What it’s really like living with an eating disorder at uni

‘I lost more and weight and felt suicidal’

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Meet Claire McKenna. She’s a 21-year-old student in her second year at Birmingham university. She also suffered from a severe eating disorder and is now an ambassador for Beat – a UK based charity which helps people with eating disorders through raising money and awareness.

Hi Claire, tell us about your experience with eating disorders.

I’ve been in and out of hospital since I was 16 years old with anorexia. By this I mean general hospitals and psychiatric units. At 16 I was rushed to the children and adolescent mental health ward (CAMHS) of the  general hospital. Following a one month stay under their care, I was later referred as an outpatient. Just before Christmas that year I underwent an assessment with my family and the staff to decide whether or not I’d be sectioned. Although that didn’t happen, I had to undergo inpatient care at an eating disorder unit outside of my home town.

However, without prior warning I was put into the adult unit with people who were dealing with problems such as substance misuse and alcoholism. I was the youngest person there and I felt so vulnerable and scared. We weren’t allowed phones or internet in the unit, there was TV in the lounge area but we never got to watch it.

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How did this experience affect you?

If we weren’t queued up at the dining room five minutes before the expected time we were refused entry and this would go down as refusing meals. This happened to me several times as morning queues for medication would be long with all the other substance abuse patients waited there too. The staff would often make unhelpful comments, such as ” ____ is thinner than you now.

Once, when having a blood test, a doctor placed my hands into boiling hot water in order to get my veins to show up, when my hands scarred up, my mother was told I must have OCD – washing my hands so frequently that my hands had blistered.

My condition and mental state took a turn for the worst, I lost more weight and felt suicidal. The staff in charge suggested I leave due to my deterioration under their care being worse than anything they’d ever seen. I hadn’t made any progress, I only picked up more bad habits during my time there which I still don’t feel will go away.

Although I did have a horrendous experience and still have nightmares now, the women I met in the hospital are friends for life. They were so kind, and we were all so supportive of one another.

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How does your eating disorder affect uni life?

“Uni life can be made much more difficult with an eating disorder and depression, and I do struggle a lot with the workload and am often really stressed. I do have help in place at university that allows me extra time on essay deadlines, and mentoring. Without that extra time I don’t think I’d still be at university, as it does really help. It’s important that those with mental health problems or illnesses do ask about the support they may be entitled too.

When I’m having a bad day I do find it that bit harder to eat properly, so I tend to ring my mum for reassurance and support. I think the most useful thing friends could do at uni is just be there, sometimes a friend has noticed I haven’t been down to make meals and shes spoken to me about it, just letting me know she is concerned and she’d like me to try to eat something and that has really helped me at those times because it feels as though I’ve been given permission to eat. I think also what’s key is if you feel able to talk to your friends about your illness do so and let them know about how they can help during meal times or how you prefer to handle those times of the day. My friends know not to disturb me when I’m trying to get through meals.

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Have your experiences in hospital put you off inpatient care completely?

It has definitely put me off inpatient care forever now, it’s also made me distrust all medical interventions. I don’t see any counsellors or specialists now as since my previous experiences I’ve been too scared in case they put me back into a hospital or unit again. My mum has to make my doctor appointments for me as I get so anxious and scared about going, in my head I always think there’s the risk I’ll be admitted.

Although, since my recent relapse and having struggled, I eventually agreed to see a new counsellor after all these years, but haven’t yet made a second appointment. Still, I’m now at a stage where I know I need some kind of therapy, otherwise I’ll never go forwards.

How did you get involved with Beat?

I first got involved with Beat when I was about 18 as my mum had been using the message boards beforehand as she felt so alone and wanted to help me.

I saw I could be a media volunteer and I jumped at the chance. I really wanted to find a way of helping anyone else who was suffering and try help prevent less people from having to go through what I have. There was an opportunity to attend a training day in my area so I went along.

As an ambassador I regularly hear from Beat about media opportunities, though I like to raise awareness through my blog.

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How are you doing now?

For so long I’ve been denying that I need any extra help but deep down I know I need therapy and the extra help it provides because it’s not something you can just “get over” on your own.

My situation is pretty much the same, although since after Christmas I have had a bit of a relapse, I noticed how I was struggling to cope so came home from university for a few weeks so my mum could help me get back on track, so at the moment I am coming home more often so my family can keep an eye on things. I was finding it hard with people around me on diets for new year while I was having to gain weight and the stress of uni work.

And what does the future hold?

“I do get scared sometimes, especially when I think of how successful many of my friends are and how they’ve graduated from university already, but I’m still here as I started later than them due to my illness. I worry that the workplace may not be as understanding to my illness as university has been which may be an obstacle I’ll have to cross. At the same time I feel graduating and getting a job will bring a sense of normality to my life and I’ll feel more independent.

While some of my experiences may come across as very negative, I have undergone a positive transition and feel so much better now.

After being told many times I was going to die, that I wouldn’t live to see my 18th, I’m still here today, I managed to get back into education and am now half way through.