Guest Post – Eating Disorders and the PhD: Embracing Uncertainty, Holding on to Hope

I’m honoured to introduce today’s beautiful guest post from Annabelle. Her post really resonated with me and I think that her strength, hope and resilience is a massive inspiration. Snaps for you Annabelle!

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I have recently returned to my PhD after a 3 month interruption in which I had treatment for a relapse of an eating disorder and an episode of severe depression. The relapse started slowly but quickly gathered momentum, until the feelings of fear and worthlessness overwhelmed me and I couldn’t see beyond them.

Anorexia has been something of a familiar companion and a dark shadow since my teenage years. In between hospital admissions, I somehow managed to complete GCSEs, A-levels, an undergraduate degree and a Masters – significant achievements, particularly for someone undergoing a long term struggle with anorexia and spending months at a time in the bubble of an eating disorder unit. I had achieved a lot, but each relapse I had was also more devastating than the last. Periods of uncertainty or indecisiveness would often lead to the anorexia rising again and taking over. Another trigger was the black and white, all-or-nothing thinking that characterises eating disorders, depression and other mental health issues – either I was doing everything well, or I was failing. Sometimes my fear of failing and letting people down paralysed me to the point where I would rather retreat from life completely than to try something and fail.

So why would someone with these long-standing problems decide to take on a PhD? It’s a question I often ask myself, particularly during the dark times when it all seems impossible. Well, I enjoy learning, meeting people and building relationships with them; something that is crucial in a qualitative research project. When my head is not shouting that I won’t be able to do it, I enjoy rising to a challenge and completing a project. And when I’m well and feeling more confident, I can see that I am, as my supervisor puts it, the right person to be doing this PhD. It is the unpredictability of the experience that scares me, and yet this can lead to the most rewarding moments: making connections, discovering new knowledge and ways of seeing the world, sharing ideas with people who are interested in your subject and where it might lead. In returning to the PhD and facing this uncertainty again, I have found it helpful to take one task at a time, to focus on the present while keeping the big picture in mind, and ultimately, to prioritise my emotional health. The PhD process encourages self-criticism, but in my experience this can become a spiral of self-doubt and depression. I have been fortunate to have an understanding, empathetic supervisor who has supported me wholeheartedly to take the time I needed to recover, who has seen my struggle but also sees beyond it, recognizing the potential of the person within. It is that fragile feeling of hope that I am trying to nurture and hold on to as I take the next steps in my PhD journey. I’d like to share this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke that has helped me along the way:

‘Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.’

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