School & Work in Advanced Eating Disorder Treatment (November 2021)
By Margot Rittenhouse, MS, LPC, NCC
Those that struggle with eating disorders are just like any other person in the world – living their day-to-day lives attempting to find joy and fulfillment while balancing a home life, school, and/or work.
They differ in that their eating disorder adds an overwhelming additional stressor that negatively impacts all of these things.
While your life will likely be paused due to your need for treatment, the outside world continues to move along and function.
As such, the question for many arises as they plan to go to treatment – how will this impact my job/schooling?
Can I Still Go to Work or School?
Truthfully, advanced eating disorder treatment will absolutely affect your schooling and career.
Advanced eating disorder treatment refers to medical stabilization at a hospital or inpatient facility, residential treatment in a home with 24-hour supervision, or partial hospitalization programs where an individual can live at home but attends a minimum of 8 hours a day of treatment.
It is of utmost importance that, while in treatment, you focus on and prioritize your mental, physical and emotional health.
For this reason, most treatment facilities will not recommend attempting to balance treatment and school or work.
For anyone that has ever been in treatment, the reason for this is more apparent, as they have attended the highly structured daily schedule of treatment.
Treatment is scheduled down to the minute with groups, meals, and activities intended to foster exploration, growth, progress, and, ultimately, recovery.
Patients in treatment get very little “free time” during the hours of programming, which often begin around 8 AM and don’t end until 9 PM.
Patients are encouraged to use “free time” to engage in self-care and restorative activities or behaviors.
Adding work or school responsibilities to this schedule are likely to cause increased stress as well as distraction from the task at hand – pursuing recovery.
Change Your Perspective
Many struggle with taking time out of their lives to go to treatment, perhaps due to their own ambivalence to recovery or the very real consequences of taking time off of work or school.
As you debate putting your daily life on pause for treatment, consider that truth-be-told, your eating disorder is likely already impacting these areas of your life.
The fatigue, disorientation, emotional exhaustion, and brain starvation that results from malnourishment undoubtedly makes going to work or school and performing effectively more challenging, if not impossible.
Not only that, engaging in eating disorder behaviors takes a lot of time and energy that impacts your presence in these daily life activities.
Without treatment, these areas will inevitably continue to be more-and-more effected.
Considering this can help you to change your perspective on treatment, recognizing it as a current adjustment that is also an investment in your future path to recovery and full engagement in work and school.
Informing Your Work/School
Acknowledging the likely need to take time off from work or school means coordinating this time off with your school or job.
In communicating your needs, remember that you do not need to let them in on the personal details of your life.
You can simply let them know that you are fighting an illness that requires you to take an extended time off for your mental and physical health.
Many workplaces and schools have procedures in-place to allow for individuals that need medical or mental health treatment to take this time while maintaining employment.
Do not be afraid to advocate for yourself with your school or job to take the time you need without fear you will lose your job or be kicked out.
For teenagers, this becomes more complicated, as it is more difficult than for college students to take time off of school.
For teens and parents of teens, coordinate with the school on how your teen can take the time off needed. This might mean your child attends summer school, completes additional assignments, or take evening classes in the future but this is preferable to them continuing behaviors of these dangerous disorders.
Additionally, some treatment centers that work with teens have special programs or times scheduled during the day to allow for patients to keep-up with schoolwork.
Overall, do not be afraid to communicate and advocate for your need to enter treatment.
If You Can Engage with School/Work:
If you happen to be in a circumstance that allows you to engage in both treatment and school or work, the most important thing is to be aware of how this participation is impacting your treatment and to be honest in this journey.
Process this in group and individual therapy honestly to explore whether it is negatively impacting your treatment experience, growth, and ability to progress and recover.
This honest awareness will help if you need to make a future decision to take time off because it is interfering with treatment.
I realize that the world does not stop because you need to go into treatment, however, remember that not taking the time needed for treatment will be more detrimental to your future.
Once you or your treatment team recognize a need for advanced eating disorder treatment, do not put it off.
Take the time to prioritize your health and yourself so that you can have a future free from disordered eating and its intrusions on your life.