A Mathematician’s Education in Mental Health
When mental illness stops being an abstract blip on other people’s horizons.
Posted March 31, 2017
This blog is mainly my own ramblings—I mean erudite reflections—on all things eating disorder-related. But two years ago my mother kindly wrote a piece for the blog on a parent’s responsibility to look after themselves as well as their child, and back in 2010 I also posted a transcript of a radio interview I did with her not long after my recovery. In 2012 I wrote a post based on a conversation with my partner at the time, David. So this is the latest in this mini-series of other people’s voices, and it comes from my partner James Anderson. He talks about what it’s been like getting to know more about mental health by living with someone who spends a good chunk of her time thinking and writing about it.
I am probably one of the least qualified people on the planet to write a post for Emily’s blog. Or at least I used to be. Now I’m not so sure. I’m certainly not actually qualified in any sense, but having lived with Emily for over 4 years I feel like I’ve learned a lot about mental health and eating disorders. Not to mention that this blog is now a big part of my life.
Prior to meeting Emily, my knowledge of eating disorders was absolutely nil. In fact, it was probably a negative amount, the few things I thought I knew were wrong and to quote a former Secretary of State, there were many ‘unknown unknowns’. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and simultaneously I didn’t really care. Now I admit that doesn’t make me sound like a candidate for person of the year but let me try and dig myself out of the hole I just created…
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know. Mental health issues, and certainly eating disorders, were just not on my radar. At all. In the mental health lottery, I had a ticket with a pretty decent pay-out. I personally had never suffered from any sort of mental health problems, my immediate family (a younger brother and sister, two living parents, two grandparents) hadn’t either. I had an aunt who, when I was about 10, suffered from depression for a few years. To me that just meant she moved into an apartment my parents owned and didn’t pay much rent. By the time I was old enough to have any idea what depression really was she had fully recovered (I think that’s possible – a known unknown?). A friend of mine in primary school had to see a counsellor because his parents were going through a divorce but other than that, up until my final year as an undergraduate I really had no contact with anyone suffering from a mental illness. In retrospect I’m sure I did know people who suffered, I just wouldn’t have recognised it. In my final year of undergrad (2005) a friend of mine broke up with his long-term girlfriend. Six months later he mentioned that he’d been on antidepressants, was seeing a counselor, and was feeling a lot better. In 12 months’ time he would graduate, move to London, graduate again, and meet the woman he would soon marry. So my brief encounters seemed to imply that mental illness was just something you got through. Sheltered – certainly. Naïve – definitely. In retrospect – embarrassing.
When I first met Emily I was 29, and she was certainly not ill then; not in recovery either. I think even post-recovery would have been pushing it. We were both Junior Research Fellows at St John’s College, Oxford. She was two years into her fellowship when I started (in case it’s relevant I’m an engineer/mathematician; writing this many words without a theorem, or even an equation, is almost making me sweat). One of the main perks of being a fellow of an Oxford college are the dining rights. Six evenings and seven days a week you can eat restaurant-quality food for basically no cost at all in a dining hall that looks like Hogwarts. Actually, the college I was at prior to St John’s was the basis for the Hogwarts dining hall. I digress, anyway, needless to say, a large part of college social life is based around dinner. So my first interactions with Emily were usually over a 3-course dinner – Tuesdays and Thursdays it was 5.
So initially, with food being a very central part of our ‘relationship’ I wouldn’t have guessed Emily had ever been ill. I do remember one evening where I noticed she didn’t take any potatoes when they were offered. Maybe I’d had too much wine by this point, but I did ask ‘why’? I don’t know why I did it, I’m pretty shy and asking something as direct as that isn’t something I’d normally do. Anyway, the answer I got was that she was keeping to a low-carb diet, or words to that effect (this slightly confused me as she had no problem devouring what I assumed was a carb-heavy dessert – a trio of chocolate mousse, cake, and ice cream!), and that part of the reason why had something to do with powerlifting. Powerlifting seemed more interesting than carbs so I never really gave it a second thought. A few (six-ish) months later, when we were together, Emily asked me if I’d have guessed that she’d ever been ill. I’d known for a long time by this point that she’d had anorexia. I remember that I said the potato incident had made me wonder, and there were maybe one or two other negligible things. But more strikingly, and I don’t think I said this at the time, the potato incident had made me take note of what other people did or didn’t eat. This was not something I’d consciously done before. I started to pay attention to who took second helpings, who didn’t, did the guy opposite me clear his plate, who was the first to finish. Funnily enough I don’t think I ever really took too much notice of what I was eating, nor did I come to any very enlightened conclusions on the basis of paying attention to other people. This is probably one reason why I do it less now.
It wasn’t long after the potato night that Emily mentioned she had been ill. She mentioned that she wrote a blog, and I must admit my first reaction was ‘how much can one person possibly write on the subject?’. I remember looking at the long lists of posts and thinking wow! The thing I struggled with was connecting the Emily I knew to ill Emily that the posts referred to. And then I saw a picture. Holy shit. I couldn’t believe it. It was clearly her, but not the person I knew. There were lot of pictures of Emily and her family on the walls in her flat, and from those it was clear that her body had changed over the last x years, but there weren’t pictures up from when she was really ill – why would there be? At that point it became real and I realised how clueless I really was.
It was strange, we’d spoken about Emily’s anorexia before. And I’d certainly asked questions – and read lots of her blog posts. But because it seemed so in the past and basically abstract to me I guess it had never really registered how serious it could get. I’d like to think part of that is testament to how well recovered she was, but I think it was probably more down to my lack of understanding. For a short period of time I didn’t know what to say, or even if I should say anything. Furthermore, I didn’t articulate this either. Despite having talked about it before, now it seemed less abstract, and I became very self-conscious of talking about it. Are you supposed to ask people about their (past) eating disorder? Do I wait for her to bring it up? Is it even any of my business? And then I had a realization – most mornings after breakfast I’d playfully make fun of Emily for finishing the left-over egg in the pan. That’s right, I would on almost a daily basis mock a recovered anorexia sufferer for eating. I felt mortified and obviously profusely apologized, to which Emily just laughed it off and said something along the lines of obviously she didn’t care and would have said something if she did. Fortunately, two good things came of this.** First, after this spectacular balls-up, all of a sudden I was able to talk more freely about eating disorder-related stuff with Emily. Specifically, anorexia and her. Secondly, it played a tiny part in motivating a future blog post.
[** I now feel less bad for mocking Emily for eating out of the frying pan. As I was making the final edits to this post she started making fun of the way I eat my yogurt.]
The next part is blurry, but it really didn’t take long before this blog started playing a bigger part in my life. I’d been more of a passive observer previously. I went back and re-read past posts, and if something appeared on a news website that was related to eating disorders or mental health I’d read it and forward it to Emily. At some point in the evenings if Emily was replying to a comment we’d discuss it, talk about how it could be the basis for a future post (or not). There have been times when she’s been upset if a comment has been particularly critical or blunt, and she can sometimes take these very personally and be bothered by them for longer than she should (in my opinion). We’d have frequent discussions on what the next post should be – so far I don’t think I’ve suggested anything that panned out but I think the shape of several articles has had something to do with my ramblings. I think we’ve even had one or two heated arguments (I mean spirited debates) about certain points. I’ve read and provided comments on every post for the last few years. Without trying I seem to have absorbed a fair amount of information.
This increased when Emily’s literature research began to align more closely with mental health and eating disorders – when we’d talk about our days, this would form a large part of the conversation. Most of my days are spent messing around with equations or coding which you’ll be surprised to hear doesn’t make for great conversation when only one of you is a mathematician. And things got even more interesting when data from Emily’s experiments started rolling in. For some unbelievably stupid and bureaucratic reason, I can’t talk about this aspect of her work on the blog, and neither could she for a long period of time, but rest assured she will write a post about it soon! [The promised post, 'Consuming fictions: Reading and eating disorders', was finally published in September 2018.] The gist of the reason why is that it’s alright for an organization (which won’t be named) that sponsors eating disorder research to send out a magazine encouraging former sufferers to run a charity marathon, but Emily isn’t allowed to directly promote the research the organization funded on this blog because the blog contains some pictures of her when she was ill. Apparently, that is a line that can’t be crossed. It’s almost reassuring to know that even the people running an eating disorder charity are as clueless as me – sometimes. Sorry rant over.
So far in this post everything about my experience with mental health and eating disorders has been Emily-centric. To begin with my interest was primarily because of Emily, I wanted to understand or have an idea of what she’d been through. But pretty quickly that changed. Reading comments readers submit to the blog and watching Emily wrestle with how best to respond, it became clear that eating disorders don’t discriminate when it comes to age, sex, or geography, and neither does mental illness more generally. Asked 10 years ago about anorexia my thoughts would probably have been along the lines of, ‘Oh it’s just something that middle-class teenage girls looking for attention get.' OK, not quite that extreme, but probably more accurate than I’d care to admit.
At work part of my Oxford job involved supervising PhD students and masters research projects, teaching a final-year undergraduate class, and doing tutorial teaching. At various points in time each of these groups are subject to a lot of pressure (exams, thesis defence, coursework deadlines, etc.) not to mention the stress from, you know, life. It amazed me how little provision for mental health there was. Moreover, in some cases I was directly responsible for their welfare. This was worrying for two reasons. One, I’d had no formal training whatsoever, and I’m not sure there was any even if I wanted it. By this point I think I had a good theoretical understanding of how to handle things and even knew what to look out for. If anybody had come to me with a problem, or if I’d spotted a potential problem, I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to do something, or at least not make it worse. The truly scary thing though was that relative to a significant portion of the faculty I could say I was an expert. The current state of mental health awareness at the university is (or was – I’ve since left) improving, albeit slowly, but the general culture at universities is deep rooted in the idea that you suffer for your PhD/Masters/Bachelors degree, it’s a rite of passage, I suffered, my supervisor did, my supervisor’s supervisor did, etc. (Actually I didn’t, I had a great time, but I’m likely in the minority.) And suffer in silence at that. One of the most important things I’ve learnt about anorexia and mental illness is that suffering alone can be lethal.
The point of this post was supposed to be to answer, ‘what I’ve learned about anorexia.' I can’t answer that in any meaningful way. One answer would just be to point to this blog or reel off some facts. Neither of those are particularly satisfying responses. (I’m happy/would be flattered to answer any specific questions in the comments section.) But concretely, one of the most important things I’ve learned is this: if you’re a friend or partner of somebody suffering from an eating disorder (diagnosed or not) or in recovery, or post-recovery then it’s OK to ask them about it. In general people aren’t as fragile as you think. You might get ignored, or the subject changed, but that’s OK. At worst you get nothing, at best you learn something about someone you care for. And along those lines I’ll end by saying that I know more now than I did this time a year ago which is more than I did the year before that – and I want this trend to continue. I’m much better off for reducing my number of unknown unknowns and I hope that more people start reducing theirs too.