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The Freshman Fifteen

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

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.

Mental health is not a joke

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

All across the nation, we are facing a mental health epidemic. According to the American College Health Association, colleges and universities have reported over 50 percent of their students feeling overwhelming anxiety and 32 percent of their students reporting feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Yet, despite its widespread effects, mental health remains an under-addressed issue that is often ignored or left in secret. Even at Swarthmore, despite our liberal arts mission to encourage students to “prepare themselves for full, balanced lives,” mental health and self-care are often the ignored components of this mission.  We at the Phoenix believe it is the responsibility of the college to take on the task of ensuring all students can equitably access their educations and lives.

We cannot pretend Swarthmore students are immune from these mental health issues.  One can easily see this epidemic by looking at the full capacity issues within our Counseling and Psychological Services, as reported by Leo Elliot ’18 on March 17, 2016 in the Phoenix. Even with resources like CAPS, the campus still struggles to understand the severity of these problems or the need to increase our services for these issues. The Swarthmore community has students making emergency appointments with CAPS, only for these same students to return to studying in McCabe until 2am. The community has students crying in the bathroom and then returning to a seminar an hour later. Some students can barely get out of bed in the morning, yet still force themselves to turn in their problem sets or else face horrible self-criticism for not completing their assignment on time.

We at the Phoenix must emphasize that this is not healthy. It is not healthy to push one’s body to the breaking point, to recognize when one’s body and one’s mind needs to rest, but to keep forcing oneself forward anyway. Yet, students continue to push themselves past the breaking point because, on this campus, having a mental illness is not an excuse to miss class. Many students won’t even take a sick day for the flu, let alone a mental health day to take care of themselves. It is imperative that college staff and faculty recognize that feeling unsafe is a valid cause for academic accommodations. Students also need to recognize that not doing work due to serious mental health problems is not irresponsible as it is different from skipping class because they stayed up too late procrastinating. Too many students on campus feel embarrassed to admit they cannot finish all of their assignments and readings and push themselves too far. We at the Phoenix emphasize that our campus needs to reach a point where students with mental health problems feel comfortable seeking the treatment they need, even if that treatment is a simple break. Just as importantly,  the broader community needs to be able to respect these decisions.

While we at the Phoenix recognize that the college has made a lot of progress with regards to increasing conversations about mental health on campus, we also recognize that many more actions need to be taken and that we are not yet a supportive and accommodating campus for people with mental health concerns on campus.

We at the Phoenix urge the college to take action in several capacities. First, the college should provide professional development for faculty and staff on supporting the mental health of students. While many professors have created individual policies for accommodating mental health issues, a professional development training would standardize this process, decreasing the frustrations felt by students when one professor may make accommodations and another is unwilling to do so. This would also help instill confidence within the student body. If students know that their professors are aware of how to handle these issues, they may be more willing to approach them with their problems instead of suffering in silence.

We at the Phoenix are aware that professors are not counselors and we are not asking for them to serve as one. Rather, we are asking that professors understand the significance of mental health issues and are able to point students to appropriate resources and self-care practices.

Furthermore, we at the Phoenix urge the college to implement more open-campus discussions around mental illness. The college should work more closely with existing mental health groups, like Speak2Swatties or support groups led by CAPS and Worth Health Center, to share these resources with more students or expand the programming provided. They could also implement more discussions through better educating Residential Assistants, Diversity Peer Advisors, or Student Academic Mentors on how to discuss mental health. Finally, mental health could be featured as a special topic during campus initiatives, like a Coffee Talk, to help bring the issue to the forefront of campus.

A mental illness is not something that can be beaten with sheer willpower. It is not something that can be wished away, but instead takes time and effort to work through. By the college taking mental health issues more seriously, not only will the students who suffer benefit,  but so will the community at large. One cannot fully contribute to the campus around them if they are struggling with health issues. In order for students to receive the best education possible, and to contribute the most to campus and society, they must first have the resources to best care for their own mental health without feeling guilty for doing so.

Increasing OCD awareness and understanding

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Candace has repeated, intrusive thoughts about losing control and stabbing her children with a sharp knife. She becomes intensely anxious and is concerned that these unwanted thoughts signal her impending loss of control, or at the very least indicate that she is fundamentally a bad person. In an effort to be certain that she will not act on these horrific impulses, Candace insisted that her partner remove all sharp knives from their house.

This week is International OCD Awareness Week, and Candace is likely among the roughly three million people in the United States who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is not a disorder of quirkiness or being finicky. People with OCD experience recurrent, unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that cause distress, usually anxiety. These are called obsessions. They also engage in behaviors or thoughts that function to reduce distress, often by preventing feared outcomes or neutralizing obsessive thoughts. These are called compulsions.

When you think of OCD, perhaps you picture someone with contamination fears and excessive washing. You might be right. Perhaps you picture someone with the need to order and arrange everything symmetrically. You might be right. Perhaps you picture someone checking and rechecking the door lock, stove knob, or iron plug so as not to be responsible for a burglary, gas poisoning, or fire. You might be right.

But there is nothing special about contamination, order, or accidental harm, when it comes to OCD. OCD fears can focus on anything including violent harm, religion, taboo sexual fears, or one’s sexual orientation. Some individuals obsess about even less concrete things, such as acquiring unwanted characteristics of a bully by using a pencil he touched or losing part of one’s essence when discarding personal items. OCD is opportunistic, latching on to what matters to an individual. OCD has been called the “Imp of the Mind” because it tries to make you think most about the very things you find most unacceptable or matter most deeply to you. New parents with OCD often obsess about harming or neglecting their children, for instance.

Most people with OCD have insight about their fears (e.g., “I know you can’t get HIV from a door handle, but…”), and that is because symptoms are typically fueled by “what if” fears about what is possible, not necessarily beliefs about what is probable. Put differently, people with OCD struggle with tolerating uncertainty in the domains of their obsessions; however, efforts to achieve absolute certainty are doomed from the outset. How can one be literally certain that they are not a pedophile or that they truly did lock the door this morning, and are not conflating memories?

Among several cognitive styles, people with OCD also characteristically view thoughts as having moral or superstitious import, and they believe that one should control “bad” thoughts. As a result, someone like Candace might believe that her obsessions indicate either that she is a bad person or that she may in fact lose control and act on the thoughts. Whereas the experience of having bizarre intrusive thoughts is nearly ubiquitous among both those with and without OCD, the response to those thoughts differs. Those who treat their intrusive thoughts like meaningless neural noise do not experience anxiety about them. But people like Candace try very hard to avoid having certain thoughts or to suppress and cancel them, almost always to no avail. Try very hard not to think about something and you will find yourself thinking about it more.

Although they are sometimes effective in reducing anxiety in the short run, compulsions serve to maintain the symptoms in the long run. Imagine you have a negative experience with a dog and develop a fear of dogs. The more you avoid safe dogs, the more likely your fear will grow. Similarly, when you encounter a dog and you choose to leave the situation, you will experience a reduction in anxiety (which will reinforce the avoidance), and also fail to learn that the dog is safe and that you are capable of tolerating the anxiety, which will reduce on its own. Compulsions function like avoidance, temporarily reducing anxiety, but reinforcing the need to avoid and the perception that the obsessional trigger could otherwise be dangerous.

If Swarthmore is representative of the nation, nearly 40 current students will have OCD at some point. OCD tends to be chronic if untreated and is often associated with shame (imagine how some people might react if Candace disclosed her intrusive thoughts). It has been identified by the World Health Organization as among the top 10 causes of years lived with illness-related disability. The wonderful news is that first-line treatments for OCD, such as exposure and response prevention, are quite effective for most of those who complete an adequate trial of them. The sad news is that OCD is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years; on average, it takes approximately 15 years from the onset of the disorder for individuals to commence effective treatment.

During International OCD Awareness Week, I encourage you to educate yourself about OCD. If you or someone you care about may have OCD, there are highly effective treatments available that can be life-changing. If you do not have a personal connection with OCD, learn more about what it is and what it is not. Play a role in reducing stigma and shame. Think about why comments like, “I wish I could be a little OCD,” or “I am soooooo OCD,” are as misleading, unhelpful, and sometimes hurtful as comments like “I wish I could have a little anorexia.” Whatever your connection with OCD, the International OCD Foundation is a fabulous resource, offering information, training, and treatment resources and referrals. Check out their website: https://iocdf.org/.

Jedidiah Siev, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Psychology

Swarthmore College

Conversation around sexual assault continues

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month at Swarthmore and around the country, during which students and staff alike try to promote better understanding of the problem for all and support for survivors. Yet, even as programming around the topic has ramped up this month, questions remain about the current climate surrounding the issue of sexual assault on campus.

 

Two weeks ago, a t-shirt was found outside of Parrish on which was written, “Dean Braun is responsible for letting my rapist graduate. There is nothing else I can do but ignore it. Happy Sexual Assault Awareness Month.”

 

Together, this incident and the month in general have sparked new conversation about what understanding sexual assault looks like and whether we at Swarthmore have achieved meaningful awareness of the issue.

 

Most students that I spoke with agree that the student body has a general sense of what consent and sexual assault are but could better understand its causes and impacts.

 

“I think there are a lot of people that get the gist but don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the experience,” an anonymous junior tells the Phoenix. “Healing, for example, is a really underrated part of the process.

 

Along those lines, this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming has increased emphasis on healing, community-building, and support. Last Sunday, over 100 people attended Voices of Healing, a storytelling event in the amphitheater, where survivors and allies were invited to share their narratives.

 

This was meant to fill the absence of The Clothesline Project, a previously popular event that allowed survivors to write an often-political message on a t-shirt, about their experiences, to be strung publicly in Parrish.

 

“I really liked that project. I really miss it,” Allison Hrabar ’16 explains. “I’m happy we have that public talk but a ‘Voices of Healing’ event isn’t really reaching a new audience.”

 

Despite the ability for the Clothesline Project to reach a wide audience, not everyone within the survivor community on campus felt positively about it. The anonymous junior says that many other survivors found the upfront display to be triggering and unavoidable. She emphasizes the power of stories as another form of productive activism.

 

“Personally, a lot of what I’ve done is try to share my story with people who may not know a survivor. Personal stories are really important and so is making myself human and vulnerable,” she says.

 

“It’s such a charged discussion. People don’t necessarily understand the perspectives of a survivor. It’s an inability to empathize if you don’t have ties,” Clare Pérez ’18, who also works with Title IX, describes this gap as a key barrier in bettering campus culture.

 

Many believe that personal connections are crucial to humanizing the issue and seeing it as relevant and very important. However, students also wish the month directly addressed the underlying problems, like lack of education and social attitudes, that allow it to occur in the first place.

 

Cayla Barry ’18, wishes the month also re-addressed prevention. She describes how the consent education provided at first year orientation is not enough to adequately address sexual assault. Currently, orientation programming doesn’t note many kinds of violence, including those between same-sex people or within relationships, and the programming itself only happens once.

 

“I don’t see the same energy around actually practicing consent and enforcing it,” Barry said. “In my orientation, it seemed like they were saying sexual assault doesn’t happen here.”

 

Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the programs it offers are crucial, largely because sexual assault at Swarthmore is still a common occurrence.

 

One freshman survivor described her experience looking back at orientation after experiencing assault this past year.

 

“I wish the school named the problem. It’s not always miscommunication. It’s attitudes, too,” she describes. “I wasn’t assaulted because someone misread the situation, you know? I was assaulted because they didn’t care.”

 

Hrabar especially echoed the importance of shifting focus of our conversations towards personal accountability.

 

“It’s much harder to hold people accountable. It’s one thing to go [to a consent workshop] and think, wow, I would never do that, good thing all these other people are here learning. It’s another to go and think, wow, I have messed up before,” she says.

 

The anonymous junior also notes the importance of accountability, highlighting the need for everyone to not see themselves as potential “bad guys” but rather capable of doing harm. Along those lines, Pérez emphasizes the focus of the Title IX office this year in doing just that.

 

“It’s moving the conversation away from blame and towards community,” she says.

 

In identifying ways in which institutional change can occur, the relationship between survivors and the College administration is a crucial point of conversation.

 

As the t-shirt found outside of Parrish displays, many feel a sustained ineffectiveness of the administration in adequately addressing instances of sexual misconduct. Some of these sentiments seemed to be reinforced last week when Dean Braun did not offer a response to the incident.

 

“If not malicious, then students perceive administration as incompetent. I don’t think there’s a lot of trust,” Hrabar, a senior, says. Especially with those who lived through “The Spring of our Discontent” in 2013, the relationship is perceived as precarious.

 

“I think there are a lot of people doing things to prevent sexual assault and to accommodate survivors and there’s a lack of recognition for those people. I have never had a negative experience with someone who knew I was a survivor. I’ve only gotten support,” the junior source adds. She clarifies that not everyone has been so fortunate.

 

Yet, even prior to contact with the administration, many students simply do not know what procedures and resources exist nor do they feel confident in helping others navigate them.

 

“What does it mean to be a required reporter? What do you have to report? What does the judiciary process look like? Who’s going to be asking me questions and what will they be?” the same anonymous freshman asks.

 

The administration could also be more proactive in initiating and supporting cultural change.

Concerning policy, both Hrabar and Pérez consider the current structures, norms and rules surrounding party spaces to be overly restrictive and inequitable.

 

“When I was a freshman, there was a party in Paces, Olde Club, and the frats. I went out and avoided the spaces where I felt uncomfortable,” Hrabar says.

 

Now, many feel that the dominant party scene is limited to the two on-campus fraternities. While some weekends a party is hosted at Olde Club or Paces, and Pub Nite (despite decreased funding) still happens once a week, most interviewees identify the fraternities as the almost-exclusive party spaces open to campus on a Saturday night.

 

Despite sustained efforts, these spaces still feel uncomfortable to many. Many described the frats and other party spaces as being “hunting-grounds” for hook-ups, where the expectation of going home with someone is so strong that it has the potential to be dangerous.

 

Barry tells me about the persistence of people looking to hook up, despite verbal and nonverbal cues she’s given of disinterest. She also describes, as a queer woman, feeling watched and sexualized.

 

Pérez reiterates these party spaces, and party policy, as crucial points of activism.

 

“I disagree with just putting it on the frats but it is about creating a whole new culture and that involves creating new party spaces,” Pérez adds.  “It’s the transition to something new that doesn’t already have all these things attached to it.”

 

She describes the discussion around new spaces focused around women and non-binary people as an important step in diversifying the party scene and encouraging new norms.

 

However, many feel that the current policy is not conducive to this project. Because the fraternities have physical spaces and institutional recognition, they are able to more easily fund and organize parties on a regular basis.

 

“It’s the difference between encouragement and prevention. There’s no rule we can’t throw it a party but they are not helping us. It’s the difference between equality and equity,” Hrabar says.

 

Other important areas of activism cited through the interviews included more effective SWAT team training, better orientation education efforts, empowering RA’s to be facilitators of discussions, and even space-based tweaks, like locking doors or hanging up posters, to minimize risk and encourage in-the-moment accountability.

 

The anonymous junior discusses the new “It’s On Us” video to be shown at orientation and used as a tool of education and advocacy. She also discusses the renewed energy on the part of fraternity leadership in tackling these issues.

 

Summing up future hopes, Hrabar says, “We need to keep caring about this. It’s very, very easy to get tired. That’s where administration can come in.”

 

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is important in reminding the general campus what so many already know: sexual violence happens on this campus and, even as so much work has been done to address it, there is still much more to do.

 

Edited April 29, 2016: This article previously misidentified the amount of students who attended Voices of Healing. The author is deeply apologetic for the misrepresentation of the event’s impact.

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