Disorderly Times, Disordered Eating
Updated: Mar 2
The Columbia lifestyle is disturbingly conducive to anorexia.
By Eliza Rudalevige
Between any two good events lie those messy, unavoidable segments of time we like to call transitions, bumping along like school buses on a dirt road. The things that crawl out of these buses can be way worse than petrified gum under the seats or that one kid who makes too much eye contact for seven in the morning.
For me, that school bus came with anorexia. Although I had already struggled with dysmorphia— and grappled with a slew of nutritionists, therapists, and a lunch lady enlisted by my mother to spy on me— my eating disorder emerged in earnest when I moved from Pennsylvania to Maine. The move itself wasn’t important; I transplanted from one tiny college town to another, following my professor father. It was the dismantling of my support system, that group of elementary schoolers that didn’t realize how much it helped me to insist on having a piece of their birthday cake or some of their coveted pizza Lunchable. When we moved, I was eleven years old, deeply shy, and soon, deeply sad.
I had a glaring lack of friends, and my family members were stuck on their own buses; it took a while for anybody to notice that I was sick again. Actually, it took eight months, an eighth of my body weight, and a visit to the emergency room. I missed the last quarter of sixth grade and spent eight hours a day during the summer shut up in an outpatient program. I was the youngest by years. They put us in the dark kitchen after lunch and played slideshows about how we were fucking over our bodies. I jiggled my legs with the pretense of running away and was rewarded with meal replacement shakes for the calories I burned.
That was the worst time in my life, but it was even worse for my parents. My doctors at the program encouraged us to use the Maudsley Method, a family-based treatment strategy for adolescents, in order to keep me out of an inpatient treatment center. Although I was still at the hospital forty hours a week, I was allowed to eat dinner and spend weekends at home.
The downside was that my parents took the full force of my frustration, hatred, and unwillingness to live in a body that I deemed too big. I reverted to the coping mechanisms of a toddler. Once, I screamed so loudly during dinner that a well-meaning jogger paused to ask if everything was alright. Recently, my mom took a job nannying a 10-year-old girl before and after school; when I asked her why, she told me she missed out on having a daughter when I was that age. As a 10-year-old, I was busy telling her I hated her while she struggled to feed me.
Illustration by Aaron Jackson
Two months after an older girl graduated from the program and went away to college, I heard during a boredom-fueled gossip session in the common room that she had relapsed. At this point, I hadn’t yet thought about college as a concrete thing, as a chunk of my life that was coming up in no more than five years. I always had the privilege of knowing that I would go to college, but at twelve and with no more context than that which I made for myself in my eating disorder bubble, it felt like a half-rendered drawing, sketchy and malleable. I didn’t think about that girl again until I was applying for schools. In five years, the details of her face and name had completely escaped me; this somehow made it worse, allowing me to place myself in her narrative without the pesky rebukes of memory.
Understandably, when this fall rolled around, Mom and Dad were apprehensive about sending me to school, outside of their capacity to keep me alive. If the worst did come to pass—relapse— there wasn’t anything they could do to make me, a hesitant but legal adult, commit to recovery, short of threatening to cut me off financially.
The college lifestyle is disturbingly conducive to disordered eating. We forget to eat during finals week, or fast all day, leading up to the inevitable JJ’s binge. The conception of ‘normal’ mealtimes and nutritive standards as established by a high school schedule disappear. Sometimes, we even brag about our prolonged intervals of abstention, celebrating our ability to stretch our bodies and minds as far as they will go without the calories that give them that flexibility. In such a competitive place, eating itself becomes a competitive game.
Even as someone who is hyper-aware of my own needs and recovery, the transition has not been all superfruits and nutritionally balanced pasta dishes. When I first came here, I stopped taking the anti-anxiety medication that I was prescribed at age fourteen. Then, I got dumped by my high school boyfriend. Then, I got a B—I know, a B!—on a paper. These divots in the dirt road, both small and large, rattled me so much that I punched through the window of my school bus and wanted to jump out. My anorexia had always been about weight loss, but in the pressure-cooker of college it turned into a game of control. I downloaded MyFitnessPal and began to track calories and macronutrients, at first “just to see what I was eating.” (I have a tip for all you anorexics and bulimics and orthorexics and binge-eaters and disordered eaters—I know you’re out there, because there are at least 30 million of us in the United States: calorie counting is never just about seeing what you’re eating.) Even though I hadn’t restricted myself to a certain number of calories, keeping track of them diverted a huge chunk of the negative attention that I directed toward my body.
I gave anorexia my whole adolescence; he doesn’t deserve a single thing more. Breaks and scheduled visits from my mom have kept me on track, more or less. Although I’ve fluctuated more in weight in the past six months than I did from ages fifteen to eighteen, I’m healthy. I only skip breakfast when I have an 8:40 a.m. language class. And apparently I’m confident enough to write about being anorexic.
I’m lucky, in a way, to have lived with my illness for so long. I’m at a point in my recovery where I’m comfortable relying on a support system back in Maine, the wonders of anxiety medication (prescribed to me by a licensed professional, of course), and a few close friends who know to look out for warning signs. But the facts remain that I’m never going to be done living with my illness, and I’m never going to be able to escape the terrible, thundering pull of transition. I may trade packed dirt in Maine for the asphalt of New York City, and then again for the highway or sand or gravel, but there will always be that road, that school bus, and me sitting inside. School buses don’t even have safety belts, so all I can do is dig in and fill the seats with friends.
Columbia Psychological Services has resources for students struggling with eating and body image. To make an appointment, call 212.854.2878.