Tonight my husband asked me if I had told anyone in my graduate cohort about having had an eating disorder, and how that experience brought me into clinical psychology. I have not told anyone yet, and may not do so for a very long time, if ever. Even within the field of mental health, there is still some stigma surrounding the admission of mental illness by its practitioners. When I was applying for Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology, for example, I studiously avoided any mention of eating disorders or my own experiences in therapy. It wasn't hard to do -- I had a story ready for anyone who asked me how I became interested in psychology, and though it is only part of the truth, it was enough to keep me feeling authentic.
The other night, however, I heard what was perhaps the best explanation yet for why psychologists and psychologists-in-training might want to think twice about letting other people in their profession know about their own histories with mental illness. I was at a meeting about externships in neuropsychology, and a member of a panel discussion strongly advised the students in the audience to avoid putting too much personal information in their application essays. "In this profession [clinical psychology], it is necessary for us to know how to maintain personal boundaries, and part of what you show us in writing an application essay is how well you will be able to maintain those boundaries in your practice."
Hearing her words, I felt a sense of relief. So I wasn't the only one hiding my past! And nor was there anything to be ashamed of in doing so -- in fact, it is de rigeur in the profession! In a sense, this speaker gave me the permission to do what I have instinctively done: protect my most fragile self, maintaining my own space in the midst of so much talk, and study, of mental illness. This is my experience, one that I am willing to write about here, but one that will remain unknown to my professional colleagues, at least until I know better.
For the meanwhile, I am grateful to have this space to write about eating disorders, food, and my own experiences. In this way, I have an outlet for all of the opinions that I am forming about eating disorders and a way to work out the experiences that still trouble and inspire me. I have a community here of fellow travelers, people who speak with the raw honesty of having lived through an eating disorder: they know, as I do, distress from the inside.
I am committed, for the next five years, to understanding distress from the outside, from the scientific, clinical viewpoint. But I am also committed to you, my reader, and to this, this process of writing out and writing through my past pain, in order to come to grips with all that I bring to my profession and to my present.