Excruciating Experiences, Extraordinary Essays

By Sandra Wartski, Psy.D., CEDS

The beginning of autumn marks many things, but for those college-bound high school seniors it signifies immersion into the college application process.  Getting those applications completed is one more significant stressor added to the already busy lives of students. Given that a significant proportion of our clients coping with EDs are older teens, this is likely something coming up in clinicians’ offices all across the country and affecting a good number of clients at this time of year.

One of the significant pieces of the college application process involves the essay or personal statement.  Grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities are a compilation of multiple semesters over the years reflecting various factors and statistics, but the essay is a chance to add in a one’s own voice and bring forth a unique, personal perspective.

The 2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts are not so different from past years, but I was struck when reading them this year how they could be so meaningful to anyone who is on the recovery journey from an ED.  There are 7 prompts from which an applicant can choose, but 3 in particular could be highlighted as particularly appropriate for an ED recovery response perspective.

The decision as to whether or not to write about one’s own mental health issue within the application is a tough one.  Students are encouraged to let their true self come out in their essay, though admissions counselors recommend that students give careful consideration to whether or not to write about a struggle with a mental illness or addiction.  Although direct discrimination against student with mental health history is not anticipated (nor legal), college counselors and admission personnel repeatedly reference the importance of highlighting the positives and letting the “sparkle” come out in an essay.  The personal essay is designed for meaningful authenticity but also assumes that the candidate is positioning themselves in an optimistic, positive light.  Mental health issues and therapy are much less stigmatized than had been the case in the past; however, students must remain aware that the essay can sometimes be weigh heavily when admissions departments are having to choose among equally qualified students for limited number of spots, with admissions counselors continually needing to address the question of which candidate would add more value and benefit to the campus community.

One of the essay prompts for this year is “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”  An ED absolutely could be considered a significant challenge and setback (though not a failure), and there is often so much to be learned. Clients may often find the commitment to treatment to initially be the challenge but then eventually – hopefully – get to the point in their recovery where continued recovery from the illness is the challenge.  Past clients have remarked in post-treatment letters many silver linings, such as “The most important good that came from my ED is an awareness that change is possible and that there are many different kinds of strength.” Individuals in recovery speak about knowing they have had to learn “how to see my own reflection clearly and without distortion” and how to “sort out the distortion and the negative voices from the positive, rewarding ones.” Sometimes the lessons learned might be simple but significant, such as “I believe I have more empathy for people in all stages and walks of life.” Another individual noted, “Recovery taught me the power of the mind and the ability to not believe all of my thoughts.”  It seems that any of these direct quotes could be built into powerful, important essays.

Another one of this year’s possible essay options involves responding to “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”  I can imagine various strong ways in which one might respond to this question in terms of challenging ED beliefs, as understanding, managing and ultimately resisting some of the ED principles are critical parts of the treatment.  Challenging beliefs could also be approached more generally, such as writing about ways one has challenged some of the societal ideas about bodies, highlighted nicely in one individual’s thank-you note, “I have become a much more empowered and stable woman.  I have a perspective on weight bias and objectification of women in our society that I may never have understood had I not sought therapy for my ED.” The process of changing ideas is captured in another person’s response, “I have learned that stepping outside of my comfort zone is terrible and frightening, but liberating and electrifying all at once…to learn that you can do something you never thought you would be able to is a fight and a blessing;” this essay could serve as a self-reflective opening from a variety of angles.  An essay referencing development of confidence and freeing from anxiety could also be developed, such as one shy young woman providing an example of significant shift for her:  “The ‘sharing’ was the biggest weight off of my shoulders;  feeling like someone else besides me knew the truth, that I didn’t have to hide behind the silent lies, and slowly being more true to myself because I was taking off each mask one by one, day by day…it’s been a priceless, albeit tiresome and wearying, experience.”

A final featured prompt of “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others” appears almost ready-made for ED recovery discussion.  Clients may not always be able to pinpoint the day or intervention when things shifted, but they can sometimes look back and recognize there was a time when something pivotal changed.  One client, for instance, noted therapist hopefulness as significant in her exit interview survey: “There was one day when I realized that my therapist was completely certain that I had the ability to recover.  That really had an effect on me because her confidence made me believe that I was capable of recovering, something I had questioned up to that point.”  Sometimes the shift comes from a specific activity, such as the client who described practice of yoga as significant because “It allows me to focus on my body in a different way than I did when I was still in the grips of my ED. Rather than just seeing myself getting bigger, I feel myself getting stronger.  I’m growing into myself.” One of my favorite self-reflections came from one of my longer-term clients who finally found herself on the recovery side of the ED after a long battle over a number of years: “There is a certain kind of bravery that comes with beating an ED.  Sometimes just knowing that you didn’t just survive, you conquered the ED makes you feel like you can handle anything thrown your way, because you literally fought for your life and won.  Who wouldn’t get something positive out of that?”

She wrote no formal essay, but her words are motivating and inspirational, clearly reflecting her significant spark of self-awareness.

For most teen clients who have or are struggling with an ED, writing about it in their college essay will not be the appropriate choice for them.  Such essays are, for better or for worse, intended to be about putting one’s best self forward and not about creating any potential red flags.  Some college planning experts suggest that explaining a mental health challenge can be appropriate if it helps to explain a portion of a student’s academic career that suffered, but being sure that the issue is fully recovered is considered crucial.  But an essay writing exercise might have other benefits aside from possible college application submission, and therapists might find some of these to be worthy of consideration.  Using these or similar prompts could allow self-exploration and self-reflection, and the finished essays might even ultimately used for other purposes such engagement in advocacy work or crafting a letter to a significant person in their life.  Even if the essay is never read aside from the author, crafting personal narratives is therapeutic, can reinforce the growth, and highlight the positive. It is indeed sometimes those extraordinarily excruciating experiences which can yield the most extraordinary essays.

Sandra Wartski, Psy.D., CEDS is a licensed psychologist who has been working with Eating Disorders over the past 25 years.  She works as an outpatient therapist at Silber Psychological Services in Raleigh, NC.   She enjoys providing presentations and writing articles on a variety of mental health topics, particularly ED-related subject matterSend comments to sandra@wartski.org


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