Surviving St Andrews with an eating disorder

A first-hand perspective on the difficulties of perturbed eating as a student in St Andrews, and how they overcome the challenges they face.

Caitlin's homemade bread. Photo: Caitlin Duffy

Returning to St Andrews is easy: all the excitement of Freshers’ Week, with less fear, more friends, and the sole desire to sate one’s hankering for the students’ favourite beverage: the Pablo. With friend-groups and society commitments settled prior, returning students can quite often be found scouring society events for academic children, or for the free food.

Back for another year, I find myself doing the same thing but for wildly contradictory reasons. It’s not that I am having an existential crisis and wish to partake in modelling, or join a sports team – I’m a physicist, not a philosopher; and the gym is too far away from Sallies: the only time I’ve made it there is to sit physics and maths exams, which are never a terribly invigorating prospect. No, I was scrolling to discover which of my societies were hosting food-based events in order to avoid them, if possible.

You see, I am one of those unfortunate souls whose relationship with food is somewhat skewed, so PhySoc breakfast was off the menu.

I help to lead the Sallies Hall Committee, and our Freshers’ week consisted of many food-based events: pizza, barbecue, ice cream, pancakes, cakes and tea; and thus, it was impossible to hide away from food altogether. You may wonder how on earth a university student can be compatible with disordered eating, and how one survives. You’re definitely not the only person who questions this, but I can elaborate and surely present my first-hand findings here.

Disordered eating has persisted since my first year, and it has been a great inconvenience. Most definitely an experience I would seek to avoid. At present it is manageable, but the long road to total wellness looks about as easy as the multivariate calculus exam.
 As a petrified Fresher, I had no clue who to turn to. I hadn’t established solid enough friendships, couldn’t bring myself to tell Student Services, and I thought I could handle it myself. My initial excuse was that I would lose 5kg to fit into a dress I had bought intentionally too small, so when I began eating smaller portions of food nobody really questioned it.

Very soon I found myself in a vicious trap, unable to handle food – not even a full bowl of soup. The dress was too big, as was the problem I was trying to handle.

One Monday evening I decided somebody had to know, and so I mustered the courage to speak to the Wardens, and sat sobbing in their office for a very long time. That was probably the best thing I have done; to this day, they have been absolute godsends and always my first point of contact.

Telling someone doesn’t solve the problem, however, you need to act as well. Otherwise it’s like putting water in a kettle, not turning it on, but expecting it to boil. Eventually, the Wardens convinced me to see Student Services which, initially, was disastrous because I was in complete denial; on a second attempt I was much more willing to work with the counsellor but remained too proud to disclose all the details fully. I’m never one to give up though, which means that I would most definitely return should I feel it would be beneficial. Student Services do an incredible job bending over backwards for students; their services are truly indispensable!

One particularly amusing consequence of starving yourself is that you lose your memory, and so I recall very little between that night in January, and the following September. There were GP appointments, fainting, failed attempts at counselling, and a lot of concerned people, but that’s all I remember. I began my next year at university rather unwell.

The last year has been a challenging ride, and I was forced to have many difficult conversations to have allowances made for exams and assessments, and for missing tutorials, and for submitting coursework in late. In this respect, the School of Physics and Astronomy really excelled; since the University are determined to help you succeed, the staff are accommodating to special requirements, which is why speaking to someone in your academic school is vitally important. Of course, it is terribly awkward to open up to a lecturer or academic about these things, however you must remember that they have all been through higher education themselves, and have seen many similar cases. I spoke to the staff directly, but Student Services will also inform staff should you ask them to.

Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue and I am still at risk of relapse, so how do I cope in daily life when every society seems to hand out cupcakes and ice cream at every opportunity? Even TeachFirst had a whole Pick’n’mix stand outside the Union this year! It’s a struggle.
On most days, I’m perfectly okay, but being constantly on guard is utterly exhausting. Sometimes I miss triggers, or something unexpected arises, or the dining hall refuse to give me hummus and the plate of pasta in front of me is cannelloni because I just can’t stomach it. On those days, I make sure to tell someone, even mentioning it in passing can alleviate the majority of stresses, or feelings of despair.

I find running therapeutic although I have to be careful, since overdoing it runs the risk of reusing in a more harmful manner. I also play the piano and drink plenty of tea. One other thing which I love to do is bake bread; having a history of disordered eating resulted in a long-term inability to eat bread unless it is homemade. All carbohydrates are still out of my diet except for homemade bread; the smell of baking is beautiful and it’s all you knead, plus it adds puns to my Instagram feed which, quite frankly, I think adds an aBUNdance of joy to peoples’ days.

In terms of society meet-ups with nachos, or pizza nights, or the CU throwing cupcakes at you from every angle: that’s where disordered eating management can get cumbersome. I instinctively decline free food offers (although it does genuinely infuriate me that I cannot accept). Events with free food are usually fine: I go along for the social aspect, maybe have a gin or two, but there’s no obligation to eat.

Being on a committee is a whole different side to the same coin, because then there’s no choice but to be involved. Sallies Hall Committee hosts quite a lot of food-based events. I delegate serving and buying food to other committee members to avoid triggers; I did, however, have to buy quite a bit for Freshers’ Week and, if I’m being honest, I was flustered. There’s no requirement to stay in the room during events, and so I do have the option of taking five minutes out if I need to (very useful indeed).

Sometimes these events are fantastic in relation to making progress. Recently, we hosted a rather splendid wine and cheese. We drained 40 bottles of wine between us all and spent the evening chatting away, and I ate crackers and cheese. Usually, I camembert the prospect cheese and there’s stiltons of work to be done, but it’s a brie-ly pleasing sign! Last year’s Christmas Dinner (everything about that yells “TRIGGER”) turned out to be a marvellous evening after which I was delighted to be re-acquainted with the chocolate chip cookie, full of Christmas spirit(s), and surrounded by some of my greatest friends.

It is such a shame that I can’t wrap this up by saying “…and now I’m back to normal!” because I’m not, and don’t think I ever will be. I am glad to have tunnelled my way out of the worst of it since being “an anorexic” is no longer entirely what I am, but rather, it is a small part of me. I take each day as it comes: I socialize, I study (hard), I party (harder), I, sometimes punintentionally, make terrible jokes. I help people and I organise things. Crucially – I have a life again. I constantly get triggered and do ridiculous things, but I have people who are there for me and procedures put in place by the University to help.

As embarrassing as it may be, I’ve come to terms with my challenging situation. In this world where food is used so liberally as an incentive, reward, or socially, I have found ways to get the most out of university and remain a positive, successful student. There is hope, and there is help, but neither will open up to you, if you don’t open up for them. It takes a little bravery, but it’s worth it.


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