Friday 21 September 2012

With hindsight, what I would do if we were applying to uni again?

It's almost the time of year when this year's (British) Upper Sixth Formers head to open days at universities across the country, just like we did last year. So, knowing what I know now and taking into account that Ben was 'almost' (but not fully) recovered from anorexia at the time, what would I do differently?

It's so easy to get carried away; for you and your child to get excited about this new experience. After all, the universities want to 'sell' themselves to you and they'll make these open days as action-packed as possible: talks, sample lectures, accommodation tours, campus tours, free refreshments, etc.

It's also easy for your child to see this as a fantastic chance to make a fresh start... to put the eating disorder or anorexia behind them and begin again, in a new environment with people that don't know their history and who haven't witnessed them at their worst. This is true. But maybe this fresh start needs to come a little later?

I know Ben and I got carried away. We got really excited about going to university. CAMHS said they couldn't see any reason why Ben shouldn't be ready for university in September. Other people did, too, even school. Yet some people questioned it, including my dear (late) friend Sue. Even the university admissions tutor when I had a chat with him. "If he's only managing school part-time do you really think he'll be ready for university?" he asked. But I thought because a history degree doesn't have too much contact time, it'd be like being in school part-time anyway.


Because you're at university full-time, regardless of how much contact time you have.

You're at university 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - away from the familiar environment of home and the people you know.

Throughout the 3 years that Ben has had anorexia, I've been his primary carer, helping to guide him towards recovery on a daily basis. I thought we'd be able to continue this care from afar, via Skype, Facebook, phone or email.


Nothing beats face-to-face contact when you're checking for those little signs that all is not well - and then coming up with a solution to solve it.

I also thought that being a relatively local university - just 35 miles away - would make things easier to 'manage'.


35 miles is a long way when your child mentions the word "suicidal" and you're desperately trying to get someone to go and sort him out. When you eventually do find the right student support service you have to go through the background to your child's illness and the reasons why you believe they might be at risk.

And I wouldn't even think about sending your post-anorexic child off to a university further afield. Imagine this week if Ben had been at a university hundreds of miles away!

Oh, and there's also the little problem that, because your child is 18, university staff are not actually allowed to talk to you without your child's permission. Thank God that, for us, Ben stayed on the phone so he could provide it. And he continued to give his permission to all the other student services we needed to deal with over the following two days.

But your child is within their rights to refuse to give permission. I can't imagine being faced with a situation like that...

So if we were trekking round university open days now and deciding when to apply, what would I do differently?

Basically I wouldn't even consider letting my child go away to university until you are 100 per cent sure they are 100 per cent recovered - and have remained ED-free for a number of months. ED-free, for us after this experience, includes being able to successfully integrate socially and attend school full-time.

Be 100 per cent sure they are being 100 per cent honest with you about their readiness for university. No rose coloured spectacles, no being carried away by the excitement of all those open day freebies and activities. Ben thought he was ready. So did I. We were both wrong.

Taking your child out of university, even early on in the process, isn't easy. We were lucky to have a very supportive university (who, incidentally, have written to say they won't be charging us for a term's accommodation rent). They also saw us immediately - every student service we needed to see - and were tremendously supportive and helpful, truly going that extra mile.

Talking to them in so much depth also prompted them to promise to put together a special package to make it easier for Ben to adjust to university when the time comes for him to try again.

Other universities might not be so supportive.


  1. Let him make his own choices, devise his own plan and *learn to cope with his own disappointments and failures*... if you don't, he will never be confident enough to take responsibility for his own recovery. I'm not just talking about university. Seriously, I know you want the very best for Ben but you have to stop rescuing him and taking over.

    It's really important that learns to be less rigid, in both his lifestyle AND his thinking. Encourage him to introduce more flexibility into his life, to feel the fear and do it anyway! He needs to accept how his life is now in order to make changes. He needs to work towards not weighing and measuring his food, not time tabling his life, not having plans A B and C devised by you. One major characteristic of many people with Anorexia is that they can only participate in occupations that are goal orientated, that have an end result, certificate, grade etc. It's important to encourage fun, silliness, irreverence and doing for the joy of doing not constantly striving for achievement or to tick off the next thing on the to do list