What I really learnt as a fresher: university with an eating disorder
University – a time full of new experiences, new friends, new skills and also new challenges. My first year at university ended up being the most challenging and unpredictable year of my life – learning much more about myself and the importance of self-care and the reality of mental health than anything on my course.
Fresher’s week was full of meeting new people, going out, eating takeaways with friends after a night out. Harmless and fun things to do, normal for a teenager and normal for me at this time. Coming home for the first time since moving to uni was the first time I had looked in a full-length mirror for around six weeks and I could see that I had put weight on – nothing too dramatic, but weight gain all the same. Realising this, I decided to try and eat as healthily as I could, something that I found difficult as I was living in catered halls and had very little control over what I could eat.
As my time at uni continued, I felt my mood and personality become dampened. I didn’t enjoy going out with my friends as much and the amount and stress of work was starting to get on top of me; however, I just took this on as par for the course. I didn’t have an appetite as much anymore, and food was a chore rather than something that I could enjoy.
January was my first GP appointment, initially for low mood. I was given medication to help, which I found difficult as I was thinking how had my life-long aspiration of studying medicine turned into an everyday chore of having to get up and pretend that I was enjoying the course as much as all of my other friends. One of the side effects was nausea, which made it very difficult for me to eat and was probably the first time that I started to restrict my intake – not purposely, but genuinely because I had no appetite.
I didn’t notice myself losing weight, and neither did the people around me. It was one night that I decided to open a packet of chocolate orange segments, which I had been saving since Christmas Day. One, two. Whole packet. What else was there? Caramel waffles. Crisps. Toast. Why did you eat that? You have ruined it. Just eat more. Eat everything. Ha, look how much you have eaten. The cruel words echoing around my head as I ate as much as I could – in secret of course. The cruellest thing I discovered about eating disorders is the secrecy and shame that they inflict on you as a person; changing your personality and making you more focused on working with the voice in your head to follow your ED than to let your true voice shine through.
It was one day, after returning from uni, having not eaten all day when I binged again. And a cycle began. Restrict, binge, purge. But of course, I won’t make a habit of it.
‘I’m not coming for tea tonight; I’ve just had something to eat.’
‘It’s okay, I am going to the gym, so I will have something later on.’
Over the next few months, my eating span out of control. Initially struggling with bulimia and admitting this to my best friend, mum and GP was the most difficult thing that I did – but also the most liberating. The eating disorder dictated my life: how much time I spent with my friends, how much work I could do, how much free time I gave myself to simply relax.
I was lost, scared and felt like there was no way out of this cycle. CBT sessions helped me to control my thoughts and separate my rational thoughts from those of the ED. By recording what I ate, I was able to identify a restrictive diet during the day and then a binge-purge routine at night. Weeks on weeks, I was the same at each session, having not eaten anything by 4pm each day because of the guilt and feelings following a binge the night before. Of course this just set me up for the next cycle. However, I couldn’t see this, and even if I could I felt like I couldn’t control it.
Gaining control from bulimia gave me control over what I ate again, but in the other direction, so that I became scared of food. I couldn’t eat because then I would eat everything. An extra slice of toast, a portion of mayo, a slice of cheese were petrifying to me, which, looking back now is so hard to believe. But if I think back, I remember that this was enough to bring me to tears. Each time I visited the GP, my weight dropped more, which was exhilarating. I had never been good at losing weight – every diet I had been on I had lost weight yes, but never this much, something I could control and be successful at and something that at this time I clung onto.
It was one night out with friends, when I put on a playsuit that had once been tight-fitting and now hung off of me, when my mum saw me and went into her room to cry and when I sent my friend a picture of my outfit and I barely recognised myself in the mirror that I realised I needed to put weight on. This was April – my first year exams were in May, but how could I revise and study when all I could think about was food? I hated food. I didn’t want to eat food. Food was the enemy. But simultaneously, I had to eat. I had to put weight on. I had to stop bingeing and purging. And so, I made the most difficult decision I have ever made – to put my health first, as something mental had become very much physical.
Three weeks before my exam, I dropped out of uni. I was free. It was a relief. I put everything into self-care and giving myself freedom. But I felt like a failure, I made excuses as to why I was going home so much, why I wasn’t at all my lectures…
Eight months on and days after my last CBT session I cannot say that I am free of my ED, but I am back to a weight that is normal, my relationship with food is more or less healed and I am more aware than ever of the importance of putting your health first.
Nothing is worth your happiness. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice but rather a stolen lifestyle by a cruel bully in your mind.