Penelope Maclachlan’s Lanugo was longlisted for the 2018 Life Writing Prize. Here she explains a bit about why she wrote the piece, and shares an extract.
‘While I was at university I developed a feeling of guilt about eating, and a loathing of eating in other people’s presence. Although there was a doctor on the campus, it didn’t occur to me to consult him, let alone that I was ill. Seven years later a psychiatrist diagnosed anorexia. The effect this illness had on my parents and me is indelible. Although I present no solution in my story, I feel that it is preventable. I also feel that ignorant people should not dismiss a deadly illness as “attention seeking”.’
‘Occupational therapy. You’ve been to psychiatric hospital before, haven’t you?’
‘Oh. The rest of us have.’ He reeled off the names of institutions. ‘If we don’t get well there, they send us here. You’ve the first I’ve come across to get in just like that.’
He looked at me as if I had achieved some kind of distinction.
The fun ended on Thursday night, when they weighed us. The women were in their nighties, and the men were confined to their ward until it was their turn. I had lost half a kilo since admission, and the punishment was bed rest, all day as well as all night. I had to drink Complan (powdered food mixed with milk) with every meal, to boost calorie intake. Some of the others were on Nardil, and forbidden to eat broad beans or cheese, or to drink alcohol. My poison was Largactil. They dosed me three times a day. Just as the fog in my brain was beginning to clear, they made me take another dose. All I could do was eat and sleep. I would have been in denial but I was hauled out of bed every Thursday night to be weighed. Matron looked gratified as she clanged one iron disk on top of the other and the onlookers ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’, relishing the spectator sport. Women love it when other women get fat.
One form of torture I was spared was ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), which zapped the brain with an electric current, inducing an epileptic fit. They inflicted it on depressives, hopelessness as heavy on their psyche as a dead weight, and agoraphobics, who feared going out. The woman I had seen walking to a tree the day I was admitted had agoraphobia; the tree marked her destination. What horrified me was that no one, not even Dr Zeus, knew why ECT worked (if it did. Since 2000 it has become less fashionable.) An agoraphobic subjected to it confused me with one of the Spanish maids, and I became ‘María’. Some patients and friends of patients defend ECT vigorously, proclaiming it a lifesaver. Stubbornly, I cling to my tenet: if you don’t understand it don’t trust it.
The alcoholics were good company. They didn’t have ECT either. Their treatment comprised being forced to take a sip of beer or wine or sherry or whatever they were addicted to, and then getting an electric shock to the hand holding the glass. There was a lot of electrification going on. When the USA replaced the electric chair with the lethal injection in 1977, perhaps the motive was mercy.
Why life writing is important to me
One gift we all share is that each of is different from everybody else. Those lucky enough to be able to express their thoughts and feelings are doubly blessed, because they can share with others what would otherwise be locked within their minds. On 17 May it was a joy to hear what my fellow writers had written. Without this opportunity for life writers, we would have missed a wonderful experience.
Again, I ask for you to be patient about my inability – so far – to email you a recording of my voice. I have consulted three people and will return to the shop where I bought the smartphone and beg, plead or bully them into helping me.
Read all of the stories longlisted for the prize here.