At the start of next year, I will have been registered for my PhD for six years. For most of this time – until very recently – I would not, or could not, own the identity of being a PhD student. Granted, up until last year, I was really only dabbling in it, doing a bit here and a bit there, dipping my toes in but never quite getting to the hard work of swimming. Perhaps because of this, I never fully accepted my PhD as part of who I was. It was just a thing that was happening alongside me and, so, I believed, it had as much impact on me and my (not so pleasant) experience of my self and of being in the world as anything that is running parallel to – and outside of – you and your life. It was a “thing-that-shall-not-be-named” topic not spoken of in therapy (and if my therapist did try to raise it, I was what you might call a little resistant), as I did not believe in spending precious time speaking about something that, although impossibly awful in the execution of it, was of no consequence to the Real Struggles I was having with myself. Or, for that, matter, would I have accepted that these Real Struggles might in any way be influencing my engagement with this PhD.
Enter my recent obvious-but-not-really-obvious epiphany that a PhD is not (only) about being clever. It’s about self. Rather than being parallel to who you are, it’s a projection of all of the worst and best parts of you, channelled through this so-called academic (but possibly more personal than any other) degree. And if your feelings about your self are not particularly positive to begin with, a PhD represents (in my experience, anyway) a useful vessel for all your self-annihilatory energy. Then, in parallel to this particular piece of insight came the equally unsettling realisation that I had stepped up my self-annihilation efforts in another area of my life, one in which I had carelessly – arrogantly even – believed I had achieved Full Recovery. I had often heard that people who have had an eating disorder never fully recover from it; it always hovers, somewhere, over or inside of you, a small whisper around every meal, around every encounter with food and with mirrors. But me? I really, properly recovered. For most of my 30s, eating was something done with an unconscious joy whenever I felt like food, something not thought about when I didn’t. Then, two years ago, I moved my self and my life to a new city and a new job and a new, different kind of life – very different from the unconscious comfort I’d settled into. And somewhere in that disassembling and reassembling of my self, holes were left. Life became a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening kind of place, amidst a world of people who were unknown to me, and to whom I was unknown.
So, without realising it, I began – slowly, unnoticeably at first – to reduce my world into something more controllable and, with each bony bar of the cage I put up around me, something more safe. This, like depression, crept up on me gradually, easily justifiable through any number of things. I went through a break up, lost weight I could barely afford to lose. And the whispers started to get louder. The allure of thinness, the powerful illusion of control it promised. The mark it left on me when, paralysed with loss and despair, feeling invisible in both my grief and my newness in this city, the thing that people noticed was the carved out hollows where my body used to be. This thing, this descent into disordered eating, distorted thinness, is secretive and shameful and so is easy to repress, deny, confess not even to yourself. Here, then, is my confession.
I didn’t go all the way, of course, not this time. Not proper disordered, just dabbling at the borderline. Still okay enough to be able to take a step back and observe the tragic craziness of this. Shake my head at my nearly 40-year-old self, walking back down this path, having one foot back in this mirrored world. But even at the borderline of normal it’s there, pulling at every bony corner of you. You’re far enough into it that you are on the outside of the world you inhabit, never quite engaging, never completely connecting with people around you. It takes up enough of your mental and emotional energy that it has, without you noticing, become one of the primary battles that you fight as you try to get through another day. You are aware that it’s not quite normal that measurement is the first and last thing that you do every day: fingers around tops of arms, hands around tops of legs, rib count, hip bones jutting. That you measure the success or failure of your day, not in things checked off the to-do list, or in acts of kindness, but in how much – or how little – food you have eaten, or avoided. And by how dark the shadow cast by your weighty, darkened self.
This is not an unfamiliar way of being. When you have spent your life feeling as though you cast darkness in rooms filled with light, as though you are the shadowy weight on all conversations and connections, the shadow that creeps up on you is already known to you. It’s a natural next step to wrap that shadow around your self and try to disappear into the dark corners of the room, untethered from yourself and the world around you. And then: you live in the shadows for so long, you become so familiar with the safety of the cage, that you cannot imagine feeling safe outside of it. The terror of not being protected by the bones en-caging you is the undercurrent to your every day. The unconscious manner in which food and body were once interacted with now seems a precious skill, one you took for granted and wish, now, that you could remember how to do.
Ironically, this is when you feel the most seen, and most deserving of being seen. You go through the looking glass into a distorted, upside down kind of world, where the less space you take up, the more deserving you feel of taking up that space. The more visible you are, the more invisible you feel. The more weight you have to and on you, the more present you are in the world and in your life – and the more visible your ordinariness, your flaws, your darkness. And so you cancel out your need for things you’re no longer allowed to need, and signal to the world that you are no longer quite here and not quite okay, sketching that not-okayness in the shadows of where bits of you used to be. Perhaps, if you disappear enough, you will finally start to appear. Perhaps you will finally be worthy of being seen.
But doing a PhD requires more than being seen. Within every PhD-related conversation, I can hear the whispers of a central theme, the ultimate question behind every PhD: what is your original contribution? This theme is packaged in different ways, framed as finding your voice, or becoming an expert in your field. The person whose PhD group I was lucky enough to join this year (and who, if I’m honest, I have a bit of an academic crush on) calls it “putting your hands on your hips” – assertively, confidently taking up your position as this doctorate-worthy expert. No matter how they are framed, these statements terrify me. They also brought me to the earth shattering revelation I mentioned at the start of this post, that doing (and getting) a PhD is not about being clever. Clever is the baseline – anyone who reaches this highest degree level, presumably, comes with it. A PhD, I have taken more than five years to realise, is about taking on an identity as someone who can present themselves to the world through their original contribution.
And that, more than anything else, explains my particular struggle with my PhD. This is not so much about a problem with self confidence or believing you are clever. Not for me, anyway. I can be clever with other people’s clever. I am pretty confident in my ability to articulate well what I can regurgitate from the clever things other people have said, or the opinions of clever people around me. I am also able to be pretty clever – an expert, if you will – about my Self. But beyond that? This PhD does and will require me to believe that I have anything of my own worth saying and, more importantly, of being heard. And if your central self belief is that you don’t deserve to be seen, you certainly do not deserve to be seen and heard. It is no surprise, then, that in the context of my PhD – which apparently really isn’t just a parallel sideline but an actual part of who you are – the self attacks have been acute. My engagement with my PhD has felt, quite literally, like an annihilation.
It’s been quite a year, then. So where do I stand, in relation to the looking glass and in relation to this PhD? They say that acknowledging a problem is the first step towards resolving it. Perhaps, in a year from now, you will find me here, holding (with slightly less scrawny arms) my completed PhD. Perhaps I won’t feel quite able to assert my original, contributory position in the centre of the room, but in a dimly lit corner of it, with hands on (less bony) hips, and allow my self to speak. And be heard. Maybe, hopefully, even seen.