The words sent ice down her spine. Then-junior Kelsey Reinhardt sat across the desk from Dr. TJ Rai, a psychiatrist who was supposed to have all the answers. He was at a loss for words. He didn’t know what to tell her.
Reinhardt had spent seven years hiding — hiding an eating disorder and an addiction to exercise — and she was done. Now, she just wanted to get better. And he was telling her that he couldn’t help.
Rai explained that without inpatient treatment, it would be nearly impossible to administer proper care to Reinhardt. Already underweight, she had lost 10 pounds in the three weeks leading up to sorority recruitment. Every effort she made over the past two years at USC to shed the eating disorder had failed.
To change, Reinhardt needed to get out.
“I was the kid who loved school, who never even thought it was an option to not go to school,” Reinhardt said. “To consider taking a semester off … That was terrifying to me. It just wasn’t done. It wasn’t even on my radar.”
She made the decision on a Friday — she needed a break. That morning, Reinhardt contacted her adviser and began filing for a leave of absence. The next week, she informed each of her professors in person that she was leaving to seek inpatient treatment. She told only a few close friends, then packed her clothes and left her life behind.
That day was the beginning of a transformation for Reinhardt. Now a senior, she credits her ongoing recovery from anorexia and depression to the inpatient treatment she received during her leave of absence.
According to David Glasgow, assistant vice provost for undergraduate programs, 273 undergraduate students take leaves of absence from USC each year. This makes up about 1.4 percent of the undergraduate population. Yet students such as Reinhardt who do take a leave find that this time off has the potential to be life-changing.
For Reinhardt, it was a period of growth, of refocusing. She first developed an eating disorder as a freshman in high school. Throughout high school, her sense of self-worth intertwined itself with the way she viewed her weight.
It didn’t matter how much weight she lost. When Reinhardt looked in the mirror, she saw a body that was still too fat. By the time she came to USC, Reinhardt’s eating disorder was the axis of her life.
“When you have an eating disorder, it’s like another person, someone who’s not you but who controls a huge part of your life,” Reinhardt said. “It was the focus of my life. It gave me control, it gave me this feeling that if I could control this part of who I was, I could succeed.”
In her sophomore year, Reinhardt was depressed and fatigued from malnutrition. In an attempt to improve her situation, Reinhardt threw herself into her academics and her sorority life. But staying busy only made it easier to rationalize the continuation of the disorder that was tearing her apart.
The secret had become too heavy to carry around on a day-to-day basis. During Thanksgiving break, Reinhardt’s parents finally asked what was wrong. She told them everything. They had no way to completely understand what was going on inside their daughter’s brain. But they tried, and Reinhardt loved them for the support they gave.
“With my family, it was a lot of educating at first,” Reinhardt said. “My dad would tell me to just eat more, to just put on some weight. They didn’t have the slightest idea what to do, they just knew that we had to do something, we had to change this.”
What came next was a long series of failed attempts to find a solution.
First, Reinhardt tried a combination of meeting with a dietician and non-specialized therapist for seven months. It wasn’t enough. Reinhardt wasn’t tracking her weight, but she didn’t need to see a number on the scale to know that she wasn’t improving. So she moved on to the next option, intensive outpatient therapy.
Her time in this program lasted for only a week. At the end of the week, the program director told her that there was nothing outpatient treatment could do for Reinhardt. She needed constant monitoring to restructure her eating and exercise habits.
So in October of her sophomore year, Reinhardt left behind her life at USC and checked into Center for Discovery, an intensive inpatient treatment facility.
“I was too far gone at that point,” Reinhardt said. “I needed time where all I was thinking about, all I was focused on, was getting better. I needed time more than anything else.”
Reinhardt left with a single intention — to rid herself of the eating disorder that had dominated the last six years of her life. This is the type of action that is suggested by counselors at the Engemann Health Center when students take a leave of absence.
Dr. Kelly Greco, the Engemann Center’s interim assistant director of outreach services, believes that students should only take the break when their mental health concerns threaten their ability to function as a student. At that time, she hopes that students will use their time off for appropriate therapy or treatment programs.
“It’s critical for the student to be doing what is best in order to return them to a state where they can come back to school and succeed as quickly as possible,” Greco said. “That means surrounding themselves with positive people and seeking whatever treatment they need. It’s a purposeful break.”
Reinhardt’s time off was intentional, exactly as Greco would hope. For three months, she lived alongside other women with eating disorders. At Center for Discovery, every meal was planned. Each day revolved around intense therapy sessions focused on reshaping the way Reinhardt approached her lifestyle.
When she returned to USC in the spring, life felt off-kilter at first, but Reinhardt felt a new sense of motivation. She studied abroad in Italy over the summer and took on the position of vice president of recruitment for her sorority. She stayed healthy. The time off had made its impact.
Though she’s made improvements, Reinhardt emphasizes that she isn’t “fixed.” She’s still working to bring certain foods that she had forbidden herself from eating — french fries, meats — back into her diet. But for Reinhardt, this process would never have started without taking time to focus on her mental health.
Most importantly, Reinhardt is happy now.
“I don’t want to think where I would be today if I hadn’t taken that time off,” Reinhardt said. “It gave me a chance to breathe. I didn’t want the eating disorder, [and] I still don’t want it. I want to be healthy. And you come to a point where you have to choose to put that health — that goal of being OK again — you have to put that first.”