On Anorexia

Here is another labyrinthine post from the olden days. Now I am awake like the Buddha, but a seer at a Los Angeles botánica told me years ago that I was “carrying a great weight.” Qui potest capere, capiat.

I

Trying to discover my way back professionally from the ravages of Reeducation is sometimes dangerous in that it leads me to think of the labyrinthine paths that pulled me from the light, and of my nostalgia for the life and vitality in whose destruction I was complicit.

The self criticism of Reeducation coupled with that of academia and then the old guilt I feel for not having tortured myself enough in life are a very crippling combination that I need to identify yet more clearly as the enemy. An important reason why my life and, by the way, vita deteriorated as it did is that I decided to engage in so much self destruction. To continue to do so is no way to improve matters.

In Reeducation ritual self torture was important to prove we could “feel.” “Feeling” meant focusing on the self in a childish and egocentric way, and never putting anything in perspective. I kept saying, but this model is impractical, it inhibits action, and I want to do something with my life! But Reeducation believed in agony and slowness.

II

I am procrastinating about updating my vita, which I must do, but hate to do because I hate to look at it. I hate to look at my vita because it was once a good vita and is no longer. In it I do not recognize myself, but do I see very clearly the ruins of my life and the paths I tried and failed to trace. I am making myself ill, however, by procrastinating in this way, and that is not a good methodology toward any goal – even the simple one of having a nice day.

I have been trying to work on my vita for several days, but as the file opens I am overcome by nausea. I go to sleep and wake up with a sense of foreboding. I feel trapped in the expectations of others. My immediate fear is of how I may assault myself emotionally when I start working on my vita, and of not being able to stop the assault. At a deeper level is perhaps my own fear of individuation that is really trapping me. I need to be able to say, YES, this is the vita I have, and say to myself deal with it, but I cannot yet do this easily. This is a trap.

III

Procrastinatio simplex involves having something boring to do. The only solution is to start, so that one can finish. The procrastination in which I am indulging by writing this post is a more justifiable avoidance tactic. If I do not first prepare myself, but simply open my vita to work on it as I used to do, I know from experience that I will also begin surreptitiously screaming at myself, until I am on the floor in a pool of emotional blood.

Then I will not be in a state to teach tomorrow or to do the things I need to take basic care of myself today. If I inadvertently assault myself, so as to then leave myself in a pool of blood on the emotional floor, I will then sit on the couch and stare into space for several hours rather than lead my life. For this not to happen, I have to be aware of how it happens and what causes it, and how I can head that off.

I have to remember that all of this self destruction is directed by a demon, not a valid entity. The demon is not entitled to have his ideas taken into consideration. I have to remember that it is precisely because I learned so well how to be so cruel to myself that I also weakened this vita, and that the answer is not further cruelty. I have to remember not to put myself on trial and to practice forgiveness granted for no reason. I have to remember that thinking further about these matters only leads to placing myself once again on trial. I am procrastinating out of a fear of self destruction, yet the procrastination itself defers the cure.

IV

When I was a minor, I was mildly anorexic for some time. It ended around the time I registered to vote, but the mentality stayed with me for some time because I thought I should go back, even though I did not actually want to. I was freed when, no longer willing to be patient with the pain of thinking I should go back, I realized that believing one could solve problems by losing weight was a convoluted way of holding onto three errors.

The first error was that one could solve the unsolvable. For example: if I lose enough weight, the war will end (so that if it does not end, that is only because I have not lost enough weight). The second error was that one could not solve the solvable. For example: I cannot pass Chemistry because I have not lost enough weight (in other words, I cannot study Chemistry because I am too preoccupied with losing weight, which in turn may really mean something like I cannot study Chemistry because someone finds it unseemly, but I am not allowed to notice that, so I must find another reason). The third error was that perfection was a prerequisite to life. I was freed from obvious anorexia, but some of the ideas behind it began expressing themselves in other forms, harder and harder to identify, but having the same basic structure.

V

This is how anorexia and procrastination are interrelated, or why anorexia is a form of procrastination. Anorexia functions to block consciousness of the issue at hand (why must one say “X has not happened because I have not lost weight?” whom is one protecting by claiming this?). So it is essentially an effect of ideology (and not just, or only superficially, an effect of the ‘ideology’ of slimness). Anorexia is not about food or weight, it is about not allowing oneself things one needs, about refusal to grow for fear that the direction in which one’s branches tend may not be pleasing, or, in other words, about cutting out parts of oneself which may be challenging to others.

I think anorexia, the disease, is very useful in this way: it is a concrete expression of feeling constrained, overly limited; like any symptom or expression, it points to a problem. That is why my dormant article on procrastination – to which I shall return, however – is opposed to quick fixes for this problem. One is told, ACT! But most people do know how to take action on things, and do do it.

This is where my related research question comes in. By remaining blocked, are procrastinators protecting someone or something? Solutions which do not address this question, I hypothesize, parallel therapies for anorexics that involve only force feeding and reeducation about body image. I think the question needs to be asked and answered for the solution to be more than mechanical, cosmetic, temporary.

VI

The procrastination or block which resembles anorexia is yet more complex than the avoidance tactic I  described earlier – avoidance of looking at my vita until I can prepare ways to protect myself from my possible surprise attack on myself when I do look at, or to soothe myself out of what is likely to happen when if I end up attacking myself anyway. Anorexia, as I suggested above, is the ultimate expression of an imperative to limit oneself – an expression which obeys that imperative while also symbolizing it as a problem.

My hypothesis is that the block which is not procrastinatio simplex has something to do with limitation as well. To expand a little on this point: so much energy, in anorexia, goes to the project of limiting food, expression, and selfhood. We might say that because selfhood and expression have been interdicted, the only way of having, or expressing some semblance of autonomy is the perverse one of over-sculpting the flesh.

Similarly, in the block which is not procrastinatio simplex, a great deal of energy is focused on the project which is not being done or which, like that of getting thin enough, is never complete. Is this so that the project which should in fact be addressed, cannot be seen? Who, or what is protected when the project which is actually being blocked (not the project upon which one is “procrastinating”) is screened from view?

Axé.

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28 Comments

Filed under Questions, Theories

28 responses to “On Anorexia

  1. I both can and cannot relate.

    Ultimately, though, it is a question of psychical energy. Do we have enough of it to cross the theshold into adult self-certainty, or must parts of us wait behind, waiting for someone to give us that bit of approval that will put wind into our sails and enable us to cross?

    The pre-Oedipal self senses that there is something that can be damaged if we attempt to cross when we do not really have the energy to do so. (It might sense this incorrectly, however, since often we can develop our own energy and self-assuredness by crossing over that defining line, even when we feel like we do not have the reserves to do so.)

  2. Yes, but I also don’t think that reactions to abuse, like what happened to you in that job, can be chalked up to pre-Oedipal problems.

  3. I think we all have pre-Oedipal aspects or tendencies. And what happened to me on the job does relate to this, because at that time I was trying to protect an aspect of myself by operating from a falsely compliant self (which wasn’t in tune with the self I was repressing.)

    Anyway, I won’t talk about this any more, if you prefer.

    I think with regard to this kind of topic you need to catch an imagic vision of it or not at all. If you try to use logic to understand this kind of thing, you will only distort it, and the pre-Oedipal field doesn’t exactly speak the language of logic.

    What I am getting at is that I am not into victim blaming at all. Most people live their entire lives barely able to give birth to themselves at all. The rest of us tend to be casualities in one way or another, struggling against the common grain. But as Fromm implied, there is something valiant in this struggle.

  4. Wow. I’m reading this against what I’m discovering about the demands of academic life on professors. Add to those the usual pressures on women: to be well dressed, socially adept, efficient, organized, and so on, and the job becomes downright unmanageble. It’s just too damn much work.

  5. I’m not perfect. I forgot the “a” in unmanageable.

  6. Z

    Well, on the topic of block, one way to summarize all of this would be to say that rather than just try to get it done, one should consider that one is on strike and not just lazy. There the helpful question is, what are you striking against? If you can be articulate and perceptive there, then you advance.

    Imagic vision, yes. And it’s true, most people are not even TRYING to give birth to themselves. That is where I think a lot of the political problems come in academia – those who are trying vs those who are not!

    Academic jobs are definitely harder for women, it’s true, because women have to fulfill more roles, and some of these are contradictory ones. And I am always surprised to realize in this day and age how many men still have wives who function at many levels as their work support – this in addition to their having fewer responsibilities and more automatic credibility.

    When I have gotten blocked it is largely because of the unmanageability Hattie speaks of, and the interdiction against naming it.

  7. It’s fine to be on strike — but not if the aggressive energy one has gets direct back onto oneself. That is anorexia.

    Now, in relating what happened to me in my workplace — it was the Zimbabwean identity of myself that I was repressing, and which I had been repressing for about ten years of more, before I got that job. I had found that it was too painful for me to express myself in terms of how I had experienced things before I migrated. Whereas I had always wanted to speak innocently, sadly, and enthusiastically about the things I’d lost, about the things that had changed for me, about my courage or lack thereof to face the future in a new country, I had never been allowed to do so. So, I was not permitted to be debriefed regarding my experiences from before, and had to bury my mourning and sense of change, by keeping it private. If I was to express something of this order — something that was tender and tenuous and traumatised — I was generally retraumatised, because people would feel that they had to put me in my place politically. So I learned that there was a huge aspect of myself that was verboten. I couldn’t express it on pain of being injured further. I had to repress it in order to go along with the programme.

    But what did that repression do? It was a kind of splitting — a kind of ‘soul loss’ — that led to me being able to use only half of my energy (half of which I had to deprive of spontaneity and relentlessly repress).

    As an outcome of all of this, I was weakened in my personality. This made me more vulnerable to being successfully attacked by those who saw my attempts to stand up for myself (but only for half of myself) as feeble.

    So I suffered from ‘soul loss’ during those days, and not until I was attacked severely did I understand how much of myself I had been repressing and how much this was like sparring with one hand held behind the back.

    I only began to turn the tables when I started to direct the energy that I’d been using to repress and limit myself out towards the world that was attacking me, rather than holding it close to my heart and allowing it to burn.

  8. Z

    “It’s fine to be on strike — but not if the aggressive energy one has gets direct back onto oneself. That is anorexia.”

    Exactly. In general: great post and, yeah.

  9. And by aggressive energy, I don’t mean murdering people (at least, not necessarily). I mean things like writing one’s autobiography (which will probably get the same dismissive reaction from those who are holier than thou).

    It’s about bringing into life and into existence exactly that which represents the aspect that has been repressed. And about doing so aggressively.

  10. Yes – and here, oddly and by chance, is a related article. Apparently two of the things people are most neurotic about are academic success and body image.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/16/business/16shortcuts.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&oref=slogin

  11. Yes– but I am hanging around with a different crowd these days, who think on different things. If you get onto facebook, I will introduce you to some of the zim expat crowd.

    Now I am going to look at that article.

  12. hmm..

    I read the quitting article. I’m all for it. I have never had the conservative tendency to stick with something that wasn’t working out for me. I’ve always thought, “Well, I could do so much better on my own, without these bureaucratic limitations.”

    Only in one situation did I stick with something too long — and that was because I was desperately hungry for knowledge about myself and others and didn’t know how else to get it. Kind of pathetic, though — like the baby hump back whale glued to the side of a leisure vessel, there are some things you simply cannot feed from.

  13. kiita

    I’m a bit late on this but I’m here, reading and absorbing.

    I can report that leaving my job has been so far the best decision I’ve ever made, and it’s made teaching much simpler and enjoyable. And still I’m working towards going on the market this fall.

    I can also report that change seems to happen when it does and, for me, procrastination is useful. When I get bored with procrastination, I know it’s time to take steps in some direction, any direction.

  14. Good for you Kiita! On the market, the academic job market???

    I think I may not always have been sure what I wanted to quit. I was serious, dead serious, about quitting academia the time I almost did (and should have), though.

    I also don’t even know whether I ever procrastinate, seriously. I play, yes. But when I am slow it is either because I need to be or because I am being held back against my will!!!

  15. I’ve learned, with regard to essay writing (and probably this only touches on your subject, but who knows?) that when I am unable to write something it is actually because my subconscious is grinding away on a particular issue, and will not let me go ahead until it is resolved. But generally, by waiting, I get the insight I need to overcome my hurdle.

    It is of course difficult if one’s situation is not defined by one’s own limits, but by others’ limits, which is the norm for bureaucracies.

  16. What I’ve glimpsed before but only really grasped in the past few days is that when I lose interest in projects or grind away at low level tasks that should be routine it is because I have lost interest in myself.

    Even in bureaucracies one can often define oneself by one’s own limits more than I have tended to do (except when I have directed aggressive energy back onto myself, of course).

    One thing I can definitely see is that when I get blocked on writing, it is because I am trying to write something other than what I want to write. I’ve suffered with academic writing a lot for let’s see, 17 years now. After the first 7 or so, a couple of people made comments to me that helped me see what the problem was. It took me nearly 10 more years to fully absorb that, take it on. This was because of all the supposedly sensible and practical things one has been trained to think about what one should write, say, and so on. Conclusion: it’s faster to realize what you don’t want, even if you should technically want it, and act on that.

  17. Well I don’t say much that is too sensible, academically or otherwise. I had a different kind of initiation in survival, and it taught me rather different lessons about what was needed.

    So, I can understand what you are saying, but I’m way more marginal than you are, approach-wise.

    I find that most of the time when I don’t want to write something, I have a deep anxiety that I may fail to write anything again, but often it just takes a couple of hours sleep that I need to catch up on, and I pick up the threads that I had thought I’d permanently lost, and I am on my way.

  18. The first book I picked up about academic politics was a book on etiquette, published in 1969. The assumption was that wives would do the social organizing for professors and administrators, who were all assumed to be men.
    Faculty wives were expected to show the housewifely and motherly virtues that would make it possible for families and institutions to run smoothly.
    It is naive to wave this mind set aside or think that it’s all different now. The expectations on women are still that they will carry the ball on all that stuff. The woman who thinks she can get away with being the exception to the rules will not advance. Even if she does get around some of these things, she will pay the price of being regarded as uncooperative.
    Facts is facts.
    The desired and preferred academic is the young man who starts out doing brilliant work and ends up becoming a distinguished and honored professor. The whole setup is designed with “him” in mind. Women cause cognitive dissonance as academics. They are sexual distractions, rivals rather than worshipful, intent on their own careers rather than helpful, and so on, as male professors see them.

  19. Jennifer – Writing: I never have trouble writing things I am actually interested in / committed to, never had trouble writing things before several years into professordom. If you are writing something you don’t like (don’t want your name associated with) or can’t stand by, for the sake of a goal that is not yours, your Ucs will put you on strike, I have found. In the playground of graduate school you can write what you want, but when you enter corporate academia that is no longer the case.

    General slowness (I am or have been slow about many things): often has more to do with not having means or conditions to be faster, not with actually being slow.

    Hattie – exactly right!!! *And* they don’t recognize your work, anything, and are threatened by it if they do recognize it. Etc. It’s another reason I quit working to potential – why work in those circumstances? Also in my first job the things you say were said to me directly: shouldn’t publish but should do academic housework if I expected to survive, otherwise they’d go after me, etc. etc. This was a threat from a department chair and an order.

    Etc. Another reason I don’t like academia: it’s a place of assholish and boorish men *and* it’s supposed to be something you’re actually interested in, not just a job. And it’s something you sacrifice for – give up the possibility of being financially solvent, living in an area you’re interested in, etc.

    All of this is why the practical advice like take a break, you’ll find you *want* to work when you’re refreshed, just doesn’t apply to professors, who already know *that*, or for that matter to undergraduates, who unless they are very privileged are also often in situations in the academic industrial complex in which they aren’t flourishing and can’t control. It’s for graduate students (if they actually want to be in graduate school) and also for those privileged and well supported male professors in the 1969 book.

  20. We’re on the same page. Good. Now I can feel some confidence in what I’m doing.

  21. H – oh, yes. And there have got to be some books by professors about this – not the goody goody self help how to be a professor manuals, but actual honest accounts. And there are kiita’s blogs, and Servetus’.

    Actually a deconstruction of those how to be a professor manuals could be quite useful, too. I am not saying some of the advice in them isn’t true, and that some (like THE COMPLEAT ACADEMIC if it is still in print) aren’t actually quite good. Still, a deconstruction of the attitude that things really are all right, you just don’t know how to manage them could be quite useful.

  22. Z

    Also for Hattie – there’s also the disconnect between what it is and what it is supposed to be, and which you are not supposed to see (because one is not supposed to see sexism, but be complicit in it) as well as the disconnect between what men’s and women’s experience is.

    [Actually a lot of my rage at my father is about his having insisted upon spouting the undermining advice given to women, in combination with the inapplicable advice given to men.]

  23. Z– I found the same dynamic (in your paragraph 1 in your post above) to be at work in the middle school system. You are not supposed to see the sexism but simply to adapt to it — to become softer, more representative of the patriarchal feminine ideal. I couldn’t do that, since it isn’t in me. I think it was wrong that no great warning sign was given, prior to my taking the education course, about the formidability of this trap. It is left unspoken, and this voids the contract that you sign when you decide to embark upon a career in teaching. To have to be feminine in the workplace does not amount to a career, but a form of slavery.

  24. Yes – what you have to do is be a man, which means have a certain kind of capitalist and individualist mentality. That’s the only way to remain solvent as a woman. It is most unfortunate!

  25. Well what i meant is you have to be a man, but you have to act like a woman (ie a handicapped man).

  26. Yes, it is so galling. I cant do it. (Hmm, perhaps it is a reason to go into academia outside the Anglo world if one goes into academia.)

  27. Well I’m hoping I can find a way to do it outside of Angloville, or I am doomed.

  28. Several versions later, my vita is getting to look good. There are more versions to put it through and then several avatars of it to make, but this is turning into an interesting crafts project as opposed to a psychic struggle. Axé!!!

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