A few days before the world dramatically shut down in response to COVID-19, I had the opportunity to take the stage at LaughFest, and share a short story, as a part of their “(No) Laughing Matter” series. Here it is.
I’m a neuropsychologist – a kind of psychologist who specializes in applying neuroscience and understanding brain development and injury. I want to tell you a little bit about my life when I was in grad school. Neuroscientists like to say the human brain is the only organ that can study itself. So you should know two things about my brain in those days.
The first is that I hated kids. I couldn’t stand them, and I suspected the feeling was mutual. I may not have mentioned that a big part of the work I do now is with preschoolers. The second thing is that I had been suffering from an eating disorder for about five years prior to grad school, and I was early in my own recovery.
None of this is rational. There’s no rational reason to like or not like kids. Well, I guess if we all didn’t like them, that would be bad. I mean, we were all kids once, and thank God somebody liked us. Most of us. But not everyone needs to like kids. And there’s a perfectly rational and sensible reason to eat when you’re hungry – most anything else is irrational. But as I lost more and more weight, I was pretty good at this irrational thing. I did crazy things, like working all day in Troy, taking night psychology classes, and then driving down to Wilmington, OH to try and save a failed engineering project (which I did). And, well, packing a scale in my suitcase so I could weigh myself after dinner and decide if I needed to throw up. And counting calories. Obsessively. A four-hour drive is a long time to count calories, and when I did stop, I knew everything low-calorie there was in all of those convenience stores, but I could still stare at the nutrition labels for ten minutes or a half hour to figure out what I was willing to eat. That ten-calorie difference between two energy drinks means the world. All of this was crazy.
That’s the thing. I knew perfectly well how irrational my behavior was. And I knew I was making bad decisions about my own body and my own mental health, even as I was learning to help other people make good decisions. I didn’t stop being crazy smart when I was crazy, and I had the grades, test scores, even a publication or two to prove it.
You can watch yourself – acting crazy – it doesn’t make it any less crazy, even though the part of you that is totally sensible is seeing all of this happen. There’s even science to prove this. As one example, a scientist gave people with anorexia and healthy people this test where they had to judge door sizes and who would fit through what door. They were both accurate when judging other people. The anorectics only made mistakes when judging themselves. And there are always external referents. When you get so thin that you can’t find any clothes that fit, and the small sizes are like tents on you, that should probably be an indication of something, right? But not for me.
But there I was, working crazy hard in grad school, trying to be a little better, by which I meant I would stay up all night doing research work in the lab and try to get by on an ice cream bar in 12 hours, but I did eat. I made an attempt to get healthier as I got closer to doing clinical work, but then there was this other thing. I’d be starting my clinical work seeing kids, whom I hated. My experience of children basically amounted to my church telling me I was in charge of the nursery, and then whoever sent me down there throwing me in the room, closing the door with all the crying children, and laughing as they ran down the hall.
So, like anyone who stays up all night in the lab on an ice cream bar and who will turn anything into a project would do, I dove in. I looked for what I could do to get by at working with kids and started volunteering at a camp for kids with serious illnesses, where I probably spent several thousand hours over the course of my grad school.
That first summer, I stayed a week at asthma camp. It was an easy pick – the little kid who lived next door when I was a kid had asthma. I learned English because I wanted to talk to him through the fence, when we were two years old. And here I was, the kid hater with a cabin full of extremely hyperactive little kids with asthma.
I got assigned to two little boys who were obsessed with swimming. All day, into the pool, out of the pool just long enough to get to damp swimsuit time, and then back in. Florida is not great for curly hair, and pool water does not help. Oh, yeah, and also I can’t swim. I was really scared of deep water as a child, and I always found some way to worm my way out of having anything to do with it in swim class in school. But these two boys wanted deep water swimming bracelets. So when they were ready, I had to go with them.
The day they were ready came pretty quickly, and it was all of a sudden, and I didn’t have much time to think. All I thought was that there was a lifeguard on duty, and what was the worse thing that could happen? So in they jumped, and in I jumped after them. And swam. Through the deep water. And they got their bracelets (I would like to point out that no one gave me a bracelet!). And we had a ball. And ever since that day, I’ve loved deep water – I pretty much picked up treading water in the deep end of the pool with them, that week, and after that, every chance I could get, I would swim at camp or at the pool in our complex. I would even swim in the rain – you’re already wet. Except I didn’t understand that it doesn’t rain without lightning in Florida, so I got a lot of “Hey, you! Get out of the pool! Are you crazy?”
It worked, too. The first thing is that when I learned how to play with those kids, it turned out, most of the time, I was pretty good at it. I ended up in charge of the woodshop a lot. I am a terrible carpenter. There are all these dads in there, who basically make projects for kids. But I can’t, and so all I have left is to make it a fun experience, together. If you ever get me to help you, you will go home with the most God-awful monstrosity your parents have ever thrown out on the way off camp. And the best memories.. By the time we started clinic that fall, the upper year grad students thought I was a child psychologist. And, well….
Those kids, and my patients in general, became a huge motivation to be healthy that things like not being able to find clothes that fit, endless, bottomless hunger, and weird moments where you’re outside of your body watching yourself eat peanut butter (the worst of all losses of self-control), just plain were not. I became progressively healthier over the course of grad school. I didn’t formally do therapy until my internship year in Chicago, but by then I was serious about wellness.
Those days changed my life in interesting ways. I did not foresee myself doing work where two-year olds crawl onto my lap and then fart – grad school did not prepare me for how bad preschoolers can have gas. And I didn’t expect to learn to love my body without needing to attach a number in pounds or kilograms to it. Rational me wouldn’t be here. The magic of neuroscience is that my brain got to experience this and live through it, at the same time.
My appetite is stable these days. When I gain weight – which was a problem for me last year, I have to work double hard to ignore all the dieting memes. That part of me is still in there, and you give her the opportunity to take charge, and I will be right back where I was fifteen years ago. That skinny bitch on the inside is tough, and I don’t trust her, even as I miss being her. But I almost never listen to her, and I’ve stayed healthy.
If there is a lesson, it is to embrace the fact that you are irrational, but try to know what you’re irrational about. Be crazy at the right times. And if life hands you two kids who want to spend all their time in the swimming pool, jump in the deep end. You may not even need the lifeguard, and it’s sure to make for a good story.