Even as a little kid, I wanted to do something extraordinary – I didn’t want to just study history, I wanted to work in the government; I didn’t want to just be a doctor, I wanted to be the surgeon general. It is not that I want to be famous, but I want to feel that I have done something that has an impact on the world. And when it comes to defining what it means to make an impact, I have very high expectations for myself.
However, rather then being motivational, these super high expectations paralyze me. In the same way that a perfectionist has trouble finishing a task because it is never “perfect”, I struggle to find jobs or figure out what to do with school (as if being a medical student wasn’t hard enough as it is) because I always feel like I am not doing enough right now to eventually “be someone.” However, since I don’t know exactly what those things are (is it doing research, or volunteering, or getting good grades in med school or a combo) I start freaking out. Rather than comparing myself to the 52% of applicants who don’t get into medical school each year, I compare myself to the people in my class who have already established nonprofits or been nationally recognized, and feel like a failure.
That is where the eating disorder fits in oh-so-well. As House says: “There’s something freeing about being a loser, isn’t there?…You got three choices in life: be good, get good or give up. You’ve gone for column D; why? The simple answer is: if you don’t try, you can’t fail.”
The eating disorder is sort of my way of “choosing column D” – it gives me the freedom to be a loser. It becomes an excuse for why I have failed to live up to my expectations, and it is an easy way out when I get too overwhelmed. I can look back at college or medical school and say “well, if I hadn’t been struggling with the eating disorder maybe I could have gotten that great internship or been published.” Furthermore, the eating disorder can also be a scapegoat when it comes to relationships. I can look back at high school and say I lost friends because of the eating disorder, or look back at med school and say I didn’t go to as many social events as I could have because of the eating disorder. Without the eating disorder to blame, the only other explanation is that I am lazy and a failure. If I am recovered and still manage to not be a good friend or not get involved in volunteer projects at school, then I have no one to blame but myself. What if I really am that unlovable and lazy that even without the disorder I still can’t accomplish anything? For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to fit in (I even remember choosing mint chocolate chip ice cream as my favorite in kindergarten even though I hate it because everyone else chose it and I wanted to fit in). The constant obsession with food, weight and calories is what kept me from feeling lonely throughout a lot of undergrad and from being a good friend. But what if once I recover I still suck? I may not be outwardly sarcastic and misanthropic like House, but I hide behind the disorder in the same way he hides behind his behavior.
Ironically, while the eating disorder gives me something concrete to blame for any misery, it is a prime generator of misery itself. I used to feel a sense of accomplishment when I lost weight or restricted a meal, but now seeing the number go down or my daily calorie intake decrease brings about mixed emotions. On the one hand I am happy (I have an eating disorder, afterall), but it also makes me feel bad about myself because I know that eating less and losing weight are taking me further away from my goal of getting back to school.
I think part of what’s holding me back from embracing recovery full on relates to another House quote. He says “You’re afraid to change. You rather imagine you can escape, instead of actually try. ‘Cause if you fail, then you’ve got nothing.” I keep imagining a life without the ED, and it is a great picture. Yet, I am still struggling to jump full force into “I am willing to do whatever it takes to recover mode.” After reading this House quote, I now realize why this is – committing myself fully brings about the possibility of failure, but simply imagining it means I can hold out hope while at the same time avoiding a lot of the worries I mentioned above.
And thus a vicious cycle is born. I feel overwhelmed by my expectations for myself, and I turn to eating disorder symptoms to cope. Then I feel bad about myself for acting on symptoms, which makes me feel even more down. Then I think “well, I already screwed up, and if I have to go back to treatment I might as well keep losing weight” which only takes me further away from feeling any sense of accomplishment with regards to relationships or school/work. Being further away from accomplishing my goals only makes me feel more overwhelmed…and you can see where it keeps going. So, I just shut down. As House says, it is just easier to give up than risk trying and not succeeding.
Lately, I have been trying to remind myself that I just need to step back and take it step by step. If I restrict one day, it’s not the end of the world and I can get back on track. With regards to school, it’s ok to “just” be a medical student. Most of the people I want to be like did not make some amazing discovery in medical school…they did what they had to do and with a combo of luck and hard work got where they are. I just need to trust that if I am patient, I will get where I want to go. Furthermore, even if I end up being “just” a regular doctor, and don’t do anything “cool” with it like work for TV or do policy, that’s ok – if I think “just” being a doctor equals success for anyone else, then it should equal success for me too!