Home Mental Health & Well-Being An Open Letter to the Community About Cyberbullying – And My Thoughts on Resilience

An Open Letter to the Community About Cyberbullying – And My Thoughts on Resilience

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A few years back an intelligence researcher in the UK wrote on Twitter that he didn’t consider Brian Boutwell to be a colleague. Brian is an American criminologist with an academic record of publications on the topic of intelligence (I’ve provided just a few of his contributions to intelligence research in the links). Presumably, the researcher in the UK didn’t agree with Brian’s thoughts. I considered that the UK researcher meant that he didn’t specifically publish with Brian, using ‘colleague’ in the narrowest sense of the word, but that is not what the context suggested. What I do know is that signalling to the world that another academic, especially one whose work dovetails with yours, isn’t a colleague is an ad hominem attack. It conveys someone shouldn’t be taken seriously. When I saw this, I defended Brian, whom I have never met, on principle. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but the force of it was that going after Brian’s credentials was unprofessional.

Over the years, I’ve observed other ad hominem attacks. Very well-regarded senior professors have instant messaged me about Geoffrey MillerRazib Khan, and Diana Fleischman, to warn me that my public support of these individuals could harm me: I’d be risking my own chances of getting a job if people saw I supported them. Miller’s sin: fat-shaming (from one tweet many years ago). Razib’s sin: being fired from the New York Times for supposedly being a ‘white supremacist’ and being friends with ‘dangerous’ people. Diana’s sin: taking risks. In all cases, I continued to defend the individuals whose characters were under attack. I repeatedly published lists of people I support on Twitter that included these three people. Why? Because I value ‘principle before affiliation’.

Recently my Twitter account grew. I decided to reach out to the public and began following as many people as I could. Many followed me back. A few days ago, I had over 18K followers. That is truly amazing for someone who isn’t famous for writing a book, having a YouTube account, or a podcast. In my fields of public health, there are weirdly very few public intellectuals. It’s not like psychology, where many of the research topics incite and inspire. I decided to tweet about a taboo issue in my field, one for which I have a paper under review – diabetes. Around 84 million adult Americans are pre-diabetic, and 90% of those who are don’t know it. Many people also have metabolic syndrome and don’t realise it. This means that public health has failed in terms of its messaging about health, and this failure is setting 20-year-olds up for diabetes and cancer in the second halves of their lives.

In my 20s I weighed close to 160 pounds (overweight for my height) and suffered from bulimia during my master’s programme in applied linguistics. My colleagues from that time will recall my struggle. I ate nothing but low-fat carbs and then threw them up. Bowls and bowls of oatmeal, because it was low fat. I’d eat, and I’d want more. Then I’d binge. 

When I arrived in Los Angeles last August, I was alarmed: people in the airport weren’t just a little fat, many were obese. This was a shock. I’d been in the UK for several years and around a lot of people not just from the UK but from other places in Europe. I naturally lost weight living in the UK. My weight dropped to within a normal BMI being there. The culture is different there than in the US. People walk more, and the portions are much smaller. I panicked a bit in the airport, knowing that the social and built environments we live in – our peers – determine our fates to greater extents than we usually realise. (Although one of my fields in public health is genetics, not everything can be blamed on genes. Of course, individuals do differ. But when the population rates of a disease differ between countries, we know the causes are environmental. Environment here includes peers.)

I determined I would not let this happen to me. I wouldn’t let the patterns of my peers in Los Angeles make me unhealthy. I decided to bike to the lab – something seen as weird by almost everyone there. The roads are ‘so dangerous’, they say: ‘People drive like maniacs’. But the roads are fine out in Duarte. The bike lanes are large and clearly marked.

Thankfully, I also met someone who has been on keto (very low-carb and high-fat diet). She’s fit and seems happy. I decided consciously to let this peer influence me. I adopted her diet in January. I lost around eight pounds over the course of three months and found that I feel better overall. It’s not just my body that feels better. I feel well-being. Wells and wells of it.

Then two things happened. The first is that Jordan Peterson, a well-known Canadian psychologist, reported that he and his family had been eating only beef and that their health and well-being have improved substantially. I noted that their experience comports completely with my experience being on a very low-carb diet. The second is that Diana Fleischman tweeted about the benefits of fasting. When she did this, my first instinct was concern for those with eating disorders, as a friend of mine, a brilliant and courageous reporter, is currently battling anorexia. I engaged Diana about this, and you know what happened? Diana persuaded me that fasting isn’t starving. I started to do some research and noticed that fasting appears to have some remarkable metabolic benefits in animal models and humans. I learned so much doing this literature search that I presented a paper at City of Hope on a clinical trial examining metabolic parameters in pre-diabetic men. The men served as their own controls in a crossover design of five weeks of early time-restricted feeding (stopping eating by 3pm and not eating again until 8am the next morning), followed by a washout period of seven weeks (eating whenever they wanted – no fasting), and then five weeks of control eating (stopping eating by 8pm and eating again at 8am the next morning). Digging deeply into this paper convinced me to try 16-hour intermittent fasting (not eating for 16 hours after my last meal; essentially skipping breakfast), as the paper found that intermittent fasting has metabolic benefits even in the absence of weight loss. That’s incredible. We need more evidence from larger studies, but in the meantime, the study’s benefits (and lack of harms) persuaded me to try it.  

I look around myself at work and see people in their 20s who are heavy like I was in my 20s and some who are obese. Nearly every day, we have cake in the staff kitchen. It’s a ritual for bonding. It’s sweet in both senses. But the situation is also a public-health failure and sad: we study cancer and diabetes. The culture is working against us. Telling people to cut back or exercise simply aren’t working.

For the first time in my life, I don’t have to count calories. On keto, I eat up to 120 grams of fat a day. I’m not losing weight now, not even with 16-hour intermittent fasting. My weight has been at 128 pounds for a month (I would lose weight if I restricted my calories to 1500 a day). I feel wonderful. I love my body. I feel sexy. My stomach is flat. It’s an amazing experience at 40 years old to feel so free from the burden of constantly tracking, to want sex, and to feel so emotionally good. I’m enjoying all the many simple pleasures, such as wind through grass, bright-rainbow succulents, the beauty of decaying roses, and a baby calling me ‘Auntie’ in Mandarin.

On Twitter I posted a video of myself doing a belly dance in long, shimmering-white skirt. I wanted people to see that I wasn’t kidding about being healthy but not thin (no eating disorder). I have handfuls of fat on my bum and thighs, which could be seen in the video from the difference between my waist and hips. I’m healthy! I can’t tell you what I would give to have had this experience in my 20s, and I want others to have it too. I want others to be free from suffering and to have their dreams realised (metta in Buddhist speak). As an epidemiologist (one of the sciences of public health), I work to understand the causes of suffering in the population and look for ways to prevent suffering, as we say at Johns Hopkins, my alma mater, ‘Saving lives – millions at a time’. I decided I would use my Twitter account to signal what I was doing in the hopes that I’d be a peer influence, like others on Twitter had been for me. If my behaviour could be influenced by those online, perhaps I could show people what I’m doing and try to help. If people could see my lifestyle was possible and working for a middle-aged woman, perhaps some elements of it would work for them too. What good is a public account if I’m only promoting myself? I’m a humanist.

I got push-back from the video. While nearly every comment I got from men was supportive, the negative words and deafening silence from women stood out. I remembered that women are not always kind and possibly undermine to protect their own interests. In the days that followed, a few women sent me messages saying I was ‘dangerous’ and causing eating disorders. Had these women interacted with me as I had with Diana Fleischman, when I had concerns about her post about fasting, I would have given the women my ear – gladly, especially given my own experience with an eating disorder, my friend who is currently suffering (she’s in her 20s), and my previous initial reaction to Diana’s post. But that’s not what happened. They launched insults and didn’t engage the content of what I was reporting on. Instead, they focused on me, tone-policing, shaming, and name-calling. After giving them a warning, I blocked them. One of the women who participated in this happened to be an editor of a magazine that I have written for. I let her know that I’d be withdrawing support from the venue. I didn’t say why. Regrettably, I did something that was unwise after this. In my disappointment, I tweeted that I was withdrawing support from the magazine and still didn’t say why. I should have waited or not tweeted at all. The magazine promptly also reacted and shared private correspondence between me and its editor, both publicly and with individuals. I began to say why I withdrew support, but my words didn’t matter. The sharing of private correspondence further encouraged people to attack me, as people picked up on the magazine’s modelling of social shaming. The editor of a magazine holds the ability to be a peer influence, and she, perhaps unwittingly, opened me up to the vitriol of a mob. I got countless messages from women attacking my mental health, which is worse than demeaning someone’s credentials, as the UK researcher had done to Brian. 99% of the messages I got were from women – and notably, every single one of the attacks on my mental health were from women. They said things such as: ‘You’re mentally ill’; ‘You need to be on medication’; ‘You have borderline personality disorder’; ‘You’re sick, and we all know it’. They delivered ‘concern’ by telling me they were instant messaging each other about me and that there was an emerging consensus that I was sick. (Is it any wonder that teenage girls suffer tremendously from how their peers act on social media?)

I lost respect for the individuals and internet tribe that supported this ordeal, a tribe that I loved and learned a ton from. Geoffrey Miller once wrote about neurodiversity and has said he’s an ‘Aspie’. I don’t think I have Asperger’s, but it is possible that I’m ‘Aspie-lite’. I’ve been evaluated by psychiatrists at several points in my life: before I went to divinity school and then recently. Based on the professional opinions of two different psychiatrists, I’m not mentally ill. I am, however, about as neuroatypical as it gets. I skipped the sixth and later 11th and 12th grades. Based on life circumstances, it was easier and more efficient to just go to college. I have five degrees (a BA in speech pathology, an MA in applied linguistics, an MTS in divinity, an MPH in genetic epidemiology, and a PhD in public health genetics), which means I have an absolute obsession with learning and a very tight focus to the exclusion of other things in my life. My twitter account displays my mind: I post thousands of pictures of plants and art in rapid succession. Nobody does this. Twitter thinks I’m a bot! My mind is the same way with anything that occupies it. Code, writing, pre-diabetes, this. You name it. I don’t multitask. I focus exclusively on one thing until I’m done or until I’ve mastered what’s obsessed me. I finished an American PhD in three years because I don’t multitask (emphasis on American, as three-year PhDs aren’t that uncommon outside the US; here, the average is about five years). Call all this self-revealingly narcissistic if you want, but I’m in the 97th percentile on the Big Five Personality scale for openness to ideas and experience. Perhaps I’m the female equivalent of James Damore. I’m now the black sheep of the Centre, as I posted criticism of the establishment, right? I said a magazine editor acted unprofessionally. So did I in that I shouldn’t have immediately tweeted about my withdrawal of support or tried to defend myself from the mob.

I have been told that some of the people who attacked me are now trying to call off the dogs, encouraging people to not pile on, but the damage is done. They encouraged the mob effect in the first place, and I see have been using words like ‘concern’ and ‘meltdown’.

I’ll just say this: I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, even in the aftermath of losing face online. I’ll be fine. Unlike a teenage girl without the resources to deal with gossip and online vitriol, I have experience with how women act. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the impact of being mocked publicly didn’t make it difficult to concentrate for several days. My spirit broke. It was disorienting, like my grandmother dying. People I once trusted betrayed me. But resilience isn’t having a stiff upper lip. It isn’t being cool or always together. It isn’t looking good. It’s not tribal. It’s experiencing excruciating pain, loss of identity, and supposed friends and coming out the other end with even better opportunities. Just as I won’t let the patterns of peers who are overweight in Los Angeles make me unhealthy, I won’t let the patterns of my online peers make me psychologically unhealthy. I see what happened here.

I was happy last week. And I’ll be happy by the time you read this. I’ll be on my bike and eating lots of fat – handfuls of Macadamia nuts, half a dozen eggs, whole avocados, and salmon. And I’ll do my best to influence my peers: to model that it is possible to prevent pre-diabetes.

Dr Charleen Adams is a geneticist and molecular cancer epidemiologist. She uses approaches within statistical genetics and clinical epidemiology to gain insight into cancer aetiology.


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