In Isolation with Alice Bishop

Location: Melbourne, Australia

So many of us work hard to want for different things. Whether it’s resisting that second glass of peaty weeknight whiskey; or the promising glow of a dating app (when you should really be sleeping); or the lift of a sneaky cigarette, long after you’d promised your partner you’d quit; we all focus—sometimes obsess—on a redirect. Food, for me, was something I had to learn how to want, and to need, healthily again.

During the first few days of restrictions I picked up an extra packet of short-crust pastry for our freezer—along with an extra brick of salty, silver-foiled butter for the fridge. Our cupboards were neatly stacked with tins. I have been thinking about how this food stockpiling, along with the alone unknown of restrictions, for many—stretching out ahead—gives extra space for disordered eating and obsessions to bloom, along with other things.

Thankfully healthy for almost a decade now, I have been reflecting on my seven years of bulimia—about the white-noise crackle and rush of those days that turned into nights, then weeks then years. I know I wouldn’t have been okay if I’d have still been sick during the pandemic, and that so many people—right now—aren’t.

Sometimes seen as the gluttonous sibling-disease to anorexia, bulimia is too often portrayed as a vanity illness, a vice, even: something to be guilty of, rather than something to have suffered from. There is little discussion of the blood and the debt, the tightening chests or the sugary vomit. The scars across the first two knuckles of my right fist are a reminder, though: purging, it’s a violent thing.

It still feels like a small wonder that I keep forgetting my bulimia—about my almost destroyed teeth, or how my bones had started shifting to chalk. I don’t think about broken vessels and endless bloody noses, about all those drains I vomited into: hours, weeks, months, years. The hospital cocoon, which—in the end—saved me, has become a distant blip. It’s as if it all happened to a different person, someone who once bleached her usual terracotta hair into nothingness, who couldn’t quite look passersby in the eye.

But, as Lucinda Williams sings, “Who I am now / [Is] who I was then.”

That first buttery first bite of a weekend croissant; a sip of chocolaty stout on a tired June afternoon; hot, salty chips eaten straight from paper: isolation has encouraged me to think about how big it is that I can quietly—openly—again enjoy these things. There are no jacket pockets of hidden crusts, calorie maps, or flashing bathroom (bedroom and living room) scales. There is not the constant hum of hungry highs and sugared veins, of stomach bile and bathroom shakes.

I love toast the most, now. Bread. I love pepper on corn, and the crack of fridge-cold peppermint chocolate. I love that last spoonful of soy-cereal-milk from the bowl. I love eggplants roasted in garlic oil. I love being able to sit with a feeling of fullness without guilt, without a crackly existential fear.

This. This is maybe the best thing.

Wants bloom—sometimes take over—during quarantine. Maybe, like me, you feel the pull to turn to them to numb other things: boredom, worry, loneliness, self-doubt, fear. Usually okay with alcohol, since lockdown I’ve found myself craving a warming glass of shiraz at 3pm. Swiping on Bumble and longing for connection—I feel loneliness rush in. Food, it’s not so much of an issue anymore but thoughts do, sometimes, surface.

As Leslie Jamison writes in her book on alcohol addiction—along with her own strained relationship with food—Recovering:

Sometimes my sister-in-law and I went to the grocery store and loaded our shopping carts with sweet things—boxed coffee cake, mint chocolate chip ice cream, pink champagne—and binged on it all, just for the relief and escape of total indulgence, putting things into our bodies to remind ourselves we weren’t anywhere near dying.”

I’ve been there. Maybe you have too?

Maybe you’ve been there with alcohol or, like me, with spending money I really don’t have. Maybe you’ve been there with a rush from meeting strangers and sharing everything—but also nothing—too soon, with with tinsel-shining friendships that’ve long since left? Maybe, like me, you’ve been there with the softness of getting high—endless Sundays—on an ex-boyfriend’s navy-blue couch. Maybe with Netflix, or the false promise of packet-hair dye? Maybe you’ve been there with credit card debt.

“Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire,”  Patti Smith says. But I’ve had to let that forest-fuelled firefront burn down to a glow. I try, now, to channel that hunger into other things: into short stories and essays, gardening and fresh sheets. Into listening and sharing, taking notice and saying no and also—yes.

Instead of a whole block of cheap cooking chocolate—eaten secretly, hungrily in some Coles carpark—I’m well enough to now focus on just two simple squares, sitting with the softness of cocoa butter lining the roof of my mouth.

Maybe, instead of waking up next to a stranger, Southbank, after midnight—furry-teethed, dusty-headed—you’re at home, soaking in the comforting warmth of an after-dinner bath. Maybe, instead of sugar-free soft drink and endless pale pink packets of Sweet ‘n’ Low, your new snack selections actually nourish you.

For me, being well again—I can now enjoy the things I loved, before I got sick. Lockdown because of COVID-19, and being always so close to the kitchen, hasn’t been a stress but a comfort. Instead of rushed transit lunches—shitty Coles salads eaten at my desk—I’ve loved:

  • Vanilla ice cream, scooped by a dishwasher-warm spoon
  • Slices of pear eaten with crumbling chunks of sharp cheese
  • A teaspoon of crunchy peanut butter straight from the jar

Ruby Tandoh, of initial Great British Bake Off fame—in one of her many works on eating, health and guilt—recently quoted the Ellyn Satter Institute:

Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.”

I don’t always look at my body in the mirror now and feel something salty rise in my throat—hardwired into my bones through my younger self’s commitment to turning myself into something else, someone different: smoother, smaller, yet somehow still more.

When I take my clothes off in front of someone new, now, I barely remember the years in which I couldn’t even look at myself—hiding my body in deliberately fogged bathroom mirrors; under secondhand floral Savers dresses, sizes too big; wrapped up in towels, doonas; or under the fog of too many beers.

I know seven years of illness and disorder, for some, is just a blip. But there were many years where I thought recovery was some distant shoreline glitter—a place I would always look out to, yet never reach.

But I’m here now, and it’s a relief.

Again, though—and of course, as with any rear-view recovery—there are still moments which creep in. Feeling lonely and peeling two eggs in the sink, I catch myself counting the calories of each sun-yellow yolk. After a long bath one night I look at my soft body in the bathroom mirror a little too critically—extra time, for me, can sometimes turn into this. But self-talk has been better to me lately:

“No, this is not who you are now. This is not what you do.”

Since lockdown I’ve have been cooking more—roasting blue-cheese potatoes in the oven for my flatmate, Mim. She’s been preparing garlicky cream dips, lentil soups and pies with words plaited into the crusts. Our small apartment smells like roasting onions, and wintery soups—7pm.

A wedge of a friend’s delivered lime-cream pie, buttery crusted, sits in its plastic container in the fridge. We share small creamy bits of it after dinner, along with cups of tea and a cooking show we both like to yell at—some kind of ordinary release.

“When this is over let’s not change this,” we say to each other, “let’s keep cooking for each other: proper meals.”

Bulimia is not a word I used to be able to even say aloud, but after being well—for almost a decade—it’s lost its teeth.

Maybe isolation means you’re struggling with that old dusty whiskey bottle—looming gold from the top of your fridge. Maybe you miss the rush of someone new; the lift of a shared cigarette, then a chest-to-chest night and a good morning kiss. Maybe you’re trying not to eat a whole family packet of salt and vinegar chips, or an online shopping cart is emitting a low hum of hope you know—soon—will morph into a guilty dread.

We’re all working a bit harder on our wantings during this unknown—living them, reflecting on them. But we’re human, it’s what we all do; and together, talking about it, we’re more likely to get through.

By Alice Bishop