This time of year stirs up memories of my first year at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana campus). I’d arrived there with anorexia well entrenched, after losing 45 pounds in about 6 weeks while working at a church summer camp as a nature counselor. I didn’t want to get to college ‘fat’. And I didn’t (though I thought I was grotesquely huge, even though a dorm neighbor would cringe when she saw me in my leotard when I went to the university skating rink; my ribs were visible under it), but I was already a slave to the eating disorder (ED) voice in my head that made eating absolute hell. People who haven’t crossed the line to an actual eating disorder don’t get it. I don’t expect them to- and I’m thankful they don’t know what it’s like to have a war in their heads over the number of curds of cottage cheese that are ‘acceptable’. Yeah- it gets pretty weird when curds of cottage cheese are a measuring standard.
By the beginning of the Spring semester, and returning from Christmas break, I was a mess. Being home for the holidays had been very difficult- I’d done what I could to avoid being around family by working at the University during a missions conference (‘Urbana ’81’). Ironically, I worked in the food service area, as a ‘foreman’ over local high school kids (who were about my age- I graduated high school a semester early, at barely 16 years old). But I had to be at home at some point (and in Florida with my parents for Christmas itself- that was a battle I lost). Trying to hide an active eating disorder and starving/purging isn’t easy- and caused even more havoc in my mind. I didn’t return to school at all well. I’ve never been clinically depressed unless I’ve been starving/malnourished. And I was a mess when I got back to my dorm.
I’d been seeing a therapist since I had arrived on campus the fall of 1981, as my resident director, resident assistant, and dorm-mates had found me wearing 6 pairs of socks and a winter coat in late August in central Illinois… humidity with the heat was probably stifling- but I was freezing. The RD could actually feel the cold coming through the socks. SO she called 911 and I was hauled off and kept overnight for observation. I don’t remember if I was carried that time or not- being taken away by ambulance became a not so rare thing, and the elevator only went to the 11th floor- I lived on the 12th, so a first responder would carry me down that flight of stairs to a stretcher. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa the next morning, and ‘ordered’ to start therapy or leave school. I had no clue what to think about therapy, but I knew that going home wasn’t an option. It would mean I’d failed. SO I went to therapy. I certainly couldn’t go home. Not “defective”.
That therapist ( a very nice youngish woman) probably never heard me say much more than “I don’t know”- and I didn’t ! I had absolutely no insight, and no clue what could have gone on in my past to lead to the eating disorder. By the Spring semester of 1982, I was really falling apart, and had a plan (and means) to kill myself. My roommate had moved out long before (because I was too QUIET !!), so I could be isolated for quite a while before anybody would have noticed I’d been missing. I had planned to take the tranquilizers
(Thorazine- supposed to chill me out enough that I didn’t care if I ate) I’d been given at the university health system pharmacy, and lock myself in my room, IN my closet that locked from the inside (with the keys), and just wait. I’d become fairly resigned to the idea that I wasn’t going to live all that long with the anorexia (which had included periodic bingeing at that point, and daily purging via 40 laxatives spread out throughout the day), so it was more about just dealing with the inevitable. I didn’t really want to die– I just didn’t know how to get out of the ED. I felt trapped, overwhelmed, ashamed, and hopeless.
The emotional pain had hit the tipping point. For some reason (like wanting to live maybe?), I spilled my guts to my therapist, who promptly had me escorted to the university health system (via the University Fire Department….. subtle), where I stayed until arrangements could be made to have me shipped to Forest Hospital in Des Plaines, IL (now closed). So, I stayed at the university health center, with my clothes and shoes locked up. Various dorm mates stopped by to say goodbye. Back then, there were no eating disorder ‘treatment centers’… if you had a nutty problem, you went to the nut house. That in and of itself was terrifying, but I was even more afraid of facing my parents- and being a disappointment- so a longtime adult friend and her daughter (former babysitter) came to get me…some 3-4 days later. I hadn’t anticipated my folks being at the hospital to sign the insurance papers, or I would have needed sedation. The therapist and health center folks had wanted me out of there much sooner, but the weather was a big problem. So, I waited at the health center ‘hospital’ as dorm friends came and went, trying to encourage and cheer me up. I was terrified, exhausted, and didn’t have a lot of fight left. And, I was devastated by not staying at school.
Suicide attempt averted. That time. The next fall, I returned to the university, and the pressure build-up was almost instantaneous. More on that later….