I had been excited to study abroad. Like going to overnight camp in Maine and attending Bowdoin, studying abroad in France was something that my mom had done. She’d told me what an important experience it was, and, like any privileged middle-class American small liberal arts college student, how “formative” it had been for her.

I was looking forward to gaining perspective away from Bowdoin, improving my French, learning about a new culture—you know, living, loving, laughing abroad. “The food!” everyone would rave. “You’re going to just adore French food!” “Thanks!” I’d say, not knowing how to respond.

I got to Paris and my host dad hugged me, asked if I was scared of motorcycles (no), and the two of us promptly zipped off to late-afternoon Vietnamese food in the thirteenth. He and his ex-wife lived together in a loft in the ninth. She cleaned, he cooked. They took me to art exhibits and I posted Facebook photos and I considered staying a year, because it was exciting.    

The honeymoon period with Paris wore off, and the excitement stopped shrouding the intense OCD I’ve been dealing with since I can remember. I would post photos on Facebook in front of the Eiffel Tower and at bars and with the kids in my program, who thought I was silly and crazy and fun, but not a real person or something. They would always tell me, “You’re not even real, Phoebe! You’re like, not a real person!” And I’d laugh but be like, well, actually, I am. I looked like I was having fun, but slowly I was becoming kind of miserable.

So one time, I decided to eat lunch alone. It was relaxing. I felt less lonely alone, actually. I started to eat lunch by myself most days—I’d go to a restaurant and treat myself to steak at noon and watch old French people take their lunch breaks to polish off a burger and a beer. But then this sneaky diet I had kind of been on for the past year or so started to keep me company, and soon this exciting preoccupation became consuming and scary and my only friend.

Soon I was eating alone every day, not because I was enjoying my own company anymore but because I didn’t want anyone to call me out on the food choices I was making. There was this store by school that listed the calories in every single item and I would stand there by the cold case for 10 minutes examining every single thing and deciding which I could rationalize eating, and then I would use up my international phone data googling the calories in each food item, too, because one could never be too sure when it came to these things. 

When my mom called me to tell me that she had booked a ticket home and it was for tomorrow, I had gotten down to mostly just five major food groups: coffee, sparkling water, cucumbers, radishes, gum. I was always hungry. I was exhausted and headachy and faint and one time I fell in the metro and I almost choked on the celery stick I was eating to will away my hunger pains. I bruised, because I was pretty bony, and I cried and people walked past me. I hated Paris and I hated myself.

Needless to say, none of the things that were supposed to happen in France happened (well, except for Oktoberfest. That was epic.). One day I was starving myself by the Seine and the next I was in a hospital where a dietician named Nicole held a peanut butter and jelly in front of my face and I started to cry. Not in a cute way, but like, really awful tears.

We did a lot of drama therapy with this guy named Doug who’d bring his guitar every Tuesday and then never actually use it. And I spent a lot of time with Nicole, going over my meals and arguing with her about what I had to eat and always losing. And I made friends and got better.
The point is this: I worry that we at Bowdoin have a tendency—in all our high-achieving, outwardly squeaky-clean perfectionism—to shroud the rough stuff. And I’m taking the risk of sharing this with you because I still struggle sometimes, and because I can’t preach mental health destigmatization without attempting to destigmatize my own stuff. I care about my Bowdoin community too much to let my own fear of being judged impede my potential to let someone who’s struggling know that they’re not alone.

No matter what you’re going through, or where you’re coming from, know that your struggle is valid, and that there are more people on this campus than you think who know exactly what you’re going through. Let’s talk to each other. You’re not alone.