I Put My Ivy League Education on Hold to Finally Recover From My Eating Disorder

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5% of adults in the United States experience mental illness every year. That's a significant portion of our population—one in five people—yet the stigma and misunderstanding that surround mental health remain rampant. That's why in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we put the call out to our readers to share their own experiences with mental illness: their victories, their struggles, and what it's really like to negotiate a society that makes misguided assumptions about who you are based on an arbitrary definition of the word "normal." Our series My Life With highlights the raw, unfiltered stories of women who deal with anxiety, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and more, all in their own words. Below, Linna Li shares an intimate look inside her decade-long battle with an eating disorder—and how she finally feels like she's coming out on the other side.

What It's Like to Be in Recovery for an Eating Disorder
Photo: Stocksy

Recently, my friend introduced the word saudade into my lexicon. Originating from the Portuguese language, saudade refers to a profound sadness or nostalgia of what once was. While the word has many connotations, saudade is essentially the presence of absence that conveys a reminder that what once was will never be. Yet despite the fact that there’s no direct English equivalent and I don’t have any Portuguese ties, I found familiarity with the untranslatable and elusive word.

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“But you’re better now?” This is the typical response I would receive after explaining to my classmates that I’ve been away on a three-semester health leave of absence. What always follows is my steadfast and smiling “Yeah! Of course.” These cosmetic exchanges are frustrating, not because of my peers’ responses—rather, because of my unwavering need to self-avert something that’s been a part of me for 11 years.

In 2007, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. My parents had noticed I lost a significant amount of weight in a few short months and decided to move up my yearly physical. At the end of my appointment, my pediatrician calmly told my mom and I that I was anorexic and handed us a slip to get blood drawn.

My life from that day onward was anything but calm. What ensued the next few weeks were hours of crying and meals of obsessively avoiding the next; erratic chaos. To myself, I was strong, fighting for the power and control that grew with each pound lost. To my parents, I became a monster that corrupted their baby, screaming, spitting, crying, yelling, and dying. With the aid of my (at the time) doctor-to-be sister, I entered inpatient treatment.

You never forget your first time on a psych ward, especially when you are 11. Whether it was getting chemically sedated because I was screaming and begging my parents to take me home, fixating on my heart monitor that displayed a 30 BPM pulse, or getting rationed “contraband” gum, I amassed a collection of memories over nine different hospitalizations. Between 2007 and 2009, I had spent nearly 12 months in treatment.

Although every eating disorder experience is unique to the individual, having an eating disorder is debilitating universally. As I was transitioning to a new high school, with people who had no knowledge of my latent eating disorder, I felt the need to mitigate my symptoms. I joined my high school’s rowing team, and for three years, I was healthy and happy. My eating disorder seemed like a rebellious phase, something that was distances away. Unfortunately, despite my streak, I relapsed my senior year.

In 2014, I transferred as a sophomore to my dream college. I was elated to reunite with many of my friends, meet new people, and grow professionally. At this point, I was over a year in relapse having sought no help. As quickly as O-week flew by did my symptoms intensify. I would obsessively avoid social functions around food, bury myself in school work, and go days without eating. Unfortunately, my functionality did not indicate a lack of illness severity.

I was walking back to my dorm when a sudden feeling of dread came over me like an encasing cloud. As if I were squeezing my own heart, I lost my breath and began to hyperventilate. Over the next few minutes that seemed like hours, l lay on the rocky path of the slope, crying between my short breaths, thinking my body was finally shutting down after the years of abuse. In reality, my eating disorder was not yet ready to succumb, and I experienced my first panic attack.

In the past, my eating disorder brought me comfort, confidence, a goal, and a raison d’être. But the moments after my attack before I stormed into my university’s health center were met with anxiety, deep anger, doubt, profound sadness, and terror.

This time around, I was on my own. My parents weren’t monitoring my caloric intake. My teachers weren’t following me into the bathroom to make sure I didn’t throw out my lunch. My doctors weren’t weighing me twice a week. I was no longer a minor being admitted into treatment center upon treatment center against my own will. My decision to leave and seek treatment was made on my own accountability.

I believe the first step to any recovery process is someone’s own will to recover. For me, this took almost 10 years and required pausing my life and leaving an Ivy League institution. In the moment, taking a leave from college felt equally as severe as my eating disorder. I had to postpone my academic, professional, and social progression during a period when all of my friends were having the best times of their lives. While they were joining sororities and fraternities, getting internships, and creating memories, I was at home sitting mindlessly and depressingly on the days I did not have therapy. In the most millennial sense, I had FOMO. While in retrospect I was fighting for my life and not against a hangover; I resented myself for being “weak” and unable to live as a functioning anorexic.

This resentment carried throughout my leave, as the university denied my readmission requests multiple times, telling me I lacked the progress I needed to return. What was supposed to be a semester-long leave turned into a year and a half. My numerous appeals were left with vague responses and more frustration.

Unfortunately, I am one of the many college students who find it nearly impossible to return to school from a medical leave. Universities should not invoke fear on their students who are being punished for seeking self-care. In the past five years alone, dozens of students across the country reported the lack of assistance when seeking help. Instead, they are being kicked out, forced to leave, or unable to return because they are seen as liabilities. What do schools accomplish by denying readmission to students who aren’t threats to themselves or others? [Editor's note: Linna's story resonates very deeply with me, as I was also threatened to be expelled from my university when I was suffering from an eating disorder, despite my high GPA. I eventually transferred because I was so appalled and devastated by the lack of support.]

While I was one of the lucky few who were eventually readmitted, my return was not easy. My friends with whom I entered college were now rising seniors. I also had no guidance from any of the university’s medical staff upon my return. And now, I was taking over 15 credits having taken over a year off. When I did feel overwhelmed and triggered, I was afraid to speak up to the administration out of fear or to my friends who had busy lives to balance. The school made no attempts to continue therapy or to see how I was adjusting.

In a couple weeks, I will be graduating at the top of my class. Having reflected on the past few years, I realize my regret for taking a leave has dissipated. What my time away gave me was personal resilience. It gave me the chance to reconnect with and meet exceptionally talented and kind people whom I now call my lifelong friends. I am most grateful for these people, as they’ve given me happiness, memories, and a reason to stay in recovery that my own will could not.