The Columbia Center for Eating Disorders recently released a blog post entitled, “Back-to-School: Top 5 Way to Tackle Your Eating Disorder Freshman Year,” which lays out 5 ways to help individuals who struggle with disordered eating adjust to life, and all the crazy changes that come along with being a college student. I know firsthand just how scary, stressful, and overwhelming this time is because I was in this position a year ago. Even though I wasn’t a freshman, in fact I was a super senior haha, I still had never been at college while in recovery and therefore everything felt totally new and overwhelming. So because of my experience, I thought it might be helpful if I reflected back, by using the 5 suggestions recommended by the Columbia Center, on how being so well prepared when I went back to school was crucial in my journey to recovery. There is NO chance that I would be where I am today if I didn’t have a team guide me (and basically hold my hand) during this transition.
- Establish a treatment plan before you start school: About a month before I headed back to school my team and I set up a treatment plan that was specific to my needs. The most crucial part of the plan was an ultimatum that was put into place, which was that if I did not follow the rules we set up and I faltered in any way than I would need to reconsider my role as a student, and probably reenroll in an intensive eating disorder program. My plan, specifically, focused heavily on maintaining contact with my team from home as well as building relationships with the services that the college offers. I had to speak weekly with my therapist (via Skype), I had to get weighed weekly as well as get my vitals checked at the health center, meet with a nutritionist (which was an epic fail…) and have the highest/most extensive meal plan. Having all of these eyes on me was overwhelming, but it forced me to be held accountable for my actions, good and/or bad, and created stability in an otherwise chaotic environment.
- Don’t be afraid to work with your school’s student health services: I know that opening up to even more people when you feel like you have told your story a thousand times over to those already helping you is daunting, but the more resources you have the better. I couldn’t have asked for a better ally in one of the nurse practitioners at my school and without her I wouldn’t be as far a long in my recovery as I am. Her willingness to listen and her desire to learn more about this disease, and how she could better help all her patients, made me feel secure as well as well taken care of. Since part of my treatment plan was to establish a direct relationship with the health center following through with that really made me feel stronger and safer because I knew I now had even more people on my side who genuinely cared/were rooting for me in my journey to recovery. Also, there is no shame in going to health services. I know that there are generally so many stigmas attached to issues of mental health, but you are doing what many other people are unwillingly to do…creating/working for a better you.
- Think about housing and meal plan options and how they will or won’t work for you: In regard to housing and meal plan options these two aspects of the college experience are where you need to be selfish in your recovery. It has to be less about what everyone else is doing because you know what, they most likely are not dealing with the same issues you are. So what, if living in a single is most conducive to your treatment plan? That doesn’t mean you are a loner or have no friends. What it means is that it is healthier for you to live alone because you have certain behaviors, as well as routines, that you need to follow to succeed in recovery. For me specifically I was terrified of living alone, but knew it was probably for the best because I had adjusted to a very “non-college” sleep plan while taking a year off. Let’s just say I went to bed at like 10:00pm and got up around 6:00am…total grandma status haha. But, getting solid sleep and feeling like I had my own space to retreat to when I felt anxious/overwhelmed made me a better and stronger person. And you know what? I still made plenty of new friends as well as cultivated my relationships with older ones 🙂
- Pick an exercise plan that’s right for you: For me this meant avoiding triggering exercises, like a certain running route, that I knew would bring up memories of when I was really sick. What I ended up doing in order to create a “healthy exercise plan” was setting up a routine that worked well with my class schedule, and also fell in line with the restrictions I had set up with my team. I’m a creature of habit so by establishing a routine that was at a time of the day that didn’t cause me stress and I actually looked forward to was great. It eventually became more of a mindful time and less about a compulsion that is driven by “burning calories.” I started exercising because I loved that time of the day that was all about me and not about sweating off all that I had ate.
- Talk to your parents: Honestly your parents are going to be really worried about you when you go back to school. So just keep them in the loop and be forward with them. You are an adult, but they will always be your parents and they want to know how you are doing, especially after all that you have been through. They want you to recover and thrive so just keep it real with them and don’t be afraid to tell the truth when you are struggling. Mom and dad are here to listen, love, and support you so let them do that! I spoke with my parents daily and was brutally honest with them. Did that cause them some stress? Absolutely. But did it bring us closer together, as well as enable them to see when I really needed their support? 100% yes. I couldn’t have done it without them.
I just can’t emphasize enough that honesty and constant contact with all members of your team, from your parents to your therapist and anyone else who is in your corner, is truly one of the best ways for you to move forward in your recovery. Keep it real by recognizing/sharing when you are struggling, but also by celebrating in your successes. Recovery is a roller coaster ride and is never easy so we must embrace our imperfections while still fighting for a healthier and happier self.
So, all of you lucky ladies and gentleman who are heading back to school in the next few weeks stay strong as well as focused and never stop telling yourself that it can, and will, get better.
(or hero) 😉