I approached Small Acts of Disappearance with caution. A part of me finds reading about illness soothing — there’s an acceptance I find in it, a community of others who appear to go about their lives normally but mask an array of symptoms and pains. But there are also elements of this genre-of-sorts that are difficult to read. Like that of grief still in deep mourning, broken relationships still raw, often writing about illness feels too close to the source of the pain, not yet healed, not yet reconciled. But Fiona Wright manages something very special in this collection of essays: she manages to reveal the depths of her anorexia and of the pain it causes her personally, both emotionally and physically; yet she is able to view her history with the illness from enough distance to meet the reader half way. What it gives is a combination of startling confession, historical research, and a personal narrative to guide the reader through dangerous waters without, as the author is keen to acknowledge, becoming a manual for destruction or a self-help guide for recovery.
In these ten essays — from time spent overseas to time in hospital, to looking back at literature’s take on eating disorders to looking back on herself in the final chapter ‘In Hindsight’ — Wright lets her vulnerability show with a tenderness for herself. She sees herself spiralling yet it’s the control of her illness that prevents her from taking control of her recovery. Her writing is beautiful — balanced against the extremes of her story Wright has managed to share an incredibly readable collection of essays. Despite my early reluctance, once I began I found myself tearing through the book, not dipping in and out one at a time as I had planned. Because while Wright’s focus begins at anorexia, there’s a universality to her observations that hit at my own experiences of chronic illness, at times reminiscent of Sontag in her ability to symbolise both beauty and pain, connection and loneliness. ‘Illness is a foreign country’ observes Wright, ‘we do things differently here.’
For Wright, her illness begins with an attempt at control. No matter what your illness, food becomes a consuming force. For cancer patients it’s about keeping on as much weight as possible, keeping your body strong against the drugs that counter illness with an aggressive onslaught. For those with diabetes, it’s about mathematics and constant tests to track the effect food is having on your body. For me, it’s about doing what I can to fight against the tide of inflammation, as the sites of my pain swell like high and low tides, in an attempt to heal. It means I’ve had to stop eating wheat and limit sugar, caffeine and alcohol. It’s about as fun as it sounds, but it helps. And when you’re sick and have been sick for twenty years with limited diagnosis’ and a string of ineffective treatments, you’ll do whatever you can. Food is something that’s in my control, something that I don’t have to sit in a doctor’s surgery for, have blood tests for, spend a tonne of money on. When you’ve spent twenty years seeing doctors and specialists, having X-rays and ultrasounds and surgeries, these tiny elements of control become huge.
Yet as time goes by, we allow ourselves to ease off these controls from time to time, if for no other reason that restriction over such a long period becomes another form of loss attributable to illness. We need these small comforts, they keep us connected to the world outside of our bodies and minds. Particularly here in Berlin as the weather cools, I am looking for small comforts, these rewards for getting out of bed on frosty mornings, for taking my bike out in rapidly diminishing digits, for maintaining positive attitudes in a city that feels like it’s bunkering down, preparing for the long hibernation to come. So I bought a waffle maker. It sounds frivolous and it is. But for thirteen euros I now have a little form of comfort sitting on our kitchen bench. When the waffles cook, the apartment fills with the sweet warmth of cinnamon and vanilla, and the kitchen becomes a place the Germans describe as gemütlich, a feeling of snug homeliness.
I was looking for a simple recipe to get me started with my waffle maker, yet everywhere I looked I could only find fancy versions I’d like to try in the future, or complicated mixtures with lots of ingredients or crazy amounts of butter. This recipe on Heartbeet Kitchen worked well and gave me a good place to start. I took the advice of the recipe and just used one cup of a pre-mixed gluten free flour, but I also omitted the baking soda and lemon zest, and added a teaspoon of cinnamon to the dry mix. My machine makes these cute little thin heart-shaped waffles rather than the thick American style squares, so they cook quickly and don’t take as much time in the oven to crisp up — I just kept the waffles warm in a 100 degree oven rather than keeping them baking at 200 degrees like some recipes recommended. I got the idea to serve waffles with poached plums from this recipe by Our Food Stories, but again I wanted a much simpler and less sweet version than printed here. So I just halved and de-stoned half a kilo of plums and cooked them for about ten minutes on a medium heat with two tablespoons of raw sugar, two tablespoons of water and about ten slices of fresh ginger. Once the plums are tender and starting to fall apart, let them cool then take out the ginger slices before refrigerating. These plums are great on porridge, yoghurt and pancakes too, and you can experiment with different flavourings like cinnamon, rosemary or thyme.
Wright says of her illness:
There’s no room in any narrative of recovery I’ve ever seen for this terrible sadness, this unreasonable fear, and these unmeasurable movements, backwards and forwards and sideways, towards, away from and around whatever a return to health might mean.
A life consumed by chronic illness feels pre-determined, ill-balanced and precarious. I cannot heal myself with waffles, just as I cannot heal myself by drinking endless cups of ginger tea or by going to yoga. But sometimes when control feels beyond your grasp, small comforts help more than one can imagine.
In one of my favourite books I’ve read this year, and in what will become a seminal text on illness and empathy, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams does what she says she is drawn to in other essays, it ‘allow[s] the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.’ In this transcript of her address to The Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest, ‘The Possibilities of the Personal’, Jamison discusses the risks of confession that are particularly problematic in works discussing illness, the temptation to write ‘not just about oneself but for oneself.’ But while you may feel singular in your attempt to convey your illness, just as you might when lying in a hospital gurney, as Jamison reflects, ‘there is so much outside the false cloister of private experience; and when you write, you do the work of connecting that terrible privacy to everything beyond it.’