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A Semester at Home: How My Trial Turned Into Triumph

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I withdrew from the University of Illinois on an unseasonably warm Monday in September 2012.

The ceiling fan in my bedroom whirred softly as I lay beneath it that morning, crying, then sleeping, then crying some more. I could hear my parents talking downstairs -- their concerned voices floated up to the second floor, forcing me to shut my eyes and try to forget.

I shouldn't have been at home. Classes were weeks underway, and the workload was beginning to pile up. My sorority had just selected its brand-new pledge class. The deadline for my weekly Daily Illini column was fast-approaching. My campus ministry was leaving for a fall retreat in a few days.

Meanwhile, I was 139 miles away from my life in Champaign, surrendering to an eating disorder that had been holding me captive for one long year.

The door creaked open, and my dad came to sit at the edge of my bed. I pulled the white duvet up over my head, wanting to protect myself from the inevitable news he was about to deliver.

"Melanie, you can't go back. Enough is enough."

I said nothing. He continued.

"That school is not a healthy environment for you right now. You need to move home, take some time off, get professional help. What are you thinking?"

"Yes," I whispered feebly. "I'll withdraw."

The next morning, my parents drove down to central Illinois and packed up my room at the sorority house. It was official. I wasn't coming back. For days, I stayed in bed, wallowing in self-pity and sadness. The only time I would leave my room was at midnight, when I snuck into the kitchen to binge. I knew those cookies could never make me feel better, but it was a coping mechanism I'd come to rely on -- and a habit that fueled my disordered eating.

Time passed, and by October, I had a standing appointment every Wednesday with a clinical psychologist -- I called him Doctor Dan. In his office, I learned the name for what I was battling: anorexia nervosa, binge eating/purging type. I learned about semi-starvation, about restriction, about dissatisfaction. I learned the correct number of calories my body needed.

I learned that I was, in fact, going to be okay.

There were little victories: my diet became healthier, my period returned after exactly twelve months of amenorrhea, and my self-esteem slowly blossomed. Every morning, I took a yoga class, where I discovered appreciation and love for my body.

Spiritually, I was finally starting to understand God's plan for me -- my semester at home certainly wasn't what I would have chosen, but He knew what He was doing. I finally felt peace. And when I realized it, all I wanted to do was share my experience with everyone I knew.

So I did.

In early November, my editor back at school gave me the opportunity to write and publish a story for the Daily Illini. He gave me ten thousand words to work with, and the rest was up to me. I feverishly began interviewing college women, authors, doctors and counselors from across the country, compiling a giant document of research on eating disorders and body image issues.

The project took up almost all of my free time, and when I moved back to campus in January 2013, the tedious editing process began. The newspaper staff worked tirelessly to perfect and design and finalize my story.

"As a Girl Thinks" was published in March. On the first day of the series, I ran outside in the chilly spring air and picked up a folded newspaper from the corner stand. There, on the front page, was part one of my story. I sat on the curb and blinked back tears. For the rest of that week, my heart overflowed with thankfulness -- for the editors that made my series happen, for the girls who bravely told me their own struggles, for my friends and family who supported me through it all.

But most importantly, I thanked God, the One who turned my trials into triumphs.

It has been months since that week of publication. Today, I'm still working through some lingering food issues -- an eating disorder has a nasty way of leaving, then coming right back when life gets tough. Sometimes, I feel defeated, but then I am reminded of where I was one year ago. So much has changed, and I know that my story is still being written.

Now, I feel ready. I feel ready to conquer my junior year, to get to the end of this disordered eating, and to face the very next trial that comes my way.