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What My PhD Really Taught Me About My Eating Disorder

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

Halfway through my PhD, I ran into a colleague at a grocery store. She had been in one of my grad classes earlier in the year and we’d bonded over the material. After exchanging pleasantries and asking how our research was going, she gestured to the food in my cart.

“It’s so strange,” she said. “I’ve never pictured you eating.”

“What?” I asked, utterly confused.

“It’s just that you know so much, so I figured you were always reading. You absorbed food that way or something.” She laughed at her own foolish thought as she mimed reading a book.

I laughed along with her, but it was forced. Before we parted ways, I emphasized just how much I loved food. I mean, wasn’t it obvious? At the time, I was a little overweight. How could I not love food? While my friend was obviously joking and meant her words as a compliment, it still rattled me. The idea that food and research could not exist at once made me wonder if what she suggested — that knowledge could somehow supplant bodily urges — could actually exist.

And then I was a teenager again.

When I was 15, I was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa. Though I didn’t manifest symptoms in a typical way, I’d lost a lot of weight in a short period of time. Enough people, including doctors and therapists, thought I was buying into the beauty myth that haunted other teenage girls into skeletal waifs. The real motivation behind my eating habits, however, was a pursuit of knowledge: I’d never known anything about food before, so I wanted to learn.

Since I was gleaning my knowledge from magazines and books geared to 40-year-old sedentary women — not growing teenagers who had also started to run — I was not getting the best information. My weight plunged, but since I’d always been a “fat kid,” I figured I was moving toward health. The moment I entered the hospital and my vital signs were given to me, I immediately wanted to change. To learn something better. If knowledge was what got me into this mess, I figured it would get me out.

But what I ended up learning in those four months of treatment was far more about pathology and how to make someone feel like a sick person, rather than making them strive toward health. Instead of learning about the good sides of food, I started to fear any knowledge on the topic itself. Since obviously — according to doctors — I’d counted calories to waste away, and counting calories was a sign of anorexia nervosa, so I was told to forget all I’d come to know.

So I did. For a long time I tried to erase the knowledge that I’d gleaned the year I was 15 and adopted the story that I had an eating disorder, so I couldn’t do certain things. Like cook by myself. Or go for a walk longer than 15 minutes. Or care about my health.

When I went away to university, I was told to question the forms of knowledge that I’d learned in high school. My first year philosophy class blew my mind, mostly because it told me that to pursue never-ending learning was the noblest thing someone could do. Though I would not major in philosophy, I took that idea to heart. I sought out books in the university library and read as much as I could.

Then I watched my weight go down. When my roommates, knowing my personal history, wanted to get me into treatment again, I resisted the idea. I was convinced I was healthy all over again. Moreover, my vitals were fine. I was eating. How could I have an eating disorder again, if the knowledge I was obsessed with was literary history and the second wave feminist revolution? I was counting books and words, not calories. So I must have been fine.

I was fine — physically. But mentally I was hanging on by a thread. When I eventually hit a wall with my research, I had to drop a class because I couldn’t handle utter perfection in my work. After all, there are only so many books you can read while lying in bed all day. And there are only so many words you can write in a sitting without needing to make food to curb the headache that won’t relent. I thought I’d been defeating my eating disorder by not caring about it at all, but I’d merely shifted my obsessive inclination toward something else.

By the time I entered graduate school, I thought I was healthy again. So when my friend suggested that I was reading so much that she didn’t envision me eating, I was more upset than I needed to be. And I took it as a sign that my life was not as balanced as I thought it was. I may not have been as bad at 15 or 19, but I was still working too long and, more importantly, still scared of food. I wanted to approach my life more holistically and tackle the big demon in the room: learning about food and fitness all over again.

I lost more weight. I didn’t count calories, but I did exercise more. And when my weight loss started to become noticeable to people, I feared that I’d be sent back to the hospital. I waited for the doctors to come and take me away.

But they didn’t.

They never came for me because what I was doing wasn’t an extreme diet. I wasn’t “unhealthy.” No one took me away, but no one in my university seemed to notice the weight loss at all. The only people who commented were my family. Not even my friends, or the woman who thought I only read books, made a remark.

Some of this has to do with politeness. I get that. But I know that most of it has to do with this insidious assumption in academia that we have no bodies. There is only knowledge.

A lot of research has been done on mental illness in graduate school. The rates are high. Suicide is a very real concern. And eating disorders, though not all of them manifest into a hospitalization, are more common than people realize. I know so much of these illnesses run rampant because of the way we erase the physical body in academia. As Ken Robinson has noted, academics want to be seen as talking heads and walking minds. They simply don’t exist below the waist.

But that mentality is just as damaging as being too hyper-focused on health and fitness. I’ve gone through this nightmare on both ends, and they have the same result. Imbalance. Obsession. And unhappiness.

We should not be ashamed to have bodies. If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years of school and study, it’s this. And if that’s the only thing I can claim at the end of my PhD as worth knowing, I will be more than happy.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Getty image via demaerre

Originally published: January 5, 2018
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