Stretched too thin

With the implementation of Mental Health Narratives, student organizations like Student Health on Campus (SHOC) and Active Minds, and the improvements in counseling services, Colby has made great strides in mental health awareness. However, on the spectrum of mental illness, eating disorders are often forgotten. We live in a country where food and body image are ubiquitous in the media and society in general. There are few places where this is more apparent than on college campuses, and even more so at an elite school like Colby. All of us came here because we worked hard, and it is this perfectionist attitude that makes individuals even more prone to eating disorders. Coupled with the pressure to maintain a body a la Kristen Bell’s in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it’s no wonder that so many women (and men as well) become subject to disordered eating. At least that’s how it was for me.

I’m a recovering anorexic. Therefore, this is an issue that I’ve become extremely passionate about. We need to increase the dialogue at Colby about disordered eating by talking about it in order to illuminate the challenges that accompany eating disorders. I also hope that by showing how debilitating these can be, we can work together to foster an environment at Colby that lessens the prevalence of eating disorders and provides support for those dealing with them.

The following account shares my history with disordered eating, but many others have completely different experiences from my own. This is only one account in a sea of many.

In the worst stages of my anorexia I would think about food all the time. My entire day was planned around it. I would try not to schedule things around meal times because that would throw off my eating plan. And going out to dinner was an anxiety-inducing ordeal. I read the menu while doing caloric comparisons in my head. I looked at the delicious flatbread pizza that my friends ordered with longing, while telling myself that the small chicken salad I chose was really what I wanted. I would go to bed with my stomach growling, begging to be fed. And to me, that was a success. My thoughts around food became so disordered that I considered myself victorious by starving myself. That is what it’s like to have anorexia.

If you had told me even one year ago that I would have an eating disorder, I would have laughed at the absurdity. I am a psychology and biology double major, so I understand the colossal risks both physically and psychologically associated with anorexia. But that’s one of the problems with mental disorders – they don’t take logic into account. I would feel dizzy and know it was from a lack of food, yet I still couldn’t make myself eat anything. Even though I knew I looked emaciated, when the scale reached the lowest point at 105 pounds, I was proud of myself. And even then, it still wasn’t quite enough. There was still a small voice in my head saying, “you can lose more.”

The absurdity of it all was that I didn’t want to lose weight. At that point, I knew I wasn’t fat, but it had become a challenge, a competition. But I was competing against myself. And what was the end result? What would make me “win” this? Because whatever it was would also mean I would lose. And in the case of anorexia, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, the end result would be death. I was literally in a game to kill myself.

When I write this, it’s easy to imagine that this epiphany came to me one day, and I was able to stop my harmful thinking. Unfortunately, mental illnesses don’t work that way. It took months for me to finally break out of the competitive mindset I had towards food. And it’s not completely gone. There are still times when I am too restrictive or get anxious about going out to dinner. And now that I’ve gained much of the weight back that I lost, there are certainly days where I think I’m too heavy. I think to some extent I’ll always carry this disorder around with me. However, even though my recovery is still in progress, it has come a long way. And, it was only once I began talking about my problems with friends and family that I was actually able to see the changes. That’s why the conversation about eating disorders and other mental illnesses needs to be addressed more at Colby.

More importantly, I know that I’m not the only one that has faced a challenge like this. Eating disorders are more common than one might think. They don’t always manifest themselves in dramatic physical changes, but they can be just as detrimental to the psyche of those dealing with them. Mental illness isn’t just depression and anxiety. I am by no means degrading either those or any other disorder. No one can say that any one is more debilitating than another. But sometimes, eating disorders don’t receive the attention they should.

My ultimate goal is to shed light on this issue by opening up a dialogue here at Colby . We go to a liberal school where we shouldn’t brush certain things under the rug simply because they are hard to talk about. I know Colby students aren’t like that, so I feel confident that we can address this in a productive manner. I hope this account illuminates the importance of understanding eating disorders, especially during an age when so many base their worth on their physical appearance.

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