“Carolyn Proskow, Summa Cum Laude,” announced Dr. Eliza Bingham at the 2016 Commencement Ceremony for the College of Education, Health, & Human Services. For many of the students present that evening, hearing their name announced and walking across the stage was confirmation that despite every challenge that posed a threat to their academic achievement, they had made it…. in that moment, they knew that _______ was no match for their determination to succeed. For some, this “blank” was late-night cramming sessions in Kellogg Library during finals week. For others, this “blank” was having to balance a full-time job with a full-time class schedule. For me, this “blank” was my eating disorder. My eating disorder was no match for my determination to succeed, and indeed, that was something to celebrate on commencement day.
In Summer 2012, the course of my life was severely changed when I started to engage in the unhealthy behaviors often associated with bulimia nervosa. What began as a modest adjustment to diet and exercise rapidly and unintentionally transformed into a routine of restriction, binge eating, and self-induced purging. My hair began to thin and gather on the floor with each stroke of my hairbrush. My throat was persistently sore, and every muscle in my body felt weak. I refrained from social gatherings with friends and family to avoid being put in a situation where I felt pressured to eat. I became frail and disengaged, and isolated myself from loved ones because I was so comfortable living in the silence perpetuated by my eating disorder. I staggered aimlessly through two of the most important years of my life, my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college. Although I was able to maintain high marks and sustain a job, my day-to-day life lacked purpose, desire, and inspiration. I denied every opportunity to address my eating disorder, from confiding in my closest friends to seeking professional help in a consistent manner.
Towards the end of my freshman year of college, my parents had scheduled an appointment for me to meet with an intake specialist at what was formerly the Eating Disorder Center of San Diego. After being asked to recount my experiences with bulimia and describe my physical and mental health status in detail, I was asked whether or not I would be willing to take an indefinite leave of absence from college in order to fully concentrate my energy towards recovery as part of an inpatient program. I will never forget being asked that question and having to confront for the first time all the things in my life that my eating disorder had taken away from me… my confidence, dignity, and sociableness; my parents’ trust when I went upstairs to take a shower and my ability to distinguish adrenaline from the sudden anxiety that comes with a binge; my emotion, sense of control, and freedom. I took a deep breath and expressed to the woman in front of me that under no circumstances was I going to let my eating disorder strip me of my education, my future. I had come this far, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice that too. As I walked to my mom’s car after the appointment, I pledged to take my health and recovery seriously; and I understood that even though my eating disorder would always be a part of my past, it no longer had to define who I was as a person or interfere with my relationships, passions, and endeavors. In response to this pledge, I began seeing an eating disorder specialist, going to individual and family therapy, and tracking my recovery progress with my primary care physician. I confided in multiple people about my past health adversities in order to be held accountable in the event of relapse, and began to ask rather than deny help, support, and guidance. I celebrated every milestone of my recovery, and remained focused despite temptation and pressure often exerted by media and popular culture. Slowly but surely, with each day that passed, I regained parts of myself, of my personality and spirit that I had once given up until the time came that I truly felt whole again.
A few months after my appointment at the EDCSD, I applied for an internship position with the H.O.P.E & Wellness Center and officially became a peer health educator in January 2015 under the Healthy Cougars: Peer Advocacy & Wellness Support (PAWS) program. At the time, I was a few months into my recovery and needed something else in my life for which to invest time, energy, and creativity. I remember questioning in the internship interview whether or not I was ready let alone capable of being an advocate and champion of mental health. However, I recognized that I had an immense responsibility to inhibit and/or narrow the scope of this issue on my campus through means of mental health education and promotion. I was ready to serve others and finally take control of an opportunity that I felt passionate about, an opportunity that my eating disorder could not impede. Throughout the course of this internship, I worked closely with Mental Health Educator Cheryl Berry to create and facilitate programs, presentations, workshops, group discussions, and campus awareness events that accentuated public health topics like eating disorders, body image, depression, stress, and anxiety; and also embraced the opportunity to share my own experiences with bulimia as a panelist during two on-campus “talks”. I developed enduring relationships with my fellow interns and supervisors who encouraged me to relinquish my apprehensions and guilt in order to fulfill a higher purpose. The H.O.P.E & Wellness Center provided a safe and supportive environment for me to maneuver through my own recovery while helping others in the process. It gave me purpose, and is largely to thank for where I am in life today.
For anyone reading this who is struggling with an eating disorder or related mental illness—whether it be anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, body dysmorphia, etc.—please know that it is never too late to seek help. There are resources all around you and those who have dedicated their entire careers to helping people just like you find hope in healing. The key to a lasting recovery is you making the decision to be better because it is what you want. A quote that I was presented with numerous times in my recovery was that of Eleanor Roosevelt: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. Do the thing you think you cannot do.” Although recovery may seem unattainable, it starts with taking that first step into the unknown.
Carolyn M. Proskow
Alumna CSUSM 2016
MPH Student, Health Management & Policy
San Diego State University, Graduate School of Public Health