When the “best years of your life” are an awkward disappointment: College and eating disorders

Seeing as it’s “that time of year again,” I wanted to write a blog about college and eating disorders. For a lot of people, college is the first time they ever live away from home. I think it’s pretty well known that major life transitions are common times for mental health issues to develop. However, transitions can be just as difficult for those already dealing with these issues.

I was very excited to go off to college my freshman year. I didn’t have that great of a high school experience, but everyone kept telling me that college would be so much better. “People are more mature in college. You can totally reinvent yourself and you’ll definitely fit in because there are no cliques or ‘popular kids’ in college. You’ll love it!” Well, maybe. I guess it depends on where you go. I went to a fairly small liberal arts school for my first three years of college, and I found it to be eerily similar to high school. My freshman dorm quickly became divided into high school-like cliques. There was drama and gossip and people still had to work hard to fit in. Honestly though, that stuff exists everywhere, even in the adult working world. I think I was just mildly disappointed that it wasn’t the drastic culture shift that so many people tried to to claim it would be.

At the time I was heading off to college, I had already been struggling with my eating disorder for six years. By the end of high school, though, I had at least reached a kind of stasis with my ED that I expected to maintain through college. After all, every one kept telling me college was so much better than high school, so I figured I’d be super happy throughout and have every reason to do well. I said goodbye to my therapist of five years; I figured I’d just go back to her if things started to slip but I really didn’t see that happening. This was definitely a mistake. Things did start to slip, almost right away, but I was too ashamed to admit that I wasn’t thriving in the amazing college scene so I suffered in silence for the first year.

I started having major issues accepting my body. Going in I could at least somewhat accept it– I was significantly bigger than I was at the worst of my anorexia, but I was still technically underweight and could see that most people probably still saw me as ‘thin.’ Within a couple months of starting college, that was no longer enough. I started really missing my old (smaller, sicker) body and my eating disordered behaviors intensified. This is when I first began to struggle with bingeing/purging, a behavior that still to this day remains incredibly shameful for me.

There were also certain factors specific to the college experience that probably didn’t help. For example, my dorm’s Resident Director (who managed all of the RAs) was really into encouraging us to record our calories and participate in these awkward weight loss challenges. She posted signs on the elevators advising us to take the stairs instead, complete with handy pictures of food crossed out with red x’s. Drink all the alcohol and smoke all the pot you want, but whatever you do– SAY NO TO THE COOKIES!!! Yeah, she was weird… I also had two friends who were always trying to get me to join their diet groups, even though they knew about my history with eating disorders. None of these things were solely to blame for my relapse, but they certainly made what I was doing seem more socially acceptable, at least at first.

It was also in college that my anxiety related to eating with others became pretty extreme. Eating with people was never an easy thing for me, but I could at least make myself do it when absolutely necessary and I went into college hopeful that I’d be able to eat with my friends from time to time. While I started the year off going to the dining hall with the few friends I made, this quickly became an almost impossible task for me, perhaps largely due to my increasing b/p behaviors which I kept strictly secret.

During the first few weeks of going to the dining hall, I noticed a girl who I knew had an eating disorder. She was quite thin, but even aside from that, it was clear to me. She had all the physical signs of chronic purging, and she always sat alone and ate the same exact foods in the same order. She would finish each meal with a huge bowl of ice cream and then would disappear. I’ll admit at first I was almost envious that she at least had the ability to eat out in the open like that, because my bingeing (and actually at that point, eating anything at all) always had to be completely secretive which made it harder to maintain this behavior that I hated and was so ashamed of but unfortunately couldn’t stop. I also just felt really bad for her though, and often wanted to run up and hug her (but yes, that would have been super creepy so I restrained myself).

I later learned from a mutual friend that this girl did indeed have an eating disorder, and that her original roommates had voted her out of the suite they were living in because they couldn’t deal with her b/ping. Little did I know at the time, this very same scenario would play out for me my junior year.

Now, I want to say something about college counseling centers. Some really suck. I’m sure there are good college counseling centers out there, but the two experiences I had (at two different schools), were really shitty. If you have access to a qualified therapist outside of the school, you’re probably best off sticking them them. I find a lot of therapists staffed at college counseling centers will claim to have experience with eating disorders when they really do not. I was dragged to my first college’s counseling center by my roommates and it could not have been more of a disaster. I was made to feel even more ashamed and at fault than I already felt, and I spent the rest of my time at that school going out of my way to avoid running into these crazy “experts.”

At the end of my junior year I got stuck in a cycle of revolving door inpatient admissions that eventually led to me taking an extra four years to finally graduate. Today, at the old age of 32, I can recognize that while this seemed like the end of the world at the time, it actually wasn’t. I did eventually graduate and even went on to get a master’s degree. That said, if I could magically go back in time I would absolutely do things differently. Sometimes it really is necessary to leave school and get more treatment. I don’t regret ever doing this, I just regret doing it as many times as I did. I wish I would have put more effort and time into making the first few rounds really worthwhile, so that the subsequent times wouldn’t have been necessary. There were also times when I wish my treatment team would have given me more of a chance to turn things around on my own, instead of throwing me back in treatment as soon as I struggled. Hindsight is 20/20 though, right?

I used to get really sad when I’d hear people talk about the great college experiences they had. Mine were filled with lots of shame, secrecy, tears, and hospitals. Can I go back and do it all over again? Like, the whole freshman dorm experience? It could be a reality show– 32 year old ‘cat lady’ poses as a college freshman and infiltrates most popular dorm. Will she finally be cool??

I no longer let myself get sad. I had lots of experiences, and not all of them were good, and some were really, really bad. However, I eventually managed to move on and had it not been for those crazy eight years, I probably never would have ended up here, in Los Angeles, with a graduate degree and a life I finally like.

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