“A woman watches her body uneasily, as though it were an unreliable ally in the battle for love.” Leonard Cohen
It was like a march. It had replaced all other rhythms – a perverted offbeat, from within my blood.
Each afternoon, since age 14, I would come home from school and for the first time that day, eat. Then, I would lock myself in the toilet, and bend to it. The blood would rush to my head, and fluids would run down my face.
The smell grew familiar. The position of atonement – of purging the evil, became my safety.
This day was different. Mum sat in the kitchen, watching me eat.
For four years, she had watched me take that walk from the kitchen table to the toilet – the two pieces of furniture serving the same ritual. Our afternoons were punctuated by her leaving to pick up my brothers, and me taking that opportunity to hide the process. But my mother had cottoned on. She did not leave, and did not let me close the toilet door.
The beat pounded, like drums of war. So, I took the dog for a run, in the rain.
I ran, and I ran, and I ran.
Lead in the stomach, gun to the back.
My beautiful schnauzer, Barney, struggled on behind me.
We finally made it home, cold and exhausted. Mum met me at the front door, horrified.
Why did you do that to him?! It’s cruel, Anna. You can’t treat animals that way.
I looked down at my pet, rasping for breath, and felt my chest crack.
What just happened?
Later that night, I held him, stroking his fur.
I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.
I was losing control, in attempting to find it. The systematic destruction of my own body – however resolutely I committed to it – was not supposed to hurt anyone but me.
But of course, the abuse directed within cannot help but spiral out, in circles of shame and blame. Those who ventured too close were flung back by the sheer adamance with which I chose to starve myself.
When they admitted me to hospital, I thought I could surrender to the institutional process – that it was strong enough to wrangle my illness for me. My body was on the verge of a heart attack – a shivering mess of ferocity and frailty. I had fought, and failed to break it.
I was just shy of my 17th birthday, and I was tired.
I was to be force-fed through a nasogastric tube for at least six weeks in a medical ward, with little psychiatric intervention. They would bypass my brain to try to save my body, and teach it how to eat again.
My closest friend in hospital was the only other girl my age.
She was recovering from temporary quadriplegia from a virus she had contracted on a family holiday. She would bring her wheelchair over to my bed to talk to me about the boys that weren’t texting us back.
I remember listening to her cry through rehabilitation sessions, as physiotherapists tried to encourage her paralysed limbs to move. My recovery was oddly paralleled with hers – each time I was weighed, the same nurses came to my bedside, to hold me as I sobbed.
Over the six weeks, I saw my friend stare at my perfectly-abled body in puzzlement. I acknowledged the irony. I had been given a rare health, which I could not help but despise and reject.
Even as I was released – my vital organs and weight now stabilised – I was heavy with hate for myself.
A few years later, the control had lessened, but the mistrust remained. I was alive, and seemingly healthy.
I was working on television, and trying to find my feet professionally in an industry where bodies were currency.
My body was being celebrated, but its shape fluctuated under the pressure. I glowered at it from a distance, whispering my threats.
One unexpected move from you, and I will pull this chain tighter.
For ten years, I attempted to wrangle my own body with violent abuse.
‘If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.’ Mother Teresa
I was 24, when something changed.
It was morning. I looked in the mirror, and I realised that my body was actually separate from me.
I was a soul. I had a body.
My soul wrestled brutally with that body, and consequently, that body was utterly terrified of me.
The anger folded down within me, like wings. My sword dropped.
In one moment, I experienced both separation, and reconciliation.
We so often criticise our bodies as if they define and identify us – public manifestations of private messes. But I don’t believe that’s true.
I believe they are vessels lent, for us to steward and steer. Tents, to shelter us temporarily. Their attributes and how we walk within them help form our cultures and identities, but we are not our bodies.
That morning, I sat on the floor, and I held my limbs. I hugged my stomach. I began to whisper to my form.
I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.
I cried over how much hurt I had inflicted.
She curled into my confessions.
Though it felt so foreign, I started to befriend my body.
Like a stranger, I tiptoed my way around her, listening, trying to discern who she was.
Are you hungry?
What do you feel like?
A walk? Sleep?
It was awkward, and beautiful.
They say that the quickest way to feel love for someone is to serve their needs.
As the weeks and months passed, I became a safe place for my body. I received joy from watching her thrive under my care.
My body had been like a frightened animal – never certain of how I would treat her next.
The human body, in starvation mode, intuitively recognizes the threat and becomes protective. My body’s metabolism had slowed, and was storing fat to make sure the intermittent withholding of food could be combatted.
Now, she could let go. She could trust me. I felt at home in her, because she reflected what we were building together. I was learning her.
When she was hungry, I fed her. When she was full, I stopped. When she stumbled, I let her rest. I let her sleep, instead of giving her stimulants.
And, for the first time in ten years, I wasn’t at war.
I had room to think about something other than food and exercise.
I had the capacity to love.
I wonder if perhaps our bodies are a little like wild horses – companions our souls are gifted, to ride through this life.
We can choose to break the horse. We can choose to brutally dominate – to tame through discipline, authority and control. To withhold, push, restrain with ropes and blindfolds.
Or, we can choose to be like the horse-whisperer.
She, who waits patiently by the nervous animal, to gain its trust, respect and friendship. To listen, and infer. To learn what the animal needs, and lead it into a partnership.
We can train, feed, and develop our bodies in a way that protects, nurtures and serves them.
My body is a loyal, gentle steed. My greatest ally in life.
She will be with me until the end, and only then will she rest – knowing she has faithfully brought me to the finish line.
Image: Zack Minor
Anna is a writer and actor, who works predominantly in the Australian film and television industry. She is passionate about authentic portrayals of women in storytelling. She is interested in writing about the intersections between social justice, creativity, spiritual faith and sexuality. She is also a total space nerd. Anna recently graduated from AFTRS, and splits her time between Melbourne and Los Angeles. Twitter: @annamcgahan