What would you expect a 19-year-old to be doing with their life?
Perhaps you’d say starting university, choosing a degree, moving away from home, writing coursework and doing a lot of growing up.
Me? I was starting treatment at my local hospital’s eating disorder clinic.
Whilst my friends sat in lecture halls, I sat in the armchair of a counselling room, crying about not being able to eat breakfast.
When everyone from my school was going out to bars and clubs, I was going for blood tests and being told my organs were at risk of failing.
I’ve suffered with an eating disorder since the age of 13. I began gradually cutting out meals and before I knew it, I wasn’t eating anything during the day and had become obsessed with exercise. My relationship with my body was broken.
As I reached that milestone age of 18 and was forced to start planning a future really suddenly, I found it difficult to envisage one outside of my illness, and I slowly began to understand that I needed help.
There was no lightbulb moment where I decided I needed to make that GP appointment, but I felt so trapped in the cycle of my eating disorder for a long time that seeing everyone else flying the nest hit me with real anxiety about what my future might look like, or if I’d even have one at all.
So as my friends went off to embark on degrees, I committed to pursuing recovery, and in 2019 I made a GP appointment.
I was referred to an eating disorder service where I was assigned a specialist, with whom I’ve had regular appointments since spring last year.
While my progression into adulthood started a little differently to everyone else’s, I stand by the fact that saying no to university saved my life. I would’ve gone during the peak of my eating disorder, moved out of my hometown and lived in an alien city.
I now clearly understand that I wouldn’t be alive today had I gone away and been left to my own devices.
I’ve learnt how to live again and how to be me – beyond a disorder
I would’ve continued to starve myself, only this time I wouldn’t have had the safety net of my family to at least make sure I ate a meal at some point.
I would’ve been left alone to hate my body without anyone to support me when I needed it. I was in such an unhealthy place mentally that I didn’t care what happened to me.
So no, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out one bit by using the years I would’ve spent in higher education prioritising my well-being, and there’s not a single thing anyone could say to convince me I made the wrong choice.
The path I followed was safer and while I may not have the journalism degree I wanted, I have countless invaluable life skills. A degree is an incredible achievement but, personally, I think the things I’ve been able to achieve thanks to undergoing treatment over the last 18 months mean more than wearing a graduation cap ever could.
I’ve eaten breakfast for the first time in years, I drink water throughout the day instead of fearing it’ll make me gain weight, I’m able to do a food shop without sobbing hysterically, I skip workouts when my body needs to rest, I eat crumpets as a late-night snack and, most importantly, I’ve learnt how to tell people I’m not OK.
In short: I’ve learnt how to live again and how to be me – beyond a disorder.
There’s immense pressure on young people to go to university, and I know a graduation photo looks fabulous on the mantelpiece, but if you don’t want to go or aren’t ready, you’re allowed to be proud of the alternative avenue you choose.
My life is undoubtedly better because of that one thing that I didn’t do, and I celebrate that.
Not doing stuff is cool. Not going to the party, not having plucked your eyebrows super thin in the early noughties, not eating that apple, not resisting that cake, and not going to university – especially if it could save your life.
If there are things you feel you missed out on that you regret, you can always do them later. I could go to university and get a degree now but had I gone before, I would never have been able to get my life back.
Life shouldn’t just be about celebrating the trophies, medals and the big moments everyone claps for. It’s also about celebrating your own personal wins, which may well take you in alternative directions.
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