Anyone would think that it’s me who’s going away to university in a week’s time and not 18 year old Ben. Beach parties, film shows, BBQs, chocolate tasting, scuba diving, Buddhist meditation, quizzes, radio DJ-ing, ghost tours… as his mum I am so excited for him!
Yet I am well aware that university can be a tricky transition for young people with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, even when fully recovered. Relapse is common. I know of one recovered anorexia sufferer who attempted university five times before she eventually managed to stay the course. But I also know of former eating disorder sufferers who took to university life like a duck to water. This is what I want for my son Ben. And I will fight tooth and nail to ensure the anorexia doesn’t get a look in.
As Ben said the other day: “Anorexia has already stolen three years of my life – I’m damned if I’m going to let it steal my university career too.” And hopefully it won’t. Hopefully university will be everything he dreams it will be and the anorexia will become a dim and distant memory.
But I’m not leaving anything to chance. I know how easy it is for the anorexic thoughts to get stronger under stress. During A levels, for instance, Ben struggled with the Siren-like lure of the anorexia. Certain social situations can also spark it off.
I know from personal experience that university isn’t always sweetness and light. 35 years ago I nearly dropped out of university. I hated my degree course, I hated my student flat, I had nothing in common with the people I was mixing with and I wanted to run back to the safety of home. I, too, had disordered eating in those days. But the Student Welfare Service came to the rescue, sorted out a new course and new accommodation. I made new friends and the rest, as they say, is history.
So I’m determined that Ben will go off to university with a stack of safety nets in place to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
Firstly, there’s the little issue of food. A busy freshers’ week in self-catering accommodation with visions of living off beer and very little else… So I’ve packed his bags with store cupboard staples and pots and pans galore. He’s also walked me through his eating plans: breakfast, lunch and evening meal – and emergency plans for when he’s not able to cook or put together a packed lunch. Basically Ben knows that he can’t afford to lose weight. It’s non-negotiable.
Secondly, there’s the socialising. Ben’s only just eased himself back onto the social scene after three years of anorexia-imposed isolation. So while his friends have done all the usual things that 16, 17 and 18 year olds do, Ben’s been marooned on Planet ED. One of the things we’ve set up is a university mentor: a volunteer from the year above who will be there to help Ben settle in, show him round and generally be there for him if he needs it. Ben’s particular mentor doesn’t have an eating disorder, but his best friend did – so hopefully he’ll “get it” in a way that other students might not. The uni has also organised stacks of ‘Give it a Go’ events when freshers can try their hand at anything that floats their boat, from meditation to radio DJ-ing – a great opportunity to meet new friends in smaller groups.
Thirdly, Ben and I have set up what we call a ‘University Contract’. Its purpose is to ensure that Ben continues to move in the right direction and we’ve devised various emergency measures should things go wrong – varying degrees of ‘wrong’. It is based on this contract from the FEAST website. You can read more about our University Contract on my blog.
Fourthly, we deliberately chose a university that’s fairly close – just 35 miles away. Far away enough for Ben to learn to be independent yet close enough for me to keep a discreet eye on things and take action if necessary.
Fifthly, at Ben’s university there is a support group for eating disorders. At the slightest hint of alarm bells, Ben is under strict instructions to go and see them, and to see the appropriate person at the Student Welfare Centre. I don’t want him running back to the safety of home if there’s a problem, not unless it’s a serious problem like a relapse. It’s so important that Ben learns to independently manage whatever is left of his eating disorder, without his mum permanently in tow.
Sixthly, Ben and I will continue with our usual ‘Contract’ – by Skype, once a week to begin with. We set up this Contract back in the spring of 2011 and Ben says it’s the #1 thing that helped to push him towards the final stages of recovery. Read more about our Contract here.
University here he comes! (And stays, hopefully!)