‘For my life is simply unbearable, without a bit of courage…’
—The Cowardly Lion
Of all the characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I commiserate most with the Cowardly Lion. His insecurities about the bravery and confidence he ought to, by nature, possess, make him feel less than whole, not really a lion at all.
I met my father in a Launceston café in April this year, when the staff wore fluffy bunny ears. Small balls of crumpled foil danced along the linoleum when I pushed open the front door, and my father gave a small wave and clenched his heavy jaw. We tried to engage in small talk (what do you say?) and were both relieved when the waitress came around.
‘A large cappuccino…could I just get half a shot please?’ He leaned towards me, ‘caffeine can cause me anxiety.’ I ordered a double-shot latte.
‘I went to school just down the road,’ I said, for something to say.
‘We all looked like trees.’
He frowned, taking a bite of the shortbread biscuit that arrived with his coffee and brushing the crumbs from his lips.
‘Brown tights and green skirts and jumpers,’ I explained.
He nodded. After further attempts at humour that caused little more than uneasy courtesy chuckles, I gave up trying to laugh away the tension.
‘People usually find me unsociable. I’m good at dense academic or philosophic conversations, not so much small talk,’ my father explained. ‘I’m not usually so prone to anxiety, either. It’s the medication I’m trying—it helps with my depression, which I’ve struggled with all my life, but it makes me anxious.’
Our relationship (or perhaps more accurately, our acquaintance) was just 15 minutes old when my father unintentionally offered me this hook to hang my sad hat. After the initial rush of empathy, I felt quietly relieved and strangely smug. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell him then I had been fighting severe depression for years. I still haven’t.
I imagine depression as a small pocket of ink sitting among all the organs in the torso. On my first day in Melbourne, totally alone in my unfamiliar shoebox apartment, the pin that had for months been pushing threateningly on the pocket’s soft surface finally tore through. In the months that followed, trying to grasp onto my slipping sense of self, the toxic ink continued to bleed through my body, anxiety pushing it along through my veins, into the capillaries.
‘I’m really afraid this will affect me for the rest of my life,’ I said to my mother over the phone. ‘Even if I do get better soon, what if it hits me again at forty?’ The image of a despairing housewife lying in bed all day while her children ask their father, ‘What’s wrong with Mummy?’ flashed through my mind. My mummy—true to her down-to-earth, levelheaded character—replied, ‘Maybe it will, but don’t panic about it.’
I promised her I wouldn’t, then hung up and continued panicking. It took me a while to fully appreciate my mother’s attitude towards my illness, and I have come to admire her instinctive belief in the value and validity of things; her aversion to doom-and-gloom; her ability to recognise a molehill as a molehill: these things that depression steals away. My tendency to magnify unnecessarily is something I look to her to quell: I was deeply shaken when Robin Williams committed suicide on my birthday in 2014. It takes just one tragedy to shatter all the success stories—the hopeful tales and motivational testimonials—the depressed person has diligently collected and delicately arranged around her heart for years.
Some say of all the organs, the stomach is the most sensitive to emotion. My anxiety caused painful indigestion, and this is when I first began to consciously restrict my eating. I obsessively contemplated my depression as if it was a massive rampaging robot and I was the superhero trying to identify the weak spot—a way to take it down from the inside. I decided a lack of purpose and a lack of love in my life was to blame for my lack of self-worth. In Hunger, I found, to my surprise, a solution—or at least what felt like one. Fiona Wright, author of Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger, writes empathetically of the protagonist Teresa in Christian Stead’s novel For Love Alone, that restricted eating becomes a ‘way to prove that she is strong, that she is worthy of the love she craves, that she is earning her right to make choices, her right to exist.’
Hunger is like a Siren. Alluring, addictive and will eventually destroy you. I became hooked on ‘making progress’: exercising frequently and adopting the mantra, ‘time spent not eating is time well spent.’ I got the shakes often and I loved it. Eating is state-altering and intensely sensual. It drives the blood from the mind to the stomach. Without it, I could work, alert and almost manic, for long stretches of time. Productivity sans sustenance manifested delusional feelings of immortality—one of the most addictive features of Hunger. I wanted, as Fiona Wright puts it, ‘to live by world and thought and not by bread and body.’ In denying myself food I felt powerful, as if I had no need for fuel. People at work commented on my diminutive frame. At my small creative industries college I could feel my classmates’ eyes on me during discussions about food—although in hindsight, maybe I just thought they were. Whatever the case, I owe it to the rebellious human spirit that their concerns only made me want to eat less. I became a consistent high-achiever in classes and Vice-President of the Student Representative Council, hiding my secret fear of not being a Real Person behind excellent grades and a leader’s smile. At one point, after graduation and on the road to recovery, my work ethic was mistaken for a personal virtue. ‘That’s kind, but honestly,’ I admitted, ‘I only worked so hard because I was desperate to be worth something.’
Today I have a note on my wall that reads:
DIGNITY AND WORTH, MORAL AND AESTHETIC SUPERIORITY ARE DETERMINED BY NATURE RATHER THAN ACCOMPLISHMENT.
When I apply this to others, it seems an obvious truth. But I struggle to apply it to myself, though I try, because it’s a beautiful idea. In those years I lived as an attention-seeking missile: upon being noticed, upon receipt of praise, I exploded with joy. When I was ignored, when I was alone, I exploded, I broke down. I disintegrated in the emptiness that is depression: I barely had a self to loathe. Living between these extremes was at best exhausting, and completely out of my control. At a time when I was questioning my self, my sanity and the abstract nature of truth, Hunger provided structure. Again I can relate to Stead’s Teresa:
Hunger is a constant reminder of what she wants, or what she’s waiting for and working towards. It is grounding, it is stable, and it can be held onto, relied upon…
—Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance
I remember trying, and failing, to explain to a psychologist how the nonsensical, chaotic nature of the world troubled me so deeply. ‘It’s just so big,’ I think I said, frowning out the window at the sky. If only I’d been familiar Wright’s work back then, I may have been more articulate: ‘The scale of the surrounding world,’ she writes, ‘even the scale of a single human life, is nothing short of terrifying… But,’ she continues, ‘we can plan and re-plan our meals and the exact time that we will eat them.’ For someone feeling totally out of control of her mind, watching the shape of my body change—visibly toward the ideal held in mind—was exhilarating and totally addictive. I remember, at my sickest, considering eating a copious amount of junk food not for the pleasure of tasting it (for a long time I lost my sense of taste entirely) but for the pleasure of working off the weight I would gain. Wright’s thoughts on the miniature help me understand this mentality: for miniature objects, perfection and precision are paramount. But ultimately, they are functionless.
My highest-liked Facebook photo is of me at my lowest weight: the image fills me with a confusing cocktail of pride, regret, sadness and envy. Wright writes similarly:
Things were simpler then, when I was underweight and hungry… I didn’t have to think at all.
I restricted my diet for love, but ironically, malnutrition would make that impossible. Hunger is numbing, and eventually was I not really living. I have very few memories of that time, except going to bed at seven thirty most nights because I simply did not have the energy to stay up. I lay there for hours, waiting for the bony arms of depression to release me to the softness of sleep.
I have one foggy memory from my sickest time, of a man hitting on me in a mexican fast-food restaurant, and my entertaining him only due to my desperation for human connection. He asked me back to his apartment and I, knowing next-to-nothing about him, agreed. In his shoebox apartment not unlike mine, we made out (‘You’re so small!’ I remember him exclaiming, gleeful, his hands gripping the small of my back) and sat down to watch a movie I’d never heard of: a gloomy drama replete with frequent full-frontals, while he made vaguely sexual remarks that turned into rather forward suggestion. Eventually, my survival instincts—heavily drugged with the devil-may-care attitude of Hunger—roused sleepily. Up until then I simply had not had the energy to care about my safety. I asked to leave and he only very reluctantly let me go: reaching for his apartment door I thought he was about to lock it rather than open it, and I think he may have been debating it, too. I had been lucky.
Back in my shoebox, I gazed at my body in the mirror and thought, ‘I could just never eat again. I have the power to starve myself to death.’ The thought terrified me more than it thrilled me—only just, but enough to make me visit my doctor.
‘Are you just too sad to eat?’ she asked. I was taken-aback. It’s unlikely one would be asked such a question so frankly outside a clinical environment. Reluctant to trust my sanity at that time, I said I wasn’t sure, but conceded she might be right, and finally I pulled the reigns away from the dismal fate I had been hurtling towards.
‘Tell me what thought causes you the most distress,’ Dr David asked me.
‘I don’t want to say it,’ I said.
‘It will sound melodramatic.’
‘That’s why I want you to say it.’
‘Oh, right,’ I said. ‘…I’m not worthy of love. I have no right to exist.’
My psychologist looked me in the eye. ‘What if I said, there’s nothing wrong with you.’
‘Why does that make you smile?’ he asked.
‘Because it sounds nice… though I don’t think it’s true.’
‘Well, believe it. Your thoughts are sometimes wrong, but there’s nothing wrong with you,’ his cool blue eyes held mine steady.
I offered up my first meeting with my father as proof that depression was interwoven into my DNA. How could I believe there wasn’t something wrong?
‘You met your father? Did he contact you?’
‘I organised it. I haven’t told my mum.’
Dr David became thoughtful.
He eventually said, ‘That was very courageous of you.’
Georgia Jordan is a Melburnian writer and illustrator with a fancy for striking colours and striking thought. Since moving to Melbourne from Tasmania in 2013 she’s been fortunate enough to study her two great loves, creative arts and creative writing—faculties in which she believes the impetus for positive social change lies.