June 4, 2013

LauraStarting university is a unique experience. Leaving your hometown, family and school friends is daunting but moving to a brand new city, making new lifelong friends and gaining independence is an experience incomparable to any other. For a young person dealing with mental health issues, university can be an emotionally complex time and undoubtedly comes with many challenges.

Being anonymous in a new city could have enabled me to recreate myself

As someone who lives with an eating disorder, moving to university had the potential to change my life. I had the perfect opportunity to start fresh and work on my recovery like I was unable to do so before. Being anonymous in a new city could have enabled me to recreate myself as a recovered anorexic or at least an anorexic in recovery.

However, my anonymity in my new city, being surrounded by strangers with no knowledge of my mental health history, also gave me the ability to slip off the radar. From the distorted view of someone living with anorexia, this was my opportunity to be in charge of my own food intake, with no one to keep an eye on me; what I'd always wanted.

The struggle between the options to recover or not, are of course not specific to university, but this was the first time since my diagnosis that a real junction in my life had been created with the chance take a new positive route.

The decision to get better doesn't always feel within our control

As people living with eating disorders know, the decision to get better doesn't always feel within our own control, and without the help I needed, I took the wrong turn at this new junction and ended up deeper into my illness.

After settling in at university, it became clear that being anonymous in my new environment was not only unrealistic but also a complete illusion. Before I knew it I had developed genuine friendships with people I began to truly value. One of these friendships was with my housemate. We became best friends, we spent most of our time together and if we weren't together we'd always knew where the other was. We shared stories about our lives back home and confided in each other about everything a best friend should; everything apart from my mental health.

I thought I could hide my problems at university

Before coming to university, I had been in recovery for a year, so I was at a healthy weight. Although I was physically healthy, I had not dealt with my eating disorder. Because of my healthy looking body, I thought I would be able to hide my problems from my new friends at university. But when I started losing weight and skipping meals, my struggle wasn't as easy to hide and, if I'm honest with myself, I was relieved.

So why was I unable to talk to my best friend about an eating disorder that I had been struggling with? Why did I feel embarrassed or ashamed to tell her about such an important part of my life, an aspect of my life that was still a problem and affecting my time at university?

I asked myself how I'd feel if she had been keeping such a secret from me and the answer was that I'd be hurt. A friend isn't just someone to share the good times with but also help out with the bad times. I knew she'd be upset and feel betrayed that I had not allowed her to help me through a hard time in my life, even if helping just meant sharing.

I felt the right thing to do was to talk to my housemate

After much debate with myself, I finally felt like the right thing to do was to talk to my housemate about my eating disorder. I told her I had struggled with eating before university and that I was still struggling with it now. I explained my feelings as best as I could to her and she patiently listened. Before explaining it all, I had prepared myself to feel terrible afterwards. I imagined I'd feel embarrassed and apologetic for dragging her into my world of mental illness.

Of course, the opposite was true. I felt relieved. I felt closer to my best friend than I had ever felt and I'm sure she felt the same way. The whole time I thought I was letting her in on my eating disorder for her sake, or the sake of our friendship. But it was me who truly needed it. Although my problems didn't go away as soon as they were shared, I no longer felt like my problem was bigger than me. If it was something I could discuss openly and freely to my friend, then maybe it was something I could confront myself.

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