how well she hid her anorexia in the early days of our relationship, so I cannot know how genuinely involved she was when going to a gig or seeing friends in a pub.

5) Were there any environments in which you were unable to engage as a couple, or in which it was difficult – family get-togethers, meals out, parties, etc? How did this affect your relationship?

Any kind of night out; outside of the routine of home-made rum and coke and oats for supper, caused problems – at least when sober. A few drinks and R would either not care or be able to put up enough of a shield to pretend to not care. R initially was happy to attend get-togethers with my family but after we started living together they dwindled. This was partly down to anorexia.

6) Did she have particular habits surrounding food and eating; what were the symptoms that were peculiar to her? Was she strict about calories, counting them out; were there “good” / “bad” foods? Did she allow you to cook for her, and if so, how much control were you allowed to have over what was prepared?

R was incredibly strict on calories, counting etc. Again, initially I was able to cook for her and my parents bought her food, but once we lived together I didn’t cook for her and I could never do the shopping on my own. Even when giving her list to my parents, it was incredibly detailed so that they bought the exact packet or tin of a particular product – no substitutes tolerated. R would eat small, non-fat amounts often, rather like someone grazing over the course of a day. But I had absolutely no say whatsoever in R’s food. If I’d decided to make her a sandwich for work, I’m fairly certain it would’ve ended up in the bin and she would’ve bought a sandwich from a shop. She used to talk about how the boyfriend of a friend of her’s would surprise her with Spaghetti Bolognese and a bottle of wine if she’d had a bad day at work. If I’d ever tried that, I would have just made her bad day even worse.

7) Was she actively seeking help from professionals, from family, friends etc? Were you involved in any therapy together? How did this affect your relationship? Did her
mindset / behaviour change over the progression of your relationship – relapsing at times of stress and upset, improving when comfortable, happy, etc?

No, not during our relationship.
(Sorry hun, can’t add any more to this :P)

8) Did she have plans for the future, either with / without you? What did she choose to engage in – hobbies, work, relationships other than yours, to keep a “normal” lifestyle? How much were you involved in these aspects of her life?

Our hobbies very much meshed together. Hiking, writing, drinking… that’s basically our five years in a very pithy nutshell. We differed on a few things. R was/is a gym bunny, but I never classed the gym as a hobby, more something she needed to do (despite her constant protestations to the contrary). To me, the gym was an anathema, something people did to avoid the Great Outdoors. R’s work she kept separate from me, but that was genuinely necessary given the sensitivity of her workplace. Neither of us really made plans for the future – neither of us are/were interested in children and marriage. I remained involved in many aspects of her life, but I acknowledged that she was entitled to have friends outside of my sphere.

9) What were the reasons for your breaking up – did her illness have anything to do with it? Were there any particularly “bad episodes” in your time together, related to the illness? Do you still keep in contact with each other? Has her behaviour / mindset changed at all?

We had plenty of bad episodes together. Tears in supermarkets watching her breakdown when trying to buy a frozen pizza, tears when she felt like everything was overcoming her, and a lot of anger as well mixed in.
Our break up was a slow burn that became hot very quickly. As I said before, I don’t think there was a ‘Normal R’ and an ‘Anorexic R’. The two coincided. R, anorexic or not, could be difficult.

We’d had a scare or two beforehand, and our housing situation collapsing had tested us to the limit. The straw that broke the camel’s back and made me realise the relationship was over came about during a conversation where I speculated on spending the rest of the year at a house-share we had only just obtained by the shells of our fingernails (literally, we were hours from being homeless.) R’s response was ‘It doesn’t matter because I won’t be here.’

I analysed that sentence for a few days. Obvious points first – there is no mention of me in this scenario, no acknowledgement of how lucky we were to still have a roof over our heads together, and a general apathetic sentiment. At this point, R’s Anorexic Bassline was overpowering everything. She had been thrown out of her comfort zone – losing her home, possibly her job as well at the time. This would test someone without anorexia, but for someone who desired so much to be in control of her own destiny, and to always have a stable platform, this was all too much turmoil.

The strange part is that we were actually (relatively) secure, but it wasn’t enough. It was different and all R wanted was to be back in the old flat, not this new place with such maverick factors as a housemate who clearly wasn’t accustomed to the routinely habits of an anorexic in the same way that I had been conditioned over the previous five years.

We broke up because R wanted to be away at that moment, and I was emotionally exhausted. R had a selfish streak that reared up in times of difficulty, unrelated to anorexia. A desire to put on blinkers and run away from unfamiliar situations or problems rather than face them. Anorexia, and the desire for control, no doubt took that streak and turned it into an overflowing river.

I am no angel in all this. But I was ill-prepared. When we started living together and I began to discover the true extent of her anorexia, I realised how little information there was on dealing with someone with the illness. I found plenty of literature on how to identify someone with anorexia, even how to get them to admit they have it. But R had already done all that. She’d told me. So how do you help someone recover? The way the books and leaflets were worded, it seemed that acceptance was most of the way to recovery. Which, as I learned, is horse shit.

I also learned quickly that anorexia is 9/10th in the mind and only 1/10th the stomach. I had been fed (if you’ll excuse the tasteless – oh there I go again – pun) that anorexia was a disease primarily about not eating, thanks to endless reports in tabloid newspapers about various celebrities who looked thin and who were apparently chasing a particular size to further their career. It wasn’t enough to eat a pizza and then joke the following morning that the world hadn’t ended and I wasn’t suddenly 17st. I thought too logically about anorexia and nothing about anorexia is logical. I wasn’t so out of touch to not realise how often eating disorders are linked to trauma, but I didn’t anticipate a). how few anorexics just want to be thin to fit in dresses and b). how difficult it was to convince an anorexic that eating a Mars bar wouldn’t cause them to balloon like a character from Roald Dahl. That wasn’t the point, and I didn’t understand that initially. I didn’t understand that the very act of ‘forcing’ a Mars bar down an anorexic’s throat through logic was ultimately being harmful.

In the end, I settled for trying to be a calming influence, an arm around the shoulder trying to gently guide R towards some sort of salvation, trying to remain as neutral as possible and shielding her from any stress as best I could. I often thought that she needed a cattle prod more than a hug, but I didn’t and still don’t have the expertise to be able to apply the electric current without doing significantly more damage.

If I were to date someone right now with anorexia, it would be the same situation. I would slip straight back into the calming influence without actually knowing what to do or say to be more proactive. I would be better prepared for the bad times ahead, and in many ways that could be a negative thing. At the beginning, myself and R would go out to places because I thought that it was fine. We had a family Chinese meal and takeaway pizza because I thought she was cool with it. But she wasn’t. Now, if I’m dating someone with anorexia, I’m probably shying away from these experiences, knowing how miserable it is making her. And yet, I’m sure that these sledgehammer moments for R – even if they weren’t often repeated – played a small part in her ongoing recovery. A brief glimpse of life outside of food that is judged entirely by numbers. Would I treat someone new in my life, who also had anorexia, with too many kid gloves? Would I pamper and protect them to death?

We still maintain contact. R is still one of my best friends. I want for her to recover one day so that I can visit her and she’ll order Chinese and not have kittens about it. The anorexic bassline that chugs in the background isn’t catchy or engrossing – it’s lame and out of tune. I’d rather hear more of that lead guitar, which on the good days would rise above everything and sound more vital than a heartbeat.

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