Maintaining eating disorder recovery through first year of college and beyond
The scariest part of having an eating disorder is the next step. This next step may be any major life shift. For me, it was university. I did not attend school during my junior year of high school because I was in treatment. While my friends were touring colleges, I was in hospital.
My senior year was dominated by trying to catch up with study and I had little time to research colleges and universities forms next step. I had to trust that everything would work out, as long as I did my part. Something really important that I have learned in recovery is I can handle anything that comes my way so long as I have two feet in recovery. Being able to regulate my emotions and emotional reactions gives me the upper hand in stressful situations. Recovery has gifted me a fuller understanding of who I am.
Starting college meant leaving my support system
Leaving home for college meant leaving my support system. This support system included my family and friends, but also the people with smaller roles in my life such as the local coffee barista who spared me the anxiety of ordering and knew my order by heart. Being home meant being held tightly from all sides with comfort. The transition to college stripped me of this privilege. Suddenly I was engulfed by the unknown. The only thing familiar was my eating disorder.
I won’t lie, the first few weeks of college were bumpy. I reverted to some forms of restriction and began exercising every day. I could have looked at this as failure but instead I used it as a learning experience. I acknowledged that this was a stressful time in my life with many changes happening, but a green light to relapse was not the answer to coping. My eating disorder could provide a sense of security, but it was false and, in the long term, would only make my life harder.
Accountability must be about being accountable to MYSELF
Accountability is a sticky topic, meaning that it is what we make of it. Self-discipline has been villainized in our society. Instead of making a commitment in our own best interest, it has morphed into making a commitment to be perfect and productive 24/7. Media pushes the narrative that there is only one way to be engaged with accountability, and usually involves food and body topics.
I know now that controlling what I eat and what my body looks like is a waste of time and incredibly counterintuitive.
Accountability must be about being accountable to myself, not other people’s disordered views. So, when I began to revert to eating disorder behaviours I had to decide whether to be accountable to myself, or not.
Connecting with my recovery tools to counter temptation
Being accountable to me means connecting with my most useful recovery tools — journaling, drawing, music, and yoga/meditation. When engaged in these activities I feel most connected to my purpose. I am able to drown out all the outside noise. A major part of me being accountable to myself also involves creating space and time to sit with myself.
I know I am susceptible to distracting myself by over-scheduling. To counter that temptation, when I have free time I usually sit at my desk with my journal, sketchbook and a leisurely book. If none of these options are calling my name I usually do a bit of stretching and then lay down and listen to music or watch a movie.
Whatever I end up doing, I try my best to remain present in that moment, recognizing what thoughts are coming up for me, or sometimes I focus on turning my brain completely off and resting. This is productive to me. After I have this time to myself I am more likely to meaningfully engage with my friends, have less anxiety, and more able to reconnect with my logical mind. By making this space for myself, I clearly see that what my eating disorder has to say is only degressive.
Role of tough love in providing the scaffolding for recovery
If you are going through recovery, I’m sure that you have experienced tough love at some point. Whether that be from your doctors, family, or friends who are also in recovery. I was not unscathed by this tough love. Although in the moment it might have felt abrasive, in reflection it was an imperative scaffolding to my recovery.
When my support team, including my parents, ceased intense daily monitoring of me, I first saw it as indifference. However, their motive was the opposite. Everyone who had cared for me for so long finally felt that I had the tools to gain back more freedom.
When I got to university I realized that I must hold myself accountable, I must give myself tough love. There is no one here watching me eat my meals and snacks. No one notices if I skip a meal or eat half of my sandwich. No one knows if I exercise in my dorm room. The only person to know, is me.
Confronting the dangers in false perceptions and societal stereotyping
With regaining freedom, we gain back the freedom to relapse. We must choose which path we’re going to take. I teetered between recovery and relapse a lot during this first year of college. There is a lot of noise in the recovery community about not being ashamed of relapsing. I fully support this ideology however it tends to push the narrative that relapse is guaranteed. In my experience, this is a false perception. My experience is that relapse is not a prerequisite to recovery.
Our struggles are real even if we never relapse, and our recovery remains valuable if we do relapse. Although I have much love for the recovery community, generalization is a predominant problem. As a white teenage girl with anorexia nervosa I see myself represented everywhere. I have had many resources that aligned with my struggles, but for some friends this was not always the case.
Most education around eating disorders presents someone like myself who used mainly restrictive behaviours and aligned with society’s idea of what malnutrition looks like. This created a safe space for me because no one questioned whether my eating disorder was ‘real’ or not. For people who display different behaviours or do not physically appear unhealthy, finding this compassion can be much harder.
Remember, transition to college does not mean that relapse is guaranteed
However discouraged you feel, keep looking for like-minded others within the larger recovery community. There are people like you, and they are also looking for people who can relate to them. Whatever stage of life you are entering, someone has been there and done that. Being mindful of this truth has been extremely helpful with my transition to college. Although the risk to relapse is higher when we make a major transition this does not mean relapse is guaranteed. We have the power to be different. We have the power to choose how our next chapter is written.
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