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The Freshman Fifteen

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It was a college reality, as ubiquitous as sexile, your first all-nighter, or the inevitable awkward encounter with your Screw date. And yet, as I entered Sharples, it was the only one that was real for me.

In the previous six months, I had lost over 20 pounds. My legs were sore from  hunching over the toilet in the only single-stall bathroom at work, watching bile and tears form swirling eddies that brought a strange sense of satisfaction and control to a girl who felt like everything was falling apart. I had refused rides home in favor of hours spent walking up and down and up and down grocery store aisles, examining labels on foods I had forbidden myself from eating and feeling a quiet power and also no power at all as the calories per serving marked double, triple what I was eating. My food log became my Bible. I watched meals diminish – from two eggs, to one egg, to an egg white, to a cup of coffee and a stick of gum (10 calories, if you buy Sugar-Free Extra and drink your coffee black). I had reveled in cold showers, because shivering burns more calories, and watched with mild fascination as my hair began to fall out and my image in the mirror began to distort. I had passed out in the middle of the work day.

In recovery, they tell you to give your eating disorder a name, an identity, to give the voices in your head a will of their own and separate them from the thoughts that are authentically yours. You sit through group therapy and individual therapy and art therapy and you sit at group meals and drink PediaSure if you can’t finish everything on your plate and you document your meals and watch a number of calories on the left side of the low end of the recommended range that to you seems astronomically, earth-shatteringly large enter your body and you talk about Ed. Ed, the voice inside your head that directs you to order salad, dressing on the side and sneers as you step off the treadmill. You quickly learn that he is much more difficult to quell than your hunger.

Through months of treatment, I learned to make his voice much, much softer. I learned that the signals of my body are more powerful and more important than the twisted, perverted dictator in my head. I learned that Ed is strong, but I am stronger.

But I also learned that Ed never really goes away. During my years in support group I watched women recover, finally having quelled Ed’s manipulative prohibitions, go off to college ready to kick ass and take names … and return, a few months later, having relapsed again.

As I stood in Sharples on that first day, I felt Ed stirring. I eyed pasta bar and limitless cereal and ice cream at every meal, and so did he. After years of meals regimented first by me and Ed and weight loss, and then by nutritionists and therapists and weight gain, I could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it.

So I should just have a salad, dressing on the side…right?

Recovery is always described as a journey. Most of the time, it feels like a battle. Ed is still here. Sometimes he is a whisper; sometimes, he is almost screaming. As the stress mounts (and, along with it, the stress eating), he becomes harder and harder to tune out. My relationship with food is still distorted. The difference is that now I recognize the warning signs. I know that Ed is not my friend — that his voice is not my voice. My first semester at Swarthmore has not been marked by a battle with the Freshman Fifteen, but by my battle with Ed.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone. 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Eating disorders are not about weight loss: they are intrinsically linked to control, perfection, and mental health. They are most likely to arise, or reemerge, in environments of stress, confusion, and intensity; the longer you wait, the harder it is to stop. If you feel yourself going down this path, I urge you to reach out. Make an appointment at CAPS, or find someone else you trust to talk to. The National Eating Disorder Association (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org) has 24/7 hotlines and additional information on treatment and recovery. Recovery is not easy, but it is possible. This month, during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, marks one year since I left intensive treatment, since I recovered. I am grateful every day to wake up in a community as supportive as Swarthmore, and to know that even when Ed’s voice feels louder than my own, I am supported and I am not alone. I am far from perfect, but I am healthy, and I am here.

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