Serious trigger warning: eating disorders.

When people discuss the generally poor mental health of Oxford students, factors such as the pressure of academia, isolation from everyone working so hard, sleep deprivation, poor diets and less chance to exercise, and indeed the general emotional climate of Oxford come up as causes repeatedly. These factors do not help one bit, I can tell you, but as far as I (and I am sure many others) are concerned, they alone cannot be held responsible for the underlying problems.

I have always had a restrictive personality, even when I was a very young child. I remember being at a Halloween party, aged 6 or 7. An adult presented me with a plate, on which there was an assortment of fruit and fondant fancies. Even though I wanted the cake, I chose the fruit because I knew that this was the healthy option. I was praised by all the adults around me for my choice and this emotional validation felt far more enriching to my young mind than the sweetness of the cake would have. You may be thinking that choosing the fruit instead of the cake shows great self-control, emotional intelligence, and a desire to be healthy, and at such a young age. It could be said that this is not a sign of an unhealthy relationship with food. And well, maybe it isn’t. At least not directly. However, this persistent, restrictive attitude in my mind, that was always hyper aware of the fat/calorie/carb levels in my food intensified as I grew and morphed into something ugly and frightening.

Growing up, food and I were never friends; our relationship was always tense and fragile.

It wasn’t until the age of 17, however, that I really began to consciously starve myself. I restricted my calorie intake to 600-800 a day, and used the mobile app, MyFitnessPal to keep track. In a short while, three weeks to be precise, my weight dropped from 49kg (BMI 19) to 45.8kg (BMI 17.2). It was at that point that my parents noticed I was fucking myself up, and so began the arduous recovery process. Although the weight loss does not seem significant, due to my already low starting weight, I was in a lot of danger. Aside from the immediately noticeable side-affects: constant fatigue, coldness, lapses of concentration, fuzziness, head-rushes, heightened emotions, occasional disassociations, and fainting, I was putting my bones, organs, fertility and ultimately my life at risk. However, I did gradually gain weight and eventually, when I got my period back, last June, I told the doctors I was better, thanked them and bid them goodbye. And that was that.

Sometimes people ask me how I could have done that to my body, when the cure was so simple: just to eat. I suppose my answer is that it scared me. Suppose you put a plate of mashed potato, sausages and fried onions in front of me, this is my exact thought process:

“Okay so, onion is a vegetable, I guess that’s good, but they’re fried, the oil will have quite a lot of fat and can you imagine that clogging up your gut? The oil will bloat you, it will make you feel sick. And now what is with those sausages? Oh god, each one has about 150 calories and there are three on my plate. I can’t eat all three, that would be far too much. I can’t even look at the mash, I feel sick. There is so much, and it’s literally pure carbs. I can’t do it. I can’t do this. Right. Let’s work out a plan of action. If I eat most of the onion, maybe one and three quarter sausages and two or three forkfuls of mash, but spread it over the plate to make it look like there’s less there, I will have reduced this meal to roughly 300 calories and it will look like I’ve eaten enough so these people will not think I am being rude or that there is something wrong.” This is a rough representation of moderate restriction.

I won’t go into the precise reasons of why I became unwell initially, but it was nothing to do with wanting to be pretty. I don’t know how much this needs to be stressed, but anorexia has nothing to do with vanity. I repeat. Anorexia has nothing to do with vanity. I gained a strange satisfaction from knowing that I had kept my intake of calories below a certain number and that my weight was hitting goals. I also enjoyed the feeling of rejecting food when it was available to me because of two reasons: firstly, there was a kind of “moral high-ground” thing going on that harks back to my being praised for my brilliant self-control as a child, and secondly, because the feeling you get when you are functioning on very few calories is comparable to a high. I would be walking around, feeling completely detached from my surroundings, floating around in my light, little bubble, feeling borderline righteous, which is not good at all.

Being anorexic is not really that different to a drug addiction. And like a drug addiction, one is never fully “cured”. So I don’t want to pretend that all of this is behind me, now I’m at Oxford, and everything is coming up roses, because that would be a lie. Anorexia is like a hyena lurking in the shadowy part of my mind, waiting for me to stumble, so it can eat me up again. To entertain the thought of not eating is to indulge its harmful ways and it is something that I must constantly fight for myself, my family and my friends. I fight that fight every day, along with meeting my deadlines and making time for extra-curricular activities.

It isn’t easy. In fact, it is probably the hardest thing I ever have faced, and will hopefully be the hardest thing I ever do face, but it has made me realise that life does go on, and that I can face it, with the help of the people around me. So to anyone here, or anywhere, who is struggling, please remember that there are always people who care, who want to help, and that you deserve more than anything to live, eat chocolate cake, have energy, be bold, be striking. Anorexia is a scary word, but it needn’t be the end, and it most certainly does not define you.

Check out bEAT if you want to know more, and counselling is available from welfare reps, college nurse, the university counselling service and your GP.

Food is fuel, bones belong inside and your weight does not define your worth.

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