Authentic Eagles: Erin Sutton on Eating Disorders

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 towards being more authentic individuals.

Erin Sutton, A&S '16

“You’ve put on a few pounds!” My uncle exclaimed when I walked into our family Christmas party a few months ago. “What have you been doing?”

Cringing and on the verge of tears, I hid myself in my cousin’s bathroom and tried to calm down. I looked at myself in the mirror. Black dress, lace tights, and a dark red sweater. I thought I had done well with my outfit choice...guess not. Leading up to the party, I was looking forward to seeing my family and discussing the exciting developments of my previous semester: progress I made in my condensed matter physics research, my growing role as a fossil fuel divestment organizer and climate activist, the courses I took, and the new relationships that I formed. But despite the flashy outfit and flashy ambitions, it was my weight that made the statement, not me. Throughout vacation I would continue to hear “she gained weight” whispered behind closed doors. “Good. She needed to.”

I’m not the quietest person at Boston College. Often I find myself advocating for something on campus, whether it be divestment, social justice, students’ rights, or even the beauty of math and physics. But I have been silent on an issue that has controlled my life, and the lives of many BC students, for far too long. I’m talking about eating disorders, a topic that sadly seems cliche to mention yet again in a BC publication. As a woman who has struggled with bulimia for five years, I want to openly discuss my BC experience, so that it may be a source of support for other students who are experiencing similar struggles.

The first time I purged, I was 15. I was at a McDonald’s with some friends when a new feeling hit. Feeling guilty after eating some french fries, I felt the irresistible urge to get them out of my body -- and I did. While my friends sat and laughed about the idiosyncrasies of high school life, I was in the restroom signing myself up for a double life that would continue indefinitely. For the rest of high school, my weight oscillated. I played it smart, attributing weight loss to my veganism, to playing volleyball or to stress. Unlike friends of mine who were sent to clinics or hospitals for their eating disorders, I balanced myself on the fine line of just bulimic enough to be thin, but not “scary” thin. (As opposed to anorexia, many people with bulimia appear to be of average body weight.) Then, somehow, during my senior year, I got better. After reading up on all of the frightening consequences of the disease, such as tooth decay, damage to the digestive system, acid reflux, potential damage to the heart and the reproductive system, weakened bones, depression and suicidal behaviors (the list continues), I snapped out of it. I beat it and I was proud.

Fast forward to my freshman year at Boston College. That year was unlike any other year of my life. Eager to escape my most-likely-to-succeed high school reputation, I drank. A lot. I participated in the infamous hook-up culture. I got bad grades for the first time ever. Unconsciously, I began conforming to every BC stereotype at which we like to roll our eyes. I, the girl who worshipped Hot Topic and spent weekends reading books on cosmology in high school, bought Hunters, wore J. Crew, and danced on window sills at Mod parties. I’m not saying that any of these signatures of archetypal BC life are inherently bad, they just aren’t me. It was a blast, but the shelf life of the fun and games expired quickly. Running from childhood demons that I had yet to face, I ran into the identity that was most readily available to me. Unfortunately, this identity also included scrupulously monitoring everything I ate and every calorie I burned. Sometime during second semester, despite all of the wonderful friends I made and the experiences we shared, that same strange, panicked urge crept back in. I’m not sure when I started purging or restricting my diet again, but soon enough I was replacing meals with cups of coffee and my friends were becoming suspicious of my frequent bathroom trips. I relapsed just in time for summer break.

That summer, feeling disappointed in myself and left to my own devices, I started running. Literally. In late May I began huffing through 1-2 mile jogs, and within a month or two I was running 5-10 miles before work almost every day. This overexercising, combined with undereating, brought me into that “scary” thin regime for the first time. I didn’t realize how much weight I lost until I saw the look on my friends’ faces as we settled back onto campus for Sophomore year. As much as I had pined to get back to BC, something about it was different, less magical. Looking back on it now, I wasn’t living my life as much as reading through the daily script that my eating disorder wrote for me. I was up at 6 a.m. each morning to run, eating the same meals each day, dedicating every spare moment I had to my overloaded course schedule, never leaving my room in 66 otherwise.

Late in October, one of my best friends sat across from me in my bedroom. Crying, he told me that he went to Health Services for me, and that if I didn’t seek medical attention, he would force me to do so. There was no more getting away with it: I was 20 or 25 pounds below my healthy weight and deeply depressed. I had cut myself off from all of my friends, and my destructive behavior had started to hurt the people I loved most, which was the reality check I needed. I started seeing a counselor and stopped purging. Life got a little brighter. Some great things happened sophomore year. I grew into my own style (read: I loaded up on tattoos and piercings), I got a position as a research fellow in the Physics department, I became involved with climate activism work, I embraced my faith, and I finally faced issues I had suppressed for a long time. While essential first steps, they proved to not be enough.

Bulimia nervosa is more than throwing up. Eating disorders are more than the apparent behaviors they provoke. I corrected some of my behaviors that year, but to this day, my mental illness still calls the shots in my life. There have been two narratives of my time at BC: the one I project onto the world, i.e. the one you see on Facebook, and the one that I have actually lived. As destructive as it is, the binge/purge cycle is a vent for all of my insecurities. It is a release from the 40s on midterms that a physics and math double major has to repeatedly face, a release from social pressure, romantic drama, family issues, and fears of failure that come my way. It is a way to gain control over the thoughts that tell me I am unattractive, unintelligent, worthless, and undesired by everyone around me. The bathroom stall and the full-length mirror have become my places of worship to a false god.

I was addicted to my eating disorder, addicted to dropping pant sizes, shoe sizes, bra sizes and ring sizes. I was addicted to seeing each of my abdominal muscles. I loved my prominent collarbone and my thigh gap. My body finally looked like the impossible standard that has been sold to all women since we were born. (The body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal is possessed naturally by only 5% of American females.) My sickness is powerful in its own way, and that’s the rub: I didn’t -- and still don’t -- fully want to get better. It’s hard to explain to an outsider that you actually want to have the disease that, by definition, destroys you.

That Fall, I decided to train for the Boston Marathon. Everyone around me seemed to be training for it, and “I ran a half marathon” became the new “I got a haircut” when making small talk in Lower. I even came in second place in a half marathon. It seemed a normal and practical undertaking, as well as an excuse to run 30 miles a week, to make up for my stopping purging and restricting. In February, during a 16 mile run, I got a strange feeling in my leg. A month later, after my continued refusal to acknowledge any injury that would keep me from exercising, Health Services forced me to go to St. Elizabeth’s to get an MRI. I had a stress fracture in my right hip, running diagonally up my femur. My bones had become brittle from years of undernourishment and I was a few millimeters away from needing hip pinning surgery. I was lucky to be sentenced to crutches for only two or three months. (Don’t get me started on how inaccessible our campus is to students who aren’t fully able-bodied.)

Without the exercise to keep my mind at ease, purging began yet again. We hear that everyone with an addiction needs to bottom out at some point, and the night I hit bottom was sometime last April. It was long past midnight, raining, and I was crutching back to 66 from the computer science lab in Fulton. One of my crutches got caught in a sewer grate in front of Higgins and I fell, hard. I swear, I never wanted to get up. After years of trying to beat this thing, I was broken.

Here I am now. It’s March 2015, and I’d love to say that I’m writing from a place of triumph and recovery -- but I’m not. Coming into Junior year, having gained weight from my months away from running, I was showered with praise. “Oh Erin, you look so healthy!” or “I like the way your new face looks, it’s fuller!” or “Wow, your pants actually fit you tightly now!” These excited comments came, and continue to come, from loving friends and family members. But even the people closest to me can’t understand how painful my before and after picture is, when every before and after picture in our society goes in the opposite direction. They don’t understand my inability to look at pictures of myself, because I hate the way I look as a size 4. They don’t understand how I still feel out of control and guilty every time I eat. They don’t understand my frustration at their praise when we live in a university community that extols over-exercise, unhealthy eating habits, and binge behaviors. It’s difficult to explain how “Love Your Body Week”, as well-intentioned as it may be, feels like mockery to someone like me. BC is a place, at least in my experience, where women feel compelled to go to extremes just to feel valuable.

I am no longer “scary” thin or at risk of hospitalization, but to date I sit in class unable to focus because I’m paranoid at how my new, heavier body looks to everyone else in the room. It is still impossibly difficult to fight against the comforting binge/purge cycle on stressful nights before exams, and I don’t always win that fight. Even though I’ve gained weight back, I carry my disease around with me every day, scrutinizing my body in the mirror, missing how thin I was a year or two ago, racing to the Plex at 7 a.m. to fight against further weight gain. I’m still participating in an unspoken competition among BC students to be the most perfect one.

As a junior in college nearing my 21st birthday, I’m a world away from who I was at 15. But I still chase the ideal straw-woman. My Bulimia has cost me so much. I’ve alienated and lost roommates. I’ve paid quite expensive medical bills. I’ve damaged many parts of my body. Some days, I wake up with hip soreness and I find it hard to walk. These costs are not counting innumerable missed experiences, untapped or damaged friendships, and years’ worth of self-love I’ve lost. Thankfully, because of the wonderful people in my life, my disease has not cost me more.

But not everyone is as fortunate. Bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, hypergymnasia, and other, less recognized eating disorders take lives. Fifty percent of the time, depression accompanies an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, yet only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receives treatment. These mental illnesses live around us in concentrated form at Boston College, almost as an unspoken rule. We need to step up and fight against these diseases, and there is plenty we can do. I can imagine specific prevention education for incoming students to teach them about the symptoms and dangers of eating disorders. I can imagine a dedicated hotline and safe space where those with an eating disorder, or their friends, can come with questions and concerns. We can create support groups, peer mentorship programs, forums for open discussion, and more. As someone who could have benefitted from such programs, I call on all of us to start making that change.

If you are experiencing similar struggles and need someone to talk to, I am here. You are powerful. You are worthy. You are enough.