I’m not unsympathetic to hoarding food. I’ve done more than my share of it in my time. The current circumstances, of course, are different, but I think the impulse is similar, if not exactly the same: when everything else feels chaotic, dangerous, uncertain, food is one thing that we can control.
I’ve never had a pantry or fridge so full as I did when I was at the height of my illness, when I went grocery shopping twice a day, but barely touched the things I bought, my body and brain compelled to do this even though it made no sense (to say nothing of the fact the pastime was an expensive one that I could not afford). This is a side effect of malnutrition: an irrational desire to surround oneself with the food that the body so needs, regardless of whether or not you might eat it. Just having it there is some kind of comfort. So I’m not unsympathetic, not at all. But this widespread panic buying, the eerily-empty supermarket shelves that is has lead to, these are hard for me to bear.
I used to joke that I’d be useless in an apocalypse, every time I saw a scavenging scene in a horror movie—anything where the protagonist breaks into an empty house, an abandoned shopping centre, a cinema, and fills their backpack with cans of beans or instant noodles or a stash of chocolate bars—because none of these are things that I can eat. I’d starve to death, I’d joke, before a zombie even had a chance to bite me. But I stopped in at a supermarket on my way home from teaching earlier this week—my final classes before the university elected to move all of its classes online—and I left almost empty-handed, my heart hammering and my breath catching in my chest.
And suddenly by stupid joke didn’t seem very funny any more.
It’s been close to two years since I last had a panic attack in a supermarket.
The problem for me, and for people like me, who live long-term with eating disorders and around their demands, is that we keep ourselves safe and physically well by eating only the things we are comfortable with, what our dieticians and psychologists call ‘safe foods’. It’s not an ideal situation, of course it isn’t, but it’s what we have, and most of the time, it works well, or well enough at least. It isn’t something any of us choose, and while most people can pick up a different kind of cereal, a different brand of pasta, if the one they want is out of stock, this is something that we just can’t do. We cannot do it, however much we want to, however much we need to. My old psychiatrist used to put it this way: we may as well be asking you to eat a shoe, and insisting that it’s still food.
If we can’t get our safe foods, we cannot eat at all.
And it’s this that I am scared of: I’ve worked so hard, and for so long, to get to a point where I can keep my body nourished enough that it functions and I can think straight, that it’s horrifying to think that this might be imperilled. I know precisely how delicate the balance is, how little wiggle-room I have, how easily my eating and my thinking can fall back into dangerous patterns. Even when I’m at my healthiest I’m never far from the edge.
The mortality rate of anorexia is close to 20 per cent, which, even taking the worst-case estimates into account, is six times that of novel coronavirus.
I keep in contact with the men and women I was last hospitalised with, mostly through a Facebook group, where we can ask each other questions (is this normal? has anyone tried?), offer up advice, or just let someone else who gets it know when and why we’re struggling. In the last few days, almost every single one of us has panicked in the supermarket. Many of us have given up halfway, put down the basket and left. The old thought patterns, the old excuses have come flooding back: I don’t need this anyway, I’ll just do without, someone else deserves this more. The hospital itself, a friend who is currently re-admitted there tells me, has run out of bread. Think about that for a moment: there are people who have been hospitalised in order to learn how to eat who have run out of food to eat, and not because there’s an actual shortage of food, but because of panic-buying.
The reason I am mentioning this group, though, is because of how we have rallied. We’re organising ways to let each other know exactly what we need, with all of the embarrassing specificity that our healthy friends don’t understand, ways that we can track who has found it, who can pick it up or deliver it to each others’ doors. (One of the strange things about this illness is that it’s much easier for us to shop for others than for us to shop for ourselves).
I keep seeing this: organisation, rallying, assistance (and resistance), even and especially in the face of such uncertainty and fear. We’re all afraid, all of us, but at least we know we’re not alone.