By: Sarah Van De Weert, Project HEAL Guest Blogger
Fall 2013: Sophomore year of college. I’m finally taking courses to fulfill my psychology major requirements, living in an apartment with some of the best people, editor of the Opinions section of the school paper, working in the Admissions Office, and engaged in four or five other activities on campus. I had spent an amazing few days at the NEDA Conference in DC and was preparing to go to China over winter break with students from the college Wind Symphony—so many experiences and adventures waiting for me!
The next thing I know, I can barely get myself out of bed in the morning. I’m not going to classes, not doing any school work, and completely avoiding everyone. I was doing bare minimum on everything, which for me, meant that I was emailing professors and asking for extensions on large assignments and watching Netflix—not reading textbooks, writing papers, and doing research like I needed to be doing in the early November madness.
I was in a full-blown eating disorder and depression relapse, and I was all too aware of it. It terrified me. And because it terrified me, I spoke to two people about it—one of my psychology professors, who encouraged me to go to the counseling center, and a few weeks later, a Dean of Academic Advising, who encouraged me to take some time off from school.
The hardest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my 19 years of age was to leave college in order to pursue full recovery from my eating disorder.
I did not want to do it. I fought, I begged, I pleaded, and I bargained to stay. I was terrified to go home and tell my parents and my team that I was relapsing and have everyone find out just how not okay I was. In my disordered mind, I was fine. Everything was under control, my weight hadn’t changed at all–I was just eating like any normal college student and I could get back on track on my own at any point…if I wanted to do so.
But I ended up convinced by my professor, the Dean of Academic Advising, and my wise mind that I at least needed to go home and see my treatment team for an evaluation (because everyone knows that college counseling services cannot effectively treat eating disorders), so I did.
I was told that I should not go back to school to finish out the semester, but that I could probably go back in the spring. I was put on the waitlist for day treatment programming.
I was not happy. Frankly, I was even more terrified than before! Not going back to school meant that I was not going to finish out the remaining month of the semester, that all my hard work that semester was wasted, and that my dreams of graduation in four years were never going to come true! My academic future was ruined! I didn’t care, at all, about the fact that I was really, really sick because I was so focused on my future and protecting my college education.
Luckily from that point forward, I had friends, faculty, and my treatment team consistently in my ear telling me that taking time off was the best thing I could do. They reminded me that school would always be there for me, when I was healthy enough to succeed at it. They reminded me that I want my transcripts to show the awesome work that Sarah can do and not the crappy work that Sarah’s eating disorder does. But still, it was not an easy thing for me to accept, especially when my college told me that I was not allowed to return for spring semester and that I had to wait until fall to be readmitted.
Looking back in retrospect, even though it has been only a few months, taking a break from school was the best decision that I could have made. I’m not sure when I became okay with taking time off for treatment. It did not happen right away. And it is still extremely difficult for me to come to terms with sometimes, especially three weeks ago, when that trip for China left without me, a week ago when spring semester classes began, or every time I receive an email from my school or an organization about things happening on campus—I still get upset and wish I was there and not here. I think anyone in my position would. Treatment is more difficult than every single college course you will ever take.
But what I’m realizing, as I get ready to be discharged to outpatient treatment, is how much I need this time—these next 200 days or so that are currently filled with a whole lot of nothing. People always say that there is no perfect or ideal time to recover from an eating disorder. It’s true. I believed that lie for so long that I put off real recovery in order to graduate from high school, work at a summer camp, go to college in another state, and keep my parents off my back that it ended up almost coming down to my college saying, “Take time off school voluntarily or we’ll have to make you take time off.”
I’m finding that time is one of the most important components of my recovery—time to heal, time to figure out who Sarah is without her disorders, time to gain control over my behaviors, time to find confidence in my abilities, time to breathe and engage in self-care, and time to remember how good life can be. If I was still at school, I would not have this time. I would be engaging in behaviors, rushing from one thing to the next, trying to be perfect and successful, instead of focusing on my health and well-being.
I’ve heard it said that you can’t recover from an eating disorder while you’re at college, and I know that I can’t. It was the best decision for me to take time off and separate myself from my identity based on grades and successes in order to begin my journey to full recovery. It was not—and is not—an easy decision by any means, but in the long run, it is and will continue to be the best decision I could have made for myself.