Done Running: a Budding Pharmacist Confronts Her Eating Disorder & Sexuality
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
When I was a little girl, I loved to run. I loved playing any kind of sport, really, but there was something about running that just made me feel like the fullest version of myself.
So I ran on the cross country team in grade school and, as much as I loved it, I would get sick to my stomach before every race.
I wanted to come in first place so badly, but what if I didn’t? What if I wasn’t the very best runner out there? Before every race, I would be waiting on the starting line, huddled in that 6 by 6 ft box with my teammates when suddenly my stomach would turn. I would run to the sideline and throw up, then run back to the starting line just in time for the gun to fire off, signaling the start of the race. I would take off like a gazelle leaping after its prey and all of my fears—of not getting first place, of not being the BEST runner out there—would disappear.
My coaches and parents were concerned about why this might be happening, so they took me to the doctor. After the assessment, my doctor decided that it was severe anxiety. As a result, my parents gave me a choice—I could either work through the anxiety with a therapist or quit running altogether.
But I couldn’t stop the anxiety, I couldn’t just stop feeling the fear of failure—so I had to quit.
As I grew older, my anxiety seemed to shift to something else: academics.
I was determined to be the best student and most social, affable person in my class. I had to achieve the highest marks and the accolades from all of my instructors. The sense of relief I got from learning and succeeding in an academic environment was much the same as the freedom I felt while running as a child. It was like I was escaping all of the fears constantly running through my mind—truths about myself that I simply did not want to face. Somehow, the external validation of academia made up for those seemingly imperfect truths. One significant “imperfect truth” with which I was wrestling at this time was that I had felt, for some time, that I was queer. Growing up in the Catholic Church, this wasn’t exactly the preferred sexuality. Nobody ever explicitly told me “You’ll never be accepted for being homosexual,” but they didn’t have to. I just knew it. It was implied—in every reading, every homily, every religious ceremony. I had no reason to believe that my family would be anything but supportive—they had always been accepting people who loved humans for who they were. But the general church community was a different story. The only way to avoid failure in this community was to push those feelings away—so that’s what I continued to do.
When I was in college, one of my roommates saw me running on the track at the gym. When we got home, we were talking with the other girls on the floor and my roommate said something like, “Jules runs so fast, I saw her on the track today.”
“I don’t think I’m as fast as I used to be,” I responded casually.
“It looks pretty fast to me,” she continued, “it’s like you’re running from something!”
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We all laughed because she was obviously kidding, but it wasn’t until later that I realized she wasn’t wrong. That same mechanism of avoidance would only intensify when I started pharmacy school. I needed an outlet for all of the stress and anxiety that comes with any health professional program. And at the same time, I was still running from those uncomfortable truths about my sexuality. As we all know, we can only run from those for so long. These complex mental health issues would manifest in a full-blown eating disorder marked by dangerous malnutrition and compulsive exercise. All of this culminated in a 5 day stay in the ICU, followed by months (and now years) of countless doctor’s appointments, dietitian meetings and therapy sessions to ensure that my physical health was recovering along with my mental health.
When I first got to the hospital, I remember thinking that I might not be able to go back to pharmacy school. I might not be able to achieve something I had dreamed of for such a long time. But, with the incredible support of friends and family, I was able to achieve my dream of becoming a pharmD.
So, here I am—nearly two-and-a-half years later—as Julianne Aukerman, PharmD continuing on the journey of recovery from mental illness.
I won’t lie and say it has been an easy road, and it’s a road on which I am still traveling. I can’t say I would go back and do it all over again, but I can say I’m honestly grateful for what I went through—it was the greatest blessing in disguise I never saw coming. The process of recovery has given me the opportunity to fully accept my sexuality and address the fear of failure that fueled my eating disorder. Ironically, fully accepting myself for who I am has been more validating than any validation I ever received from academia or my eating disorder.
At the same time, recovery has allowed me to reflect on the way in which the intense, competitive environment of pharmacy school created the circumstances necessary for my eating disorder to thrive. This is not to say that health professional school thrusts every student into a debilitating mental illness—after all, this is something I had been dealing with for years prior to entering pharmacy school. However, it is important to recognize how dangerous these rigorous programs can be for those predisposed to mental health issues. We must be open to discussing these issues before they become a serious problem for students in these programs. The only way to do that is to keep talking. I had the opportunity to start this conversation as a pharmacy student at Ohio State. After everything I had personally experienced, I knew I couldn’t be alone. So I developed a survey to assess the prevalence of burnout, anxiety, and depression amongst students in our college of pharmacy. The results of this survey were used to make changes to the curriculum that might improve overall student well-being. For example, students in their second or third year of the program received one day per week that had at least half of the day dedicated to “flex-time.” This allowed students to complete assignments and other requirements on their own time without having to be physically present in the college of pharmacy. These are small changes, but necessary steps on the path to improving the overall experience of health professional students.
I share this to raise awareness for those living with eating disorders or any form of mental illness for that matter. I hope it allows people to realize just how debilitating they can be and why it’s so important to address mental illness in health professional students and society as a whole. Most of all, I hope it helps those suffering from mental illness to realize you’re not alone. Help is out there. When I became fully transparent about my eating disorder and my sexuality, the support from my family and friends was incredible. Even for those who are less fortunate, there will always be a community waiting to support you—we just have to be ready to accept it. And that is something my eating disorder never told me.