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Intensive Outpatient + School

“I know this seems like a scary commitment, but you need this.”

I let the words sink in: I needed to dedicate 10.5 hours every week to an intensive outpatient program (IOP). Basically, my therapist wedged me between weekly therapy and hospitalization. Was I happy with myself? No. But routine comforted me. I felt like I was spiraling out of control and incompetent in all areas of my life. I failed as a student, TA, editor, friend, daughter,.. human. Somehow, I could grab some part of my life by the reins by setting strict rules around food. If I let that go, what’s left? Can I do anything?

Even with my hesitation towards treatment, part of me knew I had to take care of myself. Did it suck having to carve out that much time out of my schedule? Of course; I could barely manage my time without IOP. But could I continue slogging the semester because my mind was pushing my body to extremes? No.

I spent six complete weeks at the Pittsburgh Renfrew Center.

I spent six complete weeks at the Pittsburgh Renfrew Center. That month and a half packed quite the punch. Even if I logistically had the time in my day, I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with everything else in my life. Some of my professors noticed that I was distancing myself and asked if I was okay. At most, I insisted I was going through a “rough patch” that I would soon come out of. I saw myself as someone who needed to be strong for everyone who has told me that my openness about mental health encouraged them. If I admitted I was struggling, I was going to disappoint those around me. Besides, everyone goes through a “rough patch” and make it out okay. Why shouldn’t I pull myself by my bootstraps and trek on just like everyone else?

I was too embarrassed to tell my professors when I needed help.

I underperformed on a paper that I worked on while in treatment, and it showed in my grade. A few days after I saw the grade (but after I was discharged from IOP), I went up to the professor with the paper, done over. “I don’t expect any points back, but I wanted to go through this to prove to myself I could have done better.” Before I could show him the paper, he asked, “so what happened?” I told him how stretched paper-thin I felt and how that hit all aspects of my life. My fall courses were all so fascinating and called my name, but my illness held me down. I wanted to engage and dedicate myself to becoming a better writer, but my mind wandered in millions of different directions.

We walked through the paper and better understood what parts of the course I understood. We reached the end of the paper and the professor seemed pleased with my final product.

“Next time, let me or your professors know if you need support, like extra time on an assignment.”

“I didn’t want you to think I was lazy or trying to get an advantage,” I confessed. When I wrote the paper, I considered asking for an extra day. Looking back, it was silly of me to not ask or at least give the professor an idea of what I was facing outside the classroom. But hindsight’s 20/20 (as a 2020 graduate, I refuse to abandon puns about 2020 vision).

“Kids ask for extensions for different reasons all the time. The worst I could’ve said was ‘no’.”

“It’s more than just…”

This goes back to something my therapist told me while I was in treatment: “It’s more than just the food.” My responses to meals were rooted in some deeper anxiety. Similarly, this paper’s more than just a paper. It’s a lesson that I’ll try to carry with me in the future.

I’m always the first to tell others “seeking help shows strength!” but I hardly ever follow through. I’m far from the first to ask for an extension, and I’m far from the last. Of course, I shouldn’t take people’s generosity for granted, but I feared to appear weak to the point I willingly took hits to my success and wellbeing.

As I wrap up this semester and continue with my treatment post-IOP, I’m anxious. I’ve always been a perfectionist and didn’t want anyone to worry about me. I wanted to be able to solve my problems on my own. However, that’s not how people work. We need to support others and receive others’ support. Not everyone will be like my professor in wanting to help, but life is about learning to do more than just survive one event to the next. Perseverance is more than quietly brute-forcing your way. Strength is more than pushing until you hit your breaking point. So yes, I’m anxious about my future, both immediate and long-term. I know I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. But this time, I know that there are people who want me to succeed and live the life they know I can.

Similarly, to anyone reading this, so many people want the best for you. Even if you don’t hear them, they’re glad that you’re in their lives and would be happy to help if they knew what support you need.