Oxford helped me tackle anorexia

TW: anorexia, depression, anxiety

Often these pages are filled with criticism of our institution’s effect upon mental health. I want to share my positive experience of Oxford and thank its students, for helping me battle anorexia. My experiences won’t be universal by any means, but sharing them is important to me.

During the summer between finishing my A-levels and starting Oxford, I’d slipped through the cracks in the National Health Service. Simply put, you have to fit certain criteria to be deemed ‘anorexic’. Without this label, it’s hard to get the help you need. Even with it, it’s still a struggle. I’d completely inverted. Where once I’d been outgoing and enthusiastic about life, I was planning meal plans instead in a state of utter apathy. I lived only in the future, obsessively planning exercise and meal routines. In the present, I merely existed.

Countless medical appointments culminated in a psychiatric assessment. I was given a form to tick a few boxes, which concluded that I suffered from anxiety, not depression, and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), not anorexia. The boxes I’d ticked didn’t align neatly enough with the ones crossed out on their paper; I didn’t satisfy the ‘right criteria’, apparently.

Armed with an optional prescription for anti-depressants, I was given a golden ticket to anorexia. I didn’t take the anti-depressants because I didn’t want to increase my appetite. I was told to eat more and exercise less, but I didn’t want to. My GP prescribed me “a bit of cake every now and then”. But guess what? I didn’t want any fucking cake. It was always assumed that I genuinely wanted to get better. However, when it was nearly time to go down to Oxford, I had a rude awakening. I received a phone call from the GP affiliated to my college who informed me that I would have to gain weight to study at the university. I was distraught and furious but, at last, determined. But determined to gain weight, not to get better. A measly kilo wasn’t going to get in the way of everything I worked so hard for. So, with the same iron will used to drive my deprivation, I now turned it to ensure I was going to Oxford.

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With that I gained just enough weight. According to medical dictionaries, I was no longer suffering from anorexia, but of course I was in reality. So I trundled down to Oxford, set in my ways as ever. But the snag was that there had been a plan devised for me at Oxford. It had been determined by the cooperative work of my GP at home, my college, and its affiliated GP service. The clinic told me that despite what I’d been told elsewhere, specific criteria didn’t matter; I was still suffering from anorexia.

They’d seen through my lying and made it clear that health came first and work second. I was going to have to keep gaining weight, or rusticate. I just returned to my Freshers’ Week and thought, “I’ll deal with it later.” What was clear was that Oxford was a complete whirlwind, and that there wasn’t going to be much time for dealing with ‘it’.

Somewhere between the cheese floor, the library and the Freshers’ Week Bop, I lost my ability to try to slot in meal plans and exercise routines. These social scenes involved unhealthy foods and alcohol, two things which might not feature on an anorexic’s wish list. FOMO, however, was rising as a force to battle my anorexia. For the first time since getting ill, I found myself in the position of actually preferring to surrender a run than a lunch in the covered market. Now I actually wanted to get better. We need to keep having these discussions about mental health because I really feel the onus is on us to keep challenging our institutions. Those in charge haven’t grown up in our generation.

At the clinic I’d visited, the specialists weren’t clued up enough on the lure of toxic social media. Removing my rose-tinted spectacles, I accept that I am not totally OK, I struggle every now and then. But, I am now a healthy weight, I am comfortable in my own skin,and I am aware of my issues and do actually want to work through them – though I know this will take time.

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Although I’d had a rather bumpy encounter with the medical profession at the start, I couldn’t have got where I am now without their help and counselling. What I would recommend is that we focus on working together. We need to talk amongst ourselves and then transmit our collective thoughts to the institutional services; to help them help us. Oxford students, it is because of the culture you fostered that I felt able to say this, and I know, together, we can act on it.

So, thank you.