Sustaining in the Field

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Sardis Acropolis, a brilliant hike and an excellent metaphor

Oh yeah! This blog still exists! Sorry about that. Hope to get back on this digital horse and post more often again.

Yesterday I came across actress Stephanie Beatriz’s beautifully honest take on disordered eating and was vigorously nodding my head and mentally shouting YES, THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS the entire time. Between this and the press surrounding the upcoming Netflix movie To the Bone, I decided it was about time I spoke up about something that I have struggled with for years: dealing with an eating disorder, and disordered eating, in the context of archaeological fieldwork. I am only one of probably hundreds of archaeologists and anthropologists that have struggled, and from what I’ve seen, I have yet to hear anyone discussing it openly. If I am wrong, please let me know!

In academic fieldwork (or hell, academic work in general), showing any kind of weakness, physical or mental, is discouraged explicitly and tacitly. Those of us who suffer from eating disorders or disordered eating are usually adept at concealing our issues, and the very nature of fieldwork can be a perfect storm of triggers, physical and mental. Fieldwork presents the ultimate internal conflict: needing it to move forward in our careers, while knowing it can exacerbate disordered and unhealthy behaviors. ALSO, on the darker side of it, the bizarre excitement over an opportunity to engage in the behaviors in a academically and socially acceptable way.

I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at age 13, went through treatment, and had been in recovery for a number of years when the disease reared its ugly head again in college. This coincided with my first fieldwork experience. At its worst in 2002 and 2003, I showed up to site, thrilled at the opportunity to engage in daily physical labor with a corresponding reduced food intake. I passed out in my own trench. And I easily deflected concerns. No one really confronted me about it, even though it had to be obvious.

By 2004 I developed more complicated health issues as a result of the eating disorder, but I continued to participate in fieldwork from the lab side of things. I slowly made my way toward recovery again, but I was constantly surrounded by triggers, the most difficult of which were field school students, every now and then, who were clearly suffering from eating disorders while on site. I became the default staff person to talk to these women because, “Well, Theresa, you’ve been through it.” At one point, I think back in 2009 or 2010, I finally had the courage to admit that I couldn’t play counselor. It was too triggering for me. I felt like a failure as a mentor, but it was necessary for self-preservation.

Even after reaching a fairly stable point in my recovery, I still associate summer fieldwork with my anorexia. It is a triggering experience at every turn. I love the work dearly, and I am at my happiest in nearly every respect when working on site, but it is only now that I can admit it only works for me in small doses. Do I miss spending full summers on site? Absolutely. Do I have the opportunity right now to spend more time on site? I do. Should I? I should not. And this summer is a prime example.

I signed on to go to Sardis for two weeks at the beginning of the season (mostly because I didn’t have someone to watch the cat for much longer than that, but thanks, mom, for covering the first half of June!), and members of the team were asking why I wasn’t staying longer. Heck, at first even I was wondering why I wasn’t staying longer. Then I realized what I was doing. Other members of the team avoiding carbs or leaving food on their plates sent me sailing right back into disordered eating before I could even realize what was happening. I had to hike up the Acropolis in the afternoons. I HAD to. I loved it. Then I realized I shouldn’t love it. And I was relieved to come back home when I did.

I’m discouraged that I still struggle with the same issues that have plagued me since I was a kid, but I am encouraged that I can recognize when I need to take care of myself. I’m heartbroken that I cannot fully participate in the field like I once could, but I am thankful I can still do some site-based work. Will it ever get better than this? Maybe. Maybe not.

In academia, we need to acknowledge it first.

 

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