Welcome to College: The Best Days Of Your Life, Or An Experience To Recover From?
By Jordi Sutton
For the past ten months, I’ve been a counsellor-intern at a college counselling center. To say it was an “education” would be an understatement. Although I’d been attending the same institution as a postgrad student for a number of years, I wasn’t really engaged in student life. It was only once I started hearing the stories and struggles of my on-campus undergraduate clients that I gained terrific (sometimes terrifying) insight into what life outside of my office looked like.
It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the dorm environment—quite the opposite, in fact. My first dorm experience was in high school, and that’s where my eating disorder started. Looking back on it, and hearing similar stories now, I realize that that kind of setting—an all girls’ dormitory—might be the perfect “soil” in which to grow the seeds (of perfectionism, disordered relationship patterns, and unhealthy behaviours) that were planted in childhood and adolescence. A girls’ dorm is like a greenhouse for eating disorders.
Where I work now is a small, rural, religious college, so the community is especially tight-knit—which can be both a good and a bad thing. The girls who share a dorm tend to feel responsible for one another, like they have to rescue each other, but also fiercely competitive; everyone has something to prove. It can be hard to establish an identity outside of the collective identity, or to counter the way one is automatically perceived by one’s peers. It can be hard to feel like one has any control, any space, and any autonomy. At the same time, some of the relationships that come out of this space are beautiful, deep, and healthy. But many of the women who enter college for the first time are not strong or independent; they are not prepared to take charge of their own identities. And being in a setting where they feel even more powerless and voiceless can be the spark that ignites a fire that—as anyone who has had an eating disorder knows—is soon blazing out of control.
University is, in general, a high-stress environment, something that high school rarely prepares us for. We move away from home, we take out gigantic student loans, we live with strangers, we study philosophy! Our parents expect us to do well, to “make them proud.” Our professors expect us to know things we don’t have a clue about. We begin imbibing ideas about the world and about humanity that threaten to break apart our previously black-and-white (and oh-so-comfortable) conception of reality. We change at an alarming rate. All in all, it’s frightening. Is it any wonder that students desperately seek ways of coping that don’t necessarily fit with their own values or goals?
The fact is, most women who start to restrict or purge don’t immediately adopt the identity of “anorexic” or “bulimic” or “disordered”—most of the women I’ve met who struggle with eating disorders are highly intelligent, self-aware people. They know that there is more to life than being thin, and that controlling food won’t ultimately provide the answers they are looking for. But it is an immediately available, and, yes, very effective, method of gaining some kind of power, some kind of tangible foothold in the chaos that is Selfhood at the moment.
These, in any case, are my observations. I have tried to walk with my clients through this dark time, to provide a place where they can be honest and angry and scared and paradoxical. They don’t often know what they want or who they are—or, if they do, they are not satisfied with those answers. I hear a profound sense of discontentment and disconnection even while they appear to be thriving and carefree. And often—and here is where my own fears and insecurities play out—I don’t know what to do or how to help. I so desperately want to have something to give these women and yet I know, from my own journey, that nothing I give will be sufficient. Ultimately, she has to find her answers in herself, not in someone else.
As a young bulimic woman, I found that private counselling did help; it gave me a voice. But what really helped was attending a therapeutic group. At the time, I was stumbling my way through an undergrad degree and it was my college counsellor who referred me. But the group wasn’t comprised only of students—there were women in their 20s (like me), and in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. And, even though I’d been dealing with an ED for years, it was the first time I heard the voices of people like me, people who understood my struggle. These people, like me, would walk out of that room and face the overwhelming challenge of dinner that evening. It was the first time I didn’t feel alone.
I’m not saying group therapy is the answer. It’s not for everyone—one of our members had to quit almost immediately because she wasn’t ready for it, wasn’t ready to speak openly about her intensely private shame. But it might be one option. Because we need options, don’t we? We need to talk about this, and we need to find new ways of helping. We need to understand from the inside out. We need your voice.
I say all this about my own experience not to discourage anyone who is embarking on the post-secondary journey—it’s a really exciting time, full of possibilities. I voice my concerns and ask my questions because I believe that acknowledging the problem is the first step to defeating it.
If you have any ideas about how college, or even high school, counsellors can help students struggling with disordered eating, would you be so kind as to let them know? Your perspective, and your experience, is the most valuable source of information we have. Be patient with us, the so-called “helpers,” because we’ll make a lot of mistakes. But please—tell us what we’re doing wrong (and maybe what we’re doing right) and, most importantly, what you need.
Jordi Sutton is a counsellor-in-the-making, currently based in southwest Saskatchewan. She’s passionate about helping people stand up to eating disorders and reclaim their lives. She’s also kind of passionate about her two-year-old son, who is teaching her what it means to be ridiculously joyful and brilliantly unashamed.