Grace | Lessons Learned

A New Beginning...Maybe?

The summer before my senior year of high school, I experienced my first significant period of sustained recovery from the eating disorder that had defined my teenage years. As I emerged from the detached haze of my illness and re-entered the social circles I had long neglected, I began to grieve the loss of the “normal teen experiences” my illness had kept me from enjoying. In hindsight, it sounds remarkably superficial to say that I was sad about spending time in treatment rather than attending school dances and sporting events with my friends, but the way that my eating disorder took those little life moments was (and still sometimes is) a source of profound regret for me. And so, I made up my mind that college would be different. I clung to the idea of going away to college and becoming a person who had never had an eating disorder, and this idea of reinvention quickly became the single strongest motivator for my recovery. 

As it turns out, that was a pretty good motivator! Throughout my senior year, anytime the eating disorder voice began to draw me in, I reminded myself that I had to prove I was ready to go to college. When I felt like others were defining me by my eating disorder, I reassured myself by thinking about how I would soon have the power to choose exactly how much of my story I would share with others.  The hope college would be different kept me going.

As my parents helped me move into my dorm room, I felt hopeful. Sure, I was nervous, but not more than any college freshman might be. And, in many ways, that school year exceeded my expectations in every way. I took classes in environmental science and sociology, joined a sorority, started a job at a local emergency room, went whitewater rafting and hiking with friends, studied abroad in Africa, and got into all sorts of shenanigans. I was making up for lost time, and it was absolutely incredible. There were days that felt more difficult than others, but that year remains one of the most joyful periods of my life. I told people that my eating disorder was part of my past.I even convinced myself of that!

Stepping Back, To Move Forward

Unfortunately, the summer after my freshman year, my eating disorder began to show up once again. It happened gradually, then suddenly. By the time the fall semester was approaching, when I should have been packing to spend several months studying in Madrid, I was sitting in my no-longer-former doctor’s office being told that I would not be heading back to college, let alone Spain, anytime soon. I was embarrassed, angry with myself, and generally devastated, but in a resigned sort of way. My previous time in recovery had taught me enough to know that I was in no condition to go back to school, but the sense that I had somehow ruined the rest of my life by having to take this unplanned and unwanted detour was overwhelming. I went back to school to pack my things, and then headed home to do the ~recovery thing~ until it was time for spring semester to begin and I could return to my ED-free college life.

In the months that followed, the complicated feelings I had towards my leave of absence continued to evolve. Seeing my friends go to parties and spend time together while I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom made me feel like all the work I had put into my recovery was for nothing. I often had moments of panic when thinking about how I had “fallen behind.” 

Over the last 7 years and with the benefit of reflection, I have come to regard the time I spent away from school as the most meaningful and foundational period of my recovery. I recognize that my words feel more polished now than they felt in the moment, and that, assuming you’re reading this hoping for words to guide you through a similar situation, feel insufficient next to the magnitude of emotions that come along with these decisions.

Before I share the lessons I learned, it feels important for me to acknowledge that recovery is a privilege many people are unable to access. I “looked” like I had an eating disorder, so medical providers never questioned my reports. Private health insurance gave me access to treatment, both in my community and at higher levels of care, and my parents had financial and social resources that allowed me the time and space to heal without external pressures. I recognize that many people reading this will not have the same opportunities that I did, but my hope is that the lessons I learned can be useful to anyone facing the prospect of their eating disorder forcing them off the track they had planned for their life – whether that be related to higher education, a job, a relationship, or anything else.

Eating Disorder Recovery Lessons

I probably wasn’t ready for college in the first place: I went to college immediately after finishing high school because I thought that was what I was “supposed” to do. If I had it to do over again, I believe that my experience would have been enhanced if I had more time in solid recovery before starting. Dr. Lauren Mulheim and Columbus Park treatment center both have fantastic lists of things young adults with eating disorders should be able to do before going away to school, and I would encourage anyone who is preparing for college to work their way through them. These things WILL be challenging. But, they are all daily challenges you’ll face on a college campus. If you are unable or unwilling to try these things, I lovingly ask you to consider how you will cope when you face them at school. It’s OK if you aren’t ready to go away to school right after high school. Your long-term recovery is worth that. I promise.

Those who have attended the ANAD support groups I lead have almost certainly heard me say that recovery is advocacy. Rather than the public advocacy you might be thinking of, though, advocating for your recovery means drawing boundaries with your eating disorder, making lunch plans with friends even though no one would notice if you didn’t, waking up and eating breakfast even after a long night out, skipping the gym just to prove to yourself that you can, and making the sometimes challenging, often boring choices that promote your ongoing recovery.

The eating disorder will slip in wherever it can get a foothold: In early recovery, like when I was first going away to university, my ED would grasp onto whatever little thing it could. In the chaotic, sleep-deprived, mostly-unplanned life of a college student, there are lots of opportunities for the ED to settle in. Practice being ruthlessly honest with yourself about where and how the ED is showing up, and don’t allow it to settle in. When you notice a pattern or thought that is becoming prominent, immediately challenge it. And then challenge it again and again just to cover your bases. Value your education and relationships enough to evict the eating disorder every time it appears – especially when it feels like it’s not a big deal or that it will be OK “just this once.”

I didn’t end up going back to my original university. I loved it there, but the time I spent out of school allowed me to connect with my long-term goals and consider how to best reach them. For me, that meant enrolling in a university closer to home. Because of that decision, I ended up making some of the greatest people I’ll ever know, finding a job that was incredibly meaningful to me, and being able to expand my worldview even more. Just because things aren’t going the way you planned for them to go does not mean that they’re going wrong.

Most people don’t finish college in 4 years (or even finish at all). The idea that you have to leave for college the summer after high school, earn your degree, and start your first adult job when you’re barely old enough to drink is completely arbitrary. Take your time and avoid creating more deadlines for yourself. No employer has ever asked me where I was during the time I spent away from school.

I was terrified of what people who say or think about me taking time off school. Ultimately, they didn’t care. My friends missed me and people occasionally asked where I was, but they all had their own lives to deal with. Even people who don’t know much about eating disorders tend to know that recovery is a process that sometimes requires more than one try to “stick.”

Final Thoughts

Taking time off college to focus on my eating disorder recovery was not what I planned or wanted to do, but I’m incredibly thankful that I did. My life today is richer, my recovery is more sustainable, and I am so grateful that I let go of the expectations (both societal and self-imposed) that kept me feeling like I wasn’t allowed to wobble.

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself that taking a leave of absence from college to focus on my recovery would allow me to have the college experience I deserved – and that will be worth it every time.

Grace H.

(she/her)

Grace made the difficult decision to take time away from school to focus on her eating disorder recovery. By doing so, she learned an invaluable lesson: she and recovery are worth it! She is now an ANAD Support Group Leader and is passing along the lessons she learned to others going through their own recovery.