Embarking on the first year of university is stressful for any fresher – you wonder whether you will ‘fit in’ and find a group of friends, or whether you will enjoy your course; you worry about managing your money, and if you will miss your family; you even concern yourself with whether the nightlife will be any good, and much more besides. Along with these concerns, I had the added worry of whether I would cope at university, having only been discharged from hospital suffering with anorexia five months earlier. Whereas in hospital I had been monitored, observed and supported with regards to eating and exercising, at university I would be left to my own devices, taking full responsibility to ensure I obtained full nutrition. There would be no caring, dedicated nurses around to ensure I was OK. I was on my own. Beginning university was make or break for me – I would either thrive and blossom, or struggle and falter.
Looking over the balcony of Ocean on the first night of Freshers’ Week, I could hardly believe where I was. The crowded dance floor was full of inebriated Freshers enjoying themselves and going wild. Less than a year earlier, when I was admitted to the Phoenix Centre in Cambridge in October 2007 with only two weeks to live, it looked like my dreams of going to university the following year would be left unfulfilled.
There was talk of me having to defer for a year, something I was fiercely opposed to. I made it my goal to reach university and this helped my treatment enormously. However, anorexia is a devious, insidious illness and even with my goal of university set, I struggled with my treatment plan – I continued hiding food, and secretly exercising. I was torn – I desperately wanted to go to university, but university meant being a healthy weight and facing my food challenges, something that petrified me – would I become fat? Would I lose control? What if I got hungry and binged? What if I couldn’t stop gaining weight? At times I was desperate to be ‘normal’, like any other 17 year old, at other times, I wanted to be left alone with my anorexia – it was a comfort, a reassuring voice, my security. It kept me safe from the unknown, the uncertain and the outside world. However, as I gained weight, my cognition improved and I began to see that it was certainly doing me more harm than good. There was no way I could live a fulfilling, happy life unless I battled against my illness.
With every bite, every mouthful, every kilogram gained, I became more mentally stable and took one more step towards achieving my ambition to go to Nottingham and study my favourite subject, Classics. Despite having no teaching whilst in hospital, my school teachers emailed me work to do and I worked as hard as possible at my A-Levels in order to ensure that I attained the 4 As that I knew I could achieve. Standing there in Ocean on that night, I realised that I had made it – I was at university. I had worked so hard to get there and it was a surreal feeling.
The first few weeks at Nottingham were busy and chaotic, and I did struggle at times. However, the excitement of settling in to student life and meeting new people gave me the incentive to carry on working hard at my recovery. I am incredibly lucky to have made a great group of friends, the closest of whom know about my illness and are extremely supportive. Without them, I do not think that I would be where I am now. They are inspirational – they have taught me that there is more to life than obsessing over calories and weight; they are all slim but enjoy food and witnessing this has been eye-opening and so beneficial for me. They have provided me with support, laughter and fantastic memories. My life now is a world away from what it used to be – instead of being highly anxious, obsessive and restless, I am now more relaxed, easy-going and spontaneous. In hospital I lived in an artificial environment where I was dependent on nurses and doctors – I had little choice over what I ate, when I ate, when I woke up, when I went to bed. As a patient, when I was frustrated with the staff accompanying me to the toilet/shower/bedroom, I used to joke that I felt “as free as a bird in a cage”. Now I am living an independent life and truly feel liberated and independent.
When discharged from hospital, I had a meal plan to follow, to ensure I was consuming a sufficient number of calories. Fortunately, I was able to live on Broadgate Park, a self-catered Hall, meaning that I had control over my meals, over what and when I ate. Initially, I was incredibly conscious of the fact that I had to eat differently to the people in my flat – weighing things out, being careful with portion sizes etc, but luckily the girls in my flat never made an issue of it. I wouldn’t have coped with living in a catered hall. I am sure that the uncertainty of what I would be eating that day and not knowing what had gone into the food would have thrown me off course and my anorexia would have had a field day – encouraging me to restrict and skip meals because I couldn’t be sure that they didn’t contain butter, full fat cheese, oil or any other of my ‘fear’ foods. Although self-catering was definitely the best option for me, it was difficult at times, as it meant that I was solely responsible for ensuring that I ate adequate meals and snacks every day. Sometimes I wished there could be someone else there to share the burden with me and take away my responsibility – someone to help me decide what to have for dinner, to help me shop and cook – like in hospital, where control was taken away from me and I didn‘t have to worry. However, on the whole, I managed very well, and now, instead of wishing someone else could take the responsibility away from me, I am proud that I am able to prepare, cook and eat my meals. For any other 18 or 19 year old, this would be a part of normal, everyday life, but to me it is a significant achievement.
In June, the editor of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, criticised the world’s leading fashion designers, claiming that magazines were forced to hire extremely thin models because the designers supplied them with such tiny clothes. I am glad that this issue is receiving the coverage it deserves, with a high-profile fashion editor making such a strong statement. It is high time that we see normal, healthy-looking models, rather than the emaciated, gaunt ones that have become so commonplace. However, it may be a long while until changes are made. It is not just the designers that embrace the size 0 trend – magazines are also partly to blame, giving conflicting messages to readers. For example, using the word ’curvy’ to describe both perfectly slim celebrities such as Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera as well as grossly overweight stars such as Beth Ditto and Dawn French. This causes us to lose sight of what really is ‘curvy’ and can lead to self-doubt and body issues. I am not saying that the designers and magazines are to blame for eating disorders – eating disorders are complex and there are many contributing factors including genetic predisposition, self-esteem and family dynamics. However, these confusing messages sent out by the fashion industry do not help those who feel uncomfortable with their body shape. I think it is important to be mindful that the models we see on the catwalk and magazines are not true reflections of what most ordinary, healthy women look like.
Whilst I don’t think I will ever be a fully ‘recovered’ anorexic – the thoughts and feelings still remain, albeit less severely – I have been lucky in that I have been able to build a new life, one in which there is very little room for anorexia. My first year of university has been successful in so many different ways but my greatest achievement has been to cope with food and learn to accept my body shape. I am hopeful that I will continue with my recovery – I reached rock bottom whilst in hospital and know that I never want to go back there. University has given me the drive, ambition and energy to succeed in fighting my eating disorder.
By Catherine James