I was about 21 years old when I began studying for a degree. Disinterested in furthering my education, it was not my wish, but my mother convinced me I would be a failure in life if I didn’t study. As I already believed I was a failure, going to university was an act of damage limitation for me. The prof for one of my classes on the British Monarchy was a young academic with a Ph.D. who rarely smiled and seemed entirely unapproachable.
One morning, she gave us an assignment. We were to write a short paper on a key monarch who we would be allocated, and then present our research to the class some weeks later. The presentations would happen in chronological order so we could learn about each monarch in the order of accession.
I was given King James 1st to write about. Despite my apathy towards my education, I was diligent and perfectionistic. I researched the king, produced the essay, and brought it along on the day my presentation was scheduled for. When it was my turn, holding the biography of King James 1st I had written, I began reading in front of the class. A mere three sentences in, the prof interrupted me.
I stopped and looked up from the page.
“What are you doing?” she asked, coldly.
I faltered, “I…”
All eyes were on me. I felt my breathing constricting in my throat.
She interrupted again, “That’s the wrong James 1st, you were supposed to do James 1st of England. We are studying the Stuarts. King James 1st of Scotland was 200 years earlier!” She made a sound like a sarcastic laugh and shook her head.
People talk about wishing the ground could swallow them up. I hoped hard in that moment that it would. The class of about 40 students were all staring, and I felt the heat burning my cheeks under their fixed gaze. Not only had I made a massive error with my piece of work, but I had done it with an audience, and the whole class now knew. To make it worse, this small, stern-faced woman had shamed me in front of everyone, making me feel like a complete idiot.
Her usually aloof expression had been replaced with one of pure annoyance. She looked so irritated, as though I had ruined everything. She declared I would need to re-write the paper and present it the following week, although this would disrupt the continuity of the presentations, as mine would now be out of order. I nodded in silence, and looked down at the table in front of me for the remainder of the class, unable to cope with any eye contact whatsoever, feeling sure it would cause me to crumble into pieces.
I had such high expectations for myself. How could I have done this? How could I have screwed up so stupidly? Had I been careless and not written the task down properly? Did I not give a shit about my course work? Was this the beginning of another avenue of failure for me to navigate?
Was I not paying attention?
No. No, I was not.
I actually was not paying attention.
I was trying to, oh boy, was I trying. But what the prof and most people in my life were not privy to, apart from a select few including the team of clinical professionals who were trying to save me, is that I was deathly ill. I had been diagnosed with anorexia the year before and was in intensive treatment. I had appointments nearly every day with doctors, psychiatry, therapists, nutrition specialists, but they were losing the game. So no, I was not paying attention in class. I was not paying attention in life, generally. My brain was literally starving.
I walked around in a daze, freezing cold, in clothes that would fit a 12-year-old girl, but hung off me. I exercised like a fiend, making sure there were no calories to spare to turn into fat. Some nights in bed, my heart rate felt so uneven, I lay there fearing I might not wake up again, and may simply die in my sleep. Occasionally on those nights, I felt so despaired, I did not even care about dying, almost willing my body to give up.
Regarding King James 1st, it was clear to see how he was not a priority in my daily tussle with survival. Even so, I felt so embarrassed and ashamed about my faux-pas in front of the history prof and my class; I decided I needed to explain myself. I made an appointment and went to see the prof in her office.
She looked up as I went in and sat down across the desk from her. She wore her usual non-plussed expression, void of any welcome as if my very existence was a waste of her precious time. Eyes hot with tears, which I held back with all my might, I began to explain to her what I was dealing with. I said I was extremely unwell, which she likely could see anyway. I told her about the battle with anorexia about how many medical appointments I attended every week. I explained the reason my timetable at university was part-time was that I could only manage so much walking around each day, suffering exhaustion easily. I told her I often felt dizzy, lightheaded, and shaky in class. I divulged the extent of the exertion it took for me to get through a few hours of lectures, physically and mentally. I sat there, and I told her everything. I bared all the ugliness of living with a mental illness that always threatened my life.
Despite her ever-present evasive manner and her unempathetic body language, I truly believed she would understand, as she listened. I imagined her thanking me for coming to see her, and assuring me she would take this into account regarding my coursework. I wondered if she might let me off the hook of re-doing the assignment. Or tell me how brave I was. She didn’t. She did none of these things. In fact, she was plainly dismissive and as frosty and stern as ever. If anything, she had less patience with me after that. I already thought I was a lost-cause for having an eating disorder (well, I didn’t have an eating disorder, because it had me, at the time….). Now someone else, a woman who I openly shared my challenges with, seemed to confirm that yes indeed, I was a loser. Pathetic, feeble, weak, and trying to make up excuses for why my work was wrong.
Reflecting on how hard it was to tell her my secret, I recall how desperately self-conscious I felt of my mental condition. I felt ashamed, too, of not eating, despite my skeletal figure, of not paying attention as I should in class. How strong I was to steel myself in her office and share with her my shrouded truth.
Years later, I will look back and revisit that moment, and how she met my disclosure with a discompassionate response, and I will realize it was her that was wrong. It was her that did not pay attention. It was her that fucked up. Not me. And at that moment, for a fleeting blink in time, I will feel a tiny bit less of a failure, a tiny bit less of a loser.
Just for a heartbeat, I will feel secure in the knowledge that I would never treat someone in such a very vulnerable place with the heartlessness that history professor afforded me on that bleak winter’s morning so long ago.