A few weeks ago, I received a call from a student at the college where I had once worked. I had been referred to her as a possible presenter for one of the college’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week activities that the campus group Active Minds was organizing. They asked if I would sit on a panel of professionals on the topic.
I reacted with hesitancy. This stemmed from both my reluctance at public speaking and the fact that I had not done much eating disorder counseling in recent years. And besides, it had been a decade since I served as the Campus Nutritionist.
Still, the chance to participate did call to me. I had dedicated much energy to eating disorder support and other nutritional matters while I was there and still was invested in the cause. After clearing a few details, I offered and agreed to come to the front of the room, not to proffer any specific nutritional strategies, but rather to share my perspectives gleaned from my particular role during four years at this small liberal arts college. I still cherish the time I spent there holding space with so many impressive young adults as they figuratively shifted their seats from the kids’ table to the grown-ups’ one–some more easily than others. The college years are a very vulnerable time for many who pass through them–and, not coincidentally, span the ages when most eating disorders begin.
In preparation for the event, I gathered my thoughts and made some notes for my talking points. Various students I worked with came to mind. They represented the collective of all the forms of eating disorders and disordered types of eating–anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, exercise bulimia, binge eating disorders, stress-induced eating, and orthorexia–an obsession with healthy eating. I tried to recall if orthorexia had even been recognized by the early 2000’s–apparently, it was only coined in 1998–but I encountered it frequently.
I remembered the athletes, the dancers, the student leaders, the artists, and the none of the above. Mainly they were female, with just a handful of males seeking help. Many, ready for graduation while I was there, graduated–and I attended a number of end of year ceremonies. Some did not. There were those who required leaves of absence–from which a few did not return. And, if they did, a close eye on their progress was necessary. Though no cases of eating disorders are easy to manage, I recalled the “really difficult” ones–those which forced immediate hospitalization, panicked roommates and friends, and challenged the health providers (and administrators) trying to keep a declining student on campus so they could just finish their education. This was messy. And, the more remote campus bathrooms known to be frequented by those that purged were messy too.
While it was presumed that students would stay active in their physical and emotional care by making and keeping appointments, there was sometimes little to prevent them from elusively slipping out of reach. And, with the prevalence of eating disorders on college campuses estimated to be between about 10-20% for females and 4-10% for males (if not higher), it was certain that there were many who did have disorders that were not receiving any treatment. Eating disorders are masters of disguise.
Despite a significant degree of infirmity, I was continuously amazed at how these high achieving students pushed through at high levels of academic, athletic and/or creative performance. Such success did not equate with health. While everyone does their best, and there are models of care, colleges are not fully equipped to handle these serious disorders, medical illnesses, which breed on their campuses–the mental health conditions with the highest level of mortality.
Remembering both the intensity and tenderness of my time with these students helped me to shape what I would want to share with this current cohort, this next in line generation capable of making some serious change in our world. Nothing necessarily earth-shaking or profoundly professional–just the observations of someone who was up close and personal. Could I possibly impart some, dare I say, wisdom or reflection that might resonate or maybe have some impact on this vulnerable cohort? Well, I was prepared to give it a shot and looked forward to the event.
However, first thing yesterday morning, the day of the event, my phone rang. A monster nor’easter was pummeling the East Coast, dropping a fair amount of snow in our area. The panel would be canceled. Though there was a small touch of relief that I would not have to contend with treacherous roads, I had to process the loss of this opportunity. Not only had I readied myself, but I was eager to hear what the other professionals–mental health clinicians–had to say, and what the audience of students, and possibly faculty or other staff members, wished to ask, as well as to expose or express.
Left alone with my floating ideas, I realized I could deposit them here in my little blog which has been suffering its own neglect. And, I will do so, in a follow-up post. (In the meantime you can visit my previous related posts: Stopping Traffic, Dolls with Faith, Muse of the Girl and Nourish Thyself Well Day.)
In reminiscing, I realized that those who I strove to help nourish during my years at the college, would now be in their early to mid-thirties. Recovery from eating disorders is definitely achievable, and relative to various factors, but not all who suffer are successful. I hope those whose lives touched mine, and who that campus had nurtured in various ways, did emerge from their chrysalis to become the beautiful butterflies they were meant to be. I pray they are doing OK.
Thanks to those who continue to carry the flame.
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Most sincerely yours, Elyn
My Plate Expression
My great fortune was in meeting people who understood my strange interior life, without judgment and who, at a time when I didn’t feel there was anything to live for, were there to lend me their vision and pull me through the grueling journey of recovery. I’d never been afraid of hard work and perhaps it’s that work ethic that finally worked for me rather than against me.
Excerpted from individuals’ stories of recovery from the book, The Secret Language of Eating Disorders by Peggy Claude-Pierre.