As March quickly approaches, I notice conversations often turning toward Spring Break: Beach season will soon be upon us. I hear talk of carbs, the distance between inner thighs and how easy it is to count calories now that Duke has done us all a favor and plastered numbers on our favorite foods, ready to plug in to our favorite app to tell us exactly how much we will weigh in time for that cruise. While this is perhaps the most damaging time of the year, there is no real end to beach season in sight.
My eating disorder began in a similar way—innocently enough paying closer attention to what I ate. But those habits slid quickly into something more serious before I could even realize I had a problem. I silently suffered through an eating disorder for almost four years, and no one even noticed. But now, I notice. I look around campus and I see myself in others, many others, and quite frankly it scares me. Everyone who has taken a ninth grade health class knows about anorexia and bulimia, but few realize that the most common eating disorder is actually EDNOS- eating disorder not otherwise specified. I didn’t fit neatly into either category of anorexia or bulimia, so I thought that it wasn’t that serious. There was nothing wrong with just chewing food and spitting it out, right? I still had all my hair and you couldn’t count my ribs, but I was at the receiving end of compliments and jealousy over my body. And so I just shrugged everything off. I’ve never been one to care what other people think—it was all about what I thought of myself really, and that was my biggest problem. Coming to college and living in the same room as another person, I got even better at hiding my secret—so good that I had even convinced myself that nothing was wrong. For me it was never about a number or a size; it was some idea in my head that I just had to keep pushing toward. It was control.
Spitting and pills had made things easy—I didn’t have to constantly skip meals, purge or exercise like everyone imagines an eating disorder to be, although I did do those things occasionally. And I probably would never have stopped if I hadn’t crashed right into rock bottom. One day I found myself hiding in the last bathroom stall with a lap full of junk food and laxatives, hating myself and my habit. That was the day that I decided there was, indeed, something very wrong and that I had to do what so many people see as failure. I had to ask for help.
It wasn’t just what food I ate, it was how rarely I would eat in public, how much time I put into thinking about how I looked, how much I had to lie to keep my secret. I was isolating myself, while still being surrounded by people. Through Duke’s Eating and Body Image Concerns (EBIC) program, I began to see a psychologist, nutritionist and physician to help address every aspect of my disorder—how I felt about myself and food, and what I had done to my body. After building these habits for almost four years, it was hard to just let them go. It’s like any abusive relationship: despite the tears and pain, this is what I had grown close to. But I knew if I wanted to have a true relationship with someone, if I wanted to have faith in myself, if I wanted to live out my life, I had to stop. Only then could I look at myself in the mirror and say, “I am skinny enough. I am smart enough. I am pretty enough. I am ____ enough. I am enough.”
It took a lot of courage and pep talks in my head before I could tell my friends, but what came next was shocking. After telling my story, I heard a string of quiet “me toos.” Some of my best memories are at Duke, but so are some of my worst ones. My biggest mistake was thinking that I was alone. I was never alone in my struggles; my friends gave me strength without even trying, and some even carried the same battle with them. Everyone knows somebody like me. And if you don’t think you do, you probably just aren’t paying close enough attention. I remain anonymous, not because I am ashamed, but because I am the face of many. Friend or girlfriend, nerd or athlete, greek or independent, man or woman, eating disorders touch the lives of almost everyone in college in some way.
This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness week, and what I propose is that we stop brushing this problem aside. It’s time to talk about it. Even if you aren’t sure, talk to your friends, talk to CAPS or Duke Reach, talk to anyone. You can help yourself or your friend, just don’t be afraid to raise your hand and say, “me too.”
The author of this piece has chosen to remain anonymous.