Too close for comfort? The emotional labour of researching eating disorders.

“In order to understand, I destroyed myself.”
― Fernando Pessoa

I feel wrung out.

As the end of writing my thesis draws ever nearer I feel a little as if I’m emerging from some strange form of hibernation. I’ve had to carry on interacting with the world through my day job and my research activities (like attending conferences) but it all feels a little surreal – as if it hasn’t really happened. My professional clarity and dialling my mind into protracted sessions of analytical thinking as I draft, refine and redraft (endlessly, it seems) feel sharp. I can feel them acutely.

But I feel as if I’ve lost sight of myself. I’ve been managing strategic binge-eating episodes to keep me going rather than not following my abstinence work and recovery. I then berate myself for not following my recovery plan so that it can run in tandem with my PhD. When I began I was 12.5st…I’m now 18st. My skin is a mess, my stomach is bloated, painful mess, I’ve spent thousands of pounds on binge food instead of sensibly using money to engage in restorative things. A friend has arranged for us to go to Manchester to see a piece of theatre – when she told me I found myself with knotty ball of gnarly resentment in my stomach because that means an evening socialising in convivial company doing something uplifting. This is not what ED-me wants – I want to work all day on editing text, stop at about 10 or 11pm after drinking gallons of ice-cold water while typing, eat 15, ooo calories (because then I’ll have ‘rewarded myself after an industrious, secluded day), fall into a fitful gastro-intestinally painful sleep then wake with my alarm at 6am and begin it all again.

I’m a wreck, instead of feeling jubilant that it’s nearly the end. At first I thought I was overwrought from reading, re-reading and better re-reading – literally hundreds of times – these painful stories of men’s eating disorder trauma. However, over time I have come to realise, the more I journal about what has been going through my mind as I have analysed, processed and written, these other men’s stories have simply been an emotional investment so that I would not have to experience my own.

I knew this was going to happen, I talked with my supervisors about the emotional toll of studying something so close to home. Throw this in with the general gruelling experience of studying at doctoral level and I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself here feeling this way – yet I still am – how much self-awareness does someone need before they can fend these episodes off before they occur, for goodness’ sake. I smile, I make jokes and try not to give in to the black hole of negative thinking inside me but the fact is I would dearly love to crawl into a darkened room, with mattress and a duvet to hide and sleep for an unlimited period, with nothing but the contents of my bookshelves for company.

On my wall at home, pinned to the trellising that holds sparkly, brightly coloured lights that make my apartment seem vibrant yet cosy, there’s a lurking quotation that had a profound impact upon me many years ago when I was first struggling in therapy. It’s by the person whose quote opened this entry and my thesis, Fernando Pessoa:

Little by little I discover in myself the pain of finding Nothing.

The Nothing yawns like a gaping maw of sucking, manipulative need…and after almost 7 years, and all this new knowledge, I am still throwing food into it in a vain, fractious and addicted attempt to fill it.