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Transitioning Between School and Treatment: Eating Disorder Recovery in College

Both eating disorder recovery and college require commitment, time, and support. If you are a student struggling with an eating disorder, you may reach a point where it’s clear that you do not have enough resources to do both. Somewhere deep inside, you sense that temporarily stepping away from school may benefit both your health and ultimately your academic and professional goals.

The decision to take time off is not an easy one to make, and involves many logistical factors such as finances, insurance, administrative support, etc. It takes tremendous courage to put school on pause in order to sufficiently restore your health. Although it can be difficult, embarrassing, scary, and humbling, time off may be the only way to eventually make the most of your college experience when you return to school. Ultimately, this detour could be the necessary path to the life you really want to live.

Here are some insights and tips on how to navigate the transition from school to treatment, and back to school again.

Considering Time Off

Laura, a recent college graduate who is in recovery from anorexia, stepped away from college twice to take care of her health. Each time, she reached a point where she realized she could not tend to her studies and health concurrently: “Being a student is a very active thing. It takes a lot of your time and energy. There’s not always room to attend to both.”

Tips: Get clear about your long-term values and goals. With those in mind, write down the pro’s and con’s of staying in school versus taking time off for recovery. Ask yourself, “What do I really need to flourish as a student and as a human being?”

Shifting Patterns

When Laura entered treatment, she struggled to let go of the “workaholic” identity school had fostered in her. She found it hard to fill the unstructured time after her day program ended each day in healthy ways. But she practiced engaging in nurturing, instead of depleting, activities. By doing things differently than she had when in her eating disorder, Laura paved the way for a successful return to college: “By the time I went back to school, I was very excited about it. I was feeling a lot stronger and calmer. I was on a better schedule for eating and sleep, which is a big part of maintaining my recovery. I was thankful, when I went back, that I figured out how to structure my time in healthy ways.”

Tips: Be willing to make changes in your daily habits. Track what percent of your time goes towards self-caring activities versus obligations. Try writing out a daily schedule. Especially while in early recovery, devote the majority of your time to nourishing–not draining–activities.

Returning to School

Eating disorders thrive in the competitive, high-pressure environment of college. At the same time, for many students, college serves as a primary motivation to recover. This is the tricky balance students in recovery must navigate.

In order to prevent her recovery from being hijacked by the school climate upon her return from treatment, Laura had to both acknowledge the challenges and focus on school as a source of inspiration: “Going back to school has given me new purpose and kept me excited about my life. It’s been challenging, but great.” During high pressure times like finals week, Laura found herself struggling, but with consciousness: “It’s the stress…but I’ve been aware of it and been able to do something about it. And I’m proud of that. But it is not like it stops being hard.”

Tips: When getting ready to return to school, be realistic. Recovery is a rocky road. Go back to school expecting there to be challenges, and set yourself up with support in advance. If your motivation waivers or if behaviors pop back up, reach out to your supports and journal–don’t give up!

Slowing Down

Once Laura returned to school, even while stumbling through the transition back, she could recognize all she had gained from putting school on pause. She wishes for others to know that “Slowing down can be really important. It was for me. And it’s not a message I ever heard in college.”

Tips: Take your time. Be gentle with yourself. Try on the notion that there’s no rush to finish school. And remember that life is about being in process, not reaching an endpoint!

If you or a student you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, contact EDRS to learn more about if campus recovery support might be a helpful resource. You also may want to explore what resources your school offers, such as eating disorder awareness events, peer support groups, campus health and counseling services, and residence life programs.

To explore more about navigating eating disorder recovery on campus, read:

  • Eating disorders among college-aged males articles:
  1. http://eatingdisorderspecialists.com/eating-disorders-challenges-among-college-aged-males-part-1/
  2. http://eatingdisorderspecialists.com/eating-disorders-among-college-aged-males-helps/