Going back to school after Summer can be really difficult when you are struggling with an eating disorder, no matter how far into recovery you are.
Starting a new year with a new routine can be really challenging, especially when you have just had 6 weeks of no structure. I have had to return to school and face the memories and people of the year before many times, so I am going to share what I wish l knew when I was struggling...
Brainstorm everything you think may trigger you at school at this stage of your recovery. Think of ways you could avoid these triggers. Sometimes you can't avoid triggers: for example, you can’t control what other people say.
But here are some things I did that I could control:
● I didn’t sit in the canteen for lunch, as it was too stressful.
● I decided to stay away from specific people I thought could trigger me with what they talked about.
● I ate lunch with good friends that I knew would distract me and understood what I was going through.
● I would ask what the topic of PSHE and assembly would be each week. I would then ask to sit somewhere else if I believed it would be triggering.
● I didn't participate in P.E. at the beginning, and stayed away from sports clubs.
● I got a timeout card from school that allowed me to leave the classroom for some air if I ever felt overwhelmed (particularly around lunchtime)
For the triggers you can’t control, ensure you write out a plan for what you will do if you become triggered. What will help you stay on track with eating that evening? Ensure to give it to a loved one or professional that can help you if you find yourself in this mindset.
...actually, it’s completely okay to take extra support
Talk to the school if you can about your struggles - you NEED a support system, and they will be able to provide support in some way. If they offer sessions with the school counsellor, that is definitely at least worth a try! Telling the school will take the pressure off a lot around deadlines, for example, and if your subject teachers know your circumstances, they will likely be gentle with expectations for homework.
I know you may be thinking that you don’t want that type of treatment, but actually, it’s completely okay to take that extra support. You are going through a lot, and you shouldn’t feel bad for needing it. Depending on what you are comfortable with, it can be a good idea to tell friends and peers at school about your eating disorder. This will allow your friends to help you in any way they can, and do their best not to be triggering.
People are more focused on their own lives than on your weight gain.
If you are in a stage of recovery where you are working your way to a healthy weight, and have changed weight over the summer, I promise that no one will notice. This was something that I was so worried about but for no reason. People are more focused on their own lives than on your weight gain. And at the end of the day, any weight you have gained is healthy and very necessary for recovery. In fact, if people notice anything, it will be how your skin and hair looks healthier, how you appear more focused in class and how you have started smiling more.
If you happen to come across a situation where this isn’t the case, and your school has a bully that is overly focused on OTHER people, then stay strong. Teenagers can be very cruel, but remember if someone is horrible, it says much more about them than it does you. If someone makes a stupid comment about you for any reason, tell someone at school. If you don’t raise it, it is likely they will continue to be a bully. Never let anyone put you backwards in recovery.
This is your chance to build a whole new routine that fits you.
The summer has no studying and routine, which can be very stressful for some in recovery. This is your chance to build a whole new routine that fits you. Eating may feel easier when there’s a structure to your day! This can be really positive in terms of recovery, especially when after lunch you go straight into learning again, not being bored at home!
When you are at school, try to immerse yourself into the lesson, get your mind focussed on something more productive than food.
Look after yourself
Check in with yourself throughout the day by:
● Going into the bathroom and doing some deep breaths. You could also take a fidget toy in your bag to ground yourself around lunchtime.
● Spilling out your thoughts on your notes app about how your day is going. Is your eating disorder being loud? It’s good to keep track of it.
● Planning what you will do after school.
You should prioritise looking after your physical and mental well-being. Practice self-care at home after school to feel more energised and confident. Even having a nap after school if you are exhausted is a form of self care!
Lay off the academic pressure
Eating disorders are powerful. They are so manipulative and often make you believe that you need to be the best at everything, which is why the illness makes so many people over achievers. This can be great, but sometimes it is not. I really struggled at school with perfectionism, and at a certain point, I believe it took over my life more than my eating disorder. I wish someone had warned me about this before, as I found myself in tears if I didn’t get 100% on an end of the topic test, which led to me becoming known at school to be this highly competitive perfectionist- not very fun to be around. It’s great to be good at school, but there is too much of everything.
When you leave school, you really do realise that there is so much more to life than grades.
I hope you can take something from this, no matter what stage of recovery you are at. It may be tough at first, but after a month or so, I hope it will become easier as you settle into the new school year! :)
-Contributed by Alannah, medical student with lived experience of eating disorders
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website.
Help us change more lives
Can you donate today to help us provide more vital support to people like Alannah?
Dr Zoe Hodson talks menopause, eating disorder recovery, and reaching out for support
We break down 5 key take-aways from our recent online event on Eating Disorders & Diversity
As the new uni term begins, our supporter Anna is here to remind you that mental health matters more than any grade ever will.