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Seeing Through Anorexia’s Academic Charade

Diminishing returns in the anorexic way of studying

In sickness and subsequently in health, I've repeatedly allowed myself to confirm the tacit belief that my anorexia was a contributor to my academic success. When remembering my excellent final exam results in my BA, I always felt they were made less impressive by the sheer number of hours I worked in preparation for them: long cold dark hours with many of what my brother called Big Boring Books for company, and no goals but the number of hours of work to be counted off before allowing myself to eat. I suppose there's still something in me which suspects I would have done less well had I worked less hard, and that anyone could do brilliantly if they had no life other than work.

But increasingly I find evidence that my achievements really have been despite, and not because of, my anorexia. I was always told this by others, always tried rationally to believe it, but never could. I remember noting with ironic pleasure that the best essay I wrote in my final year coincided with my reaching my then lowest weight, the pounds dwindling away before my final exams and then beyond them. I remember growing frightened when anything interrupted my hours, days, and weeks of studying, and how I believed each success only to be the arbitrary stroke of luck that preceded inevitable future failures, whose advent could be forestalled, I thought, only by working still harder.

Now, I've made various realisations about the nature of the work that filled the hours before eating. Firstly, I'm aware of how much less widely I've read around my subject than many other people. This made no sense to me for a while, since I'd always kept reinforcing the assumption that anorexia let me work harder, and hence better, than healthy people hampered by all the distractions of the rest of life. But although I read a lot of books in those years, I also read them very meticulously, making tiny pencil markings in them to tell me what I needed to make reams of handwritten notes about or which pages I had to spend hours in the college computer room scanning with a very slow scanner.

I had, I see now, no overview, just endless piles of books on all my sofas, and very thorough but very inefficient systems for processing them, and no sense of adventure, ever, in what I chose to read, hence rarely ever pushing my boundaries. I also never went to any conferences, spent any time with other people -- because that might involve being asked to eat with them, and would in any case take time away from more measurable sorts of work. So the kinds of chance inspirations that come through conversations with interesting people never arose; I was never recommended a slightly off-topic book, never took an interest in much outside my narrow field, never had that pleasure of following a thread of thought left by chance by someone else, never experienced my work as part of a greater whole.

If I'd remained ill to the very end of my doctoral years, I'm not sure whether I'd have finished my thesis at all; I'm not sure whether I could ever have reduced the word count to a sensible amount, ever have managed to see the wood for the trees in structural terms -- ever had a boyfriend whose intellectual judgements I trusted to help me see that one element which had been there from the outset had become redundant, and that its removal could streamline the argument into something tauter. The tone would probably have been more antagonistic towards the approaches I was critical of, again with none of the flexibility that recovery has helped give me.

More every month, I feel the sterile pointlessness of working too many hours in a day, and also far less compulsive a need to. I enjoy my two cups of tea in bed in the mornings, I appreciate the mental and physical exhilaration of going to the gym and lifting heavy weights before lunch three times a week, I like sitting with colleagues after lunch with a coffee, I like eating dinner out in the garden now it's warm enough again, and watching a DVD in bed afterwards. I am still overcome sometimes by the guilt of not working 'enough' -- as now, on a plane on the way to Scotland for the bank-holiday weekend -- but I also find myself resisting the self-definition that so many academics and other professionals unquestioningly accept: that of productivity. Should a human being try to be permanently productive? If the 'products' under construction are intellectual ones, could they be of any real quality if churned out as on a factory conveyor belt?

There is good evidence in memory and creativity research for the phenomenon of 'incubation', where unrelated activity aids the resolution of problems or the retrieval of an elusive memory. This means it can be important to spend time thinking about things other than the matter at hand: worrying away at a problem often won't resolve it. The processing of task-irrelevant information, rather than the active concentration on a limited number of incoming stimuli, are thought to cause spreading activation that aids problem-solving, suggesting that in at least some cases deliberate memory searches or other efforts at concentration might inhibit success, whereas 'nonintentional attitudes' may favour it (see Kvavilashvili and Mandler, 2004; also Mandler, 1994).

This is just one manifestation of the reality that creativity is a delicate mixture of 'different sorts of interacting psychological processes, including the stages of preparation, incubation, insight, and revision' (Livingston, 2009). Concentration is necessary to all creative intellectual endeavours, but not sufficient if unbalanced by other aspects of a cognitive life, and if anorexia does anything reliably, it's to upset all physical and mental equilibrium in the compulsive focus on food and avoiding it. Perhaps even to the extent of making one forget there is anything inherently creative about 'serious' intellectual work.

Nonetheless, the daily and eternal meaning that studying used to have, as that which deferred the first food of the day until late into the night, as the reason always not yet to eat, is now gone. This makes it necessary to start to question my work in a way I never had to before. On both the most general level of asking myself what I actually want to do with my life, and on the most precise level of asking myself, at any given moment, do I want to be writing this paper now, or would I rather / would it be better to write a blog post now, or go out into the garden with a book, or make a cup of tea, or...

Now that I am interested in things other than food, which work is the only way of earning, suddenly there are questions, uncertainties. I'll talk more about these, and about how they might be resolved, in a future post. But however great my doubts are, in myself and my profession, I feel able to confront them and sure of finding peace with them sometime, because I can leave them alone, have tea and a biscuit or a walk, and return to find them diminished -- rather than merely diminishing myself further and further in the monotonous attempt to evade them.