If you are preparing to start or return to school after being in treatment, congratulations! This can be one of the most challenging experiences of a lifetime. You may have mixed emotions about moving on. Leaving treatment usually means saying goodbye to a place that has provided safety and structure, and transitioning into a more independent phase in recovery. As a college student, you will face academic and social challenges, and be more responsible for both your mental and physical health. You may feel excited and hopeful about taking this next step, but it is also normal to feel nervous about maintaining your recovery with all of the extra responsibilities and pressures that await you. It’s critical to take the time to think about the challenges ahead, and plan how to best care for yourself and prioritize your recovery. Remember, you can cope with the anxiety you may be experiencing. And with some planning, you can make your transition to school a successful one.
How to Prepare
While you are still in treatment, it’s a good idea to plan as much as you can for your upcoming transition. If possible, re-visit your campus before you are discharged. Also, try eating in the dining hall to determine if this activity is still triggering for you on some level. Develop faith in your ability to eat appropriately on campus, even if this was previously a challenge for you.
Here are some basic points to remember as you’re preparing to return to school:
Set up your outpatient team: Identify team members on the college campus or in the community. An outpatient team usually includes a psychotherapist, medical doctor, psychiatrist, and nutritionist. Plan to see them regularly. Talk to your new team in advance of your arrival on campus. Ask if they can contact previous treatment providers for recommendations on how to best support you during this transition period.
Get rid of old reminders: Throw out your scale. Discard diet pills, fashion magazines, and anything else that reminds you of your eating disorder. Don’t take these things to school with you. If you’re taking a break from exercise, leave the running shoes at home. You don’t need the temptation of re-starting an activity that could potentially jeopardize your recovery.
Surround yourself with things that make you feel good: Put art in your dorm room that is uplifting and body-positive. Make a list of ways to care for yourself and post it alongside your bed. Treat yourself to comfortable sheets and a new comforter. Remember, taking good emotional and physical care of yourself needs to be your top priority.
Be aware of your triggers: What triggers and emotions are most likely to lead you to eating disordered behavior? Do you use your ED when you’re hungry, tired, anxious, or lonely? Are you more likely to be upset by final exams, life stressors, or going to a party on Saturday night? Identify when you tend to be most vulnerable, and come up with strategies to work through these challenging situations.
Be smart about your clothing choices: Before you return to campus, go through your old clothes and throw out anything that no longer fits comfortably. Don’t keep clothes that you’re secretly hoping to wear at some point. Also, try and avoid clothes that will make you feel too self-conscious. Remember, if you feel comfortable in your clothes, you will feel much better about yourself, leading to improved body image.
Your meal plan will go with you: If you’ve been on a meal plan, continue to follow it when you return to school. You have enough change right now; therefore, the meal plan should remain consistent. Think about which dining environments are best for you. Make a plan with friends so that you can meet them for meals and/or snacks. Eating in college can be unpredictable, so talk with your nutritionist about any questions you may have about how to eat according to your specific dietary needs while in the campus environment.
Reflect on yourself: What have you learned during your time in treatment? Make a list that you can refer to once you’re in the swing of things at school. The list should include: signs that indicate a potential return to eating disordered behaviors, skills you can utilize to help yourself when in distress, and ways your supports can help you on an on-going basis. Then share this list with those you trust, who you would feel comfortable reaching out to, if needing additional support.
Choose your friends wisely and utilize supports: Your supports include your team members, and the family and friends you trust. Spend time with friends who are healthy role models (not peers who are using ED behaviors). Your friends and family members should be supportive of you, and love you regardless of appearance. It’s also a good idea to set up regular check in times with family, either on the phone or in person.
Remember that going to college can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences in a person’s life. Using the above tips, your determination, and above all, staying connected to providers and supports, you can keep the eating disorder out of your school environment. You deserve to spend your time feeling good, focused on learning, and enjoying this phase of your life.
Amy Scobie-Carroll, LICSW
Assistant Director, Laurel Hill Inn