How I made peace with my imperfections in grad school


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“I can eat 200 grams of sweet potato, 4 ounces of ground turkey, and 90 grams of lettuce for lunch,” I thought to myself. “I have to run 2 miles after my workout to make up for that chocolate chip I ate yesterday, and I need to check my weight tomorrow to make sure I didn’t gain anything overnight.” “Brittany? Brittany! Any suggestions for troubleshooting your labmate’s experiment?” My graduate school adviser was trying to get my attention during lab meeting—but there I was again, meticulously planning meals and obsessing over exercise, oblivious to the eating disorder I had developed to cope with the stress and anxiety that accompanied my quest for perfection.

It started 2 years into my Ph.D., after my comprehensive exam. I had always succeeded academically, aiming for a pedestal defined by others’ standards. As I stepped in front of my exam committee, I was eager to dazzle. But I was told my hypothesis wasn’t valid. I was chastised for lack of creativity. My simplistic sketch of the Golgi drew derisive snickers. Even though I passed, I believed I was a failure.

Suddenly, for the first time, I felt completely out of control. The result was debilitating stress and anxiety. Up to that point, I had never denied myself food, and I exercised for fun—not out of obligation. But the Instagram fitness influencer craze lured me into thinking I could take back control of my life by perfecting my physique.

What began as a seemingly harmless “lifestyle change” turned into orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy obsession with supposedly healthy eating and exercise (but not body weight, in contrast to anorexia or bulimia). I spent my days using my research skills to methodically plan a restrictive diet complemented by a strict exercise routine. During lab meeting, instead of paying attention to the research being presented, my mind was fixated on the ideal ratio of carbs, fats, and protein. I spent more time weighing rice cakes and spinach than planning the experiments I needed to do to finish my manuscript. I often turned down social gatherings so that I could eat “safe” meals at home.

I had gained a false sense of control and suppressed my emotions, but the underlying problems were still there—and getting worse. Over 9 months, as my stress and anxiety increased, orthorexia developed into anorexia. I compulsively stepped on the scale multiple times a day and spat out food after chewing. I ate from the smallest dishes to give the illusion of a full plate and denied my audibly growling stomach the food it needed. I bruised from sitting in chairs and would black out upon standing. I couldn’t sleep, and I jeopardized my relationships. I became a walking skeleton.

My family and adviser asked whether I was OK and suggested time away from lab, but my disordered brain made excuses for how I was feeling and behaving. I honestly believed I was thriving.

There I was again, meticulously planning meals and obsessing over exercise.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across an article about disordered eating as a coping mechanism for mental health issues that I put a name to the problem. After 2 months of spiraling deeper into my disorder, thinking I could “fix” it on my own, I finally sought the help of a therapist.

Still, in times of stress the disordered part of my brain desperately clung to food deprivation. Restoring my weight took more than a year, as well as the help of a dietitian. Gradually I redefined food and exercise as sustenance for body and mind, not tools for suppressing uncomfortable feelings.

Now, a year and a half into my recovery, I am entering my final year of graduate school with a completely different mindset about the person I want—rather than need—to be. Yes, I still want to succeed. But I don’t want to be perfect.

For more information about eating disorders, please dial the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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