Graduate School Taught Me That My Mental And Physical Health Are Linked

During my adult years, my weight has fluctuated drastically and there has been no shortage of judgements, assumptions and advice. It has only been within the last decade that I have confirmed a link between my mental and physical health.

As I turn 45-years-old this month, I can say with confidence that it’s not too late to know yourself.

Lower Weight Does Not Mean Great Health

As a custodian at a state university in Wisconsin, the daily grind made me lethargic and overweight. During this period, I lost over fifty pounds. It is true that I was physically active as I rode my bike to meetings. I also took nightly walks – even during the cold Wisconsin winters – to clear my head of the stress from the day. But my diet included a lot of potato chips, soda and alcohol as well as smoking cigars on those nightly walks.

After my divorce, I moved to Oregon to earn a second graduate degree. I was ready to start over in life and the newness of the situation intoxicated me. Initially, without the pressures of a toxic relationship and the stresses of malicious work supervisors, it felt as if a weight had been taken off my shoulders. This emotional and psychological relief led to my quickly losing forty pounds during the first term of my new grad school.

I did experience culture shock, however, and staying in grad school meant adapting to new stressors. From my perspective, the small city I moved to did little to live up to its “liberal’ reputation. Instead of acceptance and a sense of working together, I encountered passive aggressive disdain and polarisation. And when I tried to express my perspective, I was shunned by my own cohort at school.

Though I was losing weight, I also felt as if I was losing myself.

Toxic Environments Led to Weight Gain

My labour relations work at the Wisconsin university had gotten me blackballed from promotions. I decided that I now needed a graduate degree and therefore had to step down from my union presidency.

For two years, I attended night classes. There were no creative ventures and no advocacy work to be done, and my marriage was breaking down. All I could do was gain fifty pounds and hope my marriage would get better.

As the weight piled on, I found myself lacking energy. I tried to stay awake and motivated through coffee and sugary treats from the gas stations. My focus was to earn the degree and then reassess my marriage.

Deep down, however, I was trapped, and that truly made me unhappy. After years of fighting the system at work, I was in a no-win situation at home. The inability to change a situation depressed me. I realised that the drudgery of shift work was soul-draining and led to my bouts of poor health.

On our 13th wedding anniversary, she filed for divorce. My best option now was to continue with graduate school.

I searched for another master’s program and I found one at a law school on the West Coast. Unfortunately, I entered a culture which easily dismissed divorced, white, middle-aged, heterosexual males. At first, I had concentrated on running away from problems in Wisconsin, not understanding one’s journey may include problematic destinations. But the intoxicated feeling of a fresh start would be replaced by the toxicity of feeling ostracized.   

After my first year, I felt more depressed and started gaining weight. I eventually left the program at the law school for one across campus, but the damage on my psychological and emotional state was done. Nine months into the new program, I ended up in the emergency room. Soon after, I ended up seeing a cardiologist and was prescribed high blood pressure pills.

The Pursuit of Happiness Leads to Self-Acceptance

I realised that I was happier when I could interact with people and learn from them. Following the absolutist boundaries of the American Dream negates the possibility to learn and be free. In Oregon, I felt happiest with the international law students during my first year. They created an atmosphere of learning and living without judgement.     

After my stressful exit from the law school, I felt that Journalism was the right direction for me. I also took a hip-hop dance class to have some fun. Being in the dance studio reignited a creative energy I hadn’t felt since my days in professional theatre. One day, I decided to bring copies of my book of sonnets to hand out to fellow students. The instructor took time to recognise my work, and some students even asked for my autograph. I went home after the class and cried tears of joy and relief.

Challenges in life and grad school have shown me paths that allow me to be me. The hardest parts were letting go of indoctrinated expectations, giving myself permission to live my own life and commit to my passions.

As I learn how to write with purpose, to tell stories that inspire, and to advocate for a better tomorrow, I feel better than I have in years. My weight is back down, and I am no longer taking high blood pressure medication.

I have been empowered by staying true to myself, following my dreams and moving forward. I no longer seek the approval of others. And for me, the release of that burden is worth more than any diet or prescription.    

Words by Jeff Ehren

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