February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We’ll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.
So many college women are consumed and tortured by the effects of eating disorders, trapped within the bounds of the hell inside of their own minds, spending every minute of their waking hours with a never-ending reminder that they are inadequate and worthless. I was once one of those women. Desperate to fit in. Desperate to find peace. Desperate to find myself.
My unhealthy relationship with food began many years prior to entering college. My family has always been very supportive of my academic and extracurricular successes, and in knowing that everyone around me expected the utmost best from me, I’ve always put overwhelming, unneeded pressure on myself to excel in all areas, even as a child. I can remember how devastated I felt when I received my first “B” in fourth grade.
Growing up, I was always dieting. In seventh grade, I started Weight Watchers and began tracking calories and exercise. A few years later, I entered a different weight-loss program mainly for adults who were morbidly obese and had other health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. I was their youngest client by a good 10 years, and I definitely didn’t meet the criteria to be in the program. The basis of the whole diet was that you could eat as much food as you wanted without limitation, but it had to be their pre-packaged, vacuum-sealed pasta dishes or fruits and vegetables.
With these “rules,” I felt that there wasn’t any need for hunger cues or thinking about what I was in the mood to eat and how much of it I should eat. I would bring these meals wherever I had to. After all, I was a very all-or-nothing thinker. If I was going to stick to this diet and succeed, there was no room for error.
The social element of eating changed for me. I lost the connectedness of social celebration and pleasure of food. I mechanically took out my little box of food and I ate it. If I was bored, sad or anxious, I was able to manage those feelings with unlimited amounts of food. I never once “cheated” on this diet. Not even once. It was not until 11 months later, after a significant weight loss, that I made my own decision to start eating “real” food again—being that the mere thought of eating the pre-packaged food made me nauseous. At this point, eating was more of a chore since I despised the prepared food so much. In fact, to this day I can’t stomach ravioli without cringing at the vivid recollection of how the boxed ravioli tasted.
My transition back into normal eating was rather overwhelming, but actually not as terrible as I envisioned. I managed to keep the weight off with the motivation of the compliments I received from friends, family and even acquaintances. Being praised for my slimmer body was the source of my happiness. During this period of time, I also turned to a strict exercise regimen that I set up for myself to ensure that I would keep the weight off. I didn’t fully have a grasp on what proper eating was, so I used exercise as a way to ensure that I stayed at that weight. During my senior year of high school, I would work out before school, go to softball practice and then go back to the gym later that night.
The summer leading up to my freshman year of college was a disaster. My parents filed for divorce, which devastated me. My world was shattered, and both of my parents were just as stressed and depressed as I was.
When I entered college, I was in my own depressed world. Nothing made me happy, and I couldn’t even crack a fake smile while I was in the company of my peers. The friends I did make didn’t make me happy, so I decided to isolate myself further. I stopped making the effort to hang out with others. I would go to my classes, study, go to the gym, pick up dinner and eat alone in my dorm room. In fact, I ate all of my meals in isolation.
In this isolation, I ate significantly less than I ever had. I was so engrossed in the same routine: same exact breakfast, lunch and dinner, without any variation. I continued to lose more weight during the year. I excelled in my studies and maintained a nearly perfect grade point average. I was a walking zombie with a monotonous routine.
I couldn’t bear to stay at that school for another year. I thought I hated school because my 1,600-student liberal arts college was too small and too close to home. I thought I needed to escape to a school that was further away from my parents’ divorce.
With excellent grades, I was able to get into a great college in Miami, Florida. I didn’t know much about the school, but I decided the warm weather and change of scenery would get me out of the funk I was in. The summer leading up to my sophomore year of college, I dedicated myself further to losing weight and getting fit. I needed to transform myself into the person whom I envisioned would be successful at making friends and being happy. I changed the way I dressed and I started wearing more makeup.
I also started seeing a therapist, who told me to go to my primary care doctor and ask for a prescription for Prozac. With no questions asked during a less-than-five-minute consultation, I left the doctor’s office with the prescription. After taking Prozac for a few months, I felt better. I was able to keep my former feelings of impending doom at bay as I began my sophomore year of college. In fact, I was a strangely different and “happier” person.
The start of school was a success. I had a group of great friends whom I would socialize with and party with, I had a new and welcoming demeanor and a bubbly personality and I even had a boyfriend. I had all of the things that I thought would make me happy.
Despite all the good I thought I had in my life, I resorted back to serious bingeing. It got to the point where I would eat all of my suitemates’ food and completely deny it. Just like I avoided and denied my depression, I started denying the existence of my bingeing. Whenever I had a chance to stop and think about my life, my negative feelings would flood my head, and to counteract those feelings, I would either head to the gym or I would binge on anything in sight—anything I could do to try to suppress my true emotions.
Soon enough, my depression was rearing its ugly head more and more. I compensated these feelings with any way I could find to numb them. I began blacking out from alcohol a few nights a week and I continued to binge, and the combination of binge drinking and binge eating made me so incredibly sick that I began vomiting. It was at this point that I took on purging. My new routine was bingeing on food and alcohol, knowing that I would be sick enough to vomit it up later that day.
This hidden cycle did not last forever. One of my three suitemates, who already knew I was eating all her food, caught me one afternoon leaning over a toilet. She looked at me and didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to. She and I both knew what was happening.
My secrets were exposed. I had finally hit the tipping point. One night, while studying alone in my room, I decided that the only resolution to this mess was to end my life. Without hesitation and with less than five minutes of serious thought, I got up from my desk and proceeded to take a mixture of my antidepressant along with a migraine prescription. After quickly regretting what I had done, I decided to tell a friend and went to her place. I thought I would be fine if nothing happened after a few hours. However, shortly after I arrived back to my dorm for the night, my body became stiff and I started gasping for air. My roommate called the police and I was rushed to the hospital.
I was saved, but there were severe consequences for my actions. A few days later, I was issued a letter from the university stating that I had to get proper treatment for my depression before I could be readmitted. This made me spiral down even further.
I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house in Florida, where, without school or friends, I dedicated 24 hours of my day to bingeing and purging. After a few months at my aunt and uncle’s house, I was admitted to my first of seven eating disorder treatment centers. Over the span of three years, I spent more than 12 months at these various treatment centers.
I was anything but a cooperative patient during these times. I never completed one of these programs. I was either sent off to another facility for a higher level of care, or I was kicked out for various reasons. I was beyond defiant. I wanted to be free of the hell I had created, but, at the same time, that hell became my safe haven. The one thing I had to let go of in order to progress was the very thing that I clenched onto and the very thing that gave me purpose and a feeling of belonging.
During these few years, there were more trips to the hospital, more dances with death. I will never forget the way my family members would look at me. My mom and my aunt would stare at me with such terrorized looks. I knew I wasn’t myself and I couldn’t recognize my actions as my own. My defiance and attention-seeking behaviors were unmatched with anything I had ever done before. I was pleading for help, for someone to save me from what I was becoming, and in the same breath I made sure that people knew to stay away from me, because the last thing I wanted was to give up the one part of me that I could hold on to.
After a certain point, I decided that something had to give. I was exhausted. I was so incredibly drained by all that I had become. How did I get to the point I was at? How did I veer so far off course? What happened to this straight-A, overachieving girl with her whole future ahead of herself?
Slowly, I let down the barricade. That was the scariest leap of faith I had ever decided to take. At least when I took the handful of pills in my dorm room, I was aware of my perceived notion of the consequence of death that was to come. With letting go of my eating disorder symptoms, however, I had no clue where that would lead me, or what I would clench as I let go of my security blanket of bingeing and purging.
So, I leapt away from using these symptoms to deal with my problems.
And I fell.
And I leapt again.
And I fell harder…
This process occurred for a while, and I progressed slowly. One of the most important concepts that I started out with in my recovery (and that I still practice today) is allowing myself to be as nonjudgmental as possible with myself. Allowing yourself to evolve and grow from your mistakes rather than punish yourself for them is key to recovery.
I continually try to turn to alternative ways of coping with my feelings. I have filled up countless journals with the raging thoughts that had my mind going in circles. Allowing myself to purge my head of these maddening thoughts has allowed myself to find relief and eventual peace.
Soon my slip-ups became fewer and fewer, and I was acting out less and less. I slowly began to find myself. I realized my interests and values in life, and I began getting involved in the community and focusing my efforts towards ideas that would better serve my energy.
I contacted a nonprofit, The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, about volunteer opportunities within a few months of being at the last treatment center. I arrived at the office and was greeted with open arms. After our first meeting, I returned pretty regularly, just organizing papers and doing random office chores that needed to be completed. Although it may sound trivial, just knowing that I was held accountable and had a responsibility to help an organization that supported a great cause gave me reason to continue to further on my journey to discover whom I am.
With these baby steps, I continued my imperfect process of recovery. My relapses occurred less and less frequently as I began to take their power away. I would acknowledge a slipup, but I did not let it define or defeat me. I began volunteering more and more and eventually integrated myself back into school and other activities.
Today, I am on the Junior Advisory Committee at The Alliance, where I hold a leadership role in helping spread body acceptance and eating-disorder awareness throughout my community. I am a full-time student in the honors psychology program at Florida Atlantic University, and I will graduate next year. I am back playing softball a few times a week, and I also hold a part-time job. My head is finally silenced from the constant negative chatter, and I truly feel happier and healthier than I have ever been.
I take life a little less seriously now. I try to find the best in all situations, and I really do value my mental health. I know that I am a natural extremist, but with that awareness, I make sure to have balance in all that I do.
And, most importantly, I am fully recovered from my eating disorder. Not only am I asymptomatic of eating disorder behaviors, but I am also comfortable and accepting of the person whom I am. I am not perfect, but I no longer strive for unrealistic perfection. That kind of perfection is fictional and unattainable. With this knowledge, I set high goals for myself that are still very challenging, but I know my limits and I make sure that these goals are attainable, realistic and in line with my values.
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Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you’re looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.