It was a reproduction, an artefact of a time, made retrospectively. Sarah* had already been discharged from the eating disorders ward when she made the necklace, its tiny, floral arrangements of beads in keeping with the necklaces she had made, in succession, during the in-between times of living in the ward. She made it for me because I had admired the others during my visits, she said. And there it was, in blue and cyan, casually commemorative.
When I visited her at the ward, just a few weeks earlier, Sarah told me of those in-between times. She told me of her boredom, of the gnawing sense that her mind was wasting, of the frustrating lack of activity or interest, of a day marked by meals and water breaks and post meal surveillance, of feeling idle as she was confined to a chair, glaring at television shows she didn’t want to watch, craving a conversation or a lecture or a class or a walk. But inevitably, during my visits, the stretches of silence were broken. Not being there with her, in surveyed ‘restful’ confinement, I couldn’t quite share the embodied tension of which she spoke.
With the bead necklace, however, Sarah’s tales of waiting materialized to my touch. I could imagine her, one bead after another, counting time, fingers moving to a rhythm made habit, four times a day, four meals, two hours, one chair.
A stay in an eating disorders ward is a protracted act of becoming, punctuated with long stretches of waiting, with the tense silences of the body, constrained and confined, in watchful conservation; cocooning between meals, enduring. Sarah’s bead necklace spoke to me of this patient body – this uneventful, deceptively inarticulate body so frequently absent when researchers write of patienthood. It is a body in waiting, made through mundane practice, in the interstices of medical time. Moving through material possibilities, marking the affordances of the clinic – with the intimacy of unassuming habit, with the invisibility of non-medicalized acts – the patient body challenges us to recognize and write the richness of what happens when seemingly nothing does.
Karin Eli is a medical anthropologist and a co-founder of the Body and Being Network. Karin has conducted extensive research on the eating disordered experience; this text is based on fieldwork she carried out in Israel. A related article on experiential narratives of the eating disorders ward was published in 2014.