“Your flight to London is departing in less than 14 days,” Zuji writes to remind me. As if I could forget. Only last night I dreamt I was trying to fix the curtains in my flat when my sister, watching from her comfortable position reclining on the bed, informed me my flight was in fact departing in less than two hours and shouldn’t I be checking in already? Useful.
Stressful, more like.
It is perhaps hardly surprising then that, arriving in work horribly early this morning, putting on the kettle and returning five minutes later only to find my specialty Chai tea gone, stolen – and not even allowed to properly brew, god dammit! – by my sleepy colleague, put me in something of an end of the world panic, and not for the first time this week.
On Wednesday night I had been rudely awoken by rain and lightning crashing in through the windows. While my boyfriend slept peacefully on, I lay there in the darkness going over the events of the evening, feeling a storm brewing inside.
It is Hungry Ghost Festival here at the moment, the month in the Chinese calendar when the gates of Heaven and Hell are believed to open and the spirits of your dead ancestors come back to visit the living. Offerings of food, incense, paper money and goods (clothes, mobile phones, a new car – whatever you think your dead gran or granddad would most like or need) are made to appease their wrath and ease their suffering. Where I live on Lamma Island, these ritual burnings are a common enough and heartening sight. A practiced arsonist myself, I like nothing better than a good bonfire; we always had a fire glowing in the hearth back home and being able to make it was a rite of passage. But as we walked home on Wednesday from our long-looked-forward-to evening together, I gazed rather mournfully at the peanuts, oranges and crackers lying on the roadside, feeling a bit like a hungry ghost myself.
It’s a feeling that’s been building all week. As I prepare to say goodbye to my students, colleagues and friends, tie up the last loose ends and send a few final boxes home, I am left dull, distracted, distant and distinctly without an appetite. My boyfriend is good to me, putting up with my silences, buying me lunch and encouraging me to stay positive; but I am torn – happy to be leaving for new pastures, sad to be leaving him, and stressed by all the things I have to do (pulling down curtains the very least of them).
Still, I go to my yoga classes, seeking peace and calm, an escape from my thoughts and a direction for my nervous energy. And for a while – a few fleeting minutes – I can stand back, see the murk settle and the clear water appear, can feel it washing over me. Then it’s over; it’s late; I eat supper, go to sleep and start the whole thing over again the next day. It’s not long before I am tired, ravenously hungry and demonic.
“It’s like dating a tiger,” my boyfriend jokes, trying to get a kiss in while I hurry to have breakfast before starting work.
“Well observed,” I retort. “Keep five paces back and do not attempt to come between me and food.”
It’s a common enough scenario between us to have gained me the reputation as a vicious, knife-wielding, unsharing eater. “Caring is sharing,” he tells me. But I’m vegetarian yogi and do not eat all the steak, burgers, ice cream and banoffee pie he does. I get tired after a long day at work in the city, come home voracious with hunger and the only thing I want to make love to is hummus. “Stealing,” I say, “is unfeeling,” proving that anyone can come up with a bad rhyme to conjure with. And I have one other disadvantage over him: where he can find comfort in food, I find none. In times of stress, I’m an emotional non-eater and then of course the tiger in the cage is even more unpredictable, to be approached only with the utmost caution. Which is the situation I found myself in on Wednesday evening and the reason I was awake at 3am caught up in self-recrimination and remorse.
I’d started off looking forward to the evening so much it barely mattered that I’d missed breakfast and had only a hurried bowl of cereal for lunch. We were going to The Peak for a romantic dinner. But after a long two hours’ drilling grammar, I was starving and anyone whose ever been through an eating disorder will know that the brain in starvation mode is not particularly effective at decision making. Desperate for nourishment of any kind – generally the fattier the better – it battles against the mind that wants control. Imagine, if you will the dialogue that goes on – the continual monkey chatter of the mind – every time an anorexic quietly, fearfully peruses a menu. It’s like listening to Goldilocks on the Gwyneth Paltrow diet: “Hum, what shall I have… This? Too rich. What about this? No, too bland. Okay, then this? Are you crazy? Too oily. Well, we’re running out of options; you tell me. Which has the least calories? This one. Too boring. What about this then? But you just said I couldn’t have that. That’s right, I forgot; what about….? You know what, don’t bother. I give up.”
“So, hunny,” my boyfriend says, looking up endearingly at me. “Are you ready? What do you want?”
Words can hardly describe how patient he is, not only suffering me to change my mind several times, but us to change restaurants in the hope that the other place will have what my heart desires. It does not of course and whatever I order will be wrong, because even if I knew my heart’s desire I am incapable of following it. My mind has far too strong a hold on me. I cannot even concentrate properly on what my boyfriend is saying. The constant white noise of my neuroses drones on in the background, taunting me with the regret: “You should have stayed at the other place.”
“Oh, now you know what you want? Now you can make a decision? Now you feel guilty for dragging your boyfriend away from his beef bourguignon and being a complete pain in the ass all night?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, but…”
And so it goes on.
Well, having spent a sleepless night full of regret and self-loathing for having allowed myself to get into such a state of nervous paralysis in the first place, I make a promise: to feed the hungry ghost in me, to make it offerings and present it gifts as I would to a sick child. In short, to try to ride out the storm and get a little better (each and every time I do it) at working through this illness. Because it is an illness, one of the mind as much as the body, and as John Donne said: “of the diseases of the mind, there is no criterion, no canon, no rule, for our own taste and judgement should be the judge, and that is the disease itself…And still I vex myself with this, because if I know it not, no one can know it.”