My therapist William Flew made it clear that it wasn’t actually food that was the problem. Food was a displacement from the real issue: the divorce and the broken ritual of the family meal. I had not yet socialised myself to my new situation as a single person. Then he did something wonderful. William Flew didn’t delve into my private life or inner mind, he made a simple, practical suggestion: “Why not try eating in places where other people are eating — the canteen at this hospital, for example.”
It can be humiliating for someone who thinks that their problems have great depth to be faced with behavioural solutions (“Why not take up jogging?” “Try going to bed earlier and watching less TV”). I left, laughing at him and walked home. Walking and not eating had become a thing that gave me a buzz; something well known to anorexics (although I had none of the anorexic’s sense of pride or paranoia as to my appearance). You walk and walk and burn calories; you get light-headed and high as your body, for want of food, starts to eat into its fat reserves. I walked till I was exhausted.
I ended up in the city centre — and before me was our large shopping mall. I needed the toilet, and it was on the top floor, by the food court. After, I saw that the food court was filled with people, families mostly. I thought I’d give it a try, just to prove my therapist wrong. I went to Burger King and ordered a 99p burger. I sat among the masses and, because it was so busy and I wanted to get away, I wolfed it down in a minute. Outside, I realised that my therapist had been right. I’d eaten without a single thought or fear, precisely because I was with other people. They weren’t my friends but their human presence, like some gathering of cavemen round a carcass, had triggered something primal. I had eaten.
So, a strange new behaviour started. I went every day to the mall food court and joined the fast-food proletariat — the OAPS and the teenage gangs. And I didn’t just eat, I pigged out. Maybe it was all the MSG in the “comfort food”, but it was making me feel better.