Living With An Eating Disorder At Uni

Charlotte's Story

“It started simply. A way to ‘get fit’ and ‘eat better’ in order to ‘feel better’.”

In her second year of university, Charlotte shares her descent into – and recovery from – an eating disorder developed living away from home.

It started simply. A way to ‘get fit’ and ‘eat better’ in order to ‘feel better’. 

It always does, doesn’t it?

I was never particularly sporty at school, nor did I ever care about what I ate. My appearance, body shape or skin texture were concepts that I never really thought about too much. I only ever exercised and ate in accordance to how I felt, and if I could be bothered. This was natural, simple.

This all changed in my second year at university.

My Instagram feed – the hell that it is – started to morph into a feed of fitness, veganism and healthy living. A consequence of me starting to really ‘notice’ myself as inhabiting a body, and starting to feel out of place even within it.

I started to notice other people’s bodies—not in a strange way. Just noticing how I would prefer to have theirs rather than my own. Thus, I became obsessed with changing how I looked.

It would be dishonest to tell you this was the only reason why I started spiralling down into disordered eating. The other reason is a bit more difficult, and personally hard, to explain. I had started yoga in the summer, a habit that I still have to this day, and one day I would like to become a yoga teacher.

(It still very much remains my passion and my favourite hobby, and my relationship with it is now much less complicated.)

Despite my good intentions when I started yoga, the yogic community online at the time was – and still is, in certain respects – toxic. The obsession with muscle definition and green smoothies. The idea of being ‘pure’, of eating ‘pure’, of living ‘pure’, sunk into me.

By not living this way, I felt dirty, unclean: like I was worthless. In order to have worth, I had to live like them. I had to eat perfectly, exercise perfectly – even live perfectly.

You can probably see where this is going.

It’s painful to admit that the online community (and even some of the ‘philosophy’ that modern yogis spew) damaged me more than it healed me.

I started cutting out ‘bad’ foods – foods that my brain considered bad or unhealthy, foods that would make me ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’ – and exercising more.

This quickly turned into calorie counting, extreme portion control, and overexercising.

I wasn’t listening to my body, which was telling me that I had to stop.

I kept going, getting shin splints from the exercising and protruding collar bones from the lack of food. Food turned into a nightmare for me – it was all I could think about. I started to think I was obsessed with food, and, because of this, I cut out more food groups in order to ‘fight’ my ‘obsession’ (spoiler alert: I thought about food because I was hungry with not eating enough).

My second year at uni was hell. I lost a significant amount of weight and, even at my lowest, I still felt grotesquely ‘large’ and ‘overweight’. Internalised fatphobia seeped into every part of my life. I couldn’t sit down for more than 10 minutes without feeling like I had to exercise. Eating out with friends, I would pick the lowest calorie option on the menu, and hate every minute of eating it. This, though, was what I thought I had to do to become “physically perfect”.

The orthorexic tendencies were clear, the obsession with eating ‘clean’ food was obvious: but I was none the wiser. I didn’t realise it was an eating disorder. I was miserable, thinking that this was my permanent state of being.

I forgot who I used to be, how bubbly I was, how much I loved to laugh. None of that mattered anymore. It was all about being perfect in every sense of the word.

I was exhausted. I was bored. All I could think about was food, what I would eat next, how I could reduce its calories, and my next work-out. Speaking to friends became a chore for me, and, in turn, it became a chore for them. I wasn’t who I used to be – I was a different, emaciated version of myself.

In hindsight, a lot of this was to do with control.

In September 2019, I would be going on my year abroad in France, a deep and penetrating source of my anxiety. I couldn’t control it, nor could I control the outcome: food and exercise became a way to control at least one thing in my life. You may think, “Well, Charlotte, at least it wasn’t cocaine!” and I agree, but trust me, it was still a painful and horrendous obsession.

The decision to recover came from myself – and, ironically, from moving to France. Realising that life could be actually alright, even fun, I decided to eat. I realised I needed the energy to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of living in another country. I couldn’t waste it; I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did.

Living on my own offered me the opportunity to just eat, without self-consciousness or judgement.

When your body has essentially been in starvation mode for so long, once you start to eat again, you keep going. And you have to promise yourself to eat until satiety, to allow yourself to be satisfied with food for once.

I was eating more food in a day than I ever had before, but, through YouTube videos and my own research of eating disorder recovery, I knew that this was essential.

Of course, I was terrified of how much I was eating. Worried I had fallen ‘the other way’ into binge-eating. This wasn’t true: it was just another way of my brain yelling at me that I was going to be the one person who can’t even do eating disorder recovery right.

But, strangely, I believed in myself. Learning to live again in France, going out drinking with friends, seeing so much of the country I had never seen before, gave me the hope that it was all worth it. And it was. It really was.

With recovery comes some very strange side effects – a protruding belly, where all your food is stored until it evenly distributes; cravings for all sweet foods, then all salty foods, then all fatty foods; stomach and bowel problems for days – all of which are short-term, but nonetheless hard to live with. I pushed through, and got past them. Through that, I got my energy back; my personality back; my laugh back.

Nowadays, I’m completely weight restored and my relationship with exercise has gone through numerous re-examinations. It is fixed, but I will always keep an eye on it. As for food, it is far too delicious for me to restrict myself again.

I still have to catch myself when I have restrictive thoughts – because these do still happen, and may continue forever. The magic happens, though, when now I ignore them and keep eating what I want.

Because keeping a body energised and healthy is a lot “purer” than starving. A body is like a puppy – it needs my love, it needs my food, it needs my care, and it needs this unconditionally for life: not based on how cute it’s looking, or just for Christmas.

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