5 Tips for the Recovery Warriors Taking Time Off School - Anna Z.

College can be stressful with all of the demands of classes, assignments, exams, etc, but that is all the more reason to focus on your mental health and learn how to handle difficult situations with a bit more ease. Remember, recovery must be the number one priority, because with recovery you are capable of more than you can imagine!
I still live and work in the same town where I received my undergraduate degree. Over the last few weeks, I have watched the excitement as students return to campus for a new school year. The town is hustling and bustling with young adults who are excited about the year to come: new classes and learning opportunities, reuniting with friends, football Saturdays, and more. 
Witnessing this back-to-campus excitement has brought about a myriad of emotions for me. Going back to college is often thought of as a time of excitement and new beginnings. A fresh start to a new school year. But that isn’t the case for everyone – it certainly wasn’t for me.
This post is dedicated to my fellow recovery warriors who aren’t returning to school this semester.
Maybe you’re taking some time off of school to continue your recovery at an eating disorder treatment center, or maybe you need some extra time to figure out how to juggle recovery and life – whatever the case is, know you aren’t the only one!
I know the pit-in-your stomach feeling, as you watch your friends and colleagues going back to school. You won’t be joining them right now, because you need to take some time to focus on recovery from your eating disorder – and it’s frustrating.
Throughout my upbringing, I was so often exposed to this idea: after high school, you go to college. You will have the time of your life, meet friends, graduate after four years with a degree, and continue onto graduate school or get a job. Sound familiar? There is absolutely nothing wrong with this streamlined path – I know so many loved ones and friends who lived life this way – BUT it certainly isn’t the only way to go about young adulthood.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you have to take a break from school:
1. School will always be there. Make sure you’re there, too.
When I first made the excruciatingly hard, but necessary, decision to take time off from school, it felt as though my world was crashing down. To me, taking time off meant that I was not meeting the “norm”, or the expectation of what college was supposed to be. I felt like my college experience was being taken away from me.
I was so wrong! While the four-year college degree may be what is most commonly portrayed, or achieved, it certainly isn’t everyone’s path – in fact, more people than I ever realized have a less-than-traditional story.
Taking time off from school allowed me to focus on both my mental and physical health, so that, when it was time to return to school, I was more than ready to do so. As hard as it was to take time off to focus on my recovery from an eating disorder – I know it would have been even harder to continue living in the depths of my eating disorder at college.
2. Recovery will help you plan a future based on your values.
My eating disorder commandeered every aspect of my life – it even influenced what I thought I wanted to study and what classes I took. I was so caught up in disordered ways of thinking that my class selections and schedule revolved around the rigidity of the eating disorder. I selected classes that taught me about nutrition and exercise – and I only picked classes that revolved around my gym schedule. Needless to say, this was not ideal.
When I began my recovery process, I was exposed to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which taught me about values. It was really eye-opening when I was able to recognize that my eating disorder was a road block to the things that I really did value. Upon returning to school, I was able to use my values to guide the decisions I was making:
  • Does this class excite my eating disorder, or is it something that I am truly interested in learning more about? 
  • Should I spend my time at the gym, or should I try engaging in clubs and activities on campus? 
  • Do the activities I’m participating in reflect my values, including connection, learning, integrity and adventure?
Recovery allowed me to think outside of my eating disorder and explore opportunities that I would have never considered before.
Additionally, the recovery process has provided me with coping mechanisms and skills that I utilize in all areas of my life. I have learned that I am a resilient individual and can handle a lot more than I ever realized – when life throws curveballs my way, I am better able to handle them without allowing them to completely derail me.
3. You are not alone – recovery will help you connect with others.
While I thought that taking time off from school was going to further isolate me from my friends and colleagues on campus, it actually strengthened a lot of my relationships. Yes, I was geographically further from these people for a while, but, when I returned, I was able to really engage in my connections – rather than engaging in eating-disordered behaviors.
Recovery has taught me how to communicate my needs, and it has taught me how to allow other people into my world. My eating disorder put up a wall, and I didn’t let anyone beyond the “Great Wall of Anna”. Taking time off from school to focus on myself helped me recognize that it is really lonely go to through life alone – letting people in and allowing others to actually be a part of my life can be daunting at times, but it is so worth it. 
4. It IS possible to go back to school and be successful at both school and recovery. 
When I first took time off from school, I catastrophized it. I convinced myself that I had failed, and that I was never going to be successful at managing both school and recovery from an eating disorder. I was used to excelling at school, so this felt like a huge setback.
I have learned that it was crucial for me to take some time off from school, so that I could get my footing with recovery, and figure out how to juggle both recovery and other responsibilities. Sometimes recovery can feel like a full-time job – with all of the doctor, therapist, and dietitian appointments – not to mention the constant battleground in your mind. Adding school back to this already busy and chaotic schedule was tough, but it is doable. Allow yourself to be patient with the process and reach out for help if you need it. 
And lastly,

5. Make recovery number one
The first time that I had to pause my education to seek out a higher level of care for my eating disorder felt devastating. I felt like I was going to be so far behind and was going to miss out on so much. I won’t lie and say that returning to school was easy. It was definitely an adjustment to learn how to reintegrate myself to a college campus while maintaining my recovery. I had spent my previous college years in the depths of an eating disorder, so it took some practice to not revert back to old habits. 
College can be stressful with all of the demands of classes, assignments, exams, etc, but that is all the more reason to focus on your mental health and learn how to handle difficult situations with a bit more ease. Remember, recovery must be the number one priority, because with recovery you are capable of more than you can imagine!
Anna Z. is a member of the Recovery Ambassador Council at Eating Recovery Center. Throughout her recovery, she has learned that her voice and speaking her truth is an incredibly powerful tool. She hopes her story will provide a message of hope to those struggling and help to continue education and awareness of eating disorders and recovery.
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