IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Quit My STEM Major Because of My Eating Disorder

I stopped caring about applied math because I stopped eating properly, and that is known to make you stupider.
Publish date:
June 29, 2016
eating disorders, writing, depression, math, stem

I've told this story a hundred times, and each time it's different, though the logistics never change: a nerdy girl from Russia gets into one of the best US colleges to study applied math but midway through junior year changes her major to writing and then graduates.

It's a boring story, so I try to liven it up to cater to different audiences. To my businessman father, I emphasize the marketing-minor aspect. I tell him I dream of manipulating target markets into submission and subsequent enjoyment. According to that version, marketing with writing is the "perfect marriage of capitalism and creativity" for which I hope to be the priest. The story told to my fellow humanities students is different: I delve into the utilitarian, big lecture the way we teach applied math these days. I grieve the lost beauty of mathematical ideas and assure them I still do some fun math on my own and use it in my story structures. My writing professors hear the romanticized rendition, in which the heroine, seduced by the irresistible ghosts of Proust and Plath, finally gives in to The Thing She Was Meant to Do in the Perfect World: craft narratives that navigate the sea of readers' collective psyche with the precision of a ragged sea captain.

All these versions contain some portion of truth, of course, but no one gets to know my dark secret. I stopped caring about applied math because I stopped eating properly, and that is known to make you stupider. Failing to care for those differential equation then led to me withdrawing from my math classes and switching to writing, so I could starve in peace. (Are Humanities easier? Of course, Humanities are easier, because of being subjective and less removed from everyday discourse.)

"Starve in peace" sounds off, but it really shouldn't. For the lucky ones who've never known the joys of living off apples and Americanos or fasting for 21 days for "spiritual reasons," let me briefly explain the effects of not eating enough. They kick off after a day or two. You start to freeze, because your hypothalamus is, like, "Achtung! No calories for fuel detected. Turn off the heat now!" You start to dread the night, because you can't fall asleep unless you pop a pill. Oftentimes you have dreams about eating — a casual reminder from the instinct of survival. It becomes easier not to eat at all because if you eat just anything, the temptation is to eat everything in sight.

Writing all of these is an acknowledgment of my defeat: what sort of sane person repeatedly and deliberately puts herself through this experience? But then there's a certain wicked reward to be found in the "high" you get from restricting. If you knock off the base of Maslow's pyramid — if you don't satisfy certain human physiological needs — you will never come to care for the upper sections, like the needs for love and belonging, esteem, or self-actualization. That foggy, unfocused state of consciousness turns you immune to any desire, besides the one for energy and nutrition.

In my first years of college I was unable to account for the cultural shock, to accept my inability to connect to a fellow human in a meaningful way, and to deal with the feelings of acute inadequacy that haunted my transatlantic existence. The starving then became a shelter of self-destruction, a Zen dream: complete obliteration of "secular" wanting. Every desire is one happening short of hurting you. Everyone who's had to read a thousand "I regret to inform you's" or listen to the silence created by this or that lover knows that. Back then, I was a coward. I thought feelings could kill you more painfully than an eating disorder. For the time being I preferred my foggy out-of-focus brain.

When you have had an eating disorder, you notice these girls (and they are statistically primarily girls) everywhere: girls who take random walks to supermarkets to read nutritional labels or who bring poems to workshop about the evil side of birthday cake. You recognize them when neither of you mentions dinner after a lengthy coffee conversation and a movie screening and when both of you feel relieved because of that. These girls in baggy clothes and grotesque doodles in their notebooks honestly live their carefully crafted mythologies, worlds all in Louise Gluck poems and red threads on wrists. What drives someone to severely restricting — Depressed States & Co. — soon perpetuates itself because of purely biological reasons. It's not surprising that these girls soon develop actual depression and anxiety disorders. To quote the wise words vampire Stefan Salvatore shouts before ripping into some victim's throat, "I am not sad. I'm freakin' hungry."

Somehow it seems crude to mourn these girls' intellectual potentials when we know the devastating tolls eating disorders take on people's bodies. Anorexia nervosa, for one, beats depression and all other mental illnesses in soul count and should never be reduced to a typical temporary teen-girl craze that prevents females from ruling the world in the future. But firstly, in my experience, death is somehow already in the ED and depression framework. Existing in a form of permanent torture akin to living death, I remember thinking of the whole bundle of issues as if it were a formulated death wish, albeit one that takes years to be granted. Death in the ED world is officially "not a big deal."

Secondly, there is an illusion that choosing self-harm is libertarian or apolitical — "My body means my choice" and other common lies — so putting the illness in the system's omnipotent framework of success still means something to a segment of girls with EDs: some of us think we want to live fast and die young, like Joplin, but we also want to be legendary, like Joplin. And who has the energy to be legendary when you're stuck watching "The Biggest Loser" or Nigella Lawson recipes you'll never actually follow on your phone through hunger-induced insomnia?

I haven't accepted that mental disorders "just happen to you" and "it's not your fault at all." I still blame myself for the time lost to online communities, where girls describe their every meal to the ravenous readership of their food diaries. I regret the cancelled meetings with friends and the cigarettes smoked for any reason other than to feel like an ancient dragon. I could invest that effort into perfecting my shabby Python skills or into developing new tactics for taking over the globe if I could just reconcile with my baby cheeks; if I could just get over my limited little self; if I had found my un-apology, my acceptance of failure and rejection and every other crushing thing humans can feel, without withdrawal and artificial detachment.

Now I don't regret the actual major switch, because applying literary theories to serial killers is where I find my particular brand of joy in life. In a stubborn and foolish Robert Frostian way, when looking back, I connect the past's threads to form a fatalistic tapestry and claim the taken road has made all the difference. Regardless of EDs and depressions, I think I'd leave my mathematics wife for my dreamy literature mistress, but the truth about the contributing factors is still a "sad gurl" story I never meant to write.

Why are we, girls with EDs, self-induced through the power of habit, doing ice-cream monos instead of running in front of science and pulling it forward by a pink velvet string? When will we get over the masked question, "To be or not to be?" — which comes in the form of "To eat or not to eat?" — and explore instead how to live, why, where, with whom?

This is not just about STEM either, though I'd want us to wander far away from the easily understandable disciplines while retaining our humanistic outlooks. We can apply all the wasted potential any way we chose. We can stand by our words that we're not the observed, but the observers — auteurs, photographers, directors.

Let's get out of the ascetic rhetoric that only pretends to be about health. Let's listen to our bodies, observe, and conclude. Then the word "guilt" will have more substance than a 10-o'clock red velvet cupcake, and our minds will be full of care for the universe.