When I turned five, I lost my appetite.
I don’t mean that I lost it after a particularly nauseating meal only to regain it when confronted with a slice of cake. I don’t mean that I carelessly misplaced it behind a bush somewhere, only to find it again five hours later during a fortuitous game of hide and seek. I mean that one day I went to bed after eating my dinner, and the next morning I woke up without any hint of my appetite. It had simply packed up and left in the night. It hadn’t left a note of explanation, or been prompted by anything that I can think of. It was just… gone.
My issue with the lack of appetite first started with my packed lunches; white bread sandwiches with butter and salami bulging hideously from their cling film wrappers. I would pull each sandwich out of my bag as if it were contaminated, examine it from all angles, and then stuff the indecently solid mass between my bellybutton and the waistband of my tartan kilt, or squeeze it past the wristband of my jumper, giving my forearm an offputtingly lumpy appearance. Then, over lunch, as if I were on a covert mission, I would pass by the large bin poised to catch chocolate wrappers and empty crisp packets from screaming children, and I would dump my sandwich into the black plastic abyss. The moment the sandwich disappeared, I would heave a sigh of relief and run off to play under the sprawling chestnut trees.
If I couldn’t reach the bins – which were often too close to the watchful gaze of our teachers – I would fling the offending sandwiches across the school wall*, or bury them at the foot of a tree.
Slowly, my refusal to eat spread to all meals.
At home, dinnertime became a stubborn standoff. My mother insisted I couldn’t leave the table until I was finished eating everything on my plate, and although I was desperate to get away from the kitchen table, this could take literal hours. It would get dark, the food would get cold, and I would still be sitting at the table kicking my toes against the chair legs, staring glumly at the wall as I chewed.
It escalated further.
Soon it wasn’t just sandwiches but entire lunches that were disappearing. Yogurts. Bananas. Chocolate bars. Cartons of juice. My mother, desperate for some control over my eating, told me I had better eat everything she gave me for lunch, and I, just as desperate, grew sloppy with my sandwich elimination schemes.
My teachers, in particular an eagle-eyed woman called Susan, started to suspect something.
One day, she kept me back and questioned me gently – although it felt like an interrogation at the time – as to whether I just didn’t like what I was getting for lunch. I burst into tears. She must have felt completely out of her depth. Carefully peeling the slices of salami off the buttered bread, she stacked them in a neat pile while suggesting that I ask my mother to make me something else for lunch. I nodded dumbly.
“You have to eat something. I’m afraid I can’t let you out to play until you’ve eaten the buttered bread. See? All the salami is gone.”
I’m sure this was said with kindness and concern, but to me it sounded threatening. I stared at the pale slabs of buttered bread, my eyes boring holes into the indented circles in the butter. I looked up at Susan with a sudden surge of hatred. Didn’t she know that it was too late? That the pungent smell of salami would have infiltrated the butter? That the salami might as well still be there? Just the smell of it turned my stomach. I pulled at the crust, rolling the tiny pieces between my fingers, stalling for time. Then I slowly lifted the bread to my lips and took a tiny, mouse-like bite.
Susan sat opposite me for the entire hour and watched as I tried to eat while choking on tears.
That evening I did as Susan had suggested. It went badly. I continued to get salami sandwiches for lunch. Susan continued to keep me in at lunchtime. One day she sat opposite me as I struggled through another miserable sandwich, scraped of all salami slices. She watched me as I chewed with what must have been an expression of pained disgust. Baffled, she asked, “Did you not talk to your mother about the salami sandwiches?” I nodded dumbly. Speechless, she leaned back and said nothing more for the hour that we sat there together.
She quickly became my greatest enemy. Not only did she keep me in during lunchtime and force me to eat my food, but one day, presumably looking for resolution, she did something unforgivable.
She called my mother.
I won’t go into the ramifications of that call except that from then on my eating became more problematic. No meal or food was manageable. I don’t remember ever feeling a single pang of hunger. I remember sitting chewing with my head resting in my hand, elbow on the table, during my fourth hour of dinner, thinking, “I could be happy if I just didn’t have to eat.”
It was as if my body had decided eating was a revolting, useless exercise that we should have nothing to do with, and my every sense rallied behind this effort. My tastebuds enjoyed nothing. The smell of food made me nauseous. The moment food appeared on a plate in front of me, I shut down. The act of eating was unbearable. No food tempted me. I would chew the same tiny bite of food for fifteen minutes or more. I would chew until I had practically ground it down to a molecular level, and even so, swallowing was a challenge. I would have to take a sip from my glass, creating a truly disgusting watery slop that I would only then be able to choke down.
My mother, panicked by this bizarre behaviour in her five year old, tackled it by trying to terrify me into normal eating habits. She did indeed terrify me, but instead of being scared straight, my behaviour turned more desperate. I turned into a feral squirrel of a child, hiding my food anywhere I thought might give me a few days of peace. As I was only five and my critical reasoning skills were yet to develop (some would argue they still haven’t come in), this led to disastrous decisions on my part.
I became obsessed with getting rid of any food put in front of me. I developed an unusual skill set; every time I walked into a room in which I had to eat, I scanned every corner of it, mentally cataloguing any potential hiding places. Ideally I would hide food in my napkin, excuse myself while hiding it in my hand, and flush it down the toilet. This clean and tidy method worked for a while until some small traitorous green bean emerged from its hiding place in the U-bend at an inopportune moment, ratting me out and bringing the full wrath of my mother down on my head.
From then on, it became a matter of survival. My mother escalated her efforts to force me into eating. I escalated my efforts to wiggle out it.
Mealtimes were battlezones. I would cry silently from beginning to end. In tortured whispers I would beg my father to eat food from my plate when my mothers’ back was turned, and he, distressed by my distress, would wolf down large portions of my dinners in an attempt to defuse the situation.
As a general rule, the adults in my life doubled down on their efforts to get me eating normally again. This consisted of constant supervision; I was no longer allowed to use the bathroom during meals. The intense scrutiny limited my options in terms of disposing of my food, and so now chips, steak, pastries, fish would be crammed into vases, under shelving units, behind washing machines. If I wasn’t sitting at a table I was worrying about the next time I would be sitting at a table. My fear and desperation was all-consuming. I never thought about what would happen when it was discovered, because that was in the future, and I couldn’t afford to worry about the future when I felt strangled with fear and anxiety in the present. I couldn’t eat, and if I couldn’t eat, then the food needed to disappear. It was as simple as that. I would worry about the rest of it at a later date.
Naturally, the “later date” always came sooner than I would have liked. That’s the thing about food; it rots. When it rots, it smells, and when it smells, people go looking for the root cause. It wasn’t a huge leap to consider me the prime suspect in The Mysterious Case of The Custard In The Cupboard, for example, or even The Scandal of The Sandwich in The Saucepan**. Each discovery brought more misery, both to my parents who were disappointed to find I hadn’t consumed whatever it was they had found, and to me personally when I had to deal with the moment of reckoning.
This continued for four years until I was nine years old.
At some point, for some reason, my appetite returned. It strolled back into my life without a hint of shame or compunction. It flung its coat on my caudate, hung its hat on my hippocampus, and cheerfully announced “I’m BACK! What did I miss?”
I remember even less about this than I remember going off food in the first place.
Happily, my appetite has been robust ever since. To this day I don’t know what provoked what was a long and arduous phase for me and everybody around me. It wasn’t triggered by any single event, it didn’t involve any thoughts about body image… it was just a strange switch in my brain suddenly flicked to ‘OFF’ without warning.
And then, eventually, with just as little fanfare flicked back to ‘ON’.
Years later, parents of friends still recount stories of my sitting with a single plate of food for hours on end, amused and confused by what they think of as childhood feeding foibles. I laugh at all the appropriate moments but inside I squirm uncomfortably, wondering if I ever hid food under their sofa or behind their curtain or between books on the bookshelf.
I make a concerted effort now to listen to my appetite; I satisfy cravings without hesitation. I bake and cook and lick the spoon.
I want my appetite to feel fully appreciated so that it never walks out on me again.
*The people who lived next door must have been absolutely baffled by the sudden spray of sandwiches dotting their front garden.
**Seven years later I was still finding mummified slivers of steak in old hiding places.