Beth Quiligotti tells us about coping with an eating disorder whilst studying at university
For someone with an eating disorder, university can either make you or break you. It’s something I know about well, having lived with an eating disorder for the past 3 years of my life. The blessed independence that we receive at university means it is now our responsibility to look after ourselves, and it is up to us how we use it. Moving to university meant I had the perfect opportunity to use this independence to start afresh and finally try to recover. Instead, I initially chose the wrong route. I used this freedom in the wrong way: as an opportunity to be in charge of my food intake with no one checking up on me, and essentially as a coping mechanism for this huge transition in my life.
My first weeks as a fresher were the same as most others: meeting new people, a lot of drinking and a lot of hangovers. The meeting-new-people part I loved. The only difference from most others was that the drinking often ended in tears and the hangovers were spent alone in my room. In fact, I remember my flatmates joking about how I only came out at night and asking whether I was a vampire – awkward. In reality, I would have been in my room all day regardless of the hangover or not, spending my days completely obsessing over every flaw, weighing myself constantly, showering and getting ready, obsessing again, re-showering and re-getting ready. Obviously, I had no time for lectures with all of this going on – more stress. Oh, and staying in my room all day meant I could avoid the kitchen at all costs – bonus!
I knew I was continuing on a downward spiral, but I also knew I would be completely and utterly happy if I just budged an extra few pounds. What I wasn’t admitting to myself at the time, although I knew fully well, was that I was slowly going down the wrong route – the one I had hoped I wouldn’t take. Those reading this with an eating disorder know that is a coping mechanism and largely based on control, and so you really are most vulnerable when undergoing changes in your life.
In fact, research has found adolescent girls aged 15-19 have the highest incidence of eating disorders. On top of that, Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any other psychiatric disorder, with between 15-20% who develop the disease eventually dying from it. What a great way to end university – not.
Whilst I may have started out painting a pretty miserable picture of my first few weeks at university, obviously I was having the best time of my life alongside these personal problems. As time progressed, university showed me that there is so much out there that an eating disorder stops you doing: throwing yourself into a new hobby, going out for a meal with friends, going to lectures. But at the end of the day, avoiding doing these things will get you nowhere; avoiding things won’t make you friends just like missing lectures won’t get you a degree.
With that said, despite everything going on, there is no doubt that the past year has been the best of my life, and that’s because I eventually learnt that my eating disorder doesn’t define me like I thought it did. Even though I still struggled, and still do, the friends I made, the amazing support from my boyfriend (proof that you can get with a flat mate and stay together!) and the sports or societies I joined gave me less time to obsess and more time to be happy and enjoy university like everybody else. After all, not having the energy to get out of bed gets a bit boring after a while. University has made me finally want to get better, which was always the major problem with previous treatments I have received – I didn’t want to. For now, I have just begun sessions at ‘Coventry Eating Disorder Service’, which has some of the best results in the world and hopefully this is the last treatment I have to go through.
Freshers: while coming to university can be so exciting, it can also be very stressful. Moving away from home for the first time and learning to look after yourself on top of establishing a social life can be overwhelming for anyone, let alone someone with an eating disorder. New stressors, unfamiliarities and uncertainties may replace the normality of home life and bring into play those particular coping mechanisms that make you feel safe. We both know they aren’t safe, so don’t waste your time.
It will be a challenge, but hopefully one you can overcome. I know it’s easier to say, not do, so all I can say is to really use your independence and self-control wisely. Don’t obsess. Don’t have such high expectations of yourself. Don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t use freedom in the wrong way because in the end you’ll be anything but free. Do use it to make new friends, new memories and have the best years of your life. University is for making memories that you’ll remember for the right reasons!
Beth’s top tips for Freshers
TELL SOMEONE: Tell your accommodation representative. They can be a really big help, trust me! If you’re lucky with yours, they’ll be a great help and will be there whenever you need to talk, and everything you say is confidential. You should also tell a flatmate or friend you feel you can trust. Friends and especially flatmates will pick up on things such as eating habits and unusual behaviour, so sometimes it is better to let them know how to help you. Everybody at university has their own problems, and keeping it to yourself will only make it worse – you never know how confiding in someone may also lead them to confide in you.
TELL YOUR GP: Register with the health centre and let your GP know. If you haven’t told anyone before, don’t worry, anything you tell your GP is again confidential. It is so important that you let them know so that they can keep an eye on your bodily functions and most importantly electrolyte levels. For those suffering with bulimia, if potassium levels drop too low all of a sudden this could lead to cardiac arrest. It is better to routinely get your bloods checked to keep an eye on everything. Secondly, you can get referred to the ‘Coventry Eating Disorder Service’ if you feel this is best and you want to engage in treatment.
GET INVOLVED: Get involved with things as soon as you feel comfortable. Push yourself, but not too much, as you don’t want to overdo it and end up overwhelmed when dealing with your own problems. Living with an eating disorder is not only mentally tiring but also time consuming. Fill up your time with something else. The more you get involved, the more busy you are, the more friends are made, and less time spent dwelling on unimportant things!
DON’T LOCK YOURSELF AWAY: Get to know your flatmates straight away. If you are feeling shy and self conscious, act like you’re not. The quicker you get comfortable around them the better. You are living with them for the next year after all!
SUPPORT GROUPS: Look out for eating disorder support groups on the SU website and campaigns during mental health awareness week. Mental health is huge at Warwick, and it is great that it is seen as not something to be ashamed of.
From now on, I will be writing a regular column in the Sci & Tech section about my treatment at the ‘Coventry Eating Disorder Service’. I am hoping that the information I provide will help those who aren’t ready to seek treatment yet themselves.