When I was a junior in high school, my mom got cancer. As much as the doctors outlined the impacts it would have on my mother’s health, I had no idea the kind of impact that it could have on myself, too. She was placed on a very restricted diet that had her eating little to nothing. Her energy plummeted and as the only child living with her, I made it my mission to help her in any way possible. I spent that summer reading endless nutrition and cancer books, creating meal plans, and executing them in the kitchen. Every meal my mom ate, I ate. At this same time, I was in intense training for my senior year on varsity tennis. As a few months went by living on this eating and exercise regimen, I started to see my body not performing to its best ability. I saw my weight shedding off, I was always light headed, my hair was falling out and I had stress fractures on my legs. I asked my mom to find a nutritionist for me so I could make sense of this all, but with any new doctor it’s about a month wait for the first appointment.
After feeling hopeless on getting help, my mom called me giving good news that a dietitian wanted to meet me that afternoon. My dad picked me up from school and drove me over to the office. Right away I felt at peace. The dietitian made it seem like she new exactly what was happening with my body and understood all my symptoms that didn’t make sense to me. But then there was a huge plot twist. The dietitian said I could start coming in as soon as the next day, but I would have to tell my school I would be taking a year of absence. I then was really confused. What did they mean a leave of absence? She then continued by explaining that this is an eating disorder center. My dad got defensive and explained that we only needed a dietitian and that she misunderstood. The lady then explained that with my conditions so severe, my insurance would only covers an intense in-patient care. With a long conversation with my parents later they felt so concerned for my health that they withdrew my application to Cal Poly till I got my weight back up.
Summer of my senior year, I started going to the center. It was like nothing I have ever experienced before. A psychologist analyzed every meal. I could not go to the bathroom without a partner and the door wide open. The only friend I had in the center carved the word FAT into her arm. I felt like I was an outcast because I didn’t have the same mental views as the other women and men did. I just went through the motions and ate as much as I could so I would gain the weight I needed to be healthy enough for college. So I ate and I ate a lot.
Surprise! At the end of summer my parent re-enrolled me at Cal Poly because of the weight I gained at the center. We packed up my things and they dropped me off at the dorms. End of story. Never spoke about it again. I went on my way in being a freshman. I was living in a dorm fill with another 100+ students, trying to juggle college classes, sorority, club, social life extracurricular activities, and work. Along the way, my classes got harder and my sleep was put on the back burner. When times got stressful (which was frequently) my friends and I would turn to our endless amounts of plus-dollars and treat us to frozen yogurt. My freshman year I lacked intuitive eating caused by my summer habits and instead I found myself using food as a numbing mechanism towards my emotions.
As my second year came around, I got hired on to be a resident advisor (RA). Still involved in all my outside activities, I found myself not finding enough time in the day for each responsibility. My jobs as an RA quickly became my biggest struggle in starting up my emotional eating. After every hard mental health issue or every intoxicated resident needing to be transport to the hospital (which can go till 4am in the morning), I found myself using my plus dollars towards a huge cup of frozen yogurt. I was so emotionally attached to things going on around me; I would use these opportunities to try to find some comfort in food. 3,000 calories later, I would wake up in the morning feeling sick, ashamed of myself, and fearing the day ahead. I would make every hour of my day filled with class, work, coffee dates, sorority stuff, and church just so I could keep my mind off of food. By the time the night came around, I would have a pile of homework that needed to be done, but I was too afraid to try to study without my mind redirecting to food for comfort. In that time of exhaustion and frustration, I would binge. Binge because I was on-call and had to do community walks till 3am or just stressed that I couldn’t focus on schoolwork in between those walks. In the first quarter back at Cal Poly, I had gained 22 lbs. I constantly compared how involved my other peers were and wondered how they could do the same without being this way. It then dawned on me. I binged because I tried to control myself not to binge. I was running 100 mph because I tried to stay at the same pace as everyone else around me at school.
Why do we as college students feel the need to uphold this busyness? It stems from the fear of facing our turmoil. Busy strives, going to unhealthy extremes. If we stay busy, we don’t have time to face our emotions, right? Even while doing a whole lot of good, purposeful work, but never resting can leave us exhausted, going through the motions to try to get through. We are full, packed, booked, needed, scheduled, and pulled from all directions. Busy covers our emptiness, or at least it did for me. Busy says I am in control; at least until night comes around when the busyness ends and my emotions ran straight for the fridge. There is a stigma behind binge eating disorder as a “lesser” eating disorder; it’s a common misconception that anorexia and bulimia are truly medical afflictions, while binge eating is just a lack of self-control. So whatever I did, I tried to hide what was going on. I continued trying to control my life to an extreme to avoid judgment and shame of my messy eating. I let our society flood my mind with unattainable expectations of what success and happiness looked like and with that, kept my eating a secret. The mental mind game weighed me down; it’s hard to shake when it is literally stuck to your body. Finally I broke and told one person in each friend group and staff. I asked them to hold me accountable and call me out when I started to “save food for later” (something I would say when I bought two tubs of my favorite ice cream).
I have always struggled with vulnerability. Of course in everyday life, it would be difficult for people to know this about me. I am seen as someone who is quite open and outgoing but what that really meant is that I let people see what I wanted them to see. It’s not the easiest thing to broadcast an eating disorder that consists of a 3,000 calorie binge every night. But embracing vulnerability, as I have discovered myself, opens many doors of opportunity. Without cracking the illusion of my perfect façade, I never would have been able to connect with, and create a space of acceptance and understanding for so many wonder friends that are in my life today.