When Stepping Back is Moving Forward

Lisa Matthias shares her personal story with us this week. You can also find her online taking care of our Twitter account.

I’ve always been ambitious and a perfectionist. In high school, my ideals were easily achieved, but that changed when I started my undergrad. All of a sudden, there was this massive workload every single day, and so many other students who were striving for the same achievement. I was also balancing a part-time job on the side. Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely fine to have high standards, but perfectionism can easily lead to high levels of stress, and an extreme fear of failure. This type of fear can determine your self-worth, because it closely ties your identity to success, and any failure becomes a serious threat to that identity.

It didn’t take me long to start questioning my abilities, my skills, and finally myself. I wondered, if there are so many others doing the same thing as I, how can I stand out? What makes me special? What, if anything, makes me better than the rest?

mountain-climbing
A silhouette of a mountain range has clouds across the sky illuminated by weak sunlight. There are small silhouettes of people walking across the top of the mountains.

I was unable to find answers to these questions and I felt lost in uncertainty. Unable to foresee the future and feeling like I was losing control, I tried to gain some of it back by seeking refuge in an eating disorder. I thought if nobody could make me feel like I was good enough, like I was able to create my own future, I could at least take control of one part of my life. The eating disorder made me feel like I had control because I decided what amount of food would go into my body. I also decided whether I let my body keep that food once I ate it or if I purged it.

At one point, I decided to fast. No matter who asked me to eat again, I would decline. After all, I believed I was in complete control over the situation and loved being able to control my mind and body that way. I don’t have to explain that an eating disorder is the epitome of loss of control, but back then it gave me security. It was the one thing I could always count on, and it made me feel invincible. But soon I realized that I wasn’t invincible. One day after purging, I was too weak to pick myself up from the floor and broke down crying. I called my best friend and he told me I couldn’t keep this up forever. He also told me that I should tell my parents; I did.

I started therapy sessions fairly soon after (about 6 months), but that doesn’t mean I was at all on my way to getting better. I went to therapy more for my family than for myself. I was definitely not ready to recover yet. I was still insecure, I felt isolated, and I had no idea where my career was going (if it was going anywhere). So, I found myself one foot in recovery, one foot deep inside my eating disorder. The thing with recovery is that I had to want it 100%. I had to let this go, but at the same time I didn’t really want that. It was a constant struggle between getting healthy, but being too scared to gain weight. From the outside, it looked like I was getting better, even I tricked myself into believing I was actually trying. I would have recovery attempts that lasted ten days at best. Then, I would go back to eating less and purging, just to feel that relief and that power again.

*          *         *

When I started my Master’s, I was still writing my Bachelor’s thesis while also working on my first published paper. Nevertheless, I decided to take on as many classes as I could possibly fit into my schedule. After all, I had to stay on track to succeed and excel, right? But going to a new university and changing disciplines took my anxiety to a whole new level. Before, I had issues with some social situations, like big groups, or public speaking. But now, my fear paralyzed me to such an extent that I even struggled to attend my classes. I was too scared of what other people might think if I did something wrong.

Fortunately, one of my professors saw what I was capable of in my written assignments, and talked to me. His support offered a boost to my self-confidence that made me want to go to class. I decided to seek help and ask for medication to help with my anxiety as it was now affecting my everyday life. I felt immediate relief when the doctor gave me my prescription. I did not take my medication often, but they were a safety net for me. They showed me that I had no reason to be afraid in class, and that nothing bad would happen to me if I went. So, I got back to class. I would still sit alone, hoping no one would notice me, but at least I was there. At this point, I want to emphasize that there is no shame in taking medication for mental illness. This doesn’t make you weak. If you had any other illness, like a cold, you would be taking medicine to treat it just the same.

However, my ongoing anxiety was a huge drain on my energy, the workload was not getting smaller, and I was still attempting to operate on nowhere near enough calories. I could only keep this up for so long.

black-and-white-person-woman-girl
In a sombre black and white image, a person sits hunched over, facing away from the camera. Their shoulders are bare except for long hair falling forward.

Eventually, I finally started to feel the consequences of pushing myself over the limit. I fell asleep in class, I had trouble understanding research articles, and I could not even structure my thoughts at times. My first reaction was to work even harder, and sleep even less. It should not be a surprise that this did not work well. Once again I felt powerless, because now I slowly started to lose my ability to work competently and reached a point where it even threatened completing my Master’s degree.

Realizing that my degree was in jeopardy was something I could not accept. It was my wake up call. I thought that if my usual way of dealing with these sorts of situations did not work, maybe it was not the right one. This is when I started to take baby steps into the right direction.

I nurtured my body and became highly self-reflective. I decided to go to the career service at my university to get a some perspective in terms of what I wanted in my professional life, and got an internship soon after. The internship made me realize that I could achieve whatever I wanted without being perfect. I had to take on unfamiliar tasks, learn a lot, and make mistakes along the way. But my team was always supportive and showed me that making mistakes is part of the learning process.

*          *         *

My journey is not over yet and I still struggle sometimes. What is different now is that I have incredible inner strength and trust in myself, so negative thoughts do not control me anymore. Four years of therapy have taught me how to be self-reflective, and traveling and my internship helped me see that I am and will be doing just fine. I finished my Master’s last month, and I decided against pursuing a PhD right now. Going completely against what I used to do, I decided to take a break and put myself first. Writing my Master’s thesis was really hard on me, and I spent a lot of time crying. To be honest, it took a lot not to relapse during that time. Pursuing a PhD would mean putting myself through that process again, only for much longer. As much as I love doing research, I love myself more. If I want to continue grad school, I want to be more stable, and make sure I will not risk my health again. I know this was the right decision because right now I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been in my life. I am amazed by what my body and mind can achieve when I actually listen and respond to what they have to say. Also, my internship gave me so much joy that I thought it would be great to take a break from studying, and focusing on building other skills for a while. I think my (potential) future PhD can only benefit from that as I would be starting it with lots of new energy and new knowledge.

I know how easy it is to feel like one of many, but trust me: you really are unique, and nobody else can play your part. Every single person is special and has their own ways to shine, even if they cannot see the light themselves. You are capable — otherwise you would not be at that point in your career right now. Don’t isolate yourself, but instead try to open up to others, and you’ll find support in ways you didn’t think would be possible. I experienced unimaginable support from my friends, family, and even strangers. It is something truly beautiful to be supported by others, and support them in return.

Don’t ever jeopardize your physical and/or mental health for your work. It will catch up to you. Instead, look after yourself, be kind to yourself, and you will be amazed what you can achieve.

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