Facing My Eating Disorder in College

October 12, 2022

At the humane society where I worked in my 20s, I met a German Shepherd named Kayla who struggled with anxiety. She had been found as a stray on the streets of San Diego and was dropped off at the doors of the humane society by a good Samaritan.

Every day, Kayla was terrified of walking down a particular hallway that led to our play yard. Perhaps it was the noise or the lighting, but whenever I tried to take Kayla for a walk or let her go to the bathroom in the play yard, she froze the moment we got to that hallway. Her tail tucked and she refused to move, so I’d have to call other staff members to help me carry her outside.

One day when I couldn’t find another staff member to help me, I took a new approach and dropped to the floor beside my furry friend. Pressing my hands and knees down into the cold vinyl, I started crawling by her side down the hallway. I was right there, eye level, shoulder to shoulder, telling Kayla that she was safe and not alone as we made our way outdoors.

It was the first time Kayla walked down the hallway without being carried. Maybe the strangeness of my presence on the floor distracted Kayla from her fears, or maybe she just needed someone to be on her level, trying to see the world from her perspective. But my close connection to Kayla in her most vulnerable moments is what helped her to get outside, where she could have a few moments of precious freedom.

Looking back, the way that I helped Kayla is similar to the way that my eating disorder treatment team, and later my postpartum depression treatment team, helped me to heal. Seeking treatment is simply letting safe and caring people get close enough to you so that you don’t have to navigate your struggles alone. A good therapist tries to see the world through your eyes, and then walks or crawls beside you through the dark.

I don’t have many regrets in life, but I do wish that I had opened my heart and mind to the idea of treatment sooner. In college, when I started visiting the student counseling center, I was frequently encouraged to seek a higher level of care.

Rather than exploring a recommended support group or psychiatrist or treatment center, I tried to handle mental health challenges on my own. I assumed that no treatment provider could make a real difference in my life. My father had been to dozens of rehab centers for alcoholism and never recovered. My aunt lost her life to a mental health disorder. Nobody could help them, and I (falsely) believed that no one could help me.

So, I spent my last year of college paralyzed by my mental health issues. There were so many things I wanted to do – travel, fall in love, make memories with friends – but like Kayla, I was stuck. Stuck in fear. Stuck in bed. Stuck in vicious eating disordered patterns. Stuck in lies I told my friends so that I could keep up the appearance of being okay.

If I could go back in time and talk with my college self, I’d tell her the story of Kayla, and how she conquered her fear of the hallway and eventually found the loving family and home she deserved.  I’d tell her that seeking help for mental health can happen in stages and every step toward recovery, no matter how small, matters.

I’d tell my college self to stop waiting for recovery, and that my father and my aunt’s stories would not be my own. Eventually, I’d go to a treatment center. I’d discover free eating disorder support groups that would be a true game changer, and a psychiatrist. I’d connect with a therapist, whom I’d work with for a decade, and who never gave up on me. During times of financial struggle, she even offered me treatment at a reduced cost.

I try not to linger in the past often, but I do carry its lessons with me. Postponing treatment in college taught me that just like with physical health, we often need various kinds of support with our mental health, and there is no reason to suffer alone. We may be convinced that we are beyond help, but we don’t truly know what’s possible until we let someone get close enough to make a real difference.

We’re not meant to recover alone. Real connection with people who care is the place where we heal. Where we make it down the hallway. Where we begin living the lives we deserve.

Shannon Kopp, MFA an Eating Disorder Recovery Center National Recovery Advocate, is the best-selling author of Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life (HarperCollins). Shannon holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Pacific University, and has written for CNN, Maria Shriver, The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, BarkPost and Salon. Her story has been featured in PEOPLE, NPR, CNN Turning Points with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Women’s Health, and Psychology Today. Shannon is the founder of SoulPaws Recovery Project, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit offering free Animal-Assisted Therapy to people impacted by eating disorders. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and wildly adorable rescue dog, Bella. For more information about Eating Recovery Center, please visit eatingrecoverycenter.com.