The death of Louis Walsh, my eating disorder
Joanne McNally: When my therapist asks me to give my eating disorder an identity, it begins to take shape in front of me – and it looks exactly like Louis Walsh
“He’s smiling at me. He appears innocent enough but he has a glint in his eye”
‘Okay now Joanne, we’re going to do a little exercise called The Chair Game.” She manoeuvres a large empty chair in front of me.
“In your chair now you’re Joanne, but when you move to this chair, you are your eating disorder. We call it the ED voice. How does it rationalise your bulimia to you? I want to see you guys interact, okay?”
Therapy is a constant stream of talking to imaginary creatures and tap-dancing your feelings out onto the floor, kinda like Billie Barry but without the applause.
I squint at the chair and think about what this physical manifestation of an eating disorder – or my ED – would look like. It’s clearly male. No woman in her right mind would allow me to swan around St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre with vomit in my hair, shoplifting cake and gorging on the restaurant leftovers of total strangers.
Is he a goblin-style character, hissing orders and coughing up slime balls? No, he doesn’t feel like that. He’s part of me, an erratic one, but a part nonetheless. He feels small, like a Borrower. He’s a bit twee, with chubby cheeks and a mild speech impediment. ED is beginning to take shape in the chair in front of me. He’s smiling at me. He appears innocent enough but he has a glint in his eye. Truth be told, he’s an absolute ringer for Louis Walsh.
“Now, Joanne, what can you see?” says Bríd.
“I’ll be honest with you, Bríd, he’s an absolute ringer for Louis Walsh.”
“Gooooood! Goooood, talk to Louis.”
I lock eyes with Louis and begin. “Okay, Louis, listen up. I’m done with the purging, yeah? It’s ruining my body and stuff, so let’s stop now.”
“Okay, Joanne, now swap seats and respond to what you’ve just said as Louis. What does Louis have to say about all this?”
Louis is smiling, he’s upbeat, positive. I think he’s wearing veneers. “Listen, that’s grand. We won’t binge and purge any more. We won’t need to. We’ll just eat lettuce and boiled vegetables and that way we can keep losing weight but in a totally healthy way.”
This seems fair. Maybe I have misjudged Louis. He seems to know a bit about nutrition and he understands that, although the method has to change, the aim remains the same: weight loss.
Bríd seems to want more, so I switch back to Joanne. “Are you sure, Louis, yeah?” I’m getting into the swing of it now. “Are you positive we can stop purging and keep the ovulating going?”
Seat switch. “Absolutely, 100 per cent. We can totally do this. Once . . . we stick . . . to our eating plan.”
I take a moment to wrap up the scene with an exaggerated head drop. I’ve enjoyed that. I’m pleased I can share my new recovery strategy and have it approved by a professional.
Bríd doesn’t look pleased. She looks concerned.
“Okay, Joanne, I’m concerned.”
“There appears to be zero hostility towards Louis,” Bríd continues. “It’s very obvious who wears the trousers here, and it’s not you. You realise he’s simply suggesting you replace bulimia with anorexia? You’re replacing one eating disorder with another.”
A good plan
Louis is getting agitated now. His short legs are swinging in the air.
“F*** Bríd!” he says. “She hasn’t a clue. We know this is a good plan. How can we take direction from this woman anyway? She doesn’t share our standards. She doesn’t know what’s it like out there. She’s old and married. No one gives a shit what she looks like.”
He has me there. She is older, settled. She’s not expected to look like Nicole Scherzinger or make hoop earings look like belts. Why am I, though?
“BECAUSE YOU’RE A DIFFERENT GENERATION!”
Okay, Louis, calm down. Jesus.
I don’t want to be anorexic. I have seen the girls in the clinic, emaciated, their skeletal hands held over the hospital radiators like something from a Dickens novel. But I have to be realistic. Without the bulimia, I have to consider other weight-loss options, and cutting calories makes the most sense.
“So, what’s Louis offering you?” says Bríd.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, why do you want to be so thin?
Oh, here we go: that moment your therapist pretends she doesn’t understand how the western world works, and hangs you out to be an obsessive fruitcake. What does being thin mean to anyone? It means I’m successful.
“Success. It means I’m successful.”
For f*** sake. I’ve grown fond of Bríd, but sometimes I wonder if she is all there.
“Everything,” I say.
“Life.” I am faltering.
Bríd throws me an olive branch.
“Yes, work!” I forgot about work.
“What else, Joanne?”
“All of them!” That sounds gamier than I intended. “Lads I fancy.”
“Do you mean it gets you relationships?”
Bríd is scribbling all this into my folder. I cringe at the thought of ‘Joanne McNally – bulimic for lads’ stamped across my file.
“What else, Joanne?”
I draw a blank. I look for Louis but he has legged it. I know I have to be thin and I know it is the most important thing in the world to me. And yes, this means I have to miss out on certain things, such as birthday parties and weddings and my best mate’s cancer remission party, because I am off getting sick. It isn’t ideal, but sacrifices have to be made.
My ideal weight
I know not everyone does this, but I also know that those who don’t are either thin enough not to need to, or not thin enough to have an opinion that matters. I know that it can’t last forever, but I also know that once I get to my ideal weight I’ll stop the vomiting and be totally happy just chewing on rhubarb, and the compulsion to sit in disabled toilets bingeing and purging all day will just melt away because I will be at my ideal weight.
I don’t know what my ideal weight is, because that keeps changing, but that’s only because I am pushing myself to be the best version of myself I can possibly be. I want people to see what I can achieve. I want praise for all my hard work. I want compliments. I want recognition.
“Compliments.” Jesus, that sounds weak, even to me.
“From whom? Your friends? Do your friends compliment you now?”
I have to be honest with Bríd. No, they don’t, not any more. In the beginning the compliments come thick and fast. But as time goes on, they are replaced with a heavy silence, which sends me into a panic. I’m clearly plateauing. I’m just like I always was: a bitta chunk vacuum-packed into her pleather pants, wobbling from one party to another.
Then the compliments come back, but this time they are delivered differently. The tone is serious, the eye contact more intense.
“You’re too thin.”
Naturally, I am delighted.
I know it isn’t true. I guess that whatever way I am leaning I may have looked thinner than I am, in that very moment, position, angle, but I know I am not thin.
I’ve lost weight, yeah, but so has the world. Thin is in. Just because you’re used to me being bigger, don’t piss on my parade now that I look like you. I’m too thin, am I? Eh? Well I’m bigger than you. So you’re too bloody thin, then.
Anyway, you haven’t seen me naked. You’ve no idea the mess I’m dealing with under all this denim. So you can stick your “Eat a sandwich” comments up your ass. No one eats sandwiches any more, for God’s sake. It’s the millennium.
“No, my friends don’t compliment me,” I tell Bríd.
I have to do some serious brain racking. Compliments, compliments, compliments . . . Oh! I have it.
“This girl I know, friend of a friend . . . of a friend. I bumped into her a while back and she said, ‘Jesus, Joanne, every time I see you, you’re getting thinner’. That was great to hear.”
“Riiiight,” says Bríd. “So, you say that Louis is offering you success in life . . . Professional success, for example.”
I am nodding.
“And,” she pauses. “How’s work going at the moment?”
I look her dead in the eyes.
“I’m not working at the moment, Bríd,”
“And why not?”
“Because I’m in treatment. For an eating disorder.”
I sound mildly brainwashed. Some statements I have become so used to saying they just fall out of my mouth like Mass.
“Okay, Joanne, and what about relationships? Are you seeing someone?”
Wow. Bríd is really going for it today. She sits there blinking at me. She knows full well I’m not. I have been broken up with in the past two years more times than is right or fair, considering I once modelled a Communion dress on Live at Three. I can’t hold down a satsuma, let alone a relationship.
“No,” I say. Nice one, Bríd.
“So really, Joanne, when you think about it . . . ” She is speaking really slowly now, like a mother about to deliver bad news to a toddler. “. . . The things that you think Louis is giving you, he’s actually taking away from you.”
I say nothing. Louis and I have ridden into battle together, and while I have done my best to fight for us, I now have to look down from my steed to see his armoured body humped across his generation-three My Little Pony, his tiny head pierced with Bríd’s Bic biro, his breath laboured.
“And, finally, Joanne . . . ” Bríd says.
Bríd, you sadist.
“You talk about this compliment you got from this girl in a bar. Are you really telling me that you are doing all this to yourself, starving yourself, making yourself violently ill, jeopardising your career, your life, for one random compliment off some girl you don’t even know?”
The death of Louis
Louis falls down from his horse, clutching his head and whining like an injured pug.
This is horrendous. Funny as it sounds, I love Louis. We have been best friends for years. He is all I know. How am I expected to just leave him there, dying from multiple head wounds, in the middle of The Health Is Wealth Centre in the Sandyford Industrial Estate?
But something in me knows it is time to let him die. I can’t defend him any more. And yet, I honestly don’t know how I am supposed to live without him.
“Joanne? Are you telling me this is all for one random compliment off some girl?” Bríd repeats.
“No. I’m not.”
Louis takes one last breath, his little arms stretched out to me.
“Well, I’m not from now on.”
I can hear the final gurgles of his death rattle, and I burst out crying. I am absolutely terrified.
BITE ME: ‘BULIMIA IS HARD TO DEAL WITH ARTISTICALLY’
Bite Me is a one-woman show written and performed by comedian Joanne McNally. It tells the story of “that time she lost her mind for ages”.
It’s based on a blog she wrote while in treatment for an eating disorder, and she credits her friend and director Una McKevitt with encouraging (forcing) her to turn it into a comedy show.
A friend sent the blog to a journalist at time and that was what started McNally’s writing career.
“Everything around eating disorders is always so grim and serious,” says McNally. “I couldn’t relate to any of it. I wanted stuff I could laugh at, and people I could laugh with. I feel like anorexia gets all the media attention. Bulimia is a harder one to deal with artistically. But it’s an addiction like any other. I’m also really interested in how your mind can rationalise all sorts of madness to you. I was 100 per cent convinced that I was completely fine and that everyone else was mad. That’s the part of the story I like the most: the power an addiction has over you, and the work it takes to reprogramme yourself. It’s interesting.”
Bite Me by Joanne McNally is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, September 21st-24th, as part of the Tiger Fringe Festival. Book tickets on fringefest.com or 1850-374643