Chapter 3: The Gag Reflex

Chapter 2: Other Boys.

Around the start of junior school, teachers expressed concern about my hearing. It turned out after testing, sessions with a specialist and an hour of electrodes being stuck to my scalp that nothing was wrong with my ears; what I had, and the reason I often asked people to repeat themselves, was a form of epilepsy.

In films all epileptics have severe symptoms, convulsing violently during seizures. Mine were extremely mild. Childhood absence epilepsy, sometimes called petit mal, involves interruptions of conscious thought that last approximately five to twenty seconds – sometimes accompanied by subtle motor twitches, sometimes (as in my case) by stillness and a blank stare. A few times a day, sometimes mid conversation, I’d black out for a few moments like a television blinking, asleep with my eyes open. This never lasted long enough for me to notice time had passed; the only reason I found out about it, or that anything was wrong, was from other people. I preferred the word ‘condition’ to ‘illness’, since although my brain glitched here or there, I felt perfectly well.

Nonetheless, treatment was arranged. At the nearest full-size hospital, twenty miles from where we lived, a doctor whose name was John Storr prescribed a course of twice-daily tablets – first sodium valproate, then when it didn’t stop the black-outs, lamotrigine. The latter was a powerful drug which had to be introduced gradually (one of few fond memories I retain of it involves Mum trying to halve tiny pills with a bread knife), and which caused the skin on my forearms to peel. When at point I missed a weekend’s doses, the whole regime of daily pills had to begin from scratch: had my intake resumed as normal, my kidneys could apparently have ruptured.

But my recollection isn’t mainly of the physical effects. Although lamotrigine has been used to treat some forms of depression, taking it was the first time I experienced the lasting feelings I’d later associate with that disorder – demotivation, numbness, helplessness. It wasn’t the tablets themselves that did this, but taking them morning and night for several years. It filled me with the sense that someone else, inside that grey-green seventies hospital with its stench of detergent, called the shots on my body and my life. I hadn’t minded absence seizures, but I minded dry rashes burning my wrists, the fear of forgetting my meds and the obligation in itself to keep someone happy by necking them.

One of British healthcare’s few downsides, I think, is that doctors can feel more public officials than advisors – as I remember, we did what ours said and that was that. I don’t recall Mum ever being part of a decisionmaking process, or having it discussed whether I needed medicating. (My epilepsy, whose symptoms treatment had only held back, cleared up by itself by itself by the time I turned twelve as CAE usually does.) My seizures were undramatic and infrequent even by petit mal‘s standards, and had never stopped me being top of the class. They may have posed risks in some scenarios – swimming, for instance, or crossing the road – but the consequences of missed tablets seem in hindsight to have posed at least as much danger.

I find myself wondering if lifestyle changes to minimise risk – not swimming or crossing in heavy traffic while alone – might have been a more constructive response. As it was, I developed difficulties swallowing my pills: they sat on my tongue partially dissolved, refusing to be caught up in copious mouthfuls of water until the bitter, powdery remains slipped down my throat. I’d retch at the taste and the sense of violation – of humiliation – this always prompted, and developed a formidable gag reflex. For many years once off lamotrigine, I simply refused to take tablets at all, going to bed with headaches instead, and even as an adult, doing so makes me feel as if I’m about to vomit.

I don’t doubt John Storr was a caring doctor who did what seemed best, but he was also the first authority figure whom I resented.

Chapter 4: Dress-up.

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Hunger games: food, money and how I grew up feeling fat

Twice in my life, I’ve been a bit rotund. Both times, it was a common enough experience. At eleven I gorged on pizza, chocolate bars and caramel ice creams, more available at secondary school than in our previously welfare-dependent house, and stayed a slightly tubby teenager till added height changed my proportions, though it may be that having never quite eaten enough before, I was only gaining puppy fat I already should have. A decade on, I snacked my way through Oxford finals, spurning regular meals and comfort-eating. I’ve never been what you’d call fat, but nor during these periods was I slim.

My exam weight has now mostly been shed, more through abstinence than effort: since June, I’ve had no student loan to blow on cake. (No one expects a sweet tooth in someone as sour as me. You’d be surprised.) The poverty diet, as I’ve fondly come to call it, reached its logical extreme this week.

In January I moved back to Berlin, the place I started blogging, and managed to lose my debit card in transit – my bank, amusingly, has since located it in the Philippines. After ringing up immediately to cancel it, I had to change my address with them for a replacement to be sent out, and phoned again when this was done to order one. Presumably since I reported losing my card twice, the bank managed to cancel both the old and new ones. The latter’s last days of use ran out this weekend, and until another has arrived on Friday, I can make no withdrawals, either to pay the rent or to buy food.

Crash diets are a bad way to lose weight: the body responds to starvation by stockpiling fat. That said, and while these fasts have always been involuntary for me, I’ve found that I can make some use of them. As I wrote in December, I can go days without meals since as a child I had to now and again, but for this exact reason I’m prone to binges. I crave food for the joy of eating more than the benefit of being full, and forced restraint takes my mind off using it as a diversion. I’d be lying, too, if I said some part of me doesn’t enjoy the thinner-than-usual body in the mirror when food is off the menu. I’ve no doubt this is unhealthy.

‘Now that I have begun to celebrate lost inches,’ Ben Blanchard of the Pathfinders Project writes, ‘I am fearful that I might develop an eating disorder when left to my own devices as a busy academic back in the states. Until then, I am focusing on not focusing on it, and refuse to give my mind footholds to climb on to an obsession.’ Ben documents a weight loss far more dramatic than any I’ve undergone or needed, but the thought still resonates. What if I cared about this too much?

From the time my eleven year old self became conscious of his slight tubbiness, I’ve never felt quite thin enough – while my body’s undeniably changed shape at several points, I’ve yet entirely to throw off the sense of being overweight.

Hindsight and data tell me this instinct is ludicrous. In television footage from 2012, when I was 20 and the thinnest I remember being, I look like a string bean. In the next year, I didn’t just get fatter for exams but had a late and quite unnecessary growth spurt – between that October and last June, I went from 6’2” to 6’4” and developed relative breadth for the first time. (Before that, I’d had shoulders drag queens would kill for.) If you’d hugged me while the relevant footage was being shot, you’d have sustained a paper cut. So why, at the time, did I feel fat?

I go back further, through pictures of me at eighteen and sixteen. None exist between about twelve and fifteen, because I wouldn’t allow them; school photographs were lost on the way home. Even after my height first rocketed, I didn’t think of myself as slim, but seemingly I was. I’d always been tall for my age anyway, particularly in the leg, and like Ben (if for different reasons) struggled to buy trousers – for adequate length, I’ve often had to wear ones for much bigger waists than mine, and wonder now if it affected how I saw myself. I’m more given to blame parents and P.E. teachers in the end.

Losing my finals weight, combined with the broader frame I got concurrently, has given me a body I quite like. I’m no more toned or skinny than I was two years ago – less so, in fact – but the casing seems for the first time to tie up with the software. The issue, I conclude, is interior: the way I felt about my shape had little to do with what it actually was. Perhaps my mind matured just as my body did. It seems a question of framing either way.

Nowadays I prepare most of my own meals, kept slightly on the paunchy side by love of starchy foods (pasta, pizza, potatoes) and baking. This has provoked in me a strange desire to become healthy – to exercise, eat better and get out more. I’m not sure exactly what will happen here, but whatever does will be gradual, done because want to do it rather than feel a need. I never had impulses like this when I felt overweight. They’ve come to me as I’ve found satisfaction with how I look, and I don’t think that’s by chance.