Like most girls, I have always grown up with the desire to lose weight. But it wasn’t until my Fresher year, when I first moved out and gained complete control over my lifestyle, did it become apparent how to.
For the first time, the numbers started to add up: the less I ate, the more weight I would lose; and now that I live by myself, it became so easy to ‘eat less’. After a while, I started to associate my ability to restrict myself with a sense of achievement, and subsequently my entire self-worth. That’s how anorexia starts.
As I became more and more paranoid about what I consumed, the illness ended up having more control over me than I had of it. I would spend every waking moment planning my meals, considering every meticulous detail, every minor tweak I could make to cut down on the calorie count. I became terrified of socialising, of consuming anything unplanned. Food was no longer just fuel but a luxury, an addiction that I mustn’t allow myself.
It is just so, so frustrating to now realise how much of my life has been robbed by anorexia. I was always cold, always tired, always distracted by all the contradicting voices in my head asking for more whilst simultaneously condemning me for craving anything at all.
There is unfortunately still a lot of stigma surrounding the topic of anorexia, the most common of which being that the condition stems from vanity, or a conscious lifestyle choice. It does not. While anorexia might have been triggered by a desire to slim down or be more fit, at its core the condition is not so much about weight, so much as it is a destructive coping mechanism. My food intake was the only thing I had complete control over in my increasingly stressful and overwhelming fresher experience, and I clung to what little comfort it provided until I was the one being controlled. Anorexia and eating disorders are not anymore a choice than any other mental illness.
That is why the condition is particularly prevalent among Freshers, with roughly 20% of women and 10% of men developing an ED within the period (NEDA survey, 2013). It is alarming how many of the disordered eating behaviours are so prevalent and normalised amongst university students; skipping meals, exercising compulsively, or consuming caffeine in excess are all common. While engaging in these behaviours does not immediately lead to an eating disorder, they are all considered common risk factors and warning indicators for EDs.
It can be incredibly tough to open up to someone when you’re suffering from the ongoing mental battle of anorexia; to convince yourself to choose recovery alone is already a massive challenge, especially if you’re not part of the 6% of ED patients who are medically underweight (according to the American Academy of Psychiatry). I, like many others, was in denial about having anorexia as I found it embarrassing to be in so much torment over something as simple as food. Even now, I’m still struggling with the mindset that “less is better”, still catching myself purposely ignoring the hunger, just so I can keep experiencing that same blissful emptiness.
I was lucky enough to have friends and family who cared for me and expressed concern, and they have all been incredibly supportive. Even so, there are still times I feel trapped, as if I’m doomed to live with this unbearable voice in my head for the rest of my life.
For anyone reading this who might be going through something similar, I promise that it is worth it to reach out for help no matter how difficult it might appear. The university offers extensive mental support through the Student Hub, from support sessions to professional therapy. Besides that, the Mental Health Rapid Response Service is on 03003 040078, but even if you can’t bring yourself to dial the number, please reach out to a friend or family member. Building up the courage to seek support might have taken me a long time, but to this day, it remains one of my proudest achievements yet.