Content warning: this piece contains graphic descriptions of bodily harm.
If a person bitten by a mad dog looks in the mirror, they will see the animal’s image reflected there. These are not my words, they are Paul the Silentiary’s words. A silentiary is an advocate for silence: did Paul occupy a quiet body? I wonder this now but not often. When I imagine his words and his mirror, I assume a loud body, something collapsing. Either way, it does not matter. I only need to write the body down for it to remember itself.
First there is a spider but it starts with an orange. Don’t remember the day, remember the knife and this counts. No, don’t remember the knife, remember strain in hand. Cutting an orange should not bruise finger but hand persists because mouth is hungry and hungry people are enduring people. Strain. Pain bites. Cut it open anyway. Snap it. Two and then four. Feel strong but only briefly. Cut it again. Turn it to eight. Eight is a balanced number and balanced numbers bring good luck. See the spider when it sounds. Tiny naked body wedged between two segments. Think it looks brand new but don’t know how. Think it is a cruel trick, never asked for it. Pick up eight segments and throw them into the pool. Spend twenty minutes watching the orange drown. Sit on the water’s edge and think of ratios: there is more orange than spider, it is not the orange’s fault. But it is too late for this kind of thought. The body is now the bridge between spider and orange. To remove association requires a removal of self. Cry for three hours because: just not there yet. Body is found by father squashed against the kitchen wall. He tries to unpack it. Maybe he tries three times? He hates unpacking. Tell him what was seen and he says I don’t believe you the last time I encountered an orange inside a spider was in September 1967. Shake head and say no no no you are mistaken. He says he stopped eating oranges after his mother was strapped to a bed and fed too much electricity. It was the oranges that killed her. He says you should switch to apples, and fast. When mentioning incident years later he throws an insane look shared with mother. How does a spider eat an orange? Shake head and say no no no you are mistaken.
Stare at the pile of potato and say the white is more of a grey isn’t it. Look to father and father says you do not surprise me I know what this is. Put down fork, rest it with knife in its right place. Small relief. Order gaze and look to plate, apply each eye there. Go deep to get away. Watch a tiny moth hatch from inside a cherry tomato. Watch it drag its body out before spilling across and turning into a nostalgic thing. It dies beside the green beans. Figure it is for the best and cover it with a lettuce leaf. Hear mother fork two tomatoes and chew hard. She says are you crying don’t cry if you don’t want to eat the cooked food eat the tomato. Her body sits across but her voice hangs above. Try to tilt self up. Try to break the surface, meet her gaze and say no no no. But it doesn’t work. Remain under. Drop the moth inside pants. It is warm or familiar against skin maybe both. Stand now. Pick up the plate and throw it against the wall. The crash sounds silent but suspect it isn’t. A slice of beetroot drips down the white wallpaper trailing red. Say the tomato does not want to be eaten. Catch Luce’s eye. A small death she says, swallowing a bite. A small death is no death at all. Turn to father. Notice him watching and lock down both eyes. Make his gaze into a steady thing. Find reflection inside pupils and watch it smile. Touch mouth, try and locate grin. Stare harder and say do you think it is broken? His mouth is a fist of cucumber.
Bodily contamination becomes real through observation. Observation becomes meaningful through language. Or: a sick body is recognised once it is named, it is not made. Say this to doctor but only after the fact.
Two quiet thoughts stick and become loud. Thought one: a falling body is a stagnant body. Thought two: what you risk reveals what you value. Not revelatory but fifteen and tired. Eyes look to body. See body as the arena through which all future tension is rectified.
Pulse dips on Tuesday and rises on Wednesday, arbitrary measures. Body is taken to hospital because mouth refuses what it shouldn’t. Body is given usual fluid drip. Mouth tastes of miscarriage. Body comes to around lunchtime. Time is barely there but still it hangs and bites. Father is there, sits in armchair, coffee in hand, reading the newspaper because he is his own boss and mother isn’t and must work Wednesdays. He looks. Laughs. Throws across comic page because comics are for children. He says if you want it bad enough you just make it happen.
Think of skyscrapers and the ocean, think of hanging rocks. Thought three: the pull to jump is the pull to feel more present. A falling thing will wake quick and all bodies want to wake quick but don’t risk jumping in fear of only falling. Sigh a tragedy, another thought to hang neck on. Allow left eye to roll one tear onto cheek. Nurse hands over tissue and says now now don’t cry even acute oedema can be treated. Blink away dream. Move off edge and into room. Mother shakes inside chair, takes tissue, blows nose, says something about timelines. Nurse says there is fluid around organs. There is a risk of heart attack. Look to nurse now. Stare down nurse now. Say oedema is for the bulimic does face look puffy? Laugh and tug at veins around wrist. Pick and pull at finger- nails now. Allocate soft spot underneath thumbnail. Unravel blue thread and think there is more than last time. Nurse de-wrinkles skirt. Nurse says you need to be hospitalised you require urgent re-feeding. Shake head now. Say mouth does not consume moving foods. Nurse says food doesn’t move. Say mine does.
Rectangular table but the girls sit in circles. Each body circles the other body. It is not communion it is desperation, it is waiting together. The hospital body demands attention through removal: she looks to her to see herself slowly leaving. It is a backwards gaze into nothing. And before that, a backwards gaze into something desiring nothing. Mother’s body slips around it. Tug on mother’s wrist and say what a dangerous crowd to keep for company. Mother nods yes but understands in the wrong way. She leaves body here and takes all of herself with her.
The first meal is a white bread cheese and tomato sandwich to be consumed in less than twenty minutes. Seated at the dining table is the head nurse and fifteen bodies drawn into one. Think a secret reunion or a welcoming? It doesn’t matter. Look to head nurse with ironed face and timer in hand. Timer drips backwards for practical reasons but only feels symbolic now. Nurse’s edges define her body inside space without cutting surrounding air. A quiet body, lacking echo. Nurse is not bothered with space. Nurse looks to the sandwich and does not see the potential of the empty plate, table, chair, room. Her lips look ready to shape and throw a stupid sound: there are worse things in life than losing a hemline inside a dimpled thigh haha. Unstick eyes from nurse. Do not think of food or timer. Think of mother. Mother hates this body. Says it is a found body not a true body. No point saying: felt it at seven before finding it at fifteen. No point saying: felt it move and unpack years before it ripped off the excess. Mother sent the found body here. Only to kill it. If mother were to look at the table she’d see one sharp rectangle. The bodies hiding peas inside collarbones would not feel like an extension of her. No use saying this though, her focus remains fixed on what is on the plate: the sandwich.
Observe its elements. Assign all else to the periphery. There are three components to spread out, gradually ignore. First, peel bread from cheese. Feel it seep into fingertips. Think there is more space than body, in a body anything can get in. Notice holes. Holes in bread in cheese in tomato. Holes to breathe into and out of. Touch cheese with finger. Feel it move underneath skin trying to merge. Feel its desire. Lift finger off cheese and see small blister above nail not yet bleeding: almost-externalised internal, lucky. Throw finger into a mug of hot tea to kill it before it hatches. Nurse sees and says self-harm is not permitted in front of the others. Girl sitting across the table lifts face and smiles in surprise, says oh a newbie. She stashes potato pieces inside her sweater sleeve and says I’m inpatient forty-four. Nod and settle outside of her smile. Lift finger from tea and inspect from appropriate distance. Wrap tight in napkin. Tilt eyes towards teacup. One small spider floats on surface, grins without drowning and grows larger the harder both eyes look. Soon spider body will fill cup. Peel eyes away and turn back to plate. Look deep into it. Realise each hole is an egg and each egg is a spider and each spider exists for a reason outside of itself. Throw up nothing beside chair.
Inpatient forty-four says all her dreams start with a loaf of white bread chasing her wanting to eat her, and by the end of the day the white bread gets exactly what it wants. Sucking on a strawberry Fortisip she throws out words only to float them. She ushers them into high-up spaces because no witnessing body would let them land. The dining room is filled with inpatient forty-four’s unclaimed stories. At breakfast she says: so I was standing in front of the mirror trying to love myself but my skin kept peeling backwards until all that was left to love was the wall behind me was the wall in front of me the wall inside me. These words hang above the dining room window. Look there now but not to claim them. Think it is either dark or very bright outside, cannot be sure. Daylight is starting to run backwards but doctor says it is normal for people here to feel this. Stare into far corner of thought and ponder over time: the surface of a thing is required to measure the depth of a thing. Daytime is the surface of nighttime. Turn to inpatient forty-four with question on tongue: if the day cracks open and submerges itself, how does a body navigate the evening? She grins and says the body becomes whole through breaking don’t you attend DBT, CBT it is rule number one. Let her words sink in and decide to repeat to self when feeling spilt when feeling unhinged, even if it is a lie to hang neck on before neck hangs itself. Inform doctor of these thoughts and doctor says words about depression. Always considered depression to be the space that follows the fight to be here and never the fight. Father says depression is waiting. A body waits unaware of what it waits for. Maybe it is the same thing. Tell doctor no: body is too alive to be depressed.
Each morning before feeding and before therapy doctor weighs body and says things like: my wife no longer accompanies me to India because she is a HSP and poverty makes her ill. Sounds of this kind fill the room until doctor directs the typical morning question: did you dream? He knows there is only ever one dream but asks anyway. Tell him: a small body exists inside a belly of water, pressed there against its will. There is a tube connected to the body feeding the body. Inside the tube are millions of pink eggs. Each egg is made alive through the body. Each egg turns the body into a heavy thing. To be heavy is to be hateful. The small body knows this and tries curling neck under tube to break connection, tries over and over. Tube resists. Neck and tube are made stronger through the fight. Small body’s hatred inverts. Turns to dismay turns to resignation.
Tube feeds nose first feeds oesophagus second, falls into stomach last. Falls and feeds for eight hours. Tube hosts body, turns body into parasite. Tubed body is sick body is disquieted body. Prior identifiers slip around it because language fails to reflect it. Even so, doctor and therapist write the body down, turn it to a comprehensible thing. Doctor looks to books swallowed to voice the right words to reassure mother that nothing is broken something is just not quite right, right now. Right now is always in motion but doctor does not see tube as written into the body before birth. On the first tube feeding body screams but scream skirts most ears, only inpatient forty-four hears. Storming in from the TV room she says stop yelling I’m trying to learn how to stir-fry. Doctor gives a blank stare as inpatient forty-four’s tubes walk her body back out. Look to bag next to bed attached to tube running into body, full of pink liquid. Father says it is the colour of bad sailing weather. Therapist says to ignore father at all times starting now because father is new-found reason body is in a state of removal. Say it is easy to suppose this but no matter the route from there to here, body would always end up here. Therapist says father is a determinist so theory doesn’t count. Overhear doctor tell mother brain is cognitively impaired: she lacks the ability to comprehend her surroundings but confusion is expected with malnutrition soon to be reversed with feeding. Mother says do what you need to do which means sedatives are pushed into mouth to quieten body. Watch room empty itself and turn eyes to television.
Daytime infomercial. An orange man is selling workouts to fat bodies desiring to be thin bodies. Workout involves standing still first and being electrocuted second. Watch a fat body press two feet into a machine. Orange man pushes button pulls lever. Fat body is projected across room into a nearby wall a hard dismantlement. Close up of fallen face: skin hangs blood pours mouth froths throws up. Think an externalised internal: where is the body now? A retching noise sounds behind camera and someone says oh fuck. Orange man laughs and says some bodies are too stuck in their ways to change don’t be one of those bodies haha.
Turn off television. Remove bobby pin from hair and rip off fat gel end, reveal point. Needle small incision into tube. Plastic pops. Let one pink drop fall onto ring finger. Pink hardens upon touching skin. Turns into egg. Crush it between fingers. Lift hand to nose. Pull at tube. Feel it stick somewhere inside. Pull again. Pink liquid trails down nose onto lips, wipe away. Pull again. Use both hands. Tube unsticks from stomach wall, hatches from under tissue. Taste blood before it rises inside mouth. Dig fingernails into tube for great finale. Tube rips through body, separates like baby tooth. Choke as tube unravels in hands. Feel crawling sensation inside chest and bend over bed. Cough up stomach but crawling sensation stays down.
To be given a room is to be given a number and by then it is too late: to enter is to leave. Sickness asserts identity. Say to doctor: how does hospital body develop agency when identity only takes shape in front of others? Doctor frowns, says diagnosis is not reductive it is beneficial it allows for a more authentic expression of self. Doctor cannot comprehend the question because he has never felt the limitations of the word. Has not felt the strain of grasping for identity through removal of a name.
Some inpatient bodies are renamed through electricity. This body resists treatment and resists remission, or: her affective state names her. No two short-circuits are the same but electricity makes it so. Chosen body is walked into a small room pressed into a small bed and plugged into a power adaptor. Mouth is filled with a plastic protector in case teeth attack tongue, it is precaution. Doctor dials up machine to dial up body. Dialled-up body screams loud. It sounds of a dying-thing but doctor says it is the talk of a second wind. Treatment is what diagnosis determines. Sometimes the pressure is turned too high and the plates in the skull shift shape and make a new face for the body to wear. It is a permanent side effect but the doctor says the results make it worthwhile, in the majority of cases. Electricity strips the body of identifiers. Leaves it unable to gauge parameters, unable to separate the external from the internal. Doctor names this state a blank slate and says a blank slate holds potential. The hospital brims with potential.
Inpatient forty-four is reset after six years of failed treatment. One morning after feeding time her body is walked into the small room. Days later she consumes white bread without self-harming without Valium sedation without forced Fortisip. Ask doctor why her face looks changed and he says maybe you are looking at it in the wrong way. Do you mean the old way? Doctor shrugs, says what’s the difference? Within the month she is eating three meals plus two snacks per day and no longer requires a two-week tube feeding, it is a revelation. She is moved from the eating disorder table to the catatonic table reserved for reset bodies that remain blank slates. Sits wedged between two and consumes plate after plate of white food until she becomes an extension of her surroundings. Her mother visits on Tuesdays and cries in the same way but for different reasons. Inpatient forty-four does not speak. Time no longer hurries her. Suspect it is because her limbs no longer move in unison: when she walks she flails. She spends her days sitting and when she sits she eats. Two months into treatment she tries to eat a teacup. She swallows the china handle before the doctor sees, restrains and sedates, sedates with the same medication given to the other catatonic bodies because: diagnosis determines treatment. The day before her twenty-third birthday she is found shoving fistfuls of hair down her throat. Doctor names the hair a threat and shaves it away. Doctor blames erratic behaviour on a perverted feeding function induced by starvation. Does not view her behaviour as suicidal until she hangs herself during a home visit. Ask him how he copes with news and he says there is no use thinking about what you cannot change: to become emotional is to risk becoming stuck and I have no time for stagnancy. He turns away and says something about life going on. Doctor has never found himself on a violent edge with nowhere to go but off.
Father says a thin body lets the light in and the fastest way to attain meaning is through bodily transcendence. He says to consider the coffin before consumption because an open coffin should not be made worse than it already is: always keep in mind the proceedings following a body’s demise. How do you want to be remembered? The first time he says this is before second grade swim practice. He says it is a secret and not to be shared with mother or sister: they will not understand in the right way. Feel special and say okay. Swallow down words and let them make a home within body. Organise body around these words. Apply appropriate methods: do what it takes to let the light in. When mentioning this incident to father years later he throws same insane look shared with mother, demands what light.
Look to father sitting in hospital chair next to hospital bed reading the daily newspaper. Father’s body is a prison, but because he has named the surrounding bars something else his affliction is holy. He looks to the hospital bed and sees a job well done. He is unaware that this body was created only to cancel his out.
Outside body is made by the doctor but worn for mother. It is a transitory body without echo, blown up extending out, soon to deflate and resume true self. Think: far too crowded to be a reliable thing and still, mother waves her Fluoxetine prescription and locates lost joy inside the curvature of its hips. Sighing and joyful she embraces body, no longer ostracised or bled by its edges. When body walks alongside other bodies her eyes glass over and say: it was like she was never any different. Was she? Hugs are given each hour and each hug says: how beautiful it is to finally feel you. The wheezing of limbs is not heard. Mother figures a tangible thing is a true thing: to measure is to make real and now body is real.
Transitory body’s first relapse comes within two weeks: how can fifty-five drop to forty-seven it has only been thirteen days. By the third relapse mother straddles doorways without entering. She is afraid of catching the hysteria pocketed underneath the clavicle. Decide it is not personal, just pathological. Mother stops looking for joy outside of pill organiser. By the sixth relapse nobody panics though some energetic types feign shock to be polite. By the eighth relapse say to doctor: there is a hunger for that which exists outside of the bodily experience. Say to doctor: the body is both arena and instrument through which inner conflict is resolved do you understand? Doctor is red-faced and round. The smaller body shrinks, the bigger his grows. Doctor nods and says this feeling is an emergency it requires a blue room and tight sheets. Say: there exists a desire. He says go on. A desire to cut the fat off space. He yells no. Or maybe he laughs? No matter: take it slow. A slow process is violent, a quick rip is easy. To tend to the former is to really want it. Learnt this from watching father. Twenty-two years of numbered foods ironed out nurses and nothing changes. Mother still visits with self-affirming placards to pin to the mirror. There has only been one true thought: tubed body continues to die. Could cry about it but laughing burns fat faster so haha.
Doctor sits body down and says now is a good time to address the aetiology of illness: to understand previous trauma is to prevent future trauma is to solidify present direction. Doctor believes the body prior to sickness is accessible and that it is desired. Look to doctor and do not say: only tread water because don’t know what body stands for outside of illness. Do not say: the anorectic body never recovers, it stays in purgatory if it stays at all. Do not say: nature never stops and this is the nature of this body. Do not say: the scale rebalanced but nothing else ever did. Instead, humour him: the body no longer feels uneasy it feels comfortable. And: food no longer tastes fearful it no longer tastes possessive. Press body back into chair, smile: the recent combination of medication is working it feels balanced. Doctor nods yes, makes a note on notepad. Doctor feels gaze lifts face and says I have a book for you. Doctor removes hardcover from bookshelf and hands it over: there is a study on body dysmorphia in chapter three I think you’ll find of interest.
Read chapter after session: a young girl rips open her jugular during a botched home surgery. She is trying to remove the fat from underneath her chin. The girl dies from blood loss. Digest words and recognise the taste. Later, ask doctor why he thought story in chapter three would help make sense of right now. He puzzles and says what do you mean, what story? He looks to the book and says this is not my book I never gave you this book. He opens it, flicks through pages, hands it back: this is your journal. And: there is nothing here. ◆
jessie berry-porter writes lyric essays and other things. She is currently doing her Masters in Publishing and Writing and a Post-Diploma in Psychology. She is interested in exploring the relationship between the body and pathology.
Leonie Brialey is a cartoonist living in Naarm / Melbourne.