Eating Disorders and Study
One person's experience
The eating disorder would still like to be the most important thing in my life. The eating disorder presents me with personalised goals, measurable progress and a sense of identity. The eating disorder encourages me to cultivate such high levels of paralysing self-hatred that I will be unable to function or find peace among any people, anywhere in the world. The eating disorder offers a constant internal stream of negative scrutiny guaranteeing isolation and painful feelings of social incompetence.
A few years ago I went back to college to try and learn something else. I gave myself new personal goals such as ‘get on the bus’ and ‘show up to a class.’ Encouraged by peers and health professionals and supported by college mental health services my education-seeking behaviours gradually escalated and this year I found myself taking exams and dreaming of distant notions of ‘qualifications.’ I have learnt dreaming is sometimes the path to overwhelm and thinking of the future often activates my eating disorder voice (do I really think I can live outside its rules?) so I try to stay in the present moment and keep in touch with reality by reciting solid facts from trusted sources.
The following statements helped me this year, ‘a person’s brain uses energy’ and ‘yes, studying is work.’ Exams are stressful and tiring and the areas of my brain which are wired to deal with stress and tiredness have a long-standing and exclusive trade agreement with my eating disorder so it has been necessary to enforce moments of rest* and compassionately implement adherence to the rule of three**. The other weapon in my artillery has been ‘draw a line under it and return to the plan’ (for further information on moments of rest* and rule of three** see below).
When I find myself engaging in eating disorder behaviours, as I inevitably do, (I’m of the one-step forwards, two steps backwards school of recovery), I try and take it as an opportunity to practice turning away from those behaviours and value systems and back to something which I do believe in; the controversial notion that all of us deserve nourishment and rest no matter what. The eating disorder faction in my head was happy to temporarily approve my claim to need food to do exams only because it was gleefully planning to suspend the right to access food and rest when those exams were over.
Eating disorders are predictable to some degree so this year I combatted this situation with a statement I had received from trusted psychotherapist Harriet Parsons, back in 2018. I reproduce it here in hope that it can help you too, ‘the reality is that everyone needs to eat regularly regardless of exams or not. Your brain needs to work, your organs need to work and you need to stay alive. [...]. I'm saying this to you so that you will maybe give yourself a break for having these feelings, so you can recognise them for what they are - ED thoughts, and you can be kind to yourself, which means that if you skip something don't dwell on it. Just try to eat at the next scheduled time. Don't let AN make you be 'all or nothing' about it. Nothing awful will happen if you eat regularly - all WILL be well. (But all won't be well if you keep restricting, so although you are tired, keep trying).’
I think the current situation with Covid-19 has made the post-exam period even more challenging as I can’t switch straight from exams to a distraction like work. In some ways, the exams were sheltering me from the full reality of Covid-19. There is a ‘coping’ with Covid-19 post on the Bodywhys website which I’ve read a number of times and recommend.
Be kind to yourself, try out all the supports you can find that are available to you at this time and know that every one of us deserves to be free from the eating disorder. Everything you do counts and I am rooting for you and for all of us.