University with an Eating Disorder
Today I wanted to share my experience of moving away to university whilst battling an Eating Disorder. Before I start I want to disclaim this post by saying that prior to starting I had been in therapy and attending daily meal support for several months, and had convinced myself and those around me that I was mentally and physically fit to go. Unfortunately this was not the case, and so if you are reading this because you are thinking of going to University but aren’t sure whether it is the right choice for you and your recovery, then please know there is absolutely no rush. I feel that personally my decision to go was partly driven by my ED which desperately wanted the freedom of living alone. Yes I was excited to start my course, meet new friends and explore a new city, but the disordered part of me was also excited for the greater control over my life it would gain as a result of me leaving home.
In September of last year I enrolled at the University of my choice and waved goodbye to my parents as they dropped me two hours from home at my student accommodation. I unpacked my belongings into my little room and met my first year flatmates, 3 girls and 4 boys who all seemed lovely and who I quickly became friends with. The day I moved in was my birthday and so that night we all had drinks and then went out clubbing, ending the night with chips or pizza before passing out in bed. This became a common occurrence, especially during Freshers week, and I genuinely had a lot of fun and was living pretty much free of ED thoughts. This however, did not last.
When I moved, my therapist from home referred me to a new service nearby to my university, and so I attended an assessment there in my second week and was put on a waiting list. I was weighed at this appointment and my ED was majorly unhappy with the number it saw, causing me to reflect on my drinking, eating, and exercise habits since I’d arrived at university. Suddenly I found myself hyperaware of the way I looked and as my body image plummeted, so did my intake in a desperate bid to “fix” it. Of course I knew that this was not going to work based on my previous experiences and the knowledge that restriction would only serve to make me more miserable, but this didn’t stop my ED. When battling eating disorders you can be presented with all the facts but unless you choose to actively engage with this information and use it as fuel to challenge your illness, then at least in my experience, it has little impact.
Contrary to the experiences of some of my flatmates, cooking was not foreign to me, however it was the first time in my life that I had done the food shop completely solo and without guidance, and so my ED exploited this. It was whilst at university that I developed many disordered rules around food, eating and hoarding, and the first time that I fell victim to the binge restrict cycle. I don’t believe it is in any way helpful to divulge the details of these behaviours as we all know that our ED’s seek out ideas from other sufferers stories and that is not something I wish to enable in my writing. Therefore, whilst I will be discussing some of the ways in which my ED impacted upon my university experience, I will only be doing so in the context of showing how it forced me to have to drop out.
It was not only the freedom to buy and cook what I liked that was a shoe in for my ED. Whilst at University I also believe I developed body dismorphia and my existing poor body image was intensified by the constant wearing of skimpy clothing on nights out, and the endless photos taken with my new friends who I developed substantial comparison issues with. On top of this, I had one flatmate who frequently commented on what I was eating, and whilst yes, looking back my meals were weird (because they were completely disordered!), It made me very concious of eating in front of others which is quite problematic when you live and share a kitchen with 7 people. The kitchen itself was another issue as my flatmates, despite being lots of fun, were incredibly messy and far from hygienic. Furthermore, they would use my pots and pans, often without asking, and then fail to wash them up which massively triggered my issues with sharing cooking utensils and food.
As a result of the latter I took to storing the majority of my food as well as my cutlery, glasses, bowls and plates in my bedroom so that I could be certain no one else touched them. This led to more issues in my relationship with food, as following restriction I would find myslef binging in secret at night. With this came a lot of guilt and shame, and the need to hide my behaviours from my flatmates led to increased social isolation. I started saying no to nights out, and found myself tiptoeing around the flat to avoid people, using uni work as an excuse to escape back to my room if I failed to do so. In addition to my embarassment, restriction was causing my weight to drop and so even had I wanted to, I didn’t have the energy or the headspace to engage with others. Most of my flatmates were amazing in trying to keep involving me despite my resistance and despite not knowing what I was facing, however I still felt very distant from the uni life they were living and the one I had envisgioned for myself.
The obsessive food thoughts and fatigue also impaired my ability to concentrate in lectures and participate in seminars meaning I wasn’t enjoying my course as much as I could have been. I never fell behind with work, in fact I pushed myself harder than ever as I was compelled to do so by my fear of failure. This was not healthy though, and I was living life on autopilot in survival mode rather than actually getting any joy out of it. This is something I failed to consider when making the decision to go to university prior to my full recovery, as I believed I had to go in order to prove that I could to myself and others. Through this, I neglected to remember that it is a place to explore your passions and in the midst of my illness, passion of any form is definitely something I lacked.
All of this led me to dropping out after 2 months at University, as following the second of the two therapy sessions I did receive, I was told I needed to take drastic action to gain weight and I knew I had to accept my inability to do this alone. It was incredibly difficult to leave so soon, and my ED was furious at me for giving up my freedom like this, however I also felt a sense of relief as I was exhausted from abusing my body and wanted the safety of home and my family. Although my recovery continued to be bumpy when I moved home, and I did relapse after Christmas, I stand by the fact it was the right decision for me and one that quite possibly is the reason I am here now.
My decision to go to university whilst I was still controlled by my ED cost me a lot. Most obviously there is the hefty student debt with no degree to show for it, but it also put a massive strain on some of the most important relationships I hold in my life, as well as stunting my ability to fully recover sooner. That said, I did make some great friends whilst I was there and whilst they are few compared to what they could have been, I do have some wonderful memories of the times when the real Mais managed to surface. In addition to this, my experience taught me a lot, as I now know that the course I was on wasn’t necessarily right for me. It also taught me about my requirements in recovery, and showed me that there is no shame in needing help. I know now that if I want to return to university in the future then I can, and that if I do, it will be because I genuinely want to. I also know that if this is a choice I make then I will have to be alert to disordered thoughts creeping back in, and so it is only a step I can consider once I am fully recovered.
Hope everyone's keeping safe, and as always, feel free to message me if you have any questions about going to University, my experience of dropping out, or any other topic for that matter!
More from me soon,
Mais// The Recovery Bean <3