What was it like having anorexia in college?
I am a planner. I make schedules and lists; set goals and map out concrete steps to reach them. Upon graduating from high school, the plan was clear: go to a highly selective university, get outstanding grades, graduate in 4 years, go to med school, become a doctor. Developing an eating disorder was not part of the plan, but that is what happened, perhaps in part because although I had set a firm path for myself, I’d not spent a lot of time considering whether said path was what I actually wanted. By the time I realized I was unhappy, lost, and above all, terrified, I was so far into darkness that I couldn’t figure a way out. Anorexia became a twisted manifestation of the mismatch between my driven ambition and my secretive, gut-wrenching fear.
Having anorexia, for me, was a way to make smaller a world that seemed too vast and overwhelming. It was a way to thwart the hunger that scared me, to escape the risk of the unknown by retreating into a routine that was familiar and easily mastered. The instinct toward smallness, control, and safety is antithetical to the ideal of college, which is growth, experimentation, and discovery. While my peers pursued the latter, I was going in the opposite direction, and this was both confusing and painfully lonely. My university did not have many resources in place for students with eating disorders, so I struggled alone, without knowing anyone who truly understood what I was going through. This perpetuated my belief that there was something inherently wrong with me, some internal flaw that prevented me from enjoying an experience that others found so stimulating and fulfilling.
To a college student struggling with anorexia, I would say first and foremost, you are NOT the only one. I would encourage you to connect to others as much as you can, because when you do decide to leave the eating disorder behind, you will need relationships with other people to help fill the void. I would emphasize that there is no “right” way to experience college, that fear and insecurity are normal in the face of all those opportunities and options. I would guide you away from the university gym and toward activities that genuinely replenish you. I would strongly suggest letting at least one person, be they a peer, professor, or someone else, know what is going on for you, so that you don’t have to bear the burden alone and have someone making sure that you are safe. Most of all, I would say that there is nothing wrong with you. You are doing the best you can, and it will get easier once you are ready to let go.
By Rachel Bikofsky
What was it like having bulimia in college?
It wasn’t like my eating disorder came totally out of the blue. There had been the high school guidance counselor who pulled me aside and asked if everything was OK with my eating. She perhaps had seen me running around the school’s lengthy perimeter - over and over and over again. Or perhaps she noticed that I never went to lunch - something I deemed indulgent and a waste of time (also then I didn’t have to worry about there not being friends to sit with). But I was clueless at the time and told her earnestly that I was fine. Then there was the summer of standing for many long minutes in the bathroom stall after a meal that felt too big - trying to gear myself up to get rid of it.
But somehow when that first care package arrived my freshman year it seemed like a really good idea to eat the whole thing at once, and since I was so weight conscious it seemed that there was no choice but to do what I had heard other women do - go to the bathroom and get rid of it. It was a terrible experience! I was scared…this was what people called eating disorders. I promptly made an appointment at the counseling office at the school the very next day. A kind woman met with me for the requisite eight sessions. She did not understand eating disorders and looked at me with compassion and confusion. Her counsel did not help. Despite my intense fear of the behavior - I couldn’t seem to stop. I always did it reluctantly, always dreading the whole thing. But there was a lot going on at home - my parents were headed for divorce, my mom was recovering from breast cancer, and I was ill equipped to deal with my feelings. Bulimia became my tormentor and my friend at the same time.
Life in college was a pretty narrow experience for me. I was passionately dedicated to a sport that empowered me and also colluded with my eating disorder, as exercise became a large part of how I managed my binges and my weight. Looking back I gave up opportunities to join clubs, go abroad, involve myself with new activities. People I am still friends with tell me I was hard to get to know, friendly but stand off-ish. I focused on managing my sport, my shame, my secret, my weight, my anxiety, my sadness, and my loneliness. I kept thinking I would stop - but I never could. I thought people wouldn’t like me or trust me if they knew about it, and so I hid my disorder. And when I graduated - despite the million attempts to stop - I took my disorder along with it’s shame, anxiety, and depression.
To the college students who are still struggling:
Bulimia was for me a terrible way to go through life and it lasted for almost two decades. It was not a solution. I was trying so hard to feel OK and to feel pretty in my body, and I never did. I always felt like my tightly wrapped exterior was about to unravel. And it only got worse. The sense of secrecy and shame compounded over time and really altered and took away from my relationships, dreams and ambitions, and daily happiness. And from what I have seen and experienced, it is really hard to get better without outside help. If there are people out there who have done it, I haven’t met them. To a young person struggling in college today, I would say seek help. If you think bulimia is not a big deal - if you think it is something you can do casually and not have it affect your mental, emotional, physical health - you are not correct. Bulimia is not OK and you deserve to be free of it. I would say seek help and don’t stop until you get the right help. Talk to folks at your school, talk to your parents if you can. There are many resources available today, and there is a difference between help and the right help. Keep looking until you find what you need and let others assist you. You are worth it.
By Whitney Post
What was it like having binge eating disorder in college?
When I began college, I had already learned to make it through my daily, high-pressure life using a combination of intense self-motivation and compulsive overeating. I was the girl who had everything figured out. At least, I was determined for people to think so. After my mom died when I was 10 years old, adults marveled at my maturity and ability to excel in spite of adversity. These grown-ups were proud of my excellence in school, my people skills, and my leadership ability. But inside, I was shell-shocked, numb—blind to the loss I was experiencing under the surface. Without knowing it, I succeeded in the world so that I would not have to stop and face myself. I ate for the same reason.
From a young age, I loved food and always wanted more of it. At school, no one was watching, and I could go back for second, third, and fourth helpings. I hated my body—especially my thighs, hips, and butt—and firmly believed that no guy would find me attractive until I had magically acquired a lithe, ballet-dancer physique. Hour after hour, I stood in front of mirrors, switching outfits in hopes of changing the curvy silhouette staring back at me. Despite attempted diets and exercise regimes, I never succeeded. My issue with eating, I thought, was a self-control problem. I could not understand why I seemed able to expertly orchestrate my life in every other respect, but still could not will myself into the perfect, thin body. College was supposed to be the quintessential opportunity for independence, when I could finally make my own decisions. Compared to my high-achieving, power-driven friends, admitting I could not control my eating felt like a sign of failure. This self-hatred drove me to eat even more. I promised myself that I would stop. Yet, somehow, my brain shut down at the prospect of a meal or treat. A little, far-off voice protested vehemently, but I consumed forkful after forkful all the same, berating myself with each bite.
During my second year of college, daily existence became unbearable. I sought constant stimulation to avoid hearing myself think, socializing endlessly with whoever crossed my path. I sat in the dining hall for hours, unwilling to pause my whirring brain long enough to read for my classes or edit papers. When I did occasionally lock myself in a room to work, I surfed the Internet, obsessed about the older, cooler guys who never seemed to like me back, or groggily stared at the page of a book, my body overwhelmed by excessive food. My grades started to slip. I could barely talk with my dad, the person closest to me, because everything he said irritated me to the point of explosion. I barely registered that I was desperately unhappy.
To a college student struggling with compulsive eating, I would say that there is hope in action. From group therapy, to peer counseling, to twelve step programs, numerous options are available once you become determined to seek them out. The enormous satisfaction of taking a stand for my own well being, one small, simple choice at a time, broke the cycle of compulsive overeating and changed my attitude toward myself. Asking for help is in no way a sign of weakness. As each of us strives to become an adult, showing vulnerability may seem like the farthest thing from that goal. In fact, there is nothing more mature than asking for support when we are struggling. You deserve real freedom—the kind that comes from recovery, not from suffering alone. Walking into that first appointment or meeting might seem terrifying or mortifying, but finding the courage to just show up may be the beginning of a whole new way of life.