Content warning: Mention of eating disorders and general anxiety
Women in Physics. Already that sets the scene - male dominated field, crippling imposter syndrome, gender discrimination. Since I fell in love with physics at age 17, none of those reasons would ever stop me, no matter how many cautionary talks I had with school teachers, family, or friends; no matter the constant oppressive stories being revealed about men being superior or women being incapable.
I knew I was going to get a PhD in physics.
High school bullying had left me insecure and with low self-esteem as my ‘friends’ began to exclude me from their 8-way dates and friendship outings. I decided to simply cut myself off completely from everybody and take up residence in either the physics or math department, determined to prove to myself that I wasn’t worthless. With some of the best grades in Scotland, I was easily accepted into the best university for physics beginning in 2015 and even bypassed the first year of my degree.
Nothing had prepared me for the hell of four years that lay ahead of me.
I was a nervous teen, had never had anything to drink and had never had a night out. My social skills were abysmal and I was overwhelmed. My awful high school experience led me to believe that everybody disliked me, that nobody wanted to be my friend, and that in order to be respected I had to join every committee going, study hard, work 20 hours per week in a job and so-forth. Physics was fine, however I struggled with maths - linear algebra, multivariate and vector calc were all notorious for being awful and I was struggling to manage my time and mental health.
I had no control. I needed control.
During high school I had an affair with bulimia and the positive weight-loss comments were a temporary fix. The one thing I knew I could change was my body. Three months into university, my friend passed away; she had been open about her struggles with anorexia, and her passing opened the chasm of eating disorder hell that I was to endure for my four years.
In place of studying physics, all I did was starve myself, throw up, take Buzzfeed food quizzes and look up r/pizza on Reddit whilst eating boiled green beans. The odds of completing my degree were against me - I had lost 20kg, my heart rate was 28BPM, I couldn’t walk, I fainted, I had no interests, I lost friends. I refused university intervention; I was so unwell that I believed that the only way out was death or being sectioned. Somehow, I still passed all my courses and, despite threats, wasn’t withdrawn.
In my penultimate year I discovered condensed matter and took an experimental physics course. I was blown away; I could be absorbed for hours in k-space or in the lab without thinking about my body - the spark had been ignited. Unfortunately, my health took a turn for the worse; I reasoned that being turned away from the NHS for ‘not being ill enough’ was proof that I was fine.
My friends staged many interventions: a 21 year old being literally spoon-fed stale rainbow cake will never leave anyone’s mind. Time was running out and I had to be well enough to get onto a PhD program. I can never thank my friends enough: their bravery in force-feeding me is unthinkable; they set food challenges; they took away my running shoes for 12 weeks; they listened.
In the beginning of my final year I took on a job selling alcohol. It was incredible, it gave me an escape from university and my colleagues were passionate and eager to learn and teach. I developed a passion for alcohol that went beyond a bottle of Gordon’s on a Friday night and used it to overcome my fear of food - I would buy a nice bottle of wine to pair with a curry or with pasta. My colleagues radiated a passion for food and booze that I had never personally experienced. They didn’t know it at the time (they do now) but their positivity, their anti-diet nature, their good taste changed me.
So, in my final undergraduate year, I gained weight and I studied hard and I had a job. Suddenly I wasn’t panicking about food as much, suddenly I could run 15km+, suddenly I was positive and welcoming, and people wanted to be around me. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but it worked thanks to the university counsellors with whom I (eventually) worked. My passion for physics returned and I wasn’t ashamed of it. I applied to several PhD positions in The Netherlands, which I would never have been able to do had I been unwell, and ended up with the dream position in a wonderful lab.
We have cake quite often but that doesn’t bother me anymore; some days I want a slice (or two), other days I’m just not interested.
That is where I find myself now. I’m healthy and a very fit PhD candidate in experimental Condensed Matter Physics. Some days are more difficult than others but it’s about employing the tools to separate emotions from food and body image. Being able to eat again means I can weight-lift and manage a 14 hour day in the lab, still maintaining my passion and drive.
Best of all? Closer to the good Riesling.
Thank you to Caitlin Duffy for sharing her story. You can find Caitlin on Instagram @ caitlin.duffy and Twitter @ Caitlin__Duffy