During my three years at university I struggled with an eating disorder. I believe it started significantly before that, but it became a lot more prominent as I moved away from home.
My relationship with food and my body image was very negative and I would always be aiming to lose weight as I was desperate to achieve an appearance that was probably impossible.
Moving to university put me completely in control of what I was eating, as even upon choosing accommodation I was determined to be self-catered. I found it easier to restrict what I ate as I did not have any family members around to be concerned or cook meals for me. I was also able to keep my eating habits more private, especially in first year when I was not living with friends who were more attentive. However, the flip side of having control over what I ate was that I often felt like I was giving into temptations and eating too much. I love food and told myself I would ‘do better’ in the following days.
I was proud of myself on days when I would eat little and I would feel extremely guilty and get angry at myself on days I felt like I went too far. My flip-flopping emotions meant I was miserable and insecure the majority of the time. I always had a standard that I held myself to, and I was always unable to meet it. All I was left with was constant self-criticism.
It took me until second year to go to a doctor about my mental health, which led to the realisation that I did in fact have an eating disorder, something I was not able to fully accept because I found it embarrassing. The doctor recommended I seek out a service within the university health centre that specialised in dealing with these kinds of issues, but I was in denial about my condition at that time so I never did reach out after my appointment. This is still a big regret of mine as I believe it would have helped me cope a lot better. Instead I carried on as I was, deepening the unhealthy relationship I had with food.
The advice I would give to others dealing with an eating disorder at university is if you feel able to reach out to mental health services provided by the university, then you should push yourself to do so. It is likely there will be a service that specialises in dealing with eating disorders as many people at university are in the same boat. Don’t be afraid to talk to your friends or people you trust who can be there to challenge your beliefs and encourage you to get better. Stay occupied and active if possible.
It is so hard to convince yourself when you are in a certain mindset, but the most important thing above all is that your body is healthy. If you are not comfortable talking to someone and getting physical help, there are many resources online and blogs that focus on body positivity and acceptance that may help. I think something important for me was to unfollow on social media any negative influences or people that I wished I looked like to an unhealthy degree.
I struggled through my three years of university, yet I still came out the other side. Looking back now, I wish I could have taken my own advice. I believe that people of every shape and size are beautiful, and I would do everything I could to make others feel good about themselves if they were ever insecure about their body, but for some reason I thought I was the exception; I thought everyone could look good except for me, even though that was not true in the slightest. While I am still struggling, I think it has made a big difference for me to have recognised and accepted what I am going through so I can look towards fully accepting myself.
For me, year one and year two were quite bad to say the least. For many students, this is the prime time to enjoy student life…fresher’s fun, nights out, joining societies, making friends and just living life, being a student. Well, for me it was different.
Firstly, due to my illness I made the decision to stay at home for university rather than move away, as it was safer and more practical – or so I thought. What it actually did was create a barrier to me fully immersing myself in student life.
I did not go out, I did not socialise, I did not mix. The only thing I did do was study. My eating disorder made me rigid and only performance-focused. I tended to push away a social life as much as I could. I was happy studying, I enjoyed it, but it meant I missed out on a lot.
I often ask myself how I survived. I would study for over nine hours a day, and ate little to no food in the meantime. University felt like an escape and kept me busy, but it also gave cover for some of my anorexic behaviour to continue. And because I was getting good grades, I didn’t see any problem.
But there was a problem, and I ended up finishing second year in hospital, taking my final exams for the year as an inpatient.
During my inpatient admission I got lucky and landed a work placement at a pharmaceutical company. Being in hospital, I doubted that I would be well enough to participate. Nonetheless, my doctor allowed me to attend the induction days, so I had this as motivation. And that is what it was. Such a strong part of me wanted to do this placement that I managed to use it to help me get to a fitter state.
Long story short, I was able to complete my placement year. The anorexia remained, but I felt like it had less of a hold on me. It had some impact on my placement, but certainly not as much as in my previous years of study. In many ways having to adapt to a new routine, having to be in the workplace environment and do things like socialise really helped! In that sense, it provided me a fresh new start.
Then came my final year of uni, which I’m doing now. It was really scary entering the university campus again, after last being here during my bad, bad times. I wanted to ensure this time round I did not go back to negative anorexic behaviours. I was also worried about what others would think – would they see a difference? Would anyone remember how I was before? A part of me also worried I only passed my first and second year so well because of the anorexia.
It was strange and extremely worrying. But so far, it has been a good experience. The negative behaviours have been replaced. I cannot say I am fully recovered, but I am a lot better. I hope that I can finish my final year successfully.
I would say to anyone struggling in similar situations, seek help, as much as you fear it. You don’t have to struggle on by yourself like I did.
Where to get help
If you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder, take a look at our page on eating problems. We have lots of information, advice and suggestions on where to get help.