I Developed An Eating Disorder Because I Wanted To Get Into An Elite College
Two years ago, I opened an email from Northwestern University that read, “Congratulations!” My immediate thought was, “You still aren’t good enough.” Then, “I hope my mom doesn’t get a cake to celebrate.”
My most striking memory from that day is of wiping away my own tears in bed. I cocooned myself in my Northwestern blanket and sobbed until I couldn't breathe. As I pinched the "fat" on my stomach, I knew Northwestern had made a mistake.
I'd made myself a promise that I would stop starving myself if I got into Northwestern. I promised to put an end to my eating disorder, and to start talking to my friends again. I had promised myself that, upon my acceptance, I would start being "Jamie" again. The 5"10, 118-pound girl who'd opened that acceptance email was not me.
When I'd started my senior year at a highly competitive, public school, I already knew my classmates and parents expected the best. My dad said, “It'll be easier to find a job if you go to a ‘name-worthy’ school.” My classmates gossiped about each other’s college dreams. “She's applying there?” “No way. She's too stupid.” I couldn’t bear to think of people saying these things about me, too.
So, I made an agreement with myself — I would starve myself until I got into Northwestern. It made perfect sense to my 18-year-old self. I needed straight A’s to get into Northwestern. I needed to be perfect at everything I did, and to be perfect, I had to control every aspect of my life.
This perfectionism manifested itself through my eating disorder. My day would start with one piece of toast, a smidgen of peanut butter, and a banana. For lunch I ate a power bar, baby carrots, and a humongous mug of green tea. Liquids like coffee, tea, and water were the only way I could get through my day without collapsing from hunger. Finally, dinner would be a few bites of whatever my mom cooked. This eating schedule became something that controlled my every action. If I ate one-too-many baby carrots, my day would be ruined.
If a big fat “B” graced the top of my assignment, I would cut out even more food. Eventually, my unhealthy routine started to include a meeting with the scale every morning. I watched the needle drop three to five pounds every week. For a while, I felt proud of myself. Eating less gave me a sense of triumph. Instead of gaining happiness from laughing with friends, I gained satisfaction in isolating myself and skipping meals.
Every morning I looked at my stomach and felt like it wasn't concave enough. I hated that I still couldn’t wrap my hand around my calf. It bothered me that my thighs still squished together when I sat down. My anorexia wouldn’t be happy until it killed me.
It was Christmastime when I almost collapsed in Trader Joe's while shopping with my mom. She convinced me to see my pediatrician who essentially called me a "walking zombie." My pulse: nonexistent. My blood pressure: deadly low. My emotions: no longer present. My body contained just enough energy to keep my heart pumping.
Meetings with therapists marked the end of my senior year. I am lucky my family recognized my need for help early on enough. But even just six months with an eating disorder can haunt you for life.
Almost two years have passed since then, and an 87 percent on my statistics midterm still tempts me to skip my morning snack. Recovering from my eating disorder sometimes feels never-ending. The "evil" part of my brain constantly telling me I am not enough; another "good" part affirming I am more than enough. Now, the good part is winning because I am finally at my healthiest weight.
Looking back, I know I would have felt just as (if not more) content if I'd decided attending a state school was also good enough. I would give anything to redo my senior year. This time, I wouldn't let the high expectations of getting accepted by an “elite” school dictate my every decision. Maybe then, I would have sidestepped what turned out to be the darkest period of my life.
Going to Northwestern has taught me a lot about the mental health culture of our generation. Students brag about who is the most stressed out, who has the most finals, and who slept the least. Being stressed, being pushed to our limits, becomes a game. Teaching about the importance of self-care needs to be a priority at all universities. If anything, my recovery from anorexia taught me that we must put ourselves first.
Getting to call myself a Northwestern student doesn't erase the sorrow I went through to get here. I would love to go back and tell my skeleton of a high school senior that a state school is also fantastic. I wish I could make sure she knew that, no matter what school she got into, she was always going to be enough.
Images: Jamie Schmid