thoughts on louis theroux's new anorexia documentary
Louis Theroux’s new documentary, Talking to Anorexia, opens in the wan corridors of an inpatient clinic called St Ann’s in north London. Theroux asks a skeletal woman what it’s like living here. “Like prison!” we hear, from a voice off-screen. In his trademark affably curious way, he searches the other woman’s face for confirmation. “Is it really?” She nods her delicate head.
Let me tell you: Inpatient clinics for eating disorder patients are absolutely like prison. Or, as Louis’ acquaintance points out, like the military. I spent a couple of months in one as a teenager – at Greenwich hospital in Sydney, Australia – and the nurse in charge was a former prison warden who ran the ward with a somewhat terrifying discipline.
It makes sense: Eating disorders teach their victims to lie to everyone they care about – perhaps the only way to tame them is to be adamantly strict about it. There are rigid schedules to be adhered to, rules to abide by, CCTV and constant supervision to make you feel watched. The daily regime is dictated by mealtimes (three meals, three snacks) and therapy sessions. Exercise rights must be earned, as with the right to leave the ward to visit family or friends. Privileges like those are typically only given once you’ve put on a certain amount of weight, which you’ll find out when you enter a sallow hospital room with a single set of scales in the middle and learn your fate for that week. Toilets are locked after mealtimes and patients are supervised for the hour after they’ve eaten, to make sure they keep down their food. At my clinic, with its pallid pistachio-green walls and daily blood tests, you had to sing to a nurse if you needed to go to the bathroom within an hour of digesting your dinner (to prove you weren’t retching). If you were unable to stomach a meal for whatever reason – the tuna pie still haunts me – you had to sit at the nurse’s station and slurp down a thick, gluggy meal replacement.
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