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Exams and Eating Disorders: Remember You’re Not Defined By A Number

I’m 22 years old.

So far, I’ve sat through: 25 GCSE exams, eight AS Levels, six A2s, four preliminaries (at three hours each during my first year of university), four ‘Finals’, (again, three hours each), two drawn-out pieces of coursework, and one 12,000 word thesis.

And I’m a humanities student. Chances are if you’re a scientist, my hours spent in yellowy lit exam halls pale in comparison to yours!

We take an absurd amount of exams these days. I don’t think it does much good for us at all because it’s so much pressure in our youth.

Anyway, the powers that be say we must take them, so take them we must.

The thing is, exams are a lot more complicated if you have an eating disorder.

I sat all of the exams I listed at different stages in my battle with anorexia, so I’d like to think I know a thing or two about getting through.

Except... I want you to do more than just to get through. I want you to do more than get the marks you desperately want because you think you need them, because you think they define you.

They don’t define you. Any more than the number of hours a day you spend revising, or the number of minutes you sweated out on the treadmill define you.

Who you are as a person and your value in the lives of people around you is as poorly determined by your GSCE Geography mark as it is by figures on a bathroom scale.

In the midst of the panic and the stress, I’d urge people to remember what really matters.

Remember that you can be, and you will be, so much than the person you are being forced to be right now: squashed to the confines of an academic syllabus and the parameters of normality laid out by others only your own age.

Yes, work hard. Go to bed knowing you’ve tried as hard as you could that day. But don’t deny yourself anything. Especially not a bit of chocolate to help break up your revision timetable.

If your eating disorder has gotten to, or feels like it might get, to the point where it’s all-consuming, where you don’t have any energy to challenge negative thoughts, or where you’re prioritising skipping meals and exercising over time spent relaxing with friends or revising, get help.

Eating disorders aren’t things that just heal with time.

Beating one takes great mental energy and emotional resource – two things which the stress of exams are likely to be depleting.

You can take your exams again in a year, when you’ve had chance to focus on the most important thing: your health and happiness.

A year might seem a lot, if you’re only 17 but life should hopefully be a long and happy time. One year out of 90 is negligible.

Forget the negative thoughts and define yourself through your relationships, your music taste, your food taste, your interests, even your hair colour.

If you can’t do this, get help.

Exams can wait. Recovery can’t. 

Final note to loved ones, friends and family of those suffering with an eating disorder: please do not let ‘exam stress’ ever be an acceptable explanation for behaviour which looks like disordered eating.

Remember what I said – eating disorders aren’t phases. Get in touch with your GP, with us, with friends if you want to know how to help more. Just please don’t hope it will go away. Because it won’t.

Good luck to all of you taking exams. Just remember, priorities are health and happiness. 

Contributed by Summer