A Silent Struggle

by Marcia Herrin And Heidi Fishman | 10/12/98 5:00am

The following anonymous column, which was recently received by the editorial office of The Dartmouth, provides a crash course in what it is like to be a Dartmouth student with an eating disorder. This student describes accurately the desperation and the invisibility that students with eating disorders feel on this campus. Our first reaction to the letter is that we are glad the writer finally feels "ready" to begin the recovery process. Our second reaction is that we know a number of Dartmouth students with very similar stories who have gotten the help they needed from the Dartmouth College Health Service. Dartmouth's Eating Disorder Treatment Team is multi-disciplinary, and its confidential services are available to all Dartmouth students. Call 650-1442 to arrange an appointment with a counselor or the nutritionist or 650-1401 for appointments with medical professionals either in women's health or in primary care. There is a counselor-on-call 24 hours/day for emergencies. Call 650-1440 to reach the inpatient nurses who will connect you with the counselor-on-call after office hours.

Finally, there are students on campus who care about the toll eating disorders take on their classmates. Eating Disorders Peer Advisors (EDPAs) are Dartmouth students who have completed an intensive course taught by members of the Eating Disorder Treatment Team and other campus experts. The training sessions provide each EDPA with the skills, resources, information and sensitivity that are an integral part of peer advising either in advising friends of friends or students who have questions about their own situation. In the Eating Disorders Peer Advisors blitz bulletin entitled "Available EDPAs" you will find information on those EDPAs that are active and available this term for advising:

"I have seen friends emerge from eight weeks of play rehearsal looking drained and Hop pale (a special condition where the skin is exposed to nothing but the artificial lighting in the Hop basement). I have seen friends with bruises and wired jaws from rugby or black circles under their eyes from late nights at The D. But there is an extracurricular activity out there that is more time-consuming and exhausting than anything you find on a graduating senior's resume. In fact, you won't find it on any senior's resume. Membership is akin to that of a secret society -- so secret that even members don't know each others names. I am talking from the inside. I am talking as a woman whose life is possessed by an eating disorder. And I know I am not the only one.

Membership involves an intimate knowledge of parts of Dartmouth most students don't know or are not aware of. For instance, I know which bathrooms around campus have locks. Which ones have private stalls or are for handicapped use -- which at this point I essentially consider myself. I am talking about bulimia. I know I am not the only bulimic on this campus, because sometimes I walk into bathrooms, and I see lettuce leaves floating in the toilet. Think about that for a minute; it's pretty devastating. There are women out there who can't even allow themselves to digest a salad. I am not accusing or condescending. I can't eat a salad. Sometimes I think I can. I sit down in Collis or Food Court or Homeplate with my lovely, safe salad and raise my fork to my lips. I look around. Are people watching? I begin to eat faster, wanting the whole awful, exposing moments of eating to be over. And then I run to the nearest, safest bathroom. I see women sitting alone and eating, looking like they are fascinated by what's in the book or newspaper in front of them, yet never turning a single page, and I wonder. But it is a definite taboo of membership to ask, to discuss, to make public.

And that is why I am writing. For six years before I came to Dartmouth and the four that I have been here, I have lived my life throwing up between three and seven times every day. On a given day, I probably spend more time eating and throwing up than I spend in class. I have passed out running or simply walking around campus. I have been convinced that I was about to have a heart attack. I have become suicidally depressed, hurt, alienated, antisocial. My school work suffers as I am generally too exhausted or ill to concentrate or care. Still, I have never really, honestly thought about stopping, about walking away from the eating disorder until recently. I have always been afraid that perhaps there is nothing else to me. Nothing special that would separate me from all the other amazing Dartmouth students. Especially if I wasn't thin. Especially if anyone knew that what looked like an iron will of reserve and control was really weakness and chaos. Giving it up feels like giving up everything. Staying silent feels safe, familiar.

There is a huge amount of silence surrounding eating disorders. I would love to collect the whole pile of us and make a special lunch table or a punk rock teen angst band, but how could I say 'I have an eating disorder?' And who would answer back? I don't want to say it. And I don't feel like anyone wants to hear it or really acknowledge how enormous a beast it is. I am not asking for anything. There really isn't much people can do for their friends but listen and wait until they are ready to help themselves. After 10 long years I am finally ready. No, I am not trying to reach the community of concerned citizens. I am trying to reach my community. I want to say, I'm here, and I know you are out there, and this is real no matter how much you ignore it. Let it out. Scream 'I am going to go throw-up this food as soon as I eat it' in the middle of Thayer Dining Hall and maybe you will think twice about doing it. The longer it stays hidden and silent, the longer it wins. It's eating your friends. It's eating you. It's sure as hell eating me."