College: a time of excitement, growth, and independence.
You’re in a brand new place with brand new people. You have what seems like the infinite room to rise above what may have kept you down in high school. And, of course, you’ve got a taste of what it feels like to be “on your own”.
You are responsible for you. It’s incredible – and it’s also a little terrifying.
With independence comes freedom, and with freedom to fly comes fear to fall.
For anyone recovering from an eating disorder, this fear of falling can be paralyzing.
It’s impossible to pretend that the risk of relapse isn’t real.
I’m six weeks into my first semester of college far away from home – and I love it! I love having a solid group of friends with who I feel comfortable and safe around. The fresh start of meeting so many new people is fun and exciting.
I love learning about things that I have a passion for. Walking into the small town just a block from campus and exploring my new home is amazing. And I love going on outdoor adventures and immersing myself in beautiful places so new to me.
I love unraveling more and more of myself that I’d once lost to my eating disorder.
At the same time, I have to admit that there is an anxiety that lurks in the back of my mind. It’s always ready to pull me back to my “middle school self’s” disordered ways of thinking.
I have a fear of relapse. That’s not to say I’m constantly crushed by worry. It’s just a quiet but consistently-present set of thoughts.
“It would be so easy to lose a few pounds without anyone noticing.”
“I could just tell my friends I ate in the dorm; it would be so easy to skip meals.”
“There’s a nice gym across the street from my dorm, everyone goes. It would be so easy to over-exercise without anyone getting concerned.”
In the weeks and months leading up to the move to college, I had anticipated some sort of pull toward eating disorder thoughts. That voice had been suppressed for so long – I was sure it would take an opportunity to attempt to break free from the chains I placed it in years ago. What I didn’t realize was the pattern the thoughts would take on.
“It would be so easy…”
Once I noticed this pattern, I figured out exactly why those eating disorder voices started getting a little more power.
Deep down, I know the accessibility to sickness I have away from home. It would be a lot easier to relapse in college than it would at home.
I need to continue to acknowledge that. While I have a million intrinsic motivations to maintain my recovery, knowing that if I started to engage in eating disorder behaviors, someone would notice and intervene, kept me stable.
College has been the first time that those extrinsic factors were gone. And that’s scary as hell. I know every day is a time to rely on myself more than ever. Every day is a time to prove to myself that I have solid, meaningful reasons for recovery, as well as the skills to stay healthy.
Here are some things that have helped me when I found my mind lurking in ED temptations:
1. Take advantage of your school’s support services
First and foremost, establish a place to go if you need it.
Most colleges offer free mental health counseling. Even if you don’t plan on partaking in regular therapy sessions, give yourself somewhere to go in case you decide to in the future.
During my first week, I set up an appointment with a psychologist in my school’s wellness center. It was a brief appointment. We just went over my history and I was informed of the wide array of services the center offers.
Knowing that there’s a professional who knows my history has been like a cushion of support. I know where to go to if I need it.
2. Make a list of your personal red flags
Before knowing where to go, you need to know that you need help in the first place.
What symptoms do you have when things start getting rough? Sometimes our behaviors tell us something’s wrong before we’re able to actually articulate it.
For me, I withdraw. I also become obsessive and avoid interacting with people. Keeping a list of these things helps me realize when I’m struggling.
Recognizing these symptoms can help me figure out what the problem is and tackle it more mindfully and intentionally.
3. Talk to your support people on a regular basis
Whether it be a parent, a friend, a sibling, a relative, or anyone else important in your life who knows about your eating disorder, keeping in regular contact with people who know you well is key in the maintenance of recovery.
Sometimes other people can tell that something’s going on before we can.
This is especially true in cases of denial – we can be so caught up in other things that we refuse to see that something may not be right.
It’s always helpful to have someone to help ground us. Not to mention, regularly reminding yourself of the people who care about your recovery can make you care about it even more.
4. Eat when you’re hungry, and exercise when you feel like it
I can’t tell you how many food and body “rules” I’ve already heard people talk about on campus.
“I’ll only eat XYZ once a week.”
“I have to go to the gym X times a week.”
Hearing those so often sounded awfully familiar to the strict rules my eating disorder set for me.
While establishing a routine is important in a smooth transition to college, leave a little bit of room when it comes to things that may trigger eating disorder symptoms.
If you’re hungry, grab a meal or have a snack in your dorm. And if you feel like exercising, go for it. If not, don’t be too hard on yourself. I find it helps to do other important things, like cleaning or doing homework, so I still know I’m being productive.
5. Establish routines in other areas
Try replacing the urge to set routines with food by setting routines with other things. Eating disorders are fueled by a need for control, and strict routine only exacerbates their power.
We all know that rigid rules and routines are key in the development of eating disorders. I’ve found that creating other routines in my life, like going to Club X every Monday and face-timing person Y every Tuesday and seeing friend Z every Wednesday, helps to alleviate some of the desire to create rules and routines around food.
6. Surround yourself with people and activities you enjoy
Find clubs or organizations on campus that really make you feel happy. I’ve found that my college offers extracurriculars suited to my interests that my high school just didn’t have.
Take advantage of them!
And as for friends – once you find those people that you share interests with, that you enjoy being around, that you can be vulnerable with, you have yet another reason for maintaining your recovery.
Also, you’ve got great people to just be with to boost your mood. I’m no more than a five-minute walk from my closest friends here. It’s so much nicer than needing to drive to a friend’s house like in high school.
Take advantage of the proximity, especially on a smaller campus.
7. Give your body some time to adjust
In terms of food, this can be a tricky one.
Lots of us are used to the same foods, especially those of us with histories of meal plans and nutritionist-regulated diets. It can be really hard to be thrown into a world with so many new foods in new places.
Give your body time to get used to it all. Just as you’d let your body get used to the cold outside on a winter day, let your body get used to the new foods it’s being nourished by.
8. Get excited!
A new college student can’t speak to older people without hearing the phrase, “These are the good-old-days”.
Sure, I roll my eyes every time I hear that, but I know it’s true. College is a time to really live – authentically and unapologetically. Live as free from your eating disorder as you ever have before.
Get excited about the fact that every day, you have the chance to prove to yourself that you’ve got this. You are stronger than any tug at an ED thought. It’s really amazing to let yourself feel the excitement about embracing that strength.
Yes, it may feel easy to revert to old behaviors. It may seem convenient to give into the old thoughts. However, it is so worth it to choose the more meaningful path: maintenance of recovery.
The choice is yours
I could view the transition to college as an opportunity to relapse. I can’t say I haven’t thought about going down that route in the past.
Anyone who’s dealt with an eating disorder knows there’s temptation behind sickness.
But every day, I mindfully choose to view the transition to college as an opportunity to show myself and my ED that I have control over my recovery.
I have to say, that feels pretty damn good. Any recovery warrior knows that having control over your thoughts is an incredible feat.
College truly is a time of excitement, growth, and independence. It’s a time to get excited about proving to yourself just how strong and fierce you are. A time to seize every challenge as a chance to grow into the best version of yourself.
And that independence can be scary. It can be tempting to view it as an opportunity to engage in ED thoughts and behaviors.
Instead, choose to wholeheartedly embrace your recovery.
It’s time to show yourself that you know exactly why recovery matters so much to you.
Give your recovery more meaning than it’s ever had before, because it’s all yours. Now more than ever.