College eating disorders: a story of hope and recovery

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Trigger warning about college eating disorders article: mental health, disordered eating, chronic pain, migraines

Photo for article on chronic pain, mental illness and recovering from an eating disorder at college. Graphic illustration collage of an abstract Gian creature sadly holding the moon.

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College eating disorders: a story of hope and recovery

A few months into my first year of college, I began suffering crippling migraines. I have always suffered from headaches and have faced severe brain trauma, but these spells went to a new level. I had to quit the crew team, which was deeply embarrassing for me, and because of migraine symptoms, I had to physically isolate myself with high frequency.

Having an invisible disability with chronic pain is brutal. Most people do not trust what they cannot see. I don’t have a wheelchair – I don’t have a scar – you don’t see me when I am suffering. I understand why it’s hard to trust. I never blame anyone for their doubt, even though I deserve to hold them accountable.

I never was able to sit down with my team and talk to them about what I was going through because I simply couldn’t bear the judgment and the misunderstanding. I knew what they were thinking, even if it was just a thought they had for a second – she just isn’t good enough to keep up with this sport. She’s lazy.

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I knew when I started taking psychiatric drugs five years ago that weight fluctuation was a possible side effect. It wasn’t until college that this side effect actually kicked in, and it was multiplied because of my physically-limiting chronic migraine disorder. What I did not know was that I would suddenly have to buy a new wardrobe of clothes that fit me properly. I did not do this just because. I did this because my clothes literally would not go onto my body.

Plus, because of my sudden drop in exercise frequency, the time I have to spend immobile from my migraines, and my significantly less unstable mental health, I finally started to gain the weight I was meant to have been gaining for approximately nine years. I looked different in the mirror. Certain clothes stopped fitting me how I liked, and some, especially pants, couldn’t even get onto my body. Instead of looking like a 12-year-old, I look like a 20-year-old. That is how old I am, and that is good.

I remind myself every day, sometimes even talking out loud – that’s a fun conversation – that the changes in my body are because I am healthy. They physically show me how much more of me there is in the world – more of my true self, my self not sunken into suffocating mental health issues, now exists both mentally and physically. I love thinking about it that way – it makes me feel powerfully tangible.

“I don't have a wheelchair - I don't have a scar - you don't see me when I am suffering.”


Recovering from college eating disorders, I have learned from friends as well as a bit from my own experience, causes suffering in unimaginable respects. Having to buy new clothes that fit a more healthy body – whatever size that may be – is an aspect seldom discussed. Emotionally, it is draining.

Trying on clothes is, regardless of your relationship with body image, pretty much the worst, and I know most everyone will agree with me on that. Imagine you’re in recovery though, and now you have to stare at yourself in the mirror in strange clothes, and then you have to spend money in order to get these clothes.

For me, this is a process fraught with confusion. I see myself as a hairy blob in the mirror; my sick brain tells me it is my fault for gaining weight and I should return to my previous illness level, so I have no need to buy new clothes; I tell myself my health and wellness do not merit me spending money, that I could give this money to others who need it more. I did not have an extreme eating disorder, and I can only imagine how much more intense these mental obstacles are that are involved in the process of obtaining what I am now calling, one’s “recovery wardrobe.”

Another aspect of college eating disorders was the visibility to my family whenever I saw them. I have to explain to my mother why I need new clothes, why my old clothes don’t fit, why I look different, and why I suddenly don’t feel like going to the gym with my stepsister. Luckily, I am beyond privileged to be in a family that is comfortable in its financial standing, and I was able to procure more well-fitting clothes without much trouble. Regardless, I have thought long and hard about this unanticipated cost of recovery and health.

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I have paid thousands of dollars for my medicine at this point, even with health insurance, thousands for therapy, and thousands more for the month-long outpatient program I attended. These expenditures kept me alive, and there are no words to express how fortunate it is that I have been able to get these kinds of treatment.

Far too many people around the world do not have this chance, and it is sickening to imagine the losses that families and communities have to go through due to people lost in their mental illnesses, without access to treatment. Much has to be done.

And finally, I felt I had to explain to my friends and girlfriend why I had to get new clothes. Why I didn’t want to go out to a party in just a bra and spandex like I used to. My physical body was healthier, but change is my chimerical enemy. My friends didn’t even notice that I had gained any weight or had bought some new clothes.

My girlfriend says she knew my body was changing but that she was happy there was more of me, more of me to fight my sickness and more of me to stand up for myself in the world. Although these conversations were exhausting and terrifying, I wound up feeling more loved than I have in a long time, both by my loved ones and by my own self.

Article by
Lilian McCarthy

Lilian McCarthy is a budding writer, artist, and cultural commentator offering insights from the perspective of a feminist queer millennial who is working on recovery from chronic daily migraines and mental illness.


Having an invisible disability like chronic pain is brutal. Most people do not trust what they cannot see. I don't have a wheelchair - I don't have a scar - you don't see me when I am suffering. I understand why it's hard to trust.