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You Don’t Have To Be Mad

Writing and Anorexia

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I have always written, except when I was mad.

Madness took all my gifts. It stole my self-belief, my generosity, my sparkle; it robbed me of the beauty that belongs to all young creatures, smashed up relationships with family and friends and slammed the door on opportunities. In return, it offered me itself. It held up a mirror to Medusa and turned me to stone with threats that, if I weakened, it would desert me.

I was a wimpy child. I liked to stay at home with Mum, telling myself stories and playing with my paper dolls. She, damaged by war losses and trapped in the ‘wrong’ life, was happy to encourage my malingering. The School Board Man (for years we thought he was the ‘Schoolboy Man’) used to pop by occasionally on his bike to ask why I wasn’t attending. My earlier brush with death and appendicitis was enough to keep him happy. I think he was sorry for us. On a rare visit to school, where I had no friends and walked the perimeter talking to myself, I wrote a little story that won a prize. Thereafter I decided I was going to be an ‘authoress’. I had an identity.

In my last year at Juniors, I was taken up by a girl who had fallen out with her pal and needed a replacement. My chance to stop being weird and wet. I spent a year as her acolyte and grew in confidence. She was my ‘Brilliant Friend’, and our relationship is the stuff of a whole other essay. I knew that she would always eclipse me, so I chose a different secondary school.

There, I became an actress by mistake. On Tuesdays we were expected to stay behind for Clubs. I wanted to do Art because it sounded quiet and solitary. The form teacher read out our names and we announced our choices. My name begins with an ‘S’, so I was near the end of the list. Everyone else picked Drama and I didn’t dare say otherwise. As the year went on, all but the diehards dropped out. I was hooked. I learned all the big speeches from Shakespeare, and walked home reciting Juliet, making myself shiver. I had a good memory, and discovered that, with a little application, I could do well in most subjects. I wrote poems and essays for the school magazine. I was a bit of a star.

At sixteen, I went on a diet and off the rails. It was the summer holiday after O Levels. I’d been cast as Puck in a school production and fancied playing him as an aery spirit rather than the streetwise urchin the director probably had in mind. Friends tried to warn me off the diet idea, while predicting that I’d never see it through. I didn’t expect it to work either, and was astonished when I lost two pounds in the first week. Of course, I already knew that perseverance pays dividends, and that it’s not enough to win the crown: you have to hold on to it. I reached my target weight and dropped below it to give myself wiggle room. And so it went on. Anorexia is an addiction. Determined never again to be that Big Fat Slob of eight stone, I lashed myself with remembered slights, comments that I was ‘filling out’, that I’d eaten too much on a school trip, that I had legs ‘like tree trunks’. Friends told me I was overdoing it. I told myself they were jealous. My parents, bewildered, humiliated, terrified, took me to the doctor. He reassured them with a smug smile that I would put all the weight back on again and more. ‘They always do.’

As I changed shape, I changed character. For a few glorious months I was a dolly bird, trendy and fairy-fragile; then I became paranoid and morose, a twisted goblin with toxic breath who could never get warm, grew extra body hair, and was too bony to lie straight in bed. My gifts deserted me. I stopped writing. My only fantasies were of the food that I craved and feared. I was an embarrassment. People didn’t like to be near me. I reminded them of mortality.

I tell everyone that I arrived at university as Ariel and left as Caliban. Ho, ho. For the first time in my life I had an income, and I was surrounded by food. I cracked. Once I started eating again, I couldn’t stop. I was cast in the autumn as Hermia in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and by the time rehearsals began in June weighed twice what I had on arrival. The director was too kind to sack me, but I was painfully conscious that I was no juvenile lead and thereafter got a name as a comedienne playing mad old bags. I made people laugh. They were going to, anyway. My personality adapted accordingly. I felt gross and grubby, so I acted gross and grubby. I smoked and drank my head off, wore horrible clothes, avoided going home and swore like a trooper. The writing, I assumed, would never come back. The reappearance of menstruation was the seal on my failure. The doctor’s prediction had been spot on. I was a fat, useless blob. Served me right for causing so much trouble.

It took me until the age of twenty-eight to return to my pre-diet weight. At some point during those years, the realization that I had been certifiable came as a wonderful relief. I wasn’t bad. I was mad! Yes, I had hurt people. Yes, I had wasted gifts that had been expected to lead to great things. Yes, I had made myself embarrassing and ugly – twice – but I hadn’t done any of it on purpose. I had been ill.

At twenty-eight I had a place at Drama School. I stepped off the tube in South Kensington and knew that I had come home. When a teacher described my build as ‘dead average’, I was in Heaven. At the end of the year, we each wrote a one-man show based on a Shakespeare character. Mine was Cleopatra. The ultimate woman. I even composed a few lines of cod Bard. It was the best performance I’ve ever given.

A couple of years later, I joined a Theatre-in-Education company. We improvised scenes for a musical about Lady Godiva, and a guest writer built them into a script. The other actors started asking me to write scenes for them and the director invited me to tackle the next project. ‘But I don’t know how!’ I protested. ‘We’ll teach you,’ he said. I produced a great shapeless mass of ideas; he went through it with his blue pencil and threw the carcase to the rest of the gang. They took what they wanted and demanded more, and different. ‘I can’t say this line, Pam!’, ‘I need a speech that shows me in this light’, etc. Between them, they taught me my craft. When I sat down in front of the typewriter, stuff just came out of the ends of my fingers. I wouldn’t care to say how good it was, but I could write a song in an evening, a comedy sketch in a weekend and a whole play in two weeks. I never knew I had so many opinions on so many issues! Coaxed by this stimulating, collaborative atmosphere, my gifts returned.

Friends living with mental illnesses tell me that their symptoms, untreated, take them into higher realms of creativity, and that they feel neutered by their medication. There’s a widespread assumption that Sylvia Plath’s work would have suffered had she been diagnosed as bipolar and treated accordingly. Simone Weil, philosopher and mystic, was allegedly anorexic. Can madness really be a pathway to creativity?

Not in my case. I can only say that, in devouring myself, I devoured everything but the fear. I have tried writing under the influence of alcohol. One or two glasses get me through the pain barrier of starting; a third shuts me down again. Nor do I see my disorders as the stuff of literature. They have until recently been shameful secrets. I have no desire to create an anorexic heroine to star in one of my novels. I am too afraid of influencing others. Anorexia is a competitive illness. Though recovered, I struggle to shake off the sneaky feeling that I have somehow let the side down.

I can’t say that I won’t ever get ill again. There’s a genetic component. I was born with a knack for wordplay and a susceptibility to eating disorders. If madness and creativity are allied, maybe that’s my link. But as I type this in my lovely office, I am eating a chicken sandwich, and it tastes great. I’m not afraid of it. I’ve got my gifts back. I’m lucky, and I know it.

I don’t plan to lose them again.

Pamela Scobie has been an actress, a teacher, a model, a cleaner, a carer and a barmaid. She has published two volumes of poetry, one collaboration, and six novels. Another six are festering in a drawer.

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