This year, February 1-7 marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW) in Canada. Eating disorders don’t discriminate; they affect people of all genders, ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds. This year’s message from eating disorder groups across the country is, “One size doesn’t fit all.”
Dear 18-year-old me,
It’s been a few years since you packed up your life and made the move to Carleton University. The only room you’d ever known was the cleanest it had ever been. It was bare. Everything and everyone flashed by on the four-hour car ride to Ottawa. You unpacked that sheltered life, and then your parents left, making it real.
Stepping into the dining hall for the first time, you had no one questioning what you were eating, how much of it you actually ate, and you finally had the freedom to let the Decepticon rage free. You let the Decepticon into your life at 12, and it never went away. It terrorized you on and off for years, so much that you decided to name it, instead of calling it by its proper name – anorexia.
“University students are at an elevated risk of eating disorders,” said Dr. Stephanie Cassin, associate psychology professor and director of clinical training at Ryerson. “Some of the personality traits that drive people to succeed in school, such as perfectionism, also increase vulnerability for eating disorders.
According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, 1.5 per cent of Canadian women aged 15-24 years old have had an eating disorder. Anorexia specifically has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses, with 10 per cent of anorexic individuals dying within 10 years of its onset.
For you, it came back at 17, and instead of enjoying your summer vacation to Italy before school started, you were up hours before the sun every day, running along the beach’s boardwalk until it got too hot to continue. You agonized over the nightly dinners with extended family and would politely scusa yourself to the bathroom after incessantly drinking cup upon cup of water, and thinking about how early you’d have to wake up to run it all off again.
The only thing that changed in the four walls of your new dorm room was that no one was watching anymore. The leaves started to change colour, and your new stomping grounds became the Rideau Canal, a measly comparison to the Alba Adriatica boardwalk.
It was November when you physically couldn’t get out of bed anymore. You were always cold, barely remembered anything from your classes, and gave up running because walking was now exhausting. Knowing something was wrong, you went to see a doctor on campus because you didn’t want to admit to yourself that it was back. You had to hear it from someone else. You had to hear that you needed help before taking the next step to getting help.
Christmas came, and you came home with it.
That clean, bare room back in Oshawa became your refuge again, though it stayed clean this time. With anorexia came a lot of other mental illnesses that all came out when the Decepticon did. That room stayed clean for the next six months that you spent on waiting lists to get into treatment programs.
You were barely hanging on.
You applied to Ryerson to see if you’d get another shot in the journalism program, and actually go this time. Just when you thought the Decepticon wasn’t going away, you got the call.
That room, that refuge, became a jungle within hours. Without even thinking, you threw everything into suitcases, packing up your life again, not giving your mind a chance to catch up with what your body was doing.
Then, just like a movie, the letter came and the sequence of your life started to make sense again.
Another six months passed, and instead of being lost, you found yourself as an inpatient going into the start of university, round two.
You were so excited to be back. Back to school, but most importantly, back to the girl you were before the Decepticon.
And then just like that, rewind, and relapse, again.
People always told me that your post-secondary years would be the best of your life. They’ve certainly been the most memorable and defining of mine, and yes, they have been some of the best. Though the anorexia took away your first year of university completely, you overcame it at 12, again at 18, and again at 20.
It gave you the will to keep fighting.
Life is so different than it was when you first started university, and it’s about to change again now that it’s almost done. Instead of retreating into the anorexia during times of change, you can choose to chase your dreams, and not let the eating disorder take any more memories.
As hard as it may be to believe, you are one of the lucky ones. Before being admitted you never fully understood what an eating disorder was. Then, you saw it for your own eyes in the hospital. As you became Jenna again, you made some great friends, though not all of them made it.
The girls in the program are the only people who understand what it’s like to suffer, to recover, and suffer again.
Though weight restoration is a huge part of what you aim for as an inpatient, once you actually gain the weight, you have even more catching up to do. The world then sees you as normal, even though you’re not used to seeing yourself at a healthy weight, their normal.
Years later, and normal is still something you’re striving for. Maybe it’s what we’re all striving for.
Keep striving, keep fighting.