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How to Reunite Work and Life after Anorexia

Academia and anorexia: living with one and without the other

The world of academia isn't a very easy context in which to recover from anorexia. Again and again in my everyday dealings with other academics, I come up against aspects of academic life and academic value systems that run directly counter to everything I've been learning in the last couple of years about how to live healthily and happily without anorexia. These problems aren't unique to academia: there are many highly competitive professional environments where some of the problems I'll discuss are even worse, although others are perhaps less pronounced. What all of them have in common is a pressurised work environment, an expectation of high performance, and a tendency for ‘life' to be subsumed within ‘work'.

There are certain kinds of trigger that tend to heighten my awareness of just how susceptible I am to the attacks academia can unwittingly launch. Indeed, they make me aware, too, how much of this vulnerability is actually due to how I've internalised the attacking forces so that the most trivial external stimulus can set off all that inner artillery.

A few days ago, for example, I went to a late-afternoon Nietzsche seminar, arrived quite late, when the discussion was already in full swing, and found myself trying to ask a question -- about Nietzsche's rhetorical strategies for eliding unresolved oppositions, or something like that -- and not managing at all to find the right words to formulate it comprehensibly. It trailed off in a garbled fashion, and the visiting professor did his best to give a generalised response, and I felt ashamed and out of place for the half hour till it finished. I came home quite unsettled by it, and needed a few hours of calmer reflection until I was able to unpick the many strands of invalid reasoning that made me so upset by it.

Firstly, there was classic anxious thinking. I imagined the worst: I assumed everyone else thought me stupid, that they thought I shouldn't be there, that they would remember me forever as the woman who'd messed up her question. And I imagined all the awful consequences this would have: someone there would just happen to be on some future committee deciding whether to give me a job, and would remember this moment, and argue against all the others that I was unworthy. I attributed the ‘failure' to a fundamental inadequacy in me as an academic -- a lack of intelligence of the required sort -- instead of understanding it as resulting from a combination of contingent factors: having had an afternoon nap before the Nietzsche seminar and woken up feeling dazed, arriving late and slightly flustered because of said nap, being nervous at speaking as a modern linguist in front of a room full of philosophers, and not having thought about Nietzsche (or read anything of his) for months.

Then there was a lack of self-esteem manifesting itself in far too great a preoccupation with what others think of me (or what I think they think of me): if these people see in me an intellectual fraud, that is what I must be. My reserves of personal confidence are very easily blown apart by these little incidents which (to extend the military metaphor) often happen even before I've realised I need to erect my defences against them. I think it's a very common feeling for academics -- perhaps especially female academics -- to labour under: the sense that everyone else is a true intellectual, and that I alone am the fraud who hasn't yet been found out, but will be some day soon. This prevalence of impostor syndrome is what makes the conference/lecture question that descends into inarticulacy a far rarer an occurrence than it perhaps ought to be: much better not to say anything if there's the slightest danger of not being eloquent and learned. Thus the myth is perpetuated that we're all clever, all on top of every argument, and that mistakes never really occur, and are not acceptable when they do.

Perfectionism is of course one of the most common traits concomitant with anorexia (see Franco-Paredes et al., 2005, for a review of research on perfectionism and eating disorders), and a profession in which submitting a journal article requires reading through a 100-page style guide to check reference formats and capitalisation of adverbs in subtitles doesn't exactly help in emancipating oneself from either. Perfectionism is also difficult to separate from overwork: if mistakes are unacceptable, but output also has to be sustained, the only option is to work very, very hard.

This is the problem I encounter most often in my daily life since recovering from anorexia: the sense that I should be working all the time, and that if I'm not, I'm not being a proper academic, not keeping up, not doing what I'm paid to do. I resist counting hours worked, and I resist feeling that taking weekends off is a guilty rather than a healthy practice, but the general ethos, more than in many other professions (as far as I know), equates life with work, mental life with intellectual life, identity with intellect. Of course there are plenty of people who, as I do, like watching trashy TV, reading lightweight novels, but these same people will nonetheless spend most of every evening working, or think it an unacceptably indulgent luxury to have a whole weekend off.

This is exacerbated by the way that in Oxford, the distinction between work and ‘play' is already blurred by the fact that mealtimes are such a crucial context for professional ‘networking'. This is nice in many ways: it means lunch isn't a sandwich at one's desk, but is a chance to talk to people outside one's own field, and that dinners can be wine-fuelled ways of expansively ‘relaxing', but with the people one works with. On the other hand, it's a very clear symbol of how distant the academic life is from a 9-5 career. We don't leave the office, and leave the work there -- we take it to dinner with us, take it home with us, and have it always in our heads.

Partly this is because many academics love what they do, are excited by the ideas they have, and would like no other career better. But partly it's also because of the less happy consequence of this: that one comes to define oneself primarily in terms of one's intellect. As the daughter of two academic parents, this is a tendency very deeply instilled in me, and very hard to uproot. Round the dinner table as a child, conversation was about the chemistry of global warming and the brain areas subserving visual perception as often as it was about what we did at school that day, and mistakes were usually pounced on unhesitatingly, not for the sake of being cruel, but because, I suppose, that's the only way one learns to think clearly and precisely. My mother in particular was also a role model for the academic who never stops. Even when she was confined to bed for a year with chronic fatigue, she wrote in her head the book that became her most successful (The Meme Machine). These sorts of formative influences made intellect, and intellectual achievement, self-evidently prime values.

Anorexia helped to confirm that nothing much else in life mattered: just intellect and its results, and complete control over food. Controlling food completely, which meant controlling my day completely, which meant excluding most of the things that make life rich and varied, allowed me to work extremely long hours, uninterrupted, mostly at night. And so academic achievement became part of the illness, a way of earning food; it became the most important thing in life, but not really important at all, because it was merely a filler of the hours till I could eat at last.

BA graduation 2004
My BA graduation in the midst of anorexia, 2004

I recently came across a newspaper clipping from 2008. I used to cut out and squirrel away not only hundreds of recipes (too many ever to find what I wanted in, the rare times I actually used one of them to cook for other people) but also articles of more general interest, many of which I'd send to my mother to read (I have no idea whether she ever really wanted them). It was a speech by David Foster Wallace, who had just died. He was discussing, amongst other things, the danger of ‘worshipping' any single idol exclusively:

If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. [...] Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings.

Foster Wallace argues that we cannot stop worshipping, but that we can make decisions about what we worship, and try not to live on a default setting that precludes the real freedom of being caring, being aware.

I've found those lines have really stuck with me, partly as an explanation of how easily I succumb to anxiety about my cleverness and my worthiness of the position I now hold. If ‘I' consist of nothing but my intellectual endeavours -- if, as my therapist had it, the ‘pie chart' of my life has only one or two enormous slices instead of multiple little ones -- then if something feels uncertain in that area, my whole life can easily feel it's crumbling. I have deliberately tackled this way of thinking, deliberately tried to cut my pie-chart into thinner more balanced pieces, but episodes like the seminar question make me realise how strongly I still identify myself as ‘clever', and as little else that matters much.

The academic environment is a difficult one in which to rid oneself of that blinkered valuing of intellect to the exclusion of all else. It's also been a difficult one in which to overcome physical asceticism: there is, to judge from my own experience, a preponderance of thin women (and men) in academia, and some studies (for example, Schwitzer et al., 1998) have raised concerns about eating disorders in academic environments. I wonder how much this has to do with the easily made distinction between mind and body, and all those that flow from it: dissociations between ‘life' and the ‘life of the mind', between enjoying sensuous pleasures like food and devoting oneself to intellectual pursuits. Of course very few people live entirely according to such distinctions -- and the attempt to do so would ultimately be fatal -- but there does often seem to be a need to choose between the two: to make decisions about which aspect of existence to sacrifice and which to favour.

Such decisions are necessary in any walk of life: life is a series of forked paths, doors opened and doors closed. But the simple dichotomy between making maximum progress academically and embracing anything and everything else is a hard one to dissolve, because there's so much institutional and ideological weight behind the first of those poles. Nonetheless, it seems necessary to me now, having seen through the illusory promises of physical self-destruction for the sake of mental supremacy, to address also the wider -- and also illusory -- conflict between the intellectual life and the physical and emotional one.

This must involve deliberately choosing to make other parts of oneself, other roles, important: trying to be a good partner, a good friend, a good laugh; a decent person, a kind person; in my case, also a good powerlifter and a brave ballroom-dancing novice. There is ultimately no more of a conflict between these parts of oneself and one's intellectual life than there is between eating good and sufficient food and thinking meaningful thoughts. It may be the body that is neglected, whether through starvation or just through sitting hunched all day over a computer. Or it may be all the emotional, social, and moral aspects of oneself that are neglected, if one refuses to care about other people -- or oneself -- as much as about one's work.

Doctoral graduation 2010
My doctoral graduation, well again, 2010

For a very long time I refused to believe it, but the brain is part of the body, ideas do not most easily arise in a vacuum, clear thought is not furthered by physical self-denial or the atrophy of social awareness, and if there is little inherent meaning in anything humans do, friendship, love, and good food matter as much as excelling in one's chosen field, or even adding to the sum of human knowledge. Thoughts worth thinking are, in my field at least, more valuable and more humane if they are tempered by and infused with life experiences, with the time spent interacting with my fellow human beings. I do believe all this now, and I just have to get better at reminding myself of it in the moments when I ‘fail' intellectually or panic about working too little.

Having lived so long espousing the monolithic approach to work and life, I should not remain anxious about embracing the holistic attitude: living so long that other, sad and painful way should make me all the more confident that the other, the broader, more humane way, is more right. This is one of anorexia's greatest gifts, once it's been overcome: the deep conviction that living the other way is the only way to live.

References‐Paredes, K., Mancilla‐Díaz, J.M., Vázquez‐Arévalo, R., López‐Aguilar, X., and Álvarez‐Rayón, G. (2005). Perfectionism and eating disorders: A review of the literature. European Eating Disorders Review, 13(1), 61-70. Abstract here.

Schwitzer, A.M., Bergholz, K., Dore, T., and Salimi, L. (1998). Eating disorders among college women: Prevention, education, and treatment responses. Journal of American College Health, 46(5), 199-207. Abstract here.