Pain demands to be acknowledged.
When it comes to eating, habits are hard to establish and equally as hard to break. Distinguishing “good” habits from “bad” ones meanwhile is nigh on impossible. If you then mix in an array of messages about balance, clean eating and portion control, you’re left with a society in which terminology is lost in translation and problems with eating disorders continue to grow. Obesity levels are rising, anorexia and bulimia are becoming more and more prevalent, and the pressures on individuals to conform to a certain aesthetic are seemingly more acute. It is therefore by means shocking that a whole week has been dedicated between the 22nd and 28th of February to raise awareness of the problems the world faces when it comes to our relationship with eating.
Before leaving home to start university my mother gifted me a handwritten recipe book filled with the dishes that I had enjoyed throughout my life. Food that filled my childhood with joy filled the pages in front of me as my mother hoped to ensure that I’d keep myself fed and healthy in my first year as a student. To this day I am yet to follow a single recipe of my her’s. Over the course of my year as a fresher, I turned my back on every single eating habit I had established as a child. Without realising, I became obsessed with what I put into my body and how my body reacted to it. At first it was harmless. I switched from semi skimmed to skimmed milk. I didn’t eat meat on a Monday. I saw cakes as treats to enjoy on the weekend. I drunk pints of water and did Pilates before I went to bed. I ignored big mirrors and tight clothes. To the people I lived with, I was simply careful and looking after my body. To my family at home, I had “slimmed down” due to the fast paced nature of life as a student. I failed for a very long time to recognise that I was in fact walking a very thin and dangerous line. As a result, my obsessive attitude grew.
Eating disorders, much like anxiety, depression, OCD, and phobias, is classified as a mental health issue. It is estimated (by MIND) that 1 in 4 people in the United Kingdom will experience a mental health issue each year. Unlike broken limbs, swollen joints, or bloody noses, the pain of a mental illness is invisible and therein lies the biggest health problem facing our society. Despite being unable to visualise the pain, the effects of this silent epidemic are all around us. Indeed, Exeter University’s exceptionally talented and successful Wellbeing Centre has never been in greater demand. In turn, what I have realised is that a student environment such as ours, filled with studies, societies, parties, and anxieties, is a breading ground for such problems.
We’re told that university is the best time of our life and most of the time, it is. We’re surrounded by opportunity and the promise of a tomorrow shaped by the world class education we are receiving. We’re told we should be grateful and feel blessed and 9 times out of 10, we do. We’re privileged. However, with these messages ingrained in our brains, when things aren’t perfect and begin to seemingly unravel, for a lot of people it is difficult to know how to cope. Loneliness, failure, home sickness, isolation, and academic difficulties are all capable of triggering far greater issues that a lot of people fail to acknowledge or choose to ignore. I have come to learn in my time as a student that when it comes to mental health, words left unspoken are far more painful and poisonous than words blurted out in a fracas. Demonic thoughts, anxieties, and worries simply manifest and spiral.
Mine took a while but manifest they did and eventually, I was forced to evaluate my lifestyle. My closest friends became the mirrors that I could no longer ignore. The look in their eyes as they questioned me on my weight and eating habits was one that plagued my thoughts. I had spent so long thinking about food that not one of my thoughts made any sense. Upon reflection, I was swimming against the tide and getting dragged further away from safety with every carb free meal that I ate. I demonised whole food groups and felt physically unwell when fed a meal that didn’t fit the ‘healthy’ criteria I had subconsciously constructed. My initial desire to look after myself, common to us all, became a way of life that meant that I dreaded dinner parties and cake filled coffee dates with my girlfriends.
Eventually, for a multitude of reasons, I had to confess to my housemates that things were an issue. I suspect they had known for a while. After a great deal of support from them and days spent dodging the phone call, I was fortunate enough to get help from the Wellbeing Centre. I was assigned an incredible therapist that taught me things that I wholeheartedly feel will be with me for life. Prior to my experience, I was guilty of being incredibly ignorant about people such as Kathy. I neither understood the issues people silently live with or the crucial work she and organisations such as Mind Your Head Society and the Wellbeing Centre do each day here. They are just a small and relatable example of the relentless effort people are making in society as a whole to combat these issues.
As we leave eating disorders awareness week and enter mental health awareness week, I aim to dig out my recipe book and cook a dish my mother would be proud of. I’m going to dig out my healthy habits once more and see what it’s like swimming against the tide with the support I have been given. Ultimately, mental health issues are far from ordinary. They are, however, everywhere. As a result, we must talk over cake filled coffee dates with friends about the quotidian and seemingly mundane issues that fill our head before they eventually spiral into silent pain that will scream to be acknowledged.