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MIT blogger Cami M. '23

Eating Disorder Awareness Week – The Secret I Kept by Cami M. '23

by julia p. '24

here’s a blogpost from my friend julia!

Hey! My name is Julia Pockat and I am a physics major in the class of 2024. This week is eating disorder awareness week, so I wanted to take some time to share my story. Before I start I want to thank Cami Meija for hosting my guest post! This is an issue that I am passionate about, and I really appreciate the chance to share my personal experiences.

Trigger warning: discussion of eating disorders, addiction/substance abuse, anxiety, depression, self harm

For as long as I can remember, the world has been a scary, anxiety ridden place. As a child I was always too afraid to go outside when it was windy because I was scared that a tornado would come out of nowhere, while I was afraid to stay inside because I feared that the house would burn down. In hindsight, I know that this was just anxiety about something that would likely never happen, but at the time, it seemed so real, and it terrified me.

In 4th grade, I started to get more anxious about my grades, and after the loss of my Uncle, I started to look to food as a source of control. I stopped eating a lot of the foods that I would have normally ate, and started to have a fixation on eating “healthy” foods. This progressed in 6th grade, and I found myself being scared to eat many of the foods that I used to enjoy, and I was starting to have anxiety attacks on a daily basis about school assignments, and I spent a good portion of every day crying. It was at this time that my parents and I decided that I should start therapy.

Therapy was hard. I had such a hard time working through all of the feelings that I was feeling, because I wasn’t even able to acknowledge my feelings. Some things it took a while to figure out, like how losing a number of family members and friends at a young age affected my anxiety. Some of the things that we discussed in therapy I wasn’t ready to accept, like the fact that getting one bad grade would not ruin my entire future.

8th grade led me to my first big lapse of my eating disorder. At this time, I was afraid to eat anything that I felt wasn’t healthy or I felt may make me sick. I was pressuring myself to push through as many high school classes as I possibly could, with me at one point taking 3 math courses at once, in addition to all of the normal 8th grade classes. I felt like I was never trying hard enough, and looked to food as a way to control these feelings. If I couldn’t meet my own expectations with school work, I could at least be the best at eating and exercise. But this came at a price, because I became moody all the time, and would lash out if anyone got in the way of me eating a specific thing at a specific time, or if someone messed with my exercise schedule. My parents took me to a dietician, and at this point I started eating again to get out of treatment, but did not deal with the underlying issues.

9th grade overall was good for me, as I found a new place where I felt welcomed in robotics. 10th grade on the other hand led me to a particularly dark place, as I started self harming when a lot of my feelings of inadequacy returned. It became hard to hide however, so I started to use my eating disorder again as a coping mechanism.

11th grade was probably the worst and best time of my life. That year I felt myself spiraling into my eating disorder, yet I was on the surface very successful. I did well in all of my classes, I had an internship where I was able to work programming microcontrollers  and we went to the world championship for robotics. Behind the scenes I was falling apart. I wasn’t eating, I was anxious whenever I tried to eat anything, I could not remember the last time I had a period, I had to wear 4+ layers of clothes to feel warm, I was tired and couldn’t handle my emotions. It felt like my ED was my only friend, because I was afraid of what my friends thought of me. By the end of the school year, my parents decided that I should go to an inpatient unit.

The summer after my junior year, I was admitted to inpatient at the hospital for the first time. I assumed that I would only be there for a few weeks, a month at most, but it turned out to be much longer than that. I begged my parents to take me home, but they refused, because they knew that I would die without treatment. During this time, I cried a lot. I felt a lot of things that I never let myself feel, like the grief from the deaths of my relatives, and my feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps most importantly, I met people who had the same struggles and told my friends what was going on, and I finally felt like I was not alone. My friends came to visit me every week, and I realized that no one who was worth being in my life would hold this against me.

I missed a month of school because of treatment, and spent the rest of the senior year trying to make up for that last time. I was devastated that I had to drop classes, but in hindsight it was something so insignificant. I still struggled for that school year, and was often threatened with rehospitalization.

On March 13th, school had been called off for the next couple of weeks because of COVID, robotics was canceled for the season, and I was stuck at home. I was already planning on going back to the hospital, because I was struggling with eating, but with everything shutting down around me, I didn’t have a reason to put it off any longer. I started a program the following week.

The day I found out that I was accepted to MIT was March 14th, 2020. Obviously getting accepted did not fix my problems, but it gave me a reason to fight. I went back to treatment the following week with a new motivation, as it was my dream school. This time treatment wasn’t as linear, as most of the programs I was in went online, and I was not able to make progress like I was able to during the first round of treatment, but I stuck with it and was discharged before my freshman year started.

I still struggle. As someone who tends to struggle with perfectionism, it is difficult to be okay with getting less than A’s on assignments, and struggling in classes sometimes. Sometimes having pressure from so many things – research, clubs, family, friends, and school – can take me back to those feelings of inadequacy.

The thing that I grasp onto is that I have had glimpses of full recovery. Eating New York style pizza in Manhattan without regret or shame, buying a tofu sandwich in St. Louis with robotics without pausing to think about it, and having lunch with the class of 2024 after our class picture like a “normal” person. There are days that are worse than others, but I now know that there is something for me to look forward to in the future, and that I will be able to deal with difficulties in life.

It took me a while to realize, but I am not the only one in my family who has struggled. I have a long family history of substance use and other mental health illnesses.I have lost relatives due to addiction, and it took me a long time to realize that a lot of these problems run in families. Through examining the stories of my other relatives who have struggled with their mental health, I have come to realize that I truly am not alone in a lot of the feelings of anxiety and depression that I have dealt with, and that it is something that I should not feel ashamed about.

To end, I would like to discuss a few myths about eating disorders that I would like to address:

  1. They are a choice: Living with an eating disorder is sad, lonely and dangerous. No one chooses to have an eating disorder, and it is not your fault if you are suffering from one. However, recovery is a choice, and recovery brings a lot more joy than continuing to live with an eating disorder will ever bring. I have heard others say this, but I think that it represents my feelings about eating disorders well: “I would not wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy.”
  2. People with eating disorders are always underweight: Most people with eating disorders are actually of average weight, or even overweight or obese. Even people with restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia can still be not underweight. This misconception often makes people reluctant to reach out for help, and makes a lot of doctors who aren’t educated on eating disorders hesitant to give help to patients that have an eating disorder, but may not be the stereotypical picture of someone with an eating disorder. .
  3. They are about weight/appearance: It sometimes appears that the cause of eating disorders is a dissatisfaction with weight, but it usually is a sign of other problems. Eating disorders are often about feeling in control of food, when one feels that they are lacking control in other areas of their life. It is extremely common for someone with an eating disorder to be diagnosed with another mental illness. For example, I have also been diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
  4. They only affect people of a certain gender/sex/race/ethnicity/age/insert other description here.: Eating disorders can affect anyone of any background. They do not discriminate. I have friends of all different backgrounds who I met in treatment, and they do not only affect white teenage girls like many shows and media sources like to make it seem. People who do not fit in the stereotypical description of someone with an eating disorder are significantly less likely to be diagnosed than those who meet the stereotypical description even when they are showing the same symptoms .01
  5. People who have eating disorders are just attention seeking: This is a super common myth, even though the opposite is often true. People struggling with eating disorders often use their disorder to hide away from the world or hide themselves away from the world out of shame. When I was at my worst, I preferred to spend all of my time alone, because it gave me complete control of what I was doing, and I hated when people would make comments about me. Eating disorders are rarely about wanting attention.
  6. They aren’t anything to worry about: Eating disorders are the second most deadly mental illnesses, second only to addiction .02 I have had electrolyte imbalances as a result of my eating disorder, which could have led to me having a heart attack. I have been told that I am still at risk of developing osteoporosis early in life, and may never be able to have kids. (Although I was never planning on having kids.)

I am sharing my story today, because I know that I once felt like I was alone in this struggle, but now I know that is far from the truth, and I don’t want anyone to feel alone like I did. I hope that my story will resonate with someone out and maybe help someone to reach out for help.

If the topics that I discussed raise concerns about you, a friend or a family member, there are plenty of resources to reach out to:

If you are at MIT:

  • Student Mental Health & Counseling (SMH&CS) – 617-253-2916
  • Dean on Call – 617-253-1212
  • MIT Police – 617-253-1212
  • SMH&CS Clinician on Call – 617-253-2916

If you are in the US:

  • National Eating Disorder Association Helpline – Text or call 800-931-2237
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 1-800-273-8255
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