Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Living at university with an eating disorder

What is it like living at university with an eating disorder? One writer shares it all.

(Trigger Warnings: Eating disorder, Bulimia)

One of the many infuriating aspects of having mental health issues is the desire to combat the stigma surrounding them, yet wanting to maintain as much normality in your own life as possible. I cannot help but feel a sense of hypocrisy as I remain anonymous to discuss my own issues, whilst encouraging others to reach out for support.

However, as I am in the early stages of recovery myself, I would like to keep my support network to those I have chosen to tell, as I find this best works for me. This is not to say that being completely open about your struggles should at all be discouraged, as frankly I do believe more honesty will help combat the fear we have of discussing such issues. However, at this stage I would like to keep a sense of control and balance between what I refer to as my ‘normal’ life and my ‘eating disorder’ life.

I never saw my condition as a real problem, but merely a coping mechanism, something that I convinced myself I could take control of at any time

I developed bulimia over the Christmas period of my AS-level year. Having struggled with my weight and body image issues my entire life, I reached a stage where I no longer wished to put on weight, but neither did I want to limit my diet. Looking back on it, the latter would have been a much easier compromise! However, as anyone with an eating disorder will probably tell you, denial is a huge obstacle you must overcome. I never saw my condition as a real problem, but merely a coping mechanism, something that I convinced myself I could take control of at any time. It was a ‘coping mechanism’ that continued throughout my A-level exams and in the run-up to me moving to university.

The freedom associated with coming to university was immensely daunting and I was at a crossroads. Suddenly I was faced with the reality of choosing my own diet and buying as much food as I wanted, without the worry of having to hide it from my family. I had an en-suite bathroom, which eliminated risks of being caught. I had the choice at this point: I could seek help for a condition I still refused to believe was a problem or I could continue to pretend nothing was wrong. I chose the latter. For my condition, that I now recognise as a mental illness, it seemed too good an opportunity to waste.

One of the more frustrating parts of the illness is that I may as well throw my money down the toilet, as it only happens to make a few more stops before that destination anyway

Over the next year my condition worsened considerably, even though I seemed bubbly and relatively confident to my new friends and flatmates. It is immensely difficult not to try and joke my way through this article, as I normally would try to do in real life. But the harsh reality of the condition is, that at its best I would binge on sweets before purging them. At its worst, I would purge multiple times a day, as well as refusing to keep any food down at all, purging after meals and even any beverages that weren’t water.

This is not to mention the unfortunate side effects of having this type of eating disorder and denying yourself basic nutrition, such as constant lethargy, bad skin, low moods, heartburn, and my personal least favourite – relentless anxiety about the smell of my habits. It also presents an economic nightmare. One of the more frustrating parts of the illness is that I may as well throw my money down the toilet, as it only happens to make a few more stops before that destination anyway. It had become such an ingrained part of my routine and thought process surrounding food, that to eat and not consider purging was absurd to me.

This was the point when I chose to seek help. When a habit that poses such a threat, not only to your mental well-being but your physical health, has become a normal part of your routine, it is much harder to break such habits.
I had also reached the point of being overwhelmed with shame. Although eating disorders are a mental illness like any other and should be treated as such, to be in a privileged enough position to have access to healthy food and nutrition, and yet to completely abuse that privilege, is a constant source of extreme guilt for me. This is along with the constant frustration at the fact that, on surface level, it is merely a case of mind over matter. I normally pride myself on being a relatively logical person, and yet despite countless attempts and many tears, I have had to admit to myself that I cannot simply bring myself to stop doing this – at least not on my own.

The debate as to whether to approach health professionals was usually won by the voice in my head that continued to tell me no one would believe me

I approached the University Welfare team at the start of this year. There was a part of me, one that is still very much present, that worried I would not be taken seriously. Although over the past few years it has become increasingly accepted that mental health problems do not discriminate, people assume of eating disorders that most victims are incredibly thin, as a result of denying themselves food. And indeed, although sometimes a stereotypical assumption, this is often the case. However, I have always been to varying degrees on the overweight side. This meant that the debate as to whether to approach health professionals was usually won by the voice in my head that continued to tell me no one would believe me.

Although initially a very daunting process, I felt immediately reassured that I was of course believed. It was quite quickly discussed how serious my condition was, and that left untreated it could be incredibly dangerous. The staff immediately performed a health check to ensure I hadn’t done any permanent physical damage to my body. They also took me through various techniques designed to manage my illness. I have since then been referred to the eating disorder clinic in Coventry to receive treatment.

I imagine that coming to university with any kind of mental illness can be extremely intimidating. You are with a group of entirely new people, who will not know to look out for signs and symptoms of your condition. If you find anything in this article familiar to your own experiences with an eating disorder or believe you are at risk of developing one, I desperately encourage you to seek help. This is whether you are just moving into halls in first year or are like me and approaching the end of your university experience.

Christmas has been a time of immense anxiety for me, a time when it is actually an expected trait of the season that you eat too much

It is also worth noting that while this can be at times a stressful and confusing time, those feelings are easily lessened by looking out for each other. If you notice a friend acting oddly or displaying symptoms of having an eating disorder or any other mental health disorder, please reach out to them. From my own experience, it is a subject that is immensely difficult to bring up. The awkwardness of doing so could be avoided by a friend simply asking if everything is ok.

As we approach the Christmas period again, the time when my problems first arose, I am slightly more hopeful than I have been in previous years. While I’m not too fond of the festive period regardless, for the past few years, Christmas has been a time of immense anxiety for me, a time when it is actually an expected trait of the season that you eat too much. I’m hoping that my treatment thus far will be of benefit to me. And albeit a cliché, I am hopeful that the new year will see a development in my recovery.

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