When you hear about fresher’s week and the whole university experience it is named as the best years of your life. The pressure is on. You have to have an amazing time. Drink lots. Go out all the time. Make friends and look amazing 24/7… the list is endless but in reality is this the case? And what is it like if you have a mental health problem at university? Does that make you different?
I spent my last year at school living in an adolescent mental health hospital. That was not how I, as an 18-year-old sociable girl wanted to spend my life. I missed out on holidays, legal nights out with not having to sneak in to clubs and the upper sixth form experience. I got discharged a week before University term began having done my exams in hospital. I knew not everyone was happy with me heading straight to University but I knew I had to. One of my motivations to get well was to go to University. My anorexia had already caused me to miss out on so much so I didn’t want to miss out on anything else.
I was terrified about getting unwell again and maybe that fear is what kept me well. I knew I didn’t want to have to drop out of University so I kept fighting. I fought through those days when I wanted to give up, I found strength in surrounding myself with friends and I stayed strong. That might seem terrifying to you but it is so worth it. It wasn’t an easy ride that first year. There was the usual university pressure but add to that nights of feeling huge, the unpredictable meals out and the drinking. But I did it and I am so pleased that I did. I wanted to share with you some advice that kept me going and kept me well whilst at University.
Don’t be embarrassed about having a mental health problem – If you get the offer of support use it – in my first year, I was offered the chance to attend an outpatients eating disorder clinic. I chose not to. I felt like it was too much effort and I didn’t like the lady very much but because I didn’t use it, it meant I relied a lot more on my friends and family to support me. This worked for me as I was lucky they were all there for me but if it is offered try it and see if it works for you.
Have people accountable to talk to – I was very lucky as in my first week or so I told Emily and Nikki (my two new friends at University.) They were great and it has been good talking to them both looking back. Recently Emily commented on how much better I seemed and how proud she was of me. It meant so much to me and made me realise how lucky I was to have her as a friend. She put up with my funny eating habits and my rigid eating times. And she was there when I needed that little extra support to get food.
Be honest with yourself even if you can’t be with others – this is so hard I know that. And I still at times find it hard to be honest with myself but you have to be. If you are having a bad time, struggling to eat, exercising too much – challenge yourself. Yes, at first, it is scary coming out of that comfort zone but it is well worth it.
Don’t be afraid to go back to a rigid eating plan – when I was in hospital we stuck to a strict eating plan. This kept me well, helped me put on weight at university. And this was what I fell back on when things got tough. It doesn’t mean you have failed if you start eating easier foods again it just means you are finding new ways to fight it.
Try and think logically – I have very low self-esteem and spent much of university feeling huge. I would look in the mirror and see a fat whale like figure staring back at me. But in reality this wasn’t me. And you need to try and keep yourself in check. Try and ignore the voices that knock you down. They aren’t speaking the truth and surround yourself with people that value you. If you stick with it, it gets better and easier. I have far less fat days now than I used to and if I had let those days take control of me it would definitely not have been worth it.
Stay strong and keep talking – this is essential and I urge you to do this. Life is so much better when you fight your mental health problems and don’t let it suck you back in. I know from my experience with anorexia this can be hard but it is definitely worth it. Without anorexia in my life I have more energy, can have normal relationships, I can eat out more, I am so much more relaxed and I haven’t got this battle going on in my head constantly. Yes, it isn’t always easy but it is worth it.