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Keeping anorexia at bay while at university

Hope Virgo’s story of beating anorexia while at university could help other students in the same position

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Hope Virgo

April 2 2018
Keeping anorexia at bay while at university


For four years, I managed to keep my anorexia hidden from friends and family. But, on 17 November 2007, I was admitted to a mental health hospital. My skin was yellowing and my heart was failing. Over the next year, I had to face my anorexia and learn to eat and exercise in a healthy way.

After a year of living at the hospital, I just wanted to get away. So I convinced those around me that going to university straight after my discharge would be the best plan.

I was well aware of my “triggers”, but during my time in hospital I had developed coping mechanisms to help. It was all about taking one day at a time and making sure that I didn’t slip into bad habits. My coping mechanisms were simple:

1Stick to 2,500 calories a day

2. Have at least one day off from exercise a week

3. Eat three meals and three snacks every day

4. Remember that my feelings about food are in my head and not my reality

5. Remember my motivations for wanting to eat healthily

6. Remember how anorexia ruined my life.

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My coping mechanisms guided me through the days after my discharge and helped me to survive at university. But I was afraid that the battle would never end; afraid that I would never feel comfortable in my own skin. In a way, I think that living with that fear was a good thing. And using my regimented structure to help me face the fear kept me well.

My mum drove me to university and we talked in the car. I was on edge, wondering how I would stick to my eating plan. I admitted that I was scared and didn’t know how I was going to stay well. My mum had faith that I would and I knew that I had to prove to everyone that I could manage this. I wanted to make them proud.

Even though I still felt unsure of who I really was and what I looked like, my first term flew by. I was coping and I stuck rigidly to my eating plan. I knew when I hadn’t had enough food and I was in a good enough position to be able to correct myself.

I was extremely lucky that I had a couple of friends who supported me, whether it was going down for dinner every day at 6pm, as that was my safe mealtime, or in how they didn’t question me using my hospital bowl or glass for cereal portion sizes.

The days merged into each other as I got up stupidly early to exercise, do my work, and still go on nights out. I still felt so insecure about what I looked like and what people thought of me that my confidence was easily crushed.

For my first year of university, I stuck fairly closely to the amount of calories that I knew I needed from my regimented hospital life, with set meals and exercise plans. I had a bowl that I used to eat cereal out of so I knew how much to put in. Things such as portion control are often easy for other people but such a minefield for me. I was terrified about opening up to those around me but once I did, it really helped. 

In particular, my friend Emily supported me when I needed it and I can truly say that without her I am not sure that I would have survived my first year. I developed my coping mechanisms during that year, the best one being learning to talk more and to text my Mum if I was struggling. 

I had support from my friends but I didn’t have any formal support from the university. I don’t blame the institution for that as I didn’t feel able to talk about how I felt. I had originally been offered outpatient support at the adult unit, but I didn’t want this. It was a long walk from the university and I didn’t want to be “that girl seeing a therapist”.

I went back to my alma mater, the University of Birmingham, for University Mental Health Day this year and it was great to see the formal support that is in place for students. There are counsellors available and while there is still a waiting list, this is a fantastic service for those who need it.

At university, everyone feels the need to paint a perfect picture of themselves and if you aren’t feeling 100 per cent OK, you feel as though something is “wrong” with you. But the reality is that you will have good and bad times at university.

For me, going to university with a mental health problem increased this pressure. I would worry pretty much every day about my weight, my routine around food and whether I was succeeding at life. I worried about what people thought about me and was concerned that some people didn’t really like me.

We are seeing more and more people presenting with mental health issues at university with many of these cases unfortunately ending with suicide. We are in a state of emergency when it comes to mental health in society and unless we act now, it's only going to get worse.

We need to encourage students to open up to one another, equip them to deal with stress, and make mental health a normal thing to talk about.

How did I survive university? Tips that might help

  • I learned to talk to those around me even though it wasn't always easy. I had a great group of friends who were able to help me when I needed it. 
  • Keeping to a meal plan and routine helped me to stay on top of my food intake.
  • I would text my Mum on days when I was really struggling just to tell her that I felt “fat”. This helped take away the guilt around eating that day.
  • Book some exciting things to look forward to: holidays or days out.
  • Keep in mind your motivations: for me it was about travelling, running and having children one day.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you have a bad day – it doesn’t mean that everything is over.

Read more: Oxford university, postnatal depression and me 

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