Returning to uni: the good, the bad, and the scary

Posted 28/03/2018

After a whole year at home, doing little more than attend therapy appointments, make meal plans, cry over said meal plans, volunteer at my old primary school and do hundreds of crosswords, I was heading back to uni. I’m not going to say that the past year was transformative or healing or even that it miraculously made me recover, because it didn’t, and I am still fighting anorexia day after day. It was a tough year and it tested me beyond anything I could imagine, but I realised that sitting around waiting for recovery to come along and rescue me was pointless, because truthfully, it isn’t going to happen like that. I’m not going to one day decide to get better, especially if I have nothing tangible to get better for. Which is why I went back: for purpose, for direction, for a future.

Nothing was plain sailing, because when you have anorexia, nothing ever is. But there were some overwhelmingly positive things to come out of returning to uni, and the best? Normality! Finally, for the first time in a long time, my day was not completely structured around when/what I would eat, and my mind was not completely consumed by thoughts of food and my eating disorder. I was almost a normal, 21-year-old student, and it felt great. It was great to be stressed about an upcoming assessment or essay rather than the number of calories in my banana. It was great to be around other people who ate what they wanted, when they wanted, and looked amazing regardless. It was great to talk about something besides anorexia; it was great to laugh and bond and share and have fun. I love being back in a city, and I loved studying again on such a beautiful campus. I loved learning again, and I felt excited about learning from people at the forefront of their field. Anorexia had taken so much away from me, and finally, just maybe, I was starting to reclaim my life.

But then, inevitability, there was the bad stuff. Eating was, unsurprisingly, a big old challenge. With nobody to be accountable to, nobody to tell me what to eat and when, the ball fell in my court: I was alone, and I struggled. It was too easy to skip a snack, too easy to skimp on portions. I was overwhelmed by a compulsion to walk, everywhere, anywhere, all the time. BUT. I did eat. For the vast majority of days, I ate three meals and three snacks, even when it felt like the worst decision in the world. I had an incredible support system and they were there for me unconditionally. I had bad days with anxiety; I struggled with drinking alcohol and going clubbing; I found socialising difficult, but I did it, regardless. I pushed through the worry and the fear and the panic and the misery and the fat feelings and I made it through the whole term. I am not ashamed to say I am proud of myself.

I fully believe that uni isn’t easy for anyone. I think it can be a place of loneliness and ostracism, and I think it can breed mental illness. The pressure is intense, from all angles: you have to be sociable, but also studious; you have to be sporty or talented but academic and conscientious; you have to volunteer and get work experience but also complete every essay by the deadline and get a decent grade. You have to have your career plan sorted and your CV overflowing and your contact list ever-increasing. You are expected to do everything and be everything, but it’s not possible.

Pressure like this is what pushes people to the edge; it’s what pushes people over the edge. It’s important that people aren’t ashamed to ask for help, and it’s important that they know what help is out there should they need it. Because what’s the point of pushing yourself to breaking point for a degree if it has such a detrimental impact upon your health? We need to preach balance, and breaks, and better mental health care, to stop university becoming such a difficult place to thrive. 

Contributed by Laura