Can College Wait?
Making the decision to go to college after high school is stressful enough let alone when one is struggling with a mental health issue. Even more stressful is deciding to hold off on attending college to make room for one’s own healing. I do not regret my decision to attend treatment rather than go off to school in the fall. I know that this choice is ultimately what saved my life. I want to say if this is where you find yourself at this moment, I understand, and you are far from alone. Here are some lessons I learned when I made the decision to go into treatment and when I finally felt ready to go back to school.
It never feels like the right time
I wasn’t prepared for recovery when I made the decision to go away for treatment at 18 years old. I honestly wasn’t even thinking about what comes next or what impact this decision would have on my life. All I knew when I made the decision to receive treatment for my eating disorder was that my life as I was living it was not sustainable or functional. I wanted to live; I just didn’t know how.
At the beginning of my recovery and treatment journey, it felt like recovery and treatment were costing me and taking away my choices. What I know today is that it was my eating disorder that was taking away my free will and agency. Treatment was what I needed to gain independence and health to make choices in my life based on my authentic values and identity. I had no idea who I was outside of the false safety my eating disorder was creating. Even if I had gone away to school and found a way to continue to function, my eating disorder, perfectionism, and trauma would have made all my choices for me.
How much more was I willing to lose before making the choice to begin healing?
Healing has to come first
What I know today is that making the choice to focus on my recovery first is still the most important choice I can make for myself and what I credit for my sustained recovery to this day. Without my recovery nothing else is possible. I learned that my eating disorder was not a moral failure but a survival tactic that helped me navigate destructive beliefs and pressures. Recovery has become less about managing my eating disorder and more about navigating the actual events of life. At 18 I was not in a place to make hard and functional choices. I know that if I had gone off to college, I would have taken my eating disorder with me and would have eventually needed more intervention or worse. My eating disorder would have taken my life. Each step in my life since accepting that I need help has been one of authenticity. Though it is not always easy, it is always worth it. My eating disorder always took me to the depths of shame, secrecy, and isolation. Recovery, though sometimes very uncomfortable, has always led me to greater freedom.
There is no timeline
Much like diet culture, our society’s pressure on young people to fit a certain mold or timeline for success is extremely toxic. We are supposed know what we want the rest of our lives to look like, pick a major, and do it all in 4 years lest we fall behind. My experience with recovery and taking my time with my degree is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Choosing treatment and recovery before pursuing school gave me insights and tools that I needed to navigate the journey of education and make it something that is useful and meaningful in my life. This was not something I had the ability to do at 18 or in my early recovery throughout my 20s. This is not to say that I didn’t struggle with these pressures and the decision to continue to postpone my education for my recovery. I very much struggled with shame and comparison. What I learned through these experiences is that the solution to this pressure is to believe and know that I am always right where I need to be and on my own path. No experience has been wasted.
It took me many attempts to find my way back to school. It took me 14 years to finally graduate with my bachelor’s degree ironically during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no graduation day for me. No celebration. Just a quiet Zoom room full of fear. Yet despite this moment of sadness, I was so proud of my accomplishment. This wasn’t just a degree for me. This represented countless battles with my eating disorder, perfectionism, trauma, substance use disorder, and, most importantly, coming to terms with my gender and sexual identities. If I had made the decision to go to school instead of treatment, I am not sure that I would be here today. Not as I am. The eating disorder and perfectionism would have made the decision of where I needed to go and what I needed to major in, and I don’t know if I would have survived. My college journey was marked by several attempts to take classes only to fall back into familiar eating disorder cycles. Each time felt like a failure but also gave me greater insight into the role the eating disorder was playing in my desire for protection and safety. When I finally graduated it was as myself and not who I thought I needed to be to have value.