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How My Eating Disorder Struggles Affected My Time in a Sorority

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

There I was, standing in front of the mirror. My body was disappearing. Flashback to the statement I made as I sat in my therapist’s office merely four months prior. “If I just lose 10 pounds, I know I’ll be so happy,” I insisted. She wasn’t buying it, and apparently neither was I.

There was no happiness to be attained from reaching my goals. Instead, I was left only with perpetual self-disgust and misery. My eating disorder disguised itself as my “happy ending.” With each pound lost and each meal purged or skipped, I felt as though I was one small step closer to achieving the euphoric destiny I had longed for. On that race to the finish line of elation and perfection I felt something else too — something that gave me an unexpected rush of adrenaline which exacerbated my desire for thinness even further.

For once in my life, I felt in control. Up until that point, I had lived a life that was so reckless, at times traumatic and overtly out of control. Therefore, I didn’t dare challenge this newfound sense of empowerment that served as such a relief for my greatest faults and obstacles.

The first time I came face to face with my eating disorder was during my junior year of college. At the time, I served as my sorority’s recruitment chair in which I (wrongly) presumed my chapter would garner more prospective women who might be interested in joining had we showcased ourselves as stereotypical “skinny” and “pretty” Barbie dolls rather than as the real, diverse and genuine women we were.

I recall my co-recruitment chair chastising me for proposing that we should mandate that the women in our chapter wear Spanx during formal recruitment rounds. My inherently feminist sense of morale and better judgment knew requests such as these were wrong. I wanted to be the woman who helped to end the body shaming and objectified culture sorority women were subjected to, but in that moment, I simply couldn’t. Morals, innate desires and the means for tolerance were no match for my mind that had been hijacked by an eating disorder.

Luckily, with much convincing from my more grounded and accepting sisters, I never did give such orders to my chapter. I did, however, act upon those insidiously critical body shaming thoughts that engulfed my people pleasing mind. The night before the hysteria of chanting girls, freshly made up faces and overly enthusiastic conversations (more commonly known as “Rush Weekend”) was the very night it all started. On the eve of my big debut as our sorority’s “best yet” recruitment chair, I was perched above the bathroom toilet in my college sorority house. For the very first time, I had binged and purged.

You see, I had deceptively convinced myself my sorority’s success as a growing and thriving organization was dependent solely upon our outward appearance as a sisterhood. If I could act as one stereotypically “attractive” and “skinny” girl in our struggling, quirky little sisterhood, then maybe at least one more potential new member might want to join our organization because they saw me as a representation of it. Along with occasional bouts of bulimia, I started exercising excessively and strictly monitored my food intake — counting nearly every calorie I had consumed.

Much to my own surprise, this phase of my college career wasn’t what I consider the “official” start of my disorder. It wasn’t until my “super senior” year (fifth year in college) when I fell victim to clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) that I was even diagnosed with a full-fledged eating disorder. In my mind, that was because the bouts of disordered eating I had experienced years prior were reflective of my wanting to “improve” myself. This time around, it had nothing to do with making myself or those around me appear to be “better.” Instead, it had everything to do with the fact I completely and utterly despised myself and was holding on to this means of thinness as a way to give myself an identity and a sense of purpose.

Despite the fact I was still enrolled as a full-time college student, upheld part-time employment at a renowned local business and maintained a plethora of friends, family and sorority sisters whom adored me — in my eyes, I had nothing. I was nothing because I was a failure academically, professionally and personally. Every arena in which I had previously excelled in prior to my series of careless decisions and emotional ailments — from school, to my social life, to writing and professional development — were now meaningless to me. I was not the 4.0 collegiate, congressional intern and prospective Ivy League graduate student I once was. According to my twisted, cognitively distorted mind, I was nothing more than a “silly,” “slutty,” sorority girl whose only redeeming qualities were presented in the form of her physical appearance.

By that standard, I felt I had no other choice but to focus on the one and only thing I believed determined my worth — my looks. Subsequently, I proceeded to engage in disordered eating behaviors nearly every day. My hair began to thin and fall out, my face was pale and sunken in and my menstrual periods stopped. It became apparent those around me were concerned about my drastic change in appearance, despite the fact I was convinced they were falling for my, “I’m just running a lot” excuse.

I am by no means trained to offer medical advice or administer specific treatment plans. However, the steps I took in pursuing treatment for my eating disorder may be beneficial to take note of when starting this often daunting and fearful process of recovery.

This is what I did to kick my eating disorder’s ass:

1. Start with counseling.

Regardless of which mental illness might ail you, beginning your recovery process by seeking out a trained counselor or psychotherapist will ensure you are being monitored and that you will be held accountable for your actions. Though this may not seem like the simplest way to ease into recovery, it will prove to be an effective means of taking charge of your own life and health — so long as you choose to be honest with your therapist and actively participate in the treatment plan which he/she lays out for you. I recommend being selective when choosing your care provider. Treat your initial assessment appointment as if it were a first date. After all, your goal is to select someone who can provide you with a treatment regimen which suits your personal needs and flows with your own desires as well. The foundation of effective treatment begins with a positive and trusting relationship with your health care provider.

2. Seek out a specialist

Therapy alone, from a general mental health practitioner is likely going to improve your understanding of yourself and the feelings which lie beneath your behaviors. In any case, you may need far more than a sense of self-awareness to be able to cope with such an all-encompassing illness. Research online to see if there is a practitioner in your area who specializes in disordered eating and body image. You may also want to consider looking up eating disorder treatment centers which can offer either outpatient therapy, inpatient care or a combination with intensive outpatient treatment.

During my treatment, I was under the care of both a general clinical psychologist, a specialized psychotherapist from an eating disorder treatment center, as well as a clinical psychiatrist who prescribed me medication for my depression and anxiety.

3. Don’t be afraid of medication.

There is, without a doubt, an enormous stigma associated with considering medication as a treatment option for behavioral health. Frankly, there shouldn’t be. Medication has done wonders for not only my depressive and anxiety related symptoms, but I also credit it as serving as one of the chief components in expediting my successful eating disorder treatment process. It was essential in decreasing my compulsive thoughts which instigated my bulimic and anorexic behaviors. The pills did not make them dissipate completely —  however, they did significantly decrease the frequency and urgency of those thoughts.

4. Get off social media.

Like most young women I know, I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. Yes, it is undeniably fulfilling to receive attention from your peers and feel like you’re a celebrity on your campus or in your community. Unfortunately, I believe the pressure of this self-induced publicity can also come at a hefty cost. Filters, Photoshop, angles and lighting all play a serious role in manipulating photographs that appear to be of “real people.” Scrolling through your feed and spotting a toned and tan acquaintance on the beach spewing the caption “Life’s a beach when you’re a babe,” can incite a level of competition and envy that’s reminiscent of high
school days. I believe social media will only hinder your treatment and feed your mind with more negativity towards your own self-reflection. My advice: turn those damn notifications off, delete the app and don’t look back.

5. Remove yourself from a triggering environment.

Living in a sorority house at a university deemed worthy enough to make a spot on the list of “Colleges with the most beautiful women” is not exactly the type of environment that was conducive to my eating disorder recovery. The expectations I maintained about presenting myself as a “sexy sorority girl” became too much to bear in the midst of my healing process, so I left and went back home to mom’s house. Though I am aware not everyone has the option to simply vacate the area they are living in or the one they are working in or spending most of their daily time in, there are ways to condition yourself to reject the cultural standards of that setting itself. A specialist or therapist can work with you to determine which methods you can draw upon to deal with these incessant triggers.

6. Decide you want to get better for yourself.

Everyone who loves raunchy reality TV is familiar with the great series known as “Intervention.” I believe the lesson we can all take from this program is that treatment will only truly work for someone if they themselves are willing to undergo the process for the sake of their own well-being. No matter how many doctors, specialists or therapists you see, you will not see a difference in yourself and a change in your behavioral patterns until you decide you want this for you — and for no one else.

7. Because trust me, you do want to get better.

Now that I consider myself fully recovered from my eating disorder, I have decided to dedicate my time to helping others cope with their own struggles by sharing my experiences. I frequently attend a group therapy session at my eating disorder treatment center where I tell and retell my story to those whom are still grappling with the firm grasp their eating disorder holds in their lives. The sole most important piece of advice I reiterate to them is this: no matter how good you may think skinny feels, the feeling of recovery is insurmountable. I used to thrive off compliments from people who noted how much weight I had lost and how great I looked. They made me feel accomplished and worthy. Those feelings were fulfilling at first, but they served only as a temporary fixation for my insecurities. Yet, the feeling I receive when a person acknowledges my treatment — that’s something that stays with me permanently. It is not only extremely rewarding to know I beat the odds and survived this disorder, it is the single most empowering experience I have ever encountered in my life. I believe there is nothing better than defeating this demon that took over my life. You are more than capable of doing it — so please, don’t wait another second. Start on the path to recovery. You might come across detours and tricky terrain along the way, but I believe you will succeed when you remember what lies ahead in your destination: the rest of your life.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via shironosov.

Originally published: July 7, 2017
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