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Not so cool for school?

As another school term begins, for this bumper blog we’ve brought together four supporters, each with their own unique story to share: from starting university in a new city, to caring for a daughter completing her GCSEs, to getting through college while in recovery. Read on to hear their reflections on why education can be especially tough for those experiencing an eating disorder. What helped get them through, and what did they learn in the process?

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“My daughter began to become ill with anorexia just a month into starting High School. I had been convinced that she was ready for the move, but in reality nothing could have been further from the truth.” - Katy

“Being able to access support, which at the time also meant reaching out to Beat’s helpline, was so vital in helping me adapt what I learnt in recovery for university.” - M

“Being in school or education with an eating disorder is by no means easy. Not in the slightest. But as someone who left sixth form six years ago, I can tell you there is hope.” - Rowan

“I look back fondly on my time at university, and despite having to manage anorexia and my mental health, I feel like I made the most of my three years of study.” - Emily

What struggles did you or your loved one face?

“Sometimes the calm, confident, academic, emotionally controlled exterior our loved ones portray is not the real story. Change can be very scary and for some, unfortunately, developing an eating disorder is a way of controlling one aspect of life when everything else in their world is uncertain. My daughter stopped going to school full time in December after receiving a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa and was admitted to hospital in February the following year. The hospital teachers would try and get her to do some work so she didn’t fall behind. But she had no interest at all… in anything.” - Katy

“University was a place where all the routines I had learnt to maintain my recovery no longer existed. Moving to a new city to study is daunting for everyone, and I’d been worried about whether I’d make new friends and living in a new city would be like. Alongside this I was also particularly concerned about managing my mental health away from my family and support network. I unfortunately relapsed into anorexia at the end of my first year of university. I was seeing my GP monthly for regular check-ups and weigh-ins and they were able to refer me to an NHS outpatient program for my anorexia.” - Emily

“The two things I noticed my eating disorder affected most during my time at school were my energy levels and concentration. If you are not giving your body adequate nutrition, it’s completely understandable why you may feel full of energy in the morning, but by the time the afternoon comes? You are drained beyond belief. Around concentration, it was the same. You simply can’t expect your delicate brain to be able to focus for over six hours a day, five days per week, if you are not fuelling it.” -Rowan

What coping mechanisms or support did you find to be the most helpful?

“Accessing a support group for carers through Beat and carrying out their training programme has helped me immensely. I have learned how to support my daughter through this illness and to remove myself and take time out when the eating disorder rears its head, rather than engaging with it. Her school has been great at putting no pressure on her, keeping in touch and fitting in around what she was able to manage. Relinquishing control as a parent or carer is hard, but it’s helped a great deal to off-load the burden of decision making.” - Katy

“The most helpful thing that I learnt, and still try to implement where I can, was to be upfront with people about my mental health. I know how hard it is to be honest with others about having an eating disorder: this is an illness which thrives on secrecy and being in an environment where no one knew about my eating disorder really fuelled those negative thoughts I had been trying to fight.” - M

“One thing that benefitted me was having an honest chat with my school nurse. Nightmare, right? Well, no, actually! I brought my mum along for support, and to help the nurse understand that just because I am attending school does by no means mean I’m able to cope as well as others who do not have an eating disorder. We came up with a plan to help me eat lunch in the canteen with the other pupils. For me, eating in front of others was a major trigger so I felt supported in that I had the option to do this as slowly as I needed to. This was MY journey.” - Rowan

What advice would you give to anyone who’s currently going through a similar experience?

“Talking to the Beat helpline encouraged me to open up to others to help with my recovery. It might be awkward at first, but they promised that in the end I would benefit so much more if I did. And they were so right. As soon as I confided in the friends I had made at university, they were so encouraging and supportive.” - M

“University was far from the ‘best years of my life’ but that’s ok! The portrayal of the university experience is very idealised and often doesn’t portray the struggles people can face. Don’t struggle alone. Make sure you sign up for a GP as soon as you get to university so as you can access them whenever you might need to.” - Emily

“My advice is to talk and connect and give people the opportunity to help you. Be the go-between for school/college and community services and try not to have too many other changes going on whilst the transition is taking place, for example changes to medication. And finally, (try to) stick to a routine. This helps all of us when we start something new, but for your loved one it could enable them to continue with their recovery journey.” -Katy

How are you doing now?

My daughter completed all 23 of her GCSE exams, one day at a time. We don’t know the results yet, and whilst I hope she is happy with how she did, I am the proudest Mum because she sat each one. The results don’t matter. Her determination is incredible.” - Katy

“After getting medical treatment, for the rest of my degree, I was able to manage my mental health. I look back fondly on my time at university and despite having to manage anorexia and my mental health, I feel like I made the most of my three years of study. I made great friends, moved to a wonderful city where I still live today, studied some excellent courses and discovered lots of new literature and had some wonderful experiences.” - Emily

“University can be a really challenging place, but know that there will always be people around you who will support you, who will want to see you thrive. Don’t let the eating disorder voice let you lose out on the opportunities and experiences there.” - M

“School is not forever. Your eating disorder is also not forever. Recovery is possible, and I am proof of that. I was at rock bottom, but I found the inner strength to climb out of the dark, seemingly never-ending hole I had dug myself into, with the right support by my side.” - Rowan

If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in Heather's story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website.