University and Eating Disorders: a few notes for Freshers
Freshers’ Week is looming and new students will be dragging their excited bums around Ikea, packing their lives away, leaving mummy and daddy and will soon find themselves in a room no bigger than a prison cell thinking, “Jesus, this is it”.
This time to students is what Leeds Festival is to grubby, post GCSE teens; freedom at last from the rules and routines they’ve lived by and resisted for years. This is time for them to do whatever the hell they want, drink themselves under the table, dance in a shabby student union thinking it’s the best thing that will ever happen to them and wake up next to a nameless stranger with half a cold pizza on the floor and not a clue how they got home, or who with. It’s fun time.
They will be bombarded with messages from charities and Nightline. They’ll be given as many free condoms as you can shake a stick at, learn everything there is to know about Gonorrhea and Chlamydia and be told again and again how many units they should be drinking. Scoff.
The messages that are hammered into students as they flit from stall to stall at the Freshers’ Fair with the intention only of collecting as many freebies as they can, are all so predictable and unoriginal that they go in one ear and out of the other. The night they’ve been given a leaflet on safe drinking, they’ll be face down in a bush after a bad round of ‘Ring of Fire’ with their new flatmates – they’ll be pulled up and they’ll sing at full blast to ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ by 11pm.
This may not be advisable, it may not be safe and it may not be healthy. But it’s normal. It’s what students do.
My first year of university was a disaster – and it wasn’t drink or drugs or explicit sex that made my life a misery. I could say it was not joining in with those things that was my downfall. But it is something that does need to be talked about at Freshers’ Fairs because it destroys a massive number of lives – and it doesn’t have to.
Eating Disorders can begin at any age, but moving away from home for the first time, being faced with the pressure of work, of having to look after yourself and of making friends when perhaps it’s not your strong point can be enough to have an impact on the way people behave around food or use their weight to find some way to cope with the number of changes that are going on around them.
A new life can be so exciting, but it can also feel so chaotic, and for many, an Eating Disorder and the feelings that come with it can make a person feel ’safe’. Routines can form and, as I have said many, many times before – the addictive nature of Eating Disorders can mean that something that begins as something barely detectable can soon spiral out of control, making it increasingly difficult to accept, understand or even think about getting help.
I am aware that some of my regular readers are at this stage now. They’re saying their goodbyes and flying the nest for the first time. It’s a huge step and if you happen to have suffered in the past from an Eating Disorder, it is going to present challenges. But you know what they say – these things are sent to try us. And what I say? DON’T YOU DARE WASTE ANOTHER SECOND.
University with an Eating Disorder is possible. You can juggle both, as I proved pretty well. Many people with Anorexia or Bulimia are perfectionists and have incredibly high expectations of themselves; so cuddling up in a million layers over your books all day and night might not seem to bad. If you get the grades then it’s worth shivering over essays while all your housemates go out an enjoy themselves.
But what memories will you have of your university days? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, people. I look back on my first year of university and remember burying myself in a purple dressing gown, struggling to eat the tiniest amounts of food, standing on and off the scales a hundred times a day, forcing myself to pound away on a treadmill, staring at others when they ate and feeling disgusted at the thought of letting myself go that much, doctors appointments, blood tests, warnings and finally, the threat of being forced into hospital. What a prize! My only sense of achievement came from feeling like I was literally floating around in a bubble (I did that, I thought). The only thing that made me smile was seeing the number on the scale creep down.
It’s a waste. A big, bullshit waste and a lie. It tells you that not eating, losing weight is the right thing to do. You’ll be the one people feel sorry for, they’ll admire your astounding level of self control and determination, they’ll wonder how you do it, idolise you – or ignore you, not even notice you’re there, you can just slip away unnoticed… whatever you want. It can feel so romantic at times, poetic.
Screw poetic, you should be doing pyjama pub crawls, drinking 50p shots and hanging off some guy as you sing along to Bodger & Badger or whatever other nitwits your university could afford to bring in to entertain you.
You might think you’re superior, on top of the world and above it all because you just slipped a pound below your first goal weight. But then you come home for Easter and then Summer and the faces drop. You might try to hide it under baggy layers or blame it on your work schedule or your new cycling hobby… you’ll have some excuse. You’re already in denial but they know. Deep down, you do too. Where’s the fun or achievement in that? In seeing the disappointment and worry grow in the faces of those who love you the most?
What I am trying to say – in an admittedly extremely long-winded and perhaps self-obsessed manner, for which I apologise but find necessary – is that if I could live that year over again, I would have made so much more of an effort to challenge my behaviours and fight the anorexia that, really, ruined what could and should have been one of the most amazing years of my life.
If you’re reading this and are about to go to university, by all means see it as an opportunity, a chance to spread your wings a little and enjoy smashing down the barriers of parental constraints we’ve all wanted to be rid of for so long because “I’m not 16 you know!” But for Christ’s sake, don’t waste a second. Don’t let worries hold you back. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t obsess. Don’t ever let worries about food or weight destroy the freedom that you’re using to fuel your self destruction. Use it for fun, for friends, for making memories that you’ll remember for all the right reasons.
I know it’s easy to say, but I wish that I had recognised the signs and done something earlier on to help myself or accept the help that was offered to me when it was too late and I was so entrenched that only hospitalisation was enough to get it through to me. The help IS there. If you are heading to university with worries about how you might cope, or if you notice a housemate or friends who you think could be slipping into something that could develop into an eating disorder – like skipping meals, like eating in private, exercising, isolating, becoming anxious, avoiding social situations, having mood swings – then don’t just watch it worsen…
Every university should have a support system in place. Some now have specialised services for students with Eating Disorders, but if not, contact the counselling service.
And there is always B-eat, the UK’s leading Eating Disorder charity. They have a helpline, online forums, live chats and loads of information for sufferers, carers and friends. http://www.b-eat.co.uk/
So reach out if you need to. And HAVE FUN!Tagged in: anorexia, beat, bulimia, eating disorders, freshers, university
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