The invisible illness: Living with mental health issues at AU
This article includes details about mental illness and may not be suitable for people in recovery.
Every Thursday, Becca Goldstein wakes up at 7 a.m. and hops on the Metro with seven other AU students to volunteer at a preschool. On the surface, they are all average AU students with hectic days. But Goldstein’s days are different.
Goldstein keeps a strict schedule. She wakes up at the same time every week, eats the same breakfast every day and plans her meals carefully.
Her routine is rigid. It needs to be.
Goldstein, 21, was diagnosed with depression at 17. A few months later, she was also diagnosed with a type of anorexia nervosa that consists of bingeing, purging and weight loss.
The College of Arts and Sciences junior always makes toast with peanut butter and jelly for breakfast. She finishes class at 3:50 p.m. every day except Thursday. She eats late: lunch during her 2:35 p.m. class, then dinner and studying in the library. This strategy is part of her recovery.
“Part of me’s like, ‘Oh my God, why can’t I get over it?’” she said. “And that’s been, I think, the hardest part in terms of my recovery is letting myself not get over it right away.”
Goldstein hid her struggles during high school. Her friends would question her behavior, but she always denied having a problem. Then her mother noticed her symptoms and alerted Goldstein’s therapist.
She had been lying to her therapist, too.
“I just remember sitting on her couch and crying the entire hour with her,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein has been in recovery for four and a half years, but it has been a slow process. Her disorders cannot be turned on and off like a light switch, she said. Not feeling normal is frustrating.
“And that has been really tough,” she said. “I just want to be fine, and whatever normal is, I want to be that again.”
Recovery means paying close attention to mealtimes. Having the same breakfast also helps; new foods make her start to count calories, she said.
Goldstein notices her eating disorder more than her depression and said it is more disruptive to daily life. Depression, conversely, is sometimes indistinguishable from her naturally introverted nature.
“Depression is funny because I don’t think of it as a problem,” Goldstein said.
There will be days when the depression wins. Instead of getting out of bed, she’ll watch Netflix for hours. Weekends can be worse. When her depression flares up, she essentially shuts down, she said.
“I can tell how I’m doing based on how [my pet rat’s] doing,” Goldstein said. “If he hasn’t been out of his cage in three days, then I’m like ‘Oh my God, I’m not having a good few days.’”
Overall, her depression is more manageable. When her anorexia symptoms emerge, she’ll cancel plans with friends, isolating herself and comparing her body to others who are recovering from eating disorders. These episodes make Goldstein more self-critical.
“I feel really guilty and really mad about it because it’s like, well it’s been [about four] years of getting better,” she said. “‘Why can’t I just be better now?’”
Symptoms fluctuate during her recovery, Goldstein said. She can feel normal for six months and then suddenly encounter a trigger, such as a friend discussing what they ate or talking about weight, that causes her symptoms to reappear.
She likes to exercise and runs frequently, but she stops when she starts counting calories. While she cares about her appearance, she also is concerned with letting control become an obsession.
“And, yes I do care about those things, but it’s not because I am vain or I don’t care about anything else,” Goldstein said. “It’s because I need the control, and I need to control these things and I need to be good at these things.”
Attending AU with a mental illness
The No. 1 mental health concern for students at AU is anxiety, according to Traci Callandrillo, interim director of the AU Counseling Center. Diagnosed eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are common, but isolated behaviors like fasting or purging are more frequent.
Goldstein transferred from the University of Vermont last year and found AU’s environment to be more supportive, but imperfect.
While the University encourages students to be busy with school, internships and extracurricular activities, this doesn’t work for everyone, Callandrillo said. Some students who come to AU with a pre-diagnosed mental health disorder can juggle a busy schedule while others are more vulnerable to relapses, she said.
Goldstein holds herself more accountable at AU than she did at Vermont, but her recovery sometimes affects her schoolwork, she said.
Students with mental health issues can receive academic accommodations like note takers and extended testing periods, according to the AU Counseling Center’s website. These accommodations are available through the Academic Support and Access Center, Callandrillo said.
Goldstein said she chose not to seek out these services because she worries they may become a safety net. However, her symptoms do reappear during finals and midterms. Goldstein is a perfectionist — she needs to earn A’s or she feels she is failing.
AU students also have trouble discussing mental illness, but it is widespread, Goldstein said. People refer to mental illness incorrectly without understanding the different diagnoses. Some may use “depressed” instead of saying sad or call something “schizo.”
Anorexia has been called the “white girl” or privileged disorder, which also makes discussing it difficult, Goldstein said.
“Why bother talking about a disorder that’s for the pretty blonde girls?” she said.
Goldstein also found that people shy away from the nitty-gritty aspects of an eating disorder. People don’t want to talk about the gross aspects of these disorders. People do not want to talk about what Goldstein calls the “reality of eating disorders:” the calorie counting, mapping out the best bathrooms for purging or structuring life around the compulsions of a mental illness.
“No one wants to talk about the reality because it’s not fun,” she said.