I’m stubborn. Growing up, I didn’t struggle with school work. Reading was intuitive, addition and subtraction came easily, algebra and biology were enjoyable. I put the work in, but it was easy for me to do so – because I didn’t need to go out of my way to understand what was going on. In short, I didn’t need to ask for help.
Unfortunately, I also never learned to ask for help. Yes, there were times later in high school when if I had just asked for clarification from a friend or teacher for five minutes, I would have understood something (like calculus – the bane of my existence) on a more complete level. But asking for help never came up on my radar. I had always understood things on my own after putting enough work in, so it didn’t make sense to me that the same rules didn’t apply just because I was learning higher level material. I didn’t recognize that asking for help would only make it easier to understand.
And then I went to college. Suddenly, I was in a much bigger pond. In high school, I could still get an “A” on a test without fully understanding the material – mainly because I was a good test-taker in general (I daresay that standardized tests were an enjoyable experience for me). At Cornell, if you enter a test not knowing anything – it’s going to show.
My first semester I took General Chemistry I. This subject is NOT intuitive. But, I thought that I would do what I did in high school and just kind of absorb the material by osmosis. I sat in lecture, fell asleep a fair amount of times because I was exhausted from morning swim practices, didn’t go to office hours and didn’t spend adequate time on the homework. I didn’t do any optional problems, and I ended up doing the problem sets with a friend who was a chemistry whiz and basically who gave me the right answers without explaining to me what I had done wrong. I thought merely being present in the class was enough to ensure a good grade on an exam.
Oh, was I wrong. Looking back, I’m not really sure how I scraped by in the class and got a “C.” Though not ideal, now that I look back a C was generous considering the amount of work I put into the class. And so began my relationship with pre-med classes at Cornell. The next semester, I promised myself I would do better. And I did – but I still did not ask for help.
Throughout most of my sophomore and half of junior year, my eating disorder was taking root. I didn’t really notice, but I was feeling pretty hopeless and stressed out to the point of mental breakdown for most of those years. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t normal. In fact, when I had the first initial consultation with my therapist she asked me about depression and I vehemently denied being depressed. I said “Oh no, I’m not depressed. I really have a good life – I have swimming and school and a good family, and I’m grateful for everything I have.” While that may have been true to some extent, the fact of the matter is that I was depressed. I just had learned to normalize the feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and constant stress. Although I went into treatment for my eating disorder, it still took me a longgg time to acually be able to admit – outloud – “I have an eating disorder” and to seek help and support from people around me.
Since I could not even say the words “eating disorder” to anyone, early recovery was hard for me. My parents knew because I text-messaged them (yes, I was kindergarten-status) but they were 200 miles away…and, as some of you may know, they aren’t very supportive. So, early on I was on my own aside from the weekly appointments with my nutritionist and therapist. After a few sessions, my therapist encouraged me to reach out to a close friend and tell them about my eating disorder.
This seemed like an impossible task. I got a sinking feeling in my gut. I told my therapist that I knew that my friends would leave me if I told them, because no one wants to have a sick friend. And again – I couldn’t even say the words “eating disorder” at the time. How was I supposed to tell someone I really cared about and risk losing them when I really needed them the most? However, my therapist countered these questions with “If your friends won’t support you in your time of greatest need, they aren’t your real friends anyway.” So, with her encouragement, I decided that I would tell one of my best friends here.
I didn’t force it, though. I waited until I felt right – I waited until I had built up enough courage to tell my friend. It was a bitter cold night in February, and we had met at Starbucks to study for a microbio class we had together. We were sitting there for awhile, and she asked me how I was doing. I spontaneously decided to tell her. I just said “Well…to be honest, not great.” And then I went on to describe to her that I had an eating disorder, etc. After I told her, she was really supportive, the conversation ended and we just kept studying the same way we had been. She was still there even though I had revealed to her what I saw as my biggest weakness, and the feeling I got from this interaction was of overwhelming support. Over time, I told more of my good friends, my swim coach, and my best friends from home. I simultaneously was admitting to these people what I was going through while asking for their unconditional love and support – asking for their help – and all of these people stepped up to the plate and became my support system.
I used to see asking for help as the biggest sign of weakness. I thought that people only asked for help because they weren’t strong enough to deal with circumstances on their own.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Asking for help is the biggest sign of strength. It’s being at your most vulnerable in front of someone you know, saying “I can’t do this alone.” It’s one of the scariest things to do – period – whether you are asking a friend for help with your ED or asking a professor for help on a genetics problem. It shouldn’t be this hard. We’re not supposed to know all the answers. We’re supposed to live and make mistakes. Unfortunately, being a perfectionist doesn’t allow you that room – it says “you must know ALL of this the first time you learn it, you must never make mistakes, and above all you must never ask for help.”
What a load of crap.
The hardest lesson I’ve learned here at school, and in my recovery, has been to ask for help. I admit I still struggle with this, but I am doing much better at reaching out to my friends, coaches, and teachers. And – it really has made life so much easier. There are people out there who know more than me, and who can show me how to do something I don’t know. I’m not all-knowing, I haven’t experienced every experience that life has to offer – so I need to stop expecting perfection from myself. And honestly, asking for help has proved major dividends in my academic world.
More importantly, asking for help from people in my support system keeps me on the right track. When I feel that I’m struggling and I can’t pull myself out of disordered thinking or behaviors, I call or text a friend, and they put some perspective back for me. Through this whole process, I’ve shown my true self to my friends and it has been the most rewarding experience. Above all, asking for help has really saved me, and continues to save me throughout my recovery.