When I arrived as a freshman on my college campus, 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 disorders.
“So first thing’s first,” the 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.
Fear of not having any help at all kept me from being honest, but lying by omission 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– 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, but it felt like a neon signal with flashing lights. 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 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. I think it’s an important, reoccurring moment in recovery when you recognize just how hard it is to have an eating disorder. Though I couldn’t speak any more that meeting, I went back the next week. And the week after that. And after that.
Having a space where I could talk freely about my mental illness with people who were understanding and supportive helped me survive. Those meetings gave me the priceless gift of hope, and kept me engaged in my recovery. When I had a recovery victory, I knew I could share it people who would understand what it meant. And when I was in the depths of an episode, in pain and alone, I found comfort knowing I would have a place to talk about it when I reached the other side. In that year and a half I went from being frozen with fear outside that door to easily opening it, excited to see my recovery community and ready to share both progress and pain.
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. 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.
EDA meetings were the only accessible support I had, and I don’t know what would’ve happened to me without them. They played a crucial role in my recovery. 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. When I told my stories, it helped me heal, and knowing there’d be group each week helped keep me motivated. We cheered, we cried, we celebrated every step forward no matter how small– and in recovery, no step is too small to celebrate.
* This isn’t true. This is a thought generated by my mental illness to increase my suffering. Every moment I have spent in recovery was valuable, and each day I kept going led to where I am now!