Moving to university with an eating disorder – Guest Blogger

Our latest Guest Blogger shares her advice for making the transition to university and prioritising recovery, “Recovery is a mindset, and it’s possible to cultivate it wherever you are.”

Moving to university is such a whirlwind of a time. It’s super exciting to think of all the possibilities that lie ahead – newfound independence, a new place to live, new things to study, new friends to make, new societies to join and new experiences to have.

But then add an eating disorder into the mix, and all that excitement can quickly turn to anxiety. Who am I going to live with, what will I eat, will people want to talk to me, will I have to eat more, eat differently, eat at different times? How will I cope? Will I gain weight? Will I relapse? Will I be out of control of my food? The whirlpool of eating disorder thoughts can seem endless….

But moving to uni in recovery is possible – I moved halfway across the country a couple of weeks after being discharged from day treatment. It wasn’t easy, and I questioned if I was ready. I didn’t feel ready to leave the safety of my own home and support network, the familiarity of my routine and the life that I had become comfortable with. I had come so far in my recovery, and I wondered why I’d jeopardise that by moving away.

“I felt, in a way, that uni was my ticket out of my teeny tiny eating disorder world…”

But I also knew that I wanted to go to uni – I loved my subject (psychology) and I wanted to immerse myself in studying it. I wanted to experience moving away from home, I needed to meet new people and try new things. I felt, in a way, that uni was my ticket out of my teeny tiny eating disorder world that I had been trapped in for so long, and that was one I was so ready to break out of.

So if you don’t feel ready, that’s okay, because you might never feel ready. But if you give it a go and commit to recovery, you might find you were more ready than you think.

Below I’ve shared 10 tips, collated from my own experience, for things I wish someone had said to me before I started uni. I really hope they help you:

1) Keep in touch with your support network from home

It might be tempting to ignore your mum’s calls as soon as you get there but keeping in touch with people you love and trust from home will really help ground you and be a source of regularity and stability, especially in the first few weeks when you don’t really know anyone. If you have a trusted person from home, be it a parent, a friend or clinician, schedule regular times to call or FaceTime them to check in. This can help release some of the negative emotions and stop things bottling up (and consequently, feeling the need to take it out on food or yourself).

2) Similarly, tell your university about your eating disorder

I know you might want to ‘cut ties’ with your eating disorder, move away and pretend it never existed (I know I did) but let’s be honest, it’s highly unlikely that it’ll just disappear when you move away, and it’s wise to have support in place in case things get difficult. Most universities will have some kind of provisions in place – a student counselling or wellbeing service, a mental health team, or mentors etc. Even if you don’t need one right now, if you tell your university in advance, you’re likely to get support when you do need it, rather than waiting until things are very difficult and then being at the end of a (usually very long) waiting list. Don’t be ashamed of talking about your mental health at university, it is so, so common for students to struggle with their mental health, and universities are very well equipped to deal with these issues.

3) It takes some time to settle in

I expected to get there and everything to be amazing straight away; to instantly meet my best friends, totally ace my coursework, manage money, explore the new city and have a buzzing social life – needless to say this didn’t happen. It takes time to find your feet, to learn what works and what doesn’t, to meet people you like and to form good friendships. A lot of university is about experimenting – it’s exciting, scary and can result in a lot of trial and error, so be kind to yourself. Have patience, don’t blame yourself if things go wrong, if you haven’t met the right people within the first few weeks, or you’re finding things hard. There is no right or wrong way to do uni, everyone has a different experience of it. If something doesn’t work or isn’t for you (e.g. a society), then try something else. You will find your space eventually, so keep trying.

4) Stick with what you know works

Keep practising what you know works and what you’re familiar with. If you have a certain structure or meal plan that you know you can stick too, then go with that for the first few weeks. Don’t feel like you have to change everything all at once. Uni is a place with very little structure and routine, so creating your own is so important to ensure you’re making recovery-orientated decisions and not falling back into restrictive patterns.

5) Put yourself out there

Lots of people with eating disorders find themselves really struggling with their confidence, especially in a new place when everything is so new and different. BUT the best thing I did at uni was to try as many things as possible – go to taster sessions, the union events, the faculty welcome meeting and explore the new town you’re living in. The uni I went to had over 350 societies(!), and in the first semester each one did a ‘give it a go’ session, where you could go along and try it for free. I tried everything, from horse riding, to surfing, to salsa dancing, to baking, to musical theatre – I had never done any of them before because I didn’t have the confidence or the opportunity. Needless to say I was awful at all of them! But the memories of them will last forever and I met some great people along the way – which was what I wanted uni to be about. By putting yourself out there, you’re rediscovering yourself and becoming more you and moving away from the small world your eating disorder created. Plus you never know what you might enjoy!

6) Say yes to social eating

Uni is a time of lots of socialising, and most events will involve some kind of food/eating. If you choose not to eat in front of people, eat out, or let other people prepare your food, then you will miss out on so many great opportunities! Seeing other people eat so casually and normally is a reminder that food can be easy and a natural part of life. It is also a great way to bond with people.

7) Use others as support

Even if you don’t want to tell your new course friends or flat mates about your eating disorder (I didn’t tell anyone until well into my second year), you can still use them as support. Asking flatmates if they want to go food shopping with you, or cook at the same time, or grab some lunch from the canteen after a lecture, are all ways of having support around you at mealtimes without needing to tell people your whole story. For me, I really struggled to eat (enough) on my own, so having others around me really helped me to engage in normal eating without giving in to disordered thoughts.

8) Have a plan for if things go wrong

Know your warning signs and triggers for when things are starting to slip, and plan for what to do if they go wrong. Doing this with someone you trust (I did it with my mum) can really help to solidify it and hold you accountable. This isn’t to say you need to do a huge relapse prevention booklet, but bullet pointing some key warning signs will help you, or others, to know what to look out for and to intervene early when things are starting to get difficult.

9) Make your room a safe space

Creating a space where you feel fully comfortable and relaxed is so important for days when you’re feeling overwhelmed with the outside world. I put up lots of affirmations and motivational quotes I liked, and created a corner for journaling, which reminded me that recovery was always an option, no matter how bad things might have felt.

10) Think about what you want out of uni

Do you want it to be a fulfilling, happy time of newfound independence, making new friends and memories, self-growth, learning and new opportunities? Or do you want to spend it sat alone in your bedroom worrying about what you ate for breakfast and what you’re going to have for lunch? Every action you make will sway which way your uni experience goes. The three (or four, or five, or however many) years you spend at uni whizz by so fast, and you don’t want to look back with regrets. Most people only get one uni experience, and you will not regret making the most of it!

If there’s one thing to remember, it’s that YOU ARE ALWAYS IN CONTROL OF YOUR OWN RECOVERY. Every decision and action you make can be changed at any point – even if you’ve started to get more disordered thoughts, negative emotions, or engaging in behaviours – it’s never too late to stop them, turn around, and try recovering again.

I always pinned my recovery on external people – I believed I recovered because of my really great therapist, my amazing mum who never gave up on me, or the friends that supported me through everything. It wasn’t until I moved to uni that I realised that my recovery was mine, it was my own achievement, it was due to my own hard work, sheer determination and resilience. And that is something that will always be inside of me, regardless of if I’m sat in my family home, halfway across the country at uni, or decide to move to Australia.

Recovery is a mindset, and it’s possible to cultivate it wherever you are. If there’s one thing to pack in your suitcase to take to uni – it’s self-confidence and belief that you can, and will, recover, and this university chapter might just be the place that you do it in.

Some organisations that I found helpful during my time at university:

  • Beat – they have a helpline and lots of online groups. Some universities have their very own BEAT societies as well which help to raise awareness and fundraise around campuses
  • Student Minds – the UK’s student mental health charity are really great
  • PAPYRUS – they support anyone under 35 experiencing suicidal thoughts
  • SHOUT – a text service for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis or needing someone to talk too
  • The Mix – a charity that offer free counselling sessions to under 25’s struggling with their mental health

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