By Dena Angela, Eating Recovery Center alum
Content warning: contains discussion of eating disorders including anorexia nervosa and orthorexia
When I started college, I was 18 years old and 2,000 miles away from home. I was also struggling with depression, anxiety, fear of many specific foods, horrible body image, severely low self-esteem and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). My family and I had no idea that all of these factors put together had a likely ending. We learned soon after that it was anorexia nervosa and orthorexia.
For some context, I had spent the six years prior trying to mold my body into something that other people would approve of. When I was 12 years old, my period started and I went from 90 lbs to 130 lbs in one school year. My body was dramatically different and it felt like it happened overnight. The sudden lack of control took a severe toll on my mental health, which only became more complicated throughout middle and high school. I spent my teenage years trying every fad diet, counting calories, pushing myself to over-exercise and developing very high-functioning, severe, comorbid mental illnesses.
During my first week living in the on-campus dorms, my roommate started to make comments about my weight and my body. I can’t say that I was surprised, because I had been bullied a decent amount in high school, but the situation was inescapable. We lived in the same tiny room. As the school year progressed, friends and neighbors would tell me that she had been talking about me to them, even going as far as to talk about my weight. By the middle of the semester, I had lost 20 pounds. Her criticisms switched to how “sickly” I looked. By the time I went home for winter break, I was 30 pounds lighter.
My hair would come out in clumps when I brushed it. I fainted more times than I can count. I experienced some of the scariest sleep paralysis episodes I could ever imagine. I turned down dinner invitations, skipped out on events that I couldn’t wear oversized clothes to, and watched my classmates have the college experience that I thought that I would have.
It took me three years to choose recovery.
And each year, I felt more and more alone on a campus with thousands of students. I wish that I had known that I wasn’t.
During my junior year, I had an assessment at a treatment center near my school. Seven months of intensive treatment later, I moved home for a semester. What I learned from my experience is that taking a break from school is heartbreaking at the moment that it’s happening, but it is the best thing you will ever do for yourself. Your education will always be waiting for you, and if not at the college you attend, then somewhere else. I will always feel sad that I lost three years of my college experience to my eating disorder. I will never regret sacrificing one year of my college experience for recovery.
To anyone who is currently in a similar situation: Recovery is real.
I think that as an eating disorder recovery advocate, it is immensely important to speak my truth on how I genuinely have no issues with my body––or any body––and to educate others about fatphobia. However, for people with eating disorders whose primary symptoms are fear of weight gain, negative body image, and little to no love for themselves, I cannot get through to them without owning the girl that I used to be. While I may feel completely different now about weight and body expectations, I will never deny the fact that I spent half of my life afraid of weight gain. It is vital that I keep myself from sounding as though any of this was easy, or that I didn’t have to forgive myself over and over again for who I once was, or that unlearning my negative body image didn’t take years. I have been there––I remember the days where I thought that I would absolutely never get better, that all I could do was act like I was better so that people would leave me alone, that there was no reason to try getting better because it was the only life that I knew for so long, and believing that it was truly impossible for my way of living to genuinely change.
I wish that I had gotten help sooner. There are so many moments that I don’t remember, so many photos that were taken with no memory tied to them, so many classes that I gained little to nothing from because all of my mental energy was spent on anorexia, orthorexia, OCD, depression and the belief that if I tried hard enough, I could manipulate my body to become something that it isn’t, and that it would somehow bring me peace.
I am now 22 years old, have no idea how much I weigh, healthily manage my mental illnesses, and have never felt so alive. Since choosing recovery, I have discovered talents and passions that I never knew existed. I have a life to live that I don’t want to lose, and the best part about it is that I nourish my body and have gratitude for it too. I hope that you choose to put your trust in recovery someday, and I hope that day is soon. You deserve to truly live, not just survive.