I peek at myself in the skinny full length mirror on the back of the door in the college dorm room. Holy crap, I look smokin’ hot! But, sophisticated at the same time. As much as I hate when my mom still tries to dress me at 27 years old, I’m glad I listened to her. This deep V-neck dress is clinging to me in all the right places and shows off just the right amount of boob. I dust shimmer powder along my collar bones and all over my décolletage — but not too much. I want people to think my skin is naturally sparkly.
I toss my hair that I had woken up at 5am to curl that morning over to one side to give it that perfectly slept-in, effortlessly glamorous look. Ok, I’m ready. It’s college reunion time.
I walk up the steps of Baxter House toward a giant banner strewn across the front door, “Welcome Bowdoin College, Class of 2009!” Baxter House had meant one thing to me in college — dark, sweaty basement dance parties. My mind flashes back to bounding up these steps as a freshman on a frigid Maine weekend night, the bass from the music downstairs already pounding in my chest. I remember tearing off my bulging winter fleece without even waiting until I got inside. I LOVED those Baxter House dance parties.
I really wish I hadn’t stopped going to them.
My eating disorder during college robbed me of so many fun, normal, uninhibited college experiences. That’s why I’m here. I want to show people I’m not sick anymore. I want a chance to make the friends for life that you’re supposed to make during college. I want to feel like I finally belong.
I spot a guy I had been friendly with on the track team and I am instantly relieved when I see his face light up as he recognizes me. He has his arm around his wife, another Bowdoin alum whom I remember from watching the Frisbee games and acapella concerts. I know they’re married because I’ve Facebook creeped their wedding photos multiple times. Their respective acapella groups performed for each during their wedding. He got down on one knee and serenaded her. He had a top hat. It was perfect.
Is that how my life could have gone, too, if I hadn’t had an eating disorder?
I run over and throw my arms around them both. “Emily, I love your hair!” says my friend. “You look beautiful!” says his wife. I could tell they saw something different in me. This was the first time they had ever seen me without an eating disorder. We laugh about me thinking I could run track back in college when I had never run more than 3 miles in my life. I had really joined just so I could run around with boys. For a moment, it’s like we’re old friends catching up. Maybe there’s still time for us to be that.
A guy walks past me who I used to know from the Rugby team. “Hey!” he says, “I watched your TEDx talk on YouTube, it was REALLY good!” Wait, WHAT? This guy bothered to watch my TEDx talk? Why would he make time for me like that? Another guy whose name I don’t know comes up next to me and with a smile, points out that the purple and blue flowers decorating the sign-in tables match my dress. I don’t think I had ever spoken a word to him back in college. I catch sight of my old college roommate and we instantly click back into making each other laugh, like it was before I got sick.
Is this how college could have been the whole time? Is this how college was for normal people? For people who weren’t struggling the way I had been?
I sit down next to my friend and his wife and some of their acapella friends to a quintessential New England lobster dinner. No one asks me why I had left in the middle of junior year. No one asks what was wrong with me while I was here. No one makes me feel like an outsider. I answer a lot of questions about my Ph.D. program, I make some jokes, and suddenly I’m at the center of a fun and lively conversation.
By the time things had gotten really bad, I usually ate dinner alone, after most people had already left the dining hall.
A group of guys walk by our table and yell out “Come to Baxter later!” The others invite me to join them for some piano playing and show tune singing. Where have these people been all my life?! Deep down I don’t want to leave them, but I need the Baxter basement. I run to catch up with the group and it’s like walking up those steps for the first time all over again.
It’s 3am. I haven’t stopped dancing since I arrived. My once fitted shirt is soaking wet and hangs loosely around my torso. My sex bomb curls hang wet and limp around my face, my flats stick to the dance floor from sliding across puddles of toppled drinks. A hot, wet haze lingers in the air that smells like stale beer and sweat. I’m disgusting. Everyone is disgusting. It’s my college dance party fantasy come to life. Toto’s “Africa” comes on and I leap into the middle of the dance circle, belting out each word with what’s left of my ravaged voice. I will carry this dance party into the morning if they let me. I’m not ready for this good feeling to end.
I replay the reunion weekend in my head for the entire three-hour drive home. I don’t want to go back to real life yet. I want to stay here and play college until it feels like I’ve made up for everything I didn’t get to do back then. I don’t want to accept that my eating disorder took college away from me and that I can never get it back. I just want to hide here with my eyes closed reliving every delicious moment of validation and acceptance.
Please, don’t make me give this up.
I went to my college reunion to make peace with a painful period in my young adult life. But instead of making peace, I tried to re-claim four years of college in 72 hours. My therapist tells me that at some point I need to come face to face with everything my disease took from me and feel the weight of that loss. She says I need to grieve, that grieving is the only way I’ll ever get unstuck and move on with my life as a strong, self-validating adult. I’m not ready to grieve. But then again, no one is.
I’ve been in recovery for three years. Making progress in recovery now means becoming vulnerable enough to feel that pain, accepting it as it is, and then unclenching my fist to let it go.
I guess making peace just isn’t a peaceful process.