I see on my Facebook page all these freshman heading off to college, or already there. My nephew was dropped off last week. He looked so young in the obligatory photo, standing in front of an old building, making a half smile. This was my advice to him the day before: don’t be too cool for school. If they make you toss a water balloon, just toss it. He is from Brooklyn, like I was. A New York City kid. It can be jarring to meet kids who don’t ride subways and fend off drug dealers and go to concerts regularly or read the New York Times. So that was my advice to my nephew. Play in the games. Have fun. It doesn’t matter if they’ve seen all of Truffaut. Which he has, for sure. Have fun in the three-legged sack race.
But that’s not what this post is about.
When I showed up at college — my first choice college — I cried every day for at least two months. I know — so not cool. I had actually forgotten the full extent of my daily public meltdowns (back then, we had to use the phone in the hall). I still can’t hide my emotions, but this was pitiful. So pitiful in fact, I think I’d blocked it out. But then at my reunion last year, I reconnected with one of my freshman hall-mates and he said: “We’d see you out there crying every night. You had that white hair, so it was kind of hard to miss. I wanted to help you, but I didn’t know what to do.” When he told me that (and again, right now when I wrote his words in this blog) I welled up. He wanted to help me. I can see myself sitting on the carpet of that 4th floor curved hallway wearing black leggings and a black t-shirt with bright white bleached hair, trying desperately to wipe tears off my face with the back of my hand as I cried shamelessly into that pay phone. I mean, homesickness is a thing at college, but this was a situation. If other kids — boys — were concerned — my grief was unusual. It was a spectacular.
I’d landed in my last choice of dorm — even my mother, who was an alum, felt sorry for me. She was of course in the “best” dorm, where all my Brooklyn friends had been placed. I didn’t get along with my roommate. I missed a boyfriend who was at RISD. I guess I was calling him or my mother from that hallway phone. I wanted to go home. Please, mom, can I come home….? But there was more to it than that. And I never really thought about it until recently. Like a month ago recently, which is absurd — I write about my eating disorder all the time. I wrote a whole book about it — Beautiful Girl — but that’s really more an “after” story. How I coped after I’d stopped puking. How I was declared cured, but was still somewhere in the middle, somewhere lost. Since the book takes place Sophomore year, I didn’t suffer homesickness when I returned to school after my summer of treatment. I was apprehensive, but not homesick and those few months of Freshman year are only briefly mentioned in the book. Frankly, no one had brought up my awful crying to me until my reunion. “You were so upset — we didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help.”
It wasn’t normal homesickness. What I realize now, is that I was in withdrawal. Plain and simple. I didn’t have a private bathroom. I was bulimic, and I couldn’t purge at school. I was just cut off. Which was a great thing (until I went home or after I’d figured out a way around the public bathrooms). I was proud of myself for not puking. But then I was I flooded with all the emotions I’d been purging since I was thirteen: grief and pain and whatever else my eating disorder effectively buried. I wasn’t in treatment and no one knew I was sick, so there was no one to warn me about life without my disorder — which is just life really, but you have to feel it and fucking deal and I wasn’t used to that. I had no clue how to exist without my big fat nasty crutch. The boyfriend was mean, which I’ve come to realize is just another twisted dealing mechanism of mine — picking mean men. (I’m working on that one!) I don’t remember what the boyfriend said in those phone calls — whatever it was, it gave me an excuse to cry. But that many tears? For that many days? When there were cute boys rights across the hall watching and wishing they could help? No. It was withdrawal, just like a drug addict, and I couldn’t control it. I mean, I should have been embarrassed, sitting out there with a red swollen face, begging mommy to come get me and bring me home from the college I’d wanted so badly to go to. For fuck sake! I was the at mercy of an unleashing of bottled up rage. There was probably even a physical component. My body must have been freaking out. My whole system must have been totally confused. And then there were the endorphins I was suddenly stripped of.
It’s just wild for me to realize this now, so many years later, the real reason the start of my freshman year was tragic instead of joyous. It wasn’t just because I blew off freshman week and thought balloon tosses were lame — I had been stifling all kinds of childhood fury — and when I was dropped off with my trunk and my boom box, the vault sprung open all at once, on that strange curved hall on the fourth floor of my last choice dorm.
If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association toll free and confidentially at 1-800-931-2237 or go to nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support for help.