David Foster Wallace speaking at the 2005 Commencement Address of Kenyon College, USA.
When I was a teenager, I was an atheist. I was the worst kind of teenager, and the worst kind of atheist – and what a natural Venn diagram that is! I was obnoxious, belligerent, arrogant, convinced of the total right-ness of every single thing I believed. I knew there was no God, just as I knew that anyone who used fake tan was a complete idiot, just as I knew that Morrissey was the greatest musician, nay, human being, known to mankind. It turns out I was massively wrong about all three.
I’m still not a religious woman. I don’t think I ever will be. I can’t foresee the future, but most religious institutions have an undercurrent of misogyny and homophobia that is, ahem, incompatible to my lifestyle. But just as today I am sure that fake tan has its uses for a pale gal wishing to go bare-legged in July, and that Morrissey can be a right tosspot, I am sure that there is a power greater than myself in this world. I know this because every day of my life I have been bent supine at the altar of one power or another. I did not realise this until I started to bend supine to a power that could actually embrace and fulfil all my needs. Until I gave all of myself to a power greater than myself through choice, I could not see that I had unconsciously given myself away every day. Even in the depths of my most belligerent atheism, I had worshipped profoundly.
In the depths of an eating disorder, I have worshipped food with the all devotion and fervour of a Catholic at the rosary. I have set aside other things to make room for my relationship with food. I set aside human concerns and became consumed (pun most definitely intended) by an almost religious ecstasy for the simple cycle of binge and purge. Food would rule my day. Waking early with a belly heavy from the prayers of the day before, I would force myself to forgo nourishment until a certain time of day so that I would know I was fully punished before my God. I would use this time of fasting and meditation to think on exactly the ways in which I had failed: I would meticulously count each calorie, I would confess them to the fridge door and make hideous promises I would never keep about how today I swear it will be different. My life was not my own. Food was my saviour and my sacrifice. I saw other people living a free life, and knew that total anxiety was not the normal reaction to a day without chocolate. The life I led was always on the edge of a great chasm, and to fill that chasm and block myself from the pain of feeling it, I used the great anaesthetic power of sugar. I learnt that if you eat enough chocolate quickly enough it is basically a mind-altering substance. I had mystical experiences in tubs of Ben and Jerry’s. I laughed at people who had fat days and worried about eating one KFC, these Pharisees in my temple who thought that one day of servitude could match the sacrifice I had made, the lifetime of potential I had lay down on the altar and burnt up like incense.
Like any good novice I believed that everything I gave up for my saviour would be repaid to me tenfold. Every meal I skipped, or family pack of Kettle Chips I gorged on brought me closer to divinity, closer to quieting the sense of gnawing unease that only chewing, swallowing, purging, rinsing would bring to an end. I did not realise I had made a fatal error in my calculations. I did not realise that my God did not love me back. I knew that I could miss out on dates with attractive people, shopping in the same places as my friends, feeling sexual, feeling full, feeling hungry. I did not know that I was not being given back something better. I did all of these things because I believed it would pay off. I believed that if I gave enough up it would be paid back in kind. That I would somehow be cleverer, brighter, happier than all of the people who did not live to serve as I did. And so I worshipped, and on many days I continue to do so. I make the same pledges at the fridge door. I tell myself I am doing better because I no longer purge. I convince myself that the heavy feeling in my stomach is contentment rather than a health condition brought on by my lifestyle.
This is why I need something better to worship: because what I have spent most of my life worshipping is going to kill me. My arteries will block up with my love for this God. My limbs will collapse under the weight of my fervour. But as any convert will tell you, changing your religion is hard work. When Charlotte changes her religion to Judaism in Sex and the City, she has one last Christmas tree to say goodbye to Christianity. She has a strength of will I don’t understand. I have one last ritual about every four days. But I do have a new higher power, who does not need to battle for supremacy, who just waits patiently til I am ready to give up mutilating myself in favour of starting to love myself. I’m glad it’s waiting patiently, because this will take a long time. It will take a long time for me to fully relinquish the practices I have adhered to so strongly for so long.
It will take years to undo the damage of years. I know that I may always look at food as something that can destroy as easily as it can nourish. I know that I cannot wake up one morning and unzip the body I am locked into like I used to dream about doing. But in the meantime, the power of the universe, the power of my best self, Love in all its many forms, whatever you want to call that force which sustains you and pushes you towards the life you are meant to have…that force, that power is within me, waiting for me to stop counting, stop promising, stop working so damn hard at feeding something that will kill me. I would like nothing more than to finish this post with a powerful declaration that I have been freed from this demon, that it is exorcised, but I cannot. I still dance this dance every day.
Today my hope and my strength is found in knowing that there is something greater, and that one day I will finally allow myself to only ever be nourished. That voice in my head that tells me the third chocolate bar is a great idea might never go away completely, but one day I trust I will be able to say ‘no’. As simply and as perfectly as that – no, thank you. It is against my religion.