As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.
Casey Gallagher, CSOM '17
I remember the first time I skipped a meal in the hope that I would lose weight more quickly. It was a school day and I told my mom I did not need a lunch because I would buy food at school, but I avoided lunch altogether instead. I felt a distinct sense of control over a life that seemed otherwise chaotic, and it was an addicting feeling. If I could not control the friendship drama or academic stress I endured in middle and high school, then at least I could control how much I ate and how I looked. Every time I felt a fear of failure creeping in, I tightened control over my eating even further. I thought that this was the best way to find a sense of happiness, and I clung to that in the most difficult times. It was my mom who realized that something was wrong, and it was through conversations with her that I overcame anorexia the first time. She helped me to refocus my desire for control into exercise and healthy eating by giving me constant encouragement. She reminded me that she was always on my team and that my self-worth should never be tied to my outward appearance. Slowly, I began to have more days when I loved myself, although there were still many bad days. I knew that I could not truly be free of my eating disorder until I was able to provide encouragement to myself. I thought I had figured it out when it came time to start my college career. However, I recognize now that I had secretly thought the “cure” for everything would be a change of location and the chance to build a new life. I failed to realize that no matter how many new cities I moved to or life changes I made, I had to live with myself through each of them.
In retrospect, it makes sense that the move to BC would cause me to relapse. I was suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar environment that had new, more daunting, pressures. I thought I was prepared to handle social expectations and complete more challenging schoolwork, but actually doing those things proved to be more difficult than I anticipated. I lacked a sense of direction; my life was going on around me, but I did not seem to be a part of it. It felt like I had lost my sense of purpose when I fulfilled my lifelong goal of getting to college; I had to suddenly and almost unexpectedly find a new one. It was, yet again, a time when I felt like I had no control over my life, so I instinctively turned to the only control mechanism that made sense. I slipped back into my old habits of meticulously tracking every calorie I ate and trying on each pair of pants I owned every week to check for weight fluctuations. At the time, there was no better feeling than putting on an item of clothing that was too big or finishing a day under my calorie goal. I tried to push all of the knowledge I had gained of the importance of a healthy lifestyle to the back of my mind.
Anorexia does not always look the way that many people imagine it; I did not lose a lot of weight at first, either time. In fact, even at my lowest weights I was never in danger of being hospitalized. It is the mental battle of it all that is the hardest to win. It was especially difficult to fight back against the desire to restrict my eating at BC because here people noticed my weight loss. I heard so many comments from new friends, or acquaintances, about how great I looked. There were many curious inquiries about how I managed to get such a thin figure. Each time, I smiled and said, “Thank you, I’ve been working hard.” It was easy to respond this way at first, but over time my ability to “smile through it” diminished. I was either miserable because I wasn’t eating enough, or angry because I ate too much and hated myself for it. I wanted to have the exciting, fulfilling, and growth-filled college experience that everyone else seemed to be having, but I didn’t know how. I was hesitant to discuss my battle with anorexia with any of my new friends because I was afraid it was too big of a burden to ask them to bear. I knew I could talk to my parents again, but I did not want to worry them. It wasn’t until my freshman roommate and current best friend, Nicole, asked me what was wrong that I had a breakthrough.
One of the biggest blessings of my time at BC was the random roommate that the housing lottery placed me with freshman year. Nicole and I were fast friends from the beginning: both of us were hesitant towards the party scene, loved Legally Blonde: The Musical, and could not get enough of Gilmore Girls. It made all the difference to have a dorm room that I felt comfortable and safe in; I think I would have relapsed for much longer without that. I should have known that Nicole knew me well enough by the end of first semester to know that I was struggling with something, but for some reason I thought my fake happiness was fooling her. Then, one night I made a passing comment about restricting calories, and something clicked in her head. The next day, she left me a note that said she wanted me to know that I was a great friend, genuine person, and that I made a difference in the lives of those around me. She wrote that she noticed I seemed sad and wanted to make sure I was okay. In the midst of weight loss encouragements and congratulations on my new body, the singular question of whether I was actually in a good place made all the difference. It was a combination of her note, a lot of internal debate, and a surge of courage that made me decide to talk to her about it. I was surprised at how easy it was to say out loud that I was struggling with anorexia again, and even more shocked at how well she responded to it.
This one conversation seemed to open a new door in our friendship, and we began sharing all of the parts of college and adulthood that were terrifying or challenging for us. While she was not struggling with an eating disorder, she had her own insecurities that she had been internally fighting. I discovered that I was not alone in my feelings of inadequacy and lack of control. These discussions with Nicole inspired me to reach out to other friends of mine. I found that when I approached them with honesty about my own problems, they did not hesitate to share theirs. The support that I received was what helped the most when I began to take steps towards recovery. It was an incredible feeling to leave the place of isolation that I had forced myself into and step into a place of complete love. That transition opened up my mind to the idea that if I was so loved by others, then I could someday love myself too. I knew that if I wanted to kill the beast that is anorexia, I had to lift myself up in love every day. I could no longer allow my self-esteem to hang as a dead weight that needed to be supported by those around me.
It has been over three years since I relapsed into anorexia. Since then, I have seen great strides in my recovery and my ability to practice self-love. It has not been an easy journey, and some days it is still a challenge to find more than one thing I like when I look in the mirror. The difference is that it no longer defines my mood, my day, or my life because of the relationships I have built during my time at BC. After freshman year, I continued to focus on cultivating new friendships, while also reaffirming the relationships with my incredible family and my closest childhood friends. The pressure that I felt during my first year began to diminish as well. I attribute this in part to the power of the Jesuit mission to educate the whole person, which has been a source of incredible personal growth for me over the past four years. I did not grow up attending Catholic school, so the constant presence of faith on campus and in my peers was a new and inspiring experience. I learned that I could not overcome my weaknesses on my own, so I turned to God instead. I have found indescribable comfort in knowing that not only was I created in His image, but also that He will never abandon me. Somewhere in the midst of my growth in faith and relationships, I began to understand the strength of my mind and heart. That is when my value stopped being contingent on a number on a scale.
I was once the girl who pretended to have it all together even though I was falling apart on the inside, and I know many college students have been in the same place. Every person who has struggled with eating disorders or mental health challenges has had to find what makes them feel that they are worth something, even when every part of their being is screaming otherwise. My solace and strength is found in my relationships, with the people in my life and with my faith. Overcoming anorexia has not been easy by any means, and I still fight against it every day. But I do not regret the battle I endured because I am a stronger person because of it. I know that I will always have this feeling of empowerment with me to face any future challenges, and, in some ways, that has made the victory over anorexia all the sweeter.