A personal story of one college student's battle with anorexia
First it was a goal, and then it became a sickness. I considered it being in control, but it was an obsession. I used to think I was invincible, now I know better.
I was 18 years old and preparing for college the way any recent high school graduate does-buying new clothes and items for my dorm room, sharing final moments with my friends as we traveled off in different directions, and reading through course books and choosing my classes. I had spent the first 18 years of my life in the same community, surrounded by people who had known me since childhood. I played sports, I attended religious school and overnight camp, I participated in community activities and clubs at school-I even gave the senior class address at my high school graduation. Those who knew me expected a constant smile on my face and endless amounts of energy radiating from my body. And that was me; I shined from the inside out and loved the world around me. I was confident, decisive, sympathetic, athletic, creative and inquisitive.
I wore a size 8. Back then it was just a label that appeared in my clothing to make shopping easier.
There is a joke on college campuses that every freshman girl gains the "Freshman 15" during her first semester of college. Late night eating, frozen yogurt machines in the dining hall, and drinking at parties all contribute to weight gain, and 18 year old girls with appetites for all of it gain weight easily. I can not deny all of the fun I had while packing on the pounds, but it was the first time I ever felt self-conscious about my body. I was attending a University with a larger percentage of female students than males and the young women surrounding me were some of the most beautiful I had ever seen in my life. Needless to say my rite of passage into double digit jeans (size 10) was not an easy one. My friends were able to joke about their "puffiness" but I felt uncomfortable every time I got dressed to go out.
When I returned to school after winter break, I was determined to lose the weight I gained during my first semester. My life was more regimented second semester as I was pledging a sorority, settling into my chosen major, and becoming more oriented to the campus. I found it easy to eat less during meals and to fit the gym into my schedule. The pounds did not shed quickly, but I already felt better about myself-I was pledge class president and then initiated into my sorority, my grades were all above average, I had a boyfriend, and I was able to fit back into some of the new clothes I brought with me in the Fall.
As it got closer to my sorority formal, I got the idea in my head that I would lose enough weight to fit back into my senior prom dress. It was a healthy and achievable goal that I easily accomplished. But, what originally began as a disciplined objective turned into a hidden obsession that guided my every step. Privately I was more proud of myself for skipping dessert than receiving a good grade on a test and I was more satisfied exercising for an hour than donating my time to an organization. After losing 15 pounds I felt different inside, but on the outside I looked healthy and strong. My personality changes were not easily recognizable by new friends who had known me for less than a year and nobody questioned my longing to look better-it was a universal desire on our campus.
When I returned home my parents took me shopping for summer clothing. I was down to a size 6 and I loved the way I looked. I felt as though my life was more productive under stricter rules regarding food and exercise. At home, people noticed my weight loss, and for the first time the changes in my personality were pointed out to me. I was constantly tired, I smiled a lot less, and I showed a lack of interest in my friends lives. On my 19th birthday friends showed up at my house with candy and a cake and it took all my energy to come up with reasons why I could not indulge myself. I watched my friends devour it without thinking twice about the fat or calories. That night was the first time I felt completely disconnected from the person I was before I left for college. I lost a part of me while I was away at school and since I was surrounded by people who did not know me well enough to recognize the loss, I never thought to look for it.
I sat with my parents before leaving to be a counselor at camp and discussed my concerns with them. It was my 12th consecutive summer at camp and I never felt anything less than unconditional love there, but this time I felt as though nobody would understand the new me and I would feel pressure the whole summer to be someone that I am not. I was looking for any issue surrounding my new lifestyle that would distract my parents' thoughts from the matter at hand: my fear of food and my mounting eating disorder. Had they been aware of the many nights I lay awake with my stomach growling or aware of the fact that my feet were beginning to lose circulation when I worked out, I know they never would have let me leave the house for the summer. They still saw their strong and capable daughter in front of them, but inside I knew I was no longer that girl.
I took a turn for the worse at camp. A co-counselor who struggled with the same issues acted as lifeline for me when I cringed at the food being served in the dining hall or when I needed an extra off-period to rest my exhausted and malnourished body. We constantly created excuses for each other and protected one another from criticisms surrounding our behavior. Within a few weeks of being at camp I dropped another 10 pounds. I was down to a size 4. I spent more time creating excuses for my habits to my 14 year old campers than actually doing my job. I woke up every day at camp feeling like a stranger, which is ironic because in good health it is the place where I am most alive. I lost the ability to love people and the things around me because I stopped loving myself. I was too in love with the idea of food and the power I had over it.
More than once my closest friends approached me with their concerns for my health. When I resisted their interventions they got others involved in my issues. At the time I felt betrayed, but in hindsight I know they helped to save me. My parents came to camp and we sat down with the director and head doctor. I was informed that I needed to change my ways, or else I could no longer stay at camp. They openly spoke about anorexia-this was the first time anyone uttered those words in front of me?and they told me my behavior was detrimental to the vulnerable teenage girls with whom I shared a bunk.
For the remainder of the summer, my friends took turns sitting with me in the dining hall and the camp director kept a very close eye on me. The head doctor and I spoke regularly and together we set goals. Back home he lived within minutes of my college campus, and we vowed to keep in touch when I returned to school. Although I did not gain back any weight during the last few weeks of camp, I gained inner strength and learned the true value of friendship.
I returned to college for my sophomore year wearing a size 2 and weighing almost 40 pounds less than I weighed when I entered school the year earlier. I knew right away that being back on campus was not healthy for me, but I was too stubborn about my academics to inform my parents of my concerns. My days became very routine, so routine that I was afraid to make changes in my schedule with the fear of it leading to a change in my eating pattern. My meals were planned out weeks in advance, and I only varied items whose calories matched something I had eaten before. I worked out often and I went out rarely. I cut most of the ties to people who had become my friends the year earlier because I was tired of explaining myself.
I made a deal with my parents that I would return home every weekend of the semester and while at school I saw a therapist and touched base with the doctor who I knew from camp. I was aware of all of the people who were encouraging me to get better and I had a very good idea of the steps I needed to take to change my life, but I did not feel as though I was ready. My sickness was no longer about losing weight; it was about being in control of every aspect of my life. I knew my behavior was destructive and I knew I was damaging my long-term health, but for some reason I could not let go of the lifestyle I had meticulously designed for myself. For the next four months I told everyone what they wanted to hear-doctors, parents, friends-but I did not make any significant changes to my life. I was very lonely and scared almost all of the time. I weighed 98 pounds and wore a size 0 when I returned home in the winter.
I cried steadily for two weeks as I visited new doctors and spoke with my parents about my disorder. I had not menstruated for six months and doctors told me I needed to reach an average body weight before they could even tell if my body would suffer long-term damage. My parents were desperate to gain some sense of understanding-I knew they were afraid I would need to enter a hospital in order to get better and I also knew that the idea of missing out on grandchildren would crush them.
All at once it hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt that choosing anorexia over everything else in my life was selfish. I had always been such an altruistic person and here I was spending a year of my life internalizing my emotions and focusing on non-productive behaviors. On New Year's Eve I made a resolution to get better. I never took resolutions seriously in the past, but something about spending the evening with my closest friends and relatives helped me to see my current state more clearly. I realized all of the special moments I was missing in life because I put my love of food before my love of people. I wanted friends to hug me and not worry that they were squeezing me too tightly. I wanted my parents to be able to focus on themselves and trust that their only daughter could survive on her own.
I will admit that recovering from anorexia is much harder than developing it. During recovery I was conscious of every move; I was constantly reminded of my sickness. Some days I ate three breakfasts and some days I ate none. Some days I ate and drank like a typical college student and some days I reverted back to starvation. I went out with friends, but I also locked myself in my room. The first two months were the hardest. I had difficulty balancing my meals and I often ate when I was not hungry to ensure I would not go hungry at a time I could not get my hands on food. I ate more than average around people who I felt were watching my consumption, and regretted my food intake on a daily basis. I contemplated bulimia and often broke down in front of the toilet after expending all of my energy to keep the food inside my body. I was horribly embarrassed by my behaviors and kept a lot of secrets from the people who were aiding my recovery.
Within four months I gained 50 pounds and changed clothing sizes six different times. My loving parents continued to take me shopping for new clothes and my old friends gathered around me as often as possible. Physically I looked better, but mentally I was still very sick. I struggled to accept my larger size and I continued to feel disconnected from the social scene. I spent several months attending functions on campus, gathering with family at home and visiting friends at other schools. Throughout this time I felt like an outsider. I was pretending to be the girl I once was because I looked like her, but inside I knew I could never be that girl again; I was a different person due to my experience with anorexia. I realized I needed to more forward rather than attempt to regain my former sense of self.
At my largest, size 14, and in my best mental state in over two years, I embarked on a life changing journey. I boarded a plane to Israel to study abroad for six months. Before I left, I decide the only baggage I needed to bring along was my clothing and supplies. It was unnecessary for me to bring along all of the additional weight I had been carrying and without anyone from my past traveling with me, I could present myself in any way I felt comfortable.
My size was irrelevant to my new friends and I never once felt judged by them. Together we developed a way of life and it helped me to regulate my eating and exercise schedule. I felt "normal" again and enjoyed being a part of a community. When I revealed to some of my friends that less than a year earlier I was struggling for my life, they were stunned. Their reaction was exactly what I was hoping for; I did not want to be an outsider anymore. When they learned of my resiliency and determination to remove the eating disorder from my life, they wanted to know how they could help in my recovery. I told them they already gave me the gift I needed most. I knew these were my friends for life.
When I returned to college for my senior year, I was confident and carefree. I rediscovered many qualities about myself that were suppressed the last time I was on campus and I embraced the progress I made during the nine months off campus. My roommates found my attitude about life to be refreshing and healthy and I no longer felt as though people were staring at me when I ate a meal.
My studies and an internship became top priorities for the year, but a part of me longed to share my story with a campus of people who struggled with many of the same issues. I tracked down a group of women who were in the process of establishing the campus? first Eating Disorders Awareness Committee. They were surprised by my openness and were impressed by my resiliency. I was the first student representative to ever be involved with this committee and at first they did not know what to make of my role. Before long, I developed a program that they agreed to host.
In the spring of my senior year, I told my story to over 500 people, mostly members of sororities. I shared the stage with a professional from a renowned eating disorders clinic who shared statistics and helped to better define eating disorders. My parents, my roommates and two of my therapists supported me from the audience. On the following day when my face appeared on the front page of the campus newspaper I felt complete closure with my illness. It began and ended in the exact same place and I was confident enough to feel as though I could impact others.
My personal ties to anorexia were severed when I stepped off that stage, but my empathy towards the disease and my desire to aid others is ever present. I understand the significant role a community can play in a person?s recovery and I value self-discovery and inner strength more than the average person. I know my outlook on life and good health is directly attributed to the people who rallied around me during the most difficult time of my life. They lifted me up when I fell down and they reminded me of our special relationship when I felt like a stranger. I may not offer my thanks to these people everyday, but my goal is to continue to give back to my community so they are reminded of why my life was worth saving.