The Harsh Reality of Having an Eating Disorder in College

When one thinks of a serious eating disorder, images of skeletal young people in hospital generally come to mind, or at least that’s what I considered it to be years ago. I know it is possibly the most clichéd of things to say, but it never occurred that it could happen to me. Even my family very much doubted the diagnosis, although there was clearly a problem, but it just didn’t seem to fit. The main reason for this is that the term eating disorder itself is quite a complex one, and eating disorders can come in so many different forms. It is also important to foreground the fact that it is a mental illness which does not discriminate against age, gender, class or any other type of background one might have. Just as you would seek help if you have a physical illness, the same must be done for an eating disorder.

Statistics about eating disorders are terrifying, so for those of you who are recovering I shan’t go into detail about it, but will just mention that they should be taken more seriously than they currently are. They require serious professional help of a large team of specialists, as well as understanding by those close to you, and even more importantly, demand that you take it seriously too. It also affects so much more than just one’s relationship with food, it really does feel like it takes your entire life away. Imagine a life without revolving around food; your days wouldn’t really have much social gathering if you avoid food, much less the energy that you could be spending doing things you love, is now spent on trying to hide and avoid food.

I developed a long lasting health condition as a result of the years of damage my body endured as a result of my mental illness. I began college full of excitement for the subjects I would study and the social life that came with it, but it was pretty much impossible to incorporate an eating disorder into that. Even though I tried, going for a drink with friends was impossible as I couldn’t drink any alcohol without being in severe mental and physical pain from the damaged lining of my stomach. I couldn’t go for a meal with friends as the prospect of anyone seeing me eat was so terrifying I couldn’t bear social encounters. I would snap at my closest friends and family for trying to monitor what I ate even though I know now they were only doing so to try to protect me. I lost many close friends as a result of my eating disorder, which is important to keep in mind; secrecy is an inherent part of this mental illness, so confrontation will always be difficult. My eating disorder even decided what university I would attend as my parents felt sure I wouldn’t survive if I went further away from home where there was no prospect of keeping an eye on me. I developed a heart condition due to the weakening of my heart muscles, my bones hurt, and whether I slept or not I was so exhausted I could barely read due to the lack of energy I was consuming.

I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 17, and I thought that this was finally it; after all the years of suffering, putting a name to the monster would help to attack it. However it was merely the start of the battle, involving so many specialists and huge support from those closest to me as well as a personal struggle to confront what you feel is somehow wrong even though eating is the most natural thing in the world.  By far the worst was the mental aspect to it however; the inner battle that i encountered daily was so horrific, it was a battle of self worth and how much I valued myself, despite how others treated me with such compassion.

It was only by the time I graduated university that I can say I fully conquered my eating disorder; the supports provided for free by the university really are incomparable. One thing I must stress is that just as one size doesn’t fit all, not necessarily every therapy will work for everyone; part of the battle is to keep trying until you find something that works. It is important to be honest with the various therapists you meet, as to what is achievable for you, or indeed what you feel is working and what isn’t. It took me six years to find a form of therapy that worked for me, but once I did life became so much easier. It has been seven years since I was diagnosed, and I never thought I would come to a point in my life where I don’t think about food all the time. I go out for dinner, I meet friends, and I travel. Food no longer dictates my self worth, my routine, or my social life. I won’t pretend that every day is easy, there are some days that it does come back, but for that reason it’s important to make people aware of what you are going through. Merely saying to a friend that you don’t feel comfortable can make the internal feelings and thoughts seem more tangible, and therefore can be confronted.

To those of you who think you might know someone with an eating disorder, please don’t force them to abandon their behaviors at once; it might seem counter intuitive, but this can be quite painful and make them feel like they are not understood. Broach the subject, and let them know that any progress is still progress, no matter how small. Support is the main network that aids in the treatment of eating disorders and it helps to have friends there from the beginning. To those of you who fear your might have an eating disorder, do try seek help, or even speak to someone close to you about it. Recovery is a long, very windy process that can often feel like you’re going backwards, but all progress should still be applauded as there is support and hope to be gained from awareness weeks such as those in Maynooth.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week ran from Monday February 26th – March 4th earlier this semster. The Dept. of Health & Children estimate that up to 200,000 people in Ireland may be affected by eating disorders. Let’s carry on the conversation and awareness of these mental illnesses.

If you or someone you care about may be suffering from an eating disorder, contact Bodywhys.

T: 1890 200 444