Monday, September 5, 2016

Dear KJ: How I keep college classes from unraveling my recovery?

Dear KJ: How I keep college classes from unraveling my recovery? 
You may have heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” Usually, this is a true statement, but not always. SELF-knowledge, I would argue, is almost always empowering, but school learnin’ can occasionally push you in the opposite direction. I should know—between kindergarten and finishing my PhD I’ve spent about 25 years (!) of my life taking classes. Out of those years, over half were shared with an eating disorder, in recovery or post-recovery. Here are a few things that have been challenging to me along the way, specifically in relation to recovery, and how you might be able to address them.
Some classes can be triggering. Remember what I wrote above about SELF-knowledge being the most empowering? It’s self-knowledge that will help you avoid or at least disengage from classroom experiences (or entire courses!) that are triggering. While you’re still in active recovery, be wary of courses on topics that overlap with your eating disorder experiences. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t ever take a course on, say, nutrition, but having an honest conversation with yourself (or your therapist) might reveal that some courses appeal to you precisely because they allow you to continue obsessing about food, exercise and body size stuff. I remember buying nutrition textbooks, thinking, “I’ll just replace my eating disorder with a 110% perfect ‘normal’ way of eating,” not realizing that in order for eating to be normal it cannot be anywhere near 110% perfect!
But here’s the thing—it’s rarely the course topic itself that is inherently problematic, but the style in which it is taught. If you’re interested in taking a course or two with triggering potential, it might be a good idea to get your hands on a syllabus.  Some professors will provide "trigger warnings" to draw attention to course material that might be triggering to students who have had traumatic experiences, but don't depend on this. Many instructors strongly prefer to not provide them. Ultimately it is your responsibility to know the difference between course material that is challenging (good!) and course material that is triggering (not so good!). If you have concerns, speak with the professor to ask her/him whether or not any of their course material could be difficult for a person in recovery from an eating disorder. Even without specific training in body-positive teaching styles, most instructors will have a sense for how to answer this question.
Depending on the answer, you may opt to avoid the course, or you may become even more excited about it. You may also decide that most of the course sounds great, but that you’ll need to skip a day or two of class (I give you my permission!) if the lecture or readings seem triggering. Again, best to have a good conversation with yourself and/or your therapist.
The second challenge that classes present to recovery is simply that going to school, whether part time or full time, adds stress to your life. You’ll be managing lectures, homework, deadlines, grading, as well as the social elements of school. Having some stress in your life is normal and usually healthy, but this is not the best time to overwhelm yourself. Start out with what you think is a realistic course load, but don’t hesitate to drop a class if you notice that you aren’t able to keep up with your classes and also take care of yourself. Don’t forget to have some fun, too! 

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