Thrive on Campus//

From Battling the Dining Table to the Dining Hall

Attending a competitive university has challenged my eating disorder recovery journey. Here's why I'm thankful.

Courtesy of Hanna Postova/Unsplash
Courtesy of Hanna Postova/Unsplash

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

Banana. 105. Whole grain toast. 90. Almond milk. 45. Grilled chicken breast. 187. The mental calculator I had worked so arduously to turn off for the past three years had reprogrammed itself as I stood in the minefield of calories that threatened to detonate if I filled my plate. To most students, this terrain is just Notre Dame’s dining hall that consistently makes the “Top Dining Halls in America” lists and is a passable replica of Hogwarts’ own Great Hall — to me and so many other students who have felt the burden of an eating disorder, this is a battlefield. Frankly, I was both confused and frustrated by this sudden inflammation of eating-disorder-oriented thoughts and behaviors.

Sure, it was plausible that the heavier coursework, out-of-the-nest homesickness, and scholarship program I’m enrolled in triggered a current of eating disorder thoughts. Yet I was sure that the obstacles I’d faced during my childhood and adolescence far outweighed the struggles that came with going to an academic institution. Miraculously, I’ve managed to juggle my own recovery journey with helping others struggling with mental health related issues begin their own path: I created an organization in high school called Transparent Mirrors that revolves around pulling back the veil of shame that shrouds over eating disorders through global conversation. I’ve spoken publicly about my mental health, and I’m always the first person many of my friends turn to whenever they fall back into their safety nets of addiction, eating disorders, you name it. I’ve been in recovery for three years, and while I am cognizant that recovering from an eating disorder can be a lifetime process for a large percentage of people, I was certain that I would not fall into that statistic. Eating disorders are nurtured by factors such as control and perfection. I wanted to be in control of my recovery. I wanted it to be perfect.

Notre Dame’s glimmering golden dome stands in stark contrast to the inconspicuous destitution of its community, South Bend. Bubbled back by preconceived biases and unextended privileges, the campus often feels incongruous and isolated. My internal and unobtrusive struggle with the remnants of an eating disorder mirrored that of the college’s disconnection from its greater community: detached, desolate, damned. While I didn’t have a full relapse into eating disorder behaviors (unfortunately, however, this is all too common for people who struggle with this illness), I certainly was plagued with eating-disorder-oriented thoughts. Having the absolute freedom to eat whatever I wanted or nothing at all felt, ironically, imprisoning. 

I was shackled by this new unlimited access to food, whether it was debating on eating salad or bread in the dining hall, Postmating chocolate chip cookies at 3 a.m., or brooding over the granola bar I’d devoured between my chemistry and calculus classes. While my friends didn’t hesitate at grabbing double dinners at the dining hall, I made excuses to eat by myself out of the intense shame I felt whenever I sneaked a bowl of ice cream or pumpkin pie onto my tray. The dreaded but perfectly normal "freshman 15" began to creep up on me as I was preoccupied with things only people who suffer from body dysmorphia see in their reflection: the sinking of my collar bones, the widening of my cheeks, the robustness of my chest. I could barely stand to meet my gaze in passing windows, let alone a mirror. 

Like all top ranked universities, Notre Dame selects students who are highly capable and intelligent, and its acutely competitive social and academic atmosphere is the ideal breeding ground for eating disorders to thrive in. Being around such an accomplished and seemingly confident group of people made me cling to the remnants of my eating disorder. Like most people who suffer with eating disorders and have a depleted sense of self-esteem, my perspective of myself was extraordinarily skewed. Objectively, I was doing great academically: I had A's in all my classes, earned a position working in a lab as a freshman, and had already acquired multiple leadership roles off and on campus. Yet I was plagued with imposter syndrome and felt that my abilities were inadequate for the caliber of the study body. 

Throughout my life, my eating disorder was my safety net. Instead of using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the internal or external issues in my life, I used my eating disorder as a drug to numb any pain or discomfort I felt. Drowning in the desire for jutting collar bones, affirmation from others, and blind self-fulfillment drained me from focusing on the underlying wounds I didn’t want to tend to. It’s painful to let go of the control and euphoric high that comes with an eating disorder — but it’s even more painful to not let go and live with such a crippling illness long-term. It is when we mask away our agony behind an illusion of euphoric happiness and fulfillment that it manifests in our life the most. 

I understand how difficult it is to break the wall of silence and allow our vulnerability to flood out of us into the open where the possibilities of rejection and criticism is viable. I’ve been there. It takes an immense amount of courage to reach out to others and ask for help — but when we do, the shackles that eating disorders imprison us with are broken. I write about my eating disorder in the present not because its weight is as burdensome as it was before I began recovery, but because I acknowledge that it is something I will probably struggle with for the rest of my life. Letting go of the hope that my recovery journey will stand as a perfect template for others to strive to follow is both liberating and empowering. I now know that even though Atlas carried the world on his shoulders, his knees still wobbled and his arms still shook. Struggling in the face of great adversity and accepting help doesn’t make us any less strong. I am in control of my eating disorder when I acknowledge its malignancy and tend to it. It’s a battle I fight constantly — but it’s a battle I always win.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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- MARCUS AURELIUS

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