Friday 21 September 2012

What I know now that I didn't know this time last week

So what went wrong? So much, on so many counts. Which is why our brief flirtation with university life this week may be a useful learning curve for other parents wondering whether or not to send their post anorexia / eating disorder teenager off to university or wait another year, or even longer...


It's as if Ben has stood still for 3 years - physically, mentally and socially. Not only does he look 15 or 16 years old or even younger (thanks to the way anorexia stunts physical development) but he behaves as if he is. While his peers have grown up and gone through a myriad of different experiences as they matured into independent young men and women, Ben has stood still. Seeing him at university amongst his peers was like seeing a school kid who was way out of his depth. Ben was like a fish out of water. Totally and utterly.

Social / Living

I had this rosy idea that Ben would find himself in a nice apartment sharing with a range of students - some great, some not so great. But it would be okay, hopefully even fun. And everyone would be milling around the apartments so it would be virtually impossible to isolate yourself. They'd plan meals together, socialise together, etc. Okay so they might not turn out to be bosom pals, but then there's always the flat-share across the corridor and the others up and down the stairs. And there were so many activities arranged for freshers' week, he was bound to find people he got on with. Yes, he would probably be homesick, but hopefully he'd quickly get into the swing of things. Ben thought so, too. We were both terribly excited about it and very positive. Ben had mapped out exactly what he would do, even down to getting onto the accommodation events organising committee and doing loads of other things to get involved.

We also thought that by choosing a smaller flat of just five rooms it would be more 'cosy' than a bigger 7-10 room flat. In the event, fewer flatmates reduced the chances of sharing with someone you 'click' with. A mixed flat would have been better, too. Ben's was all male.

The apartment block had 2 flats on each floor. And security and fire regulations meant there were 3 different locked doors before you got as far as your room. Unless you propped your door open with something heavy, it would immediately close, leaving you completely alone.

It was a small room, like a prison cell. Modern and smart, but isolating. And, unlike the old fashioned halls of residence where there were always people walking up and down the corridor, a small flat behind all these locked doors can be even more isolating when no-one's there, you've got an ensuite so you don't even see people on the way to the bathroom or your flatmates keep themselves to themselves. Or you just don't get on with them. Because, after all, you're being thrown into a flat with a group of complete strangers. If you're not naturally the Life and Soul of the Party, then this can be a Big Problem.

It's potentially even more of a Big Problem if you have a history of anorexia or another eating disorder. In Ben's flat there was precious little cupboard space in the shared kitchen / dining area which meant he had to keep most of the non-perishable food - and utensils - in his room. Being surrounded by food and reminders of food, 24 / 7, in such a confined space can be pretty challenging for someone with an anorexia history to say the least...

Cooking is challenging, too. Yes I made sure Ben went armed with everything he needed to be able to prepare meals - from utensils through to the food itself. But when push came to shove, there was nowhere to store it - so it's not like home where you can simply reach for the tin opener, pan, lid, garlic crusher, wooden spoon, chopping board, knife and ingredients and prepare the meal. Then get out your plate, knife and fork, etc to eat it.

Oh, and when several others need to cook their meals, too, you're having to wait your turn for the stove, etc - and cope with a sink full of someone else's dirty dishes.

Then there were the curious looks from his flat-mates - and questions like "Why do you eat so much for breakfast?", "Why do you bother cooking when you could get a takeaway or eat in the bar?", etc, etc. Difficult when you're someone with an eating disorder...

And it's not just the questions, it's the awareness that the others aren't eating as you would like them to be eating. Other people's eating habits really affect Ben.

Plus, when your natural instinct is to run and hide, you end up eating alone in your cell-like room. Throughout his anorexia, Ben ate with us, as a family. Suddenly eating on his own was a massive culture shock. Not a great way to ease yourself into university life.

Ben's not into boozy, noisy partying and clubbing - and unfortunately the majority of intro week events are like this. You either hang around awkwardly with all the others... people you don't know... and pretend to be having fun when you're desperately hating it inside, or you retreat to your solitary room. Then you're woken up by noisy, drunk people returning home at an unearthly hour which, as well as annoying, reinforces the knowledge that they've had fun and made friends, and you haven't.

As a result of all this you freeze up. You find it even harder to socialise. And never forget you've been on 'Planet ED' for 3 years so your social skills and confidence are shaky to say the least. So you keep yourself to yourself, not just in the accommodation and on social events, but during course registration and so on.

Then the old worries kick in like "How the hell am I going to manage to sit still through a day's lectures when my natural urge is to exercise? A legacy of the eating disorder which I'm still fighting to keep under control?"

Not to mention the fact that Ben never did manage full-time schooling during the 3 years of his anorexia. There was always the option to bottle out. You don't get this option at university. Not unless you want to fail the grade.

No wonder Ben felt so incredibly lonely. He was like a fish out of water; a rabbit paralysed in bright headlights.

I should have realised this would happen, but I was too optimistic.

I should have realised there were still far too many unresolved issues that need sorting out.

I should have realised the Ben, as he is now, even (almost) recovered from the anorexia, is still different from his peers in so many ways.

And I should have realised that going to university is one of the most stressful things that can happen to a young person, let alone a young person with a history of mental illness like anorexia...

As we drove away from Sheffield the other day it was blatantly obvious that this could never have worked for Ben. Not at this stage. Hopefully in the future. But not now. No way.


  1. Thanks for this Matty - really useful. I know some day Julie will be looking at whether she can go away to university or not. She may not have an ED, but a lot of the issues around social life and style of life at university will affect her too. I'll be looking really closely at what the experience is going to be like for her.

    Hope Ben's alright and not too disappointed at the delay to his plans. He'll probably do better in the end for being older.

  2. Wow-this post could be our story! Our son is recovering from anorexia and had an eerily similar experience to Ben's in his first year of University. Our young man is a few years older than Ben, and that first year was like a nightmare for all of us. Like Ben, our son came home, has continued to recover and grow up, and started back to Uni last year. He spent one term commuting from home and has now moved into a shared apartment - and he's doing beautifully! I am so impressed with how you and Ben are handling things - Ben will find his way with your support. By the way, I can relate to seeing your son with his peers and realizing how anorexia has stunted his growth in so many ways. For what it's worth, once our son's recovery became really solid, his body caught up and he is now a beautiful, strapping man, nowhere resembling the boy he was a short time ago. Go Ben! Go Batty Matty!