Authentic Eagles: Jessica Rhoads On Strength

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our truths 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 and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Jessica Rhoads, LSOE ’14

As I looked into the mirror I couldn’t believe what I saw—the person in the mirror was not the fairest of them all—I looked like a terrifying ghost. My skin was pasty white, almost transparent. My hair and fingernails were dry and brittle. My eyes were sunken-in with large, dark purple circles around them. I stared intensely at the mirror at this frail young girl; I knew I was in there somewhere, but I looked empty and so sad. It was time to face the truth—I needed help.

The year and a half before heading off to Boston College was a time of utter darkness, tears, and self-harm. I only allowed myself to eat 300 to 500 calories a day, forcing my body to work out twice a day for hours on end. I measured everything I ate and felt overwhelmingly guilty even if I had a few extra sticks of celery. I would hurt myself when unable to express the anger, isolating everything in my life from family and friends. I even lost interest in all the things I had once loved so much as a large part of me began to die during that period. No longer was I the funny, energetic, and bubbly Jessica everyone knew and loved. I was now the depressed, anxious, and fragile girl every parent, student, and teacher was talking about.

No matter how many times I cried and promised to get better, how many times my parents desperately pleaded with me, or how many times I saw the concern on my friends and teachers faces, I just couldn’t change. I don’t exactly know what finally made me realize the harsh reality that I was choosing death over life, sickness over health, and depression over happiness. Maybe it was a trip to the cardiologist, when the pulse monitor read 36 and the scale read 84 pounds. The nurses and doctors stared in utter disbelief; apparently they couldn’t understand how I was still breathing. Or maybe it was when I had to shop in Abercrombie Kids just to buy a pair of child’s size 10 jeans, searching everywhere for anything that would fit. Or even the time my sister threatened me, saying my parents were going to send me off to a rehab facility. A huge turning point though, came one night when I pretended to be asleep, mainly because I didn’t want to face my mom and dad when they came to kiss me goodnight. I could hear them quietly crying and praying under their breath: “Please don’t let Jessica die.” That was the moment I finally realized if I didn’t get help, I would never be able to experience what people told me were supposed to be the best four years of my life—college.

The toughest, yet most important part of the road to recovery from an eating disorder is admitting that you have a problem. No one else can do it for you and even when you finally understand it, old habits and thoughts become extremely hard to break. Recognizing that I had been overtaken by this deadly illness was a liberating, yet horrifying realization. I never knew how much dedication, hard work, and strength it was going to take for me to be Jessica again. I worked day in and day out with a psychologist, psychiatrist, dietician, acupuncturist, support groups, and physicians. Sure, there were times when I wanted to give up, which is exactly why I decided I needed something that would motivate me to keep fighting. That is when I decided to make one of my dreams a reality and run a marathon. My first was the Boston Marathon during my freshman year. I knew that the only way I would be able to finish the race was if I became stronger both mentally and physically. I don’t think I will never forget crying tears of pain, freedom and happiness all at once when I crossed the finish line realizing that life actually isn’t a sprint, it’s truly a marathon. I knew the best was yet to come.

Being at Boston College has played a critical role in my journey back to self-confidence, happiness, and living a more balanced life. If you knew Jessica when she was a freshman, you would know how much she absolutely hated school. She would cry every day and battle negative thoughts that—without control—would lead back down a lonely, dark road. I was lucky enough to be blessed with having a dean here that acted like a grandfather to me. John Cawthorne, a man who had an unbelievable impact on hundreds of people, caught me while I was falling down and instilled in me the ability to become a more confident and stronger daughter, sister, friend, and student. He made me realize that the Jessica I knew was tougher than this; she didn’t give up so easily.

Every day is a battle, and I definitely have days that are better than others. Little things can trigger the eating disorder voice inside of me, but I have luckily learned many helpful tricks to ignore that evil voice inside my head. Looking back, I couldn’t imagine not coming to BC. I lived in an amazing city for four years, ran three marathons, went abroad to London, lived in a Mod, got my dream job, and most importantly made life-long friends and fell in love. From thinking it was the worst decision I ever made, to knowing it was the best decision of them all, my life has truly taken a 180 and I couldn’t be more excited to experience what’s in store for the future.

Today, in the United States, roughly 20 million women and 10 million men have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. At a campus like Boston College, where so much attention is placed on our appearance, I know there are many people who suffer from similar illnesses. I ask you all not to be afraid. I ask you all to speak up without feeling ashamed. It can be such a lonely road when you keep quiet, so don’t let yourself suffer in silence. Despite what you might think, BC is an amazing community that will support you throughout the healing process, just like it did for me. I hope you can see past all the trivial things and put your health first. I am only where I am today because I finally found my inner strength to accept who I was and live my life. Every day I confide in those who are closest to me, and that wouldn’t have been possible without finally opening up.

When writing this, I tried to understand why exactly I wanted to share my story, why exactly I needed to say these things publicly. I hope my story can give others the strength they need to talk to a family member, friend, or doctor. Not too long ago I was in the same spot as many girls are today, and I hope that reading this can give you all comfort in recognizing that you always have someone there. Please know that there are so many people who can identify with your struggle, help give you strength, and realize your true beauty and the amazing things the future holds. I encourage you to be honest with yourselves, and to find someone you trust. The most liberating moments of my recovery were those when I was honest with myself and opened up to the people I loved the most. Be open, be strong, and be willing to get better. I am not going to say that it’s an easy road. There are potholes, speed bumps, and certainly days that feel like dead ends, but it will get better. Eating disorders don’t have to be isolating, so come together and help each other move past the most difficult times. This is what will make us stronger because no one is perfect. You are not alone.