CW: This article discusses eating disorders. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-
Seven years is a long time to live with a mental health condition.
From middle school to college, so much of my adolescence is a hazy blur. To be truthful, I can’t remember a lot of those years, and I don’t often find myself trying to.
But with World Mental Health Day passing on Oct. 10, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be in recovery on a college campus and how that process has shaped my experience as a Georgetown University student. It was only after coming to Georgetown that I — for the first time — admitted out loud the diagnosis I’d been grappling with for years: anorexia nervosa and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.
Leaving home midway through my recovery journey was terrifying beyond belief.
In many ways, coming to campus as a first-year felt like hitting a reset button on all the work I’d done to get better. It meant leaving behind everything comfortable and familiar — “safe” foods, “safe” company and my “safe” routine, alongside all the coping mechanisms and safety nets I’d built for myself at home.
Recovery at college has meant coming to terms with my illness and holding myself to a new form of accountability in which I am at the helm of my own health choices.
At home, it always felt as though every “good” choice I made was, in part, for someone else — each pound gained was a way of appeasing my doctor or placating my anxious parents. But at college, there was no watchful eye, no weekly weigh-in, no third party to hold me accountable when I slipped.
For the first time in my life, my health was entirely in my own hands.
There’s an abundance of literature on how eating disorders develop and how they are exacerbated in a college environment.
But few people talk about what it’s actually like to be in recovery at college: to expect continuity amid so much change is unreasonable, as recovery alone is the hardest process for many of us to accept. To attempt some linear progression of self-love, self-acceptance and growth, only to time and time again be faced with the ugly truth that recovery is anything but linear, is devastating.
The recovery process takes work, and it’s not easy to maintain as a full-time student.
My condition impacts me, my routine and my relationships on a daily basis, in ways that people around me often don’t consider.
It’s why I never join in on late-night Epicurean runs, why I’m constantly fidgeting or tapping my feet, why I only eat meals at specific times and why I never miss a workout, even when I’m exhausted. It’s why, at the slightest mention of weight cutting, calorie counting or meal skipping — staples in Georgetown’s pervasive rhetoric on diet culture — I go silent and shut down.
The echoes of my illness are the voices in my head that I can’t turn down, the constant murmuring in the background that makes me anxious, neurotic and angry, seemingly without reason. I live with a million rules in my head — some days I abide by all of them and others I follow only a few. Once in a while, I’ll be brave and break one, and sometimes, I regress and add a few more.
For me, recovery at college has meant living with a constant fear of being misunderstood, of being perceived as a hermit, of having to apologize for my illness. Time and time again, I’ve passed on nights out and precious moments with friends because the thought of putting myself out there, of ending up in a situation in which I didn’t have complete control, overwhelmed my fear of missing out.
The disability-adjusted life year (DALY) is a metric that expresses the number of years lost to disability, premature mortality or time lived in not full health. One DALY represents the loss of one year of full health due to illness — and this metric is applicable to understanding the global burden of mental illness.
The Global Burden of Disease study estimated that in 2017 alone, over 3.3 million healthy life years were lost to eating disorder-related disabilities worldwide. Further, the DALYs associated with all mental disorders totalled 20.6 million years in 2019.
Sometimes, I think about how much time I’ve lost. Yet, more important is how much time I can still gain back.
As World Mental Health Day passed, I reflected on my own time at Georgetown thus far and on my transition to college as someone struggling with mental illness. And with that, I’ve seen what Georgetown and its community could do better.
To me, support from the community entails a willingness to be conscious of diet culture and
triggering discussions of weight and body image. It means the removal of highly visible, in-your-face calorie counts at campus dining locations and the expansion of more accessible meal options. It means having reachable, timely and culturally conscious university mental health resources.
At college, I have grown into myself, and I will continue to keep growing. I have healed and achieved milestones in my progress that I never imagined I could. Through it all, a major pillar of my strength is grounded in knowing I am not alone, not only through my personal support systems, but in knowing the countless other students who have grappled with, confronted and conquered their own struggles with mental illness on campus.
Everyone’s needs are unique and dynamic — but for your friends and loved ones, for those you know and for those you don’t know who may be struggling, practice kindness. Practice empathy.
Help make this campus a safe space conducive to healing and happiness for all.
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Service (202-687-6985); additional off-campus resources include the National Eating Disorders Helpline (800-931-2237, or text ‘NEDA’ to 741741).
Komal Samrow is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.