Ella's Journey to Oxford

I’ve always been a small person; I was born premature and am not genetically blessed in the height department. I was in year 10 when it started, family issues partly came to a head and I stopped looking after myself. It was little things, ‘forgetting’ my lunch, getting up late for school. I used food as a way to cope when it felt like my world was collapsing, food was something I could control, and I controlled it for years.

Things got really bad when I was in year 12. I made a disclosure to the school about my family life – to this day it’s probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done – and this caused massive disruptions at home, and in my studies (my other safe place). I started getting to school an hour early, staying in the library until 7pm, and being slightly older and more independent gave me more freedom to control what I put into my body, which in turn gave me something else to focus on.

It wasn’t until the next September when I went to the doctors after multiple people had commented telling me I looked unwell and tired. I was told I was being urgently referred to mental health. I waited 6 months for treatment.

I hid my treatment from everyone - I was ashamed, I had no formal diagnosis, I felt like because I hadn’t been given a label that my problems weren’t real. I had an Oxford offer, I was at a grammar school, I was so angry at myself – I thought I was ‘better’ than that.

I worked hard to try and be healthy for when I sat my A-levels, when I didn’t reach that goal, I set a new one; I was determined to recover by the time I went to university. I was discharged from my local service less than a week before I started uni, on the condition that the university and my new GP would provide support. It was at this point recovery pretty much flatlined.

The GP did keep in touch with me and does still continue to support me, as does the college nurse. I felt I needed more support and reached out to the counselling service. The counselling service gave me a few appointments, but I struggled to fit them in as the appointments always seemed to clash with lectures/labs. One thing I find key to recovery is structure, and this wasn’t something they could give me.

It was around this time I was also prescribed an antidepressant for anxiety and depression - I began to let things slip and lose control, I was restricting and self-harming to a point where I had worried everyone around me and was losing friends. I hit a low point in February, and I had a realisation that the way I was acting was unsustainable. I had lost the determination to continue recovering, but the end of Hilary was approaching, and I couldn’t afford to go home in that position.

Things were looking up, the end of Hilary came, I told my friends I’d see them in 6 weeks. There was some uncertainty due to a small number of cases of a new virus emerging, but we were optimistic. Then lockdown hit.

I managed to find myself some part-time work in a pharmacy, I had applied to some other places too, but they were the first to get back to me. I heard back from a supermarket which offered me a job picking online orders. Suddenly I found myself starting work at 5am, finishing at 1pm and starting a shift at the pharmacy at 2:30pm until 6. I finally had back the structure I needed and had to be recovering in order to sustain myself, and I had found a new way to block everything out.

When Trinity term started online, I continued to work both jobs, only taking time off for collections. I ran myself into the ground trying to avoid thinking about how little control I had. I could not control my hours at the supermarket and was constantly pressured into overtime. I couldn’t control where I was living. I had my structure, but once again the world was falling apart, it felt like the only thing I could control was once again what I ate. So, that’s what I did.

Fortunately, people noticed. I met a close friend through work, she shared her struggles with me and was there for me to hold myself accountable to. We took breaks together and supported each other through recovery (and working in a supermarket during a pandemic). Once again things were looking up, I just had to get back to Oxford then everything would be fine.

I was the first person to move into my house at the beginning of Michaelmas. It felt like a fresh start, 2nd year was going to be my year, I was convinced. Oxford felt safe, it felt more controllable, I continued to recover with the support from my GP and college.

During this time, I had tried multiple times to seek support from mental health services, determined not to let myself slip. I spoke to Oxfordshire Mind, they referred me to TalkingSpace, who referred me to the Adult Mental Health Team, who referred me back to the GP, who referred me back to TalkingSpace, who referred me to the Adult Mental Health Team, who refused the referral. Thinking back on it now, it’s almost laughable. No wonder there’s a mental health crisis in the UK when help is so inaccessible, when services are so disconnected that they hear “trauma” or “food” and immediately focus on one of those when things are so often interconnected.

Thankfully, after this wild goose chase college stepped in and approved funding for a private therapist – something I’m incredibly grateful for and could not have afforded myself. They also put me in contact with a dietician to give me some updated advice and ideas. I’m not perfect – perfection is no longer the goal - but I’m okay.

It’s easy to sit here and think “if I didn’t have so much trauma then this wouldn’t have happened”, or “If I had higher self-esteem, I’d be fine”, but the truth is I don’t know that. What I do know is that if I had a shorter wait for treatment, I would have had a better shot at recovery before starting uni. I know that recovery isn’t linear. I know that if mental health services were properly funded it would not take me a year and a half to be able to access support. I know that one of the conditions of my discharge was continued support from the university. I know that more could have been done to support me. I know that in spite of it all, I’m doing better. I also know that this isn’t the case for everyone. The government, the university, I know they need to do better.

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