When I arrived as a freshman on my college campus, to my credit, I immediately searched for support.
I combed the university health clinic website and found a paragraph on “short-term help with disordered eating” under the Nutrition tab. After filling out paperwork and undergoing an online evaluation, I was able to meet with with the university therapist who specialized in eating disorder treatment.
“So first thing’s first,” that therapist said, “the university does not accept serious cases. Should you need more help than we can provide here, I will refer you to—”
They went on talking, but all I heard was: we can’t help you if you’re too broken.
Searching, the paperwork, the online evaluation: all of it had been a huge effort for me. It is not easy to reach out when you’re struggling, much less through the hoopla of medical facilities. I suddenly felt heavier, weighed down by the anxiety those words had induced. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere they would refer me; I couldn’t afford it financially, mentally, or emotionally. So, I minimized my suffering. I made it sound better than it was. I didn’t discuss self-harm or suicidal thoughts, and for every binge/purge episode I talked about, there were five I didn’t mention.
Fear of not having any help at all kept me from being honest, but lying made me feel even worse. I was desperately hoping a mental health professional could see through my façade, but therapists are only human. What I didn’t talk about, they didn’t know was happening, and if they didn’t know what was happening, they couldn’t help me through it.
So I stopped going, and ED told me that I was beyond help. I was starting to believe it.
I fully relapsed that semester. Once again I found myself battling against ED multiple times a day, and I often lost. Getting out of bed was a challenge. My hair was falling out. If it hadn’t been for my perverse determination to make good grades and maintain “control,” I would’ve stopped functioning entirely.
This was one of the hardest times during my recovery. I felt like I had been completely consumed by my eating disorder, like there was no fight left in me, like there was no point in trying to get help anymore. I had been through two rounds of treatment at a center for eating disorders back home, had been in recovery for two years, and I had nothing to show for it.* The shame and despair was suffocating.
A week or so into my second semester, I was heading through the dormitory lobby when I happened to look up. What I saw stopped me in my tracks: it was a poster taped to a column, it was a lifesaver amongst endless waves. In red and black, it boldly said– Are you or someone you know struggling with an eating disorder?
The next Wednesday, at the time and place listed on the poster, I stood outside the room utterly terrified of entering. But I bravely opened that door, and I’m so glad I did.
When I introduced myself that day, I said my name and stated my diagnosis like I was talking about the weather. As I opened my mouth to explain how I had ended up there, I found that my throat had swelled shut and tears were pouring down my face. Next thing I knew, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I think it’s an important, reoccurring moment in recovery when you realize just how hard it is to have an eating disorder. And though I couldn’t speak any more that meeting, I went back the next week. And the week after that. And the week after that.
I went to those EDA meetings every single week until I transferred to a different school a year and a half later. Having a space where I could talk freely about my mental illness with people who were understanding and supportive helped me survive. Then it helped me thrive. In that year and a half, I went from shivering with fear outside that door to eagerly waiting outside of it, excited to see my recovery community and ready to share both progress and pain.
(This did not happen overnight— for months after that first meeting, I remained in a dark place. But I think what those meetings gave me was the priceless gift of hope, which grew brighter with each passing week.)
That first EDA meeting there were four people. Myself, the incredible person who started the group, and two others. By the time I left, there were twelve people, and every single person in that group helped me recover. They helped me by listening, they helped me by sharing, they helped me with support, advice, and commiseration. We didn’t follow the 12 Steps— we all had the steps, and could talk about them during our time to share if we wanted to– instead, we released whatever we needed to during that one hour once a week.
So if you have an EDA meeting near you or an eating disorder support group, give it a try. Every support group is different, so if the first one doesn’t feel like a good fit, don’t give up! And if you can’t find a support group you’re comfortable in, you can find group psychotherapy at most treatment centers and recovery-focused support communities online.
I can’t recommend groups for ED recovery enough— they are life-changing. Hearing other people talk about their eating disorder helped me truly understand that I wasn’t alone, and hearing others talk about their recovery experiences helped me navigate my own recovery. When I told my stories, it helped me heal, and knowing I would go to group helped keep me motivated. There’s nothing like saying “I ate a doughnut this week and didn’t feel guilty,” and having a room full of recovery warriors burst into applause. We cheered, we cried, we celebrated every step forward no matter how small– and in recovery, no step is too small to celebrate.
* I’m going to put asterisks by all ED-thoughts. It’s an indicator that this thought isn’t true. It’s a damaging thought used by my eating disorder to increase my suffering, and it’s usually quite effective. But it’s important to note this is NOT true and every moment I have spent in recovery was valuable. Every day I kept going led to where I am today!