To anyone else I look like a completely normal Hatfield student. I love Klute, going out, meeting up with friends, Sunday brunch. On first look you would have no idea that I am also depressed. That’s the problem with depression; you become so good at pretending you’re ok that you really can convince other people. When you conjure up an idea of a ‘depressed’ person, people too often imagine some gloomy person dressed all in black wearing too much eyeliner and constantly complaining. The truth is that anyone can be depressed, around 7% of adults have depression, the likelihood is that someone you know has depression and you have no idea. The symptoms of depression are sadly too often missed, especially at university, and in my case in first year when there were very few people looking out for me.
I have had depressive episodes from the age of 7. This is something that when I tell people they find very confusing. What could a 7 year old have to be so upset about that they are seriously depressed? The answer for me was nothing specific. That answer has never changed throughout my 13 year journey with depression. What could happen to someone that was so awful that they regularly hope to no longer exist? Especially as I got older it became a vicious cycle of feeling guilty about having such a charmed life (one that led me to Hatfield) and being depressed and feeling guilty about being depressed because there were so many people with tough lives who didn’t have depression. I decided I must just be weak and worthless. It was with the help of my incredible mother who has also struggled with depression all her life that I realised you don’t have to have a reason. It’s ok to be depressed. It’s not something you should ever feel guilty about. You have every right to your feelings.
Depression was something I had managed fairly well up until leaving school. I was surrounded by an incredibly supportive family who really did not treat having depression as anything different to having a broken leg. It was when I started at university that everything began to collapse. I knew the warning signs of a depressive episode, I knew I was spiralling, but unfortunately not enough other people did to help me. So many of the early symptoms of depression are behaviours that are sadly completely normalised at university. I’ve made a little list of some of the things to look out for in your friends, in the boy you don’t really speak to on your corridor, in the friend of a friend you smile at in the dining room, everyone.
- Staying in bed – spending all day in bed is one of the immediate images that comes up when you think of a student. It’s important to notice when a couple of lie-ins turns in to a person’s daily routine. At my worst I would only leave my bed for the occasional lecture, if I could muster the energy at all. I would lie in bed and desperately try to tune out the rest of the world. If you’re worried one of your friends is spending too much time in bed, how about suggesting you go to breakfast together or head off to the library together in the morning?
- Drinking too much – most students at university enjoy a drink, a lot of socialising centres around alcohol. But when does too much become too much? My drinking suddenly escalated massively at one point in the year, I was branded a ‘drinking legend’ and a ‘sesh head’, when really I was just desperate to forget my depression for a while. This was probably my rock-bottom place, I was drinking completely recklessly on nights out and alone in my room in between. I ended up doing serious damage to my liver to the point where more than a year on it still hasn’t recovered and probably never will. I couldn’t drink at all for several months, where I was called ‘boring’ and was increasingly excluded from social events. Please stop calling your friends boring for not drinking and definitely be very careful encouraging people to drink who might be going through a tough time. You don’t know what bad habits they might already be in without your help. They might view nights out as one of the only times they get to socialise, how about suggesting going for a meal or watching a film together another night as well?
- Withdrawing from social situations – if someone’s pattern of socialisation rapidly changes this could be an indication of something being seriously wrong. The situations that I avoided seem almost laughable now but were seriously debilitating. Waiting until the early hours of the morning to shower so you’d be certain no one saw you in the corridor, avoiding going to pick up a package from the Porter’s lodge for days in case you saw someone you knew, being terrified of keeping anything in the kitchen in case someone asked you how you were. It got so bad that I once went 6 days without speaking to anyone at all. People with depression usually do everything they physically can to pretend to other people that they don’t have it. If they don’t feel strong enough to pretend, they withdraw. If you have noticed someone not being around, pester them, go to their room and just ask for a chat, invite them to do anything with you. To the girl on my corridor who noticed I was spending a lot of time in my room and came for chats, thank you, you kept me sane.
- A change in eating behaviour – ‘I’m not hungry’, ‘I don’t fancy the look of dinner’. This is a particular challenge for livers in. Meals can be a really difficult thing for someone who has withdrawn. Make sure they’re eating; invite them to go with you to a meal or even just offering to make them some toast can be the highlight of their day.
I am here a year on from my worst depressive episode yet. I have found a medication, which works for me and helps me through some of my tough mornings. My best advice for if you have depression or think you could be depressed is to TALK ABOUT IT. Talk to anyone and everyone who you trust and will listen to you. You’ll be amazed how amazing and supportive people can be. Find a GP who you feel understands you, depression is a serious illness and there is so much out there to help you. If you had a broken arm you wouldn’t just ‘deal with it’ or ‘wait for it to pass’. Explore every avenue of care you can; whether that’s finding a new hobby you love, talking to friends, talking to Welfare, the University Counselling service, therapy, medication or a combination. You’re worth it and you’re going to be ok.
Sixteen year-old white girl. Long blonde hair. Thigh gap, skips meals. Runway model.
That’s what you imagine when you think ‘eating disorder’, right? Tragic beauty. Trivial and vain.
No. As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, stereotypes are dangerous. The image of the ‘beautiful white girl’ is wrong. I accessed support alongside people whom you wouldn’t have expected.
Teenage boys trapped in the half-life of an eating disorder. I had a friend who had been struggling with anorexia for years but until it got to the point of threatening his life, his doctors and family refused to face up to the truth of what was wrong. He was cripplingly weak but couldn’t miss a gym session for the body-wracking guilt, but he was ‘just getting fit’, right? Pre-pubescent girls. There are 11 and 12-year olds who have had inpatient treatment, or whose families are so concerned with the self-destructive thought patterns of their primary school-age children that they’re seeking help. 50-year-old women who had tried to juggle raising a family with ingrained habits of binging, purging or restricting.
Stereotypes get in the way of people getting help. It’s easier to be in denial yourself if everyone around you is as well, such as if you’re male, of an ethnic minority or an age considered inappropriate for an eating disorder. Eating Disorders Awareness Week this year is about early intervention, and to make any progress in that area we need to eliminate stigma and remember that eating disorders aren’t about age, gender etc,: they are mental illnesses, and unlike people, mental illnesses don’t discriminate.
They also don’t make you less of a strong person- I was bought up in a family that believed in the mantra, ‘Pain is just weakness leaving the body.’ Suffering from a restrictive disorder was good at making me feel in control and strong- until I admitted to myself that I needed help. It took me a long time to accept help- about 8 months of a continued downward spiral. Then one day I realised that it wasn’t normal to walk 6 miles every morning before school to throw my advent calendar chocolate into a specific bin so I could get my exercise in as well as disposing of the ‘unnecessary’ calories. It wasn’t normal to exercise for four hours on Christmas day despite being so weak I technically should have been wheelchair-bound. It wasn’t normal to have weekly doctors’ appointments to check that my heart wasn’t about to give out. It wasn’t normal to physically shrink in height because of loss of bone density. It wasn’t normal to cry if my mother made me eat an extra half-portion of carbs. Admitting you need help is so hard to do, especially when your mind is screaming at you that you’re okay- but once you accept it there will be people there to help and support you.
So what are the signs of eating disorders?
Image credit to b-eat.com
Lips: Food starts to take over your thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate. Perhaps calorie-counting obsessively, feeling anxiety over social situations where there may be food, restricting food to a greater extent than dieting, buying and secretly eating large amounts of food, describing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Flips: Becoming more socially isolated, perhaps acting distant around situations involving food or diet talk, becoming uninterested in previous hobbies, mood shifts, feeling inadequate
Hips: Making comments on how ‘fat’, ‘chubby’, ‘disgusting’ they are and how much they’ve eaten after a normal/ small amount of food, obsessive weighing or measuring of body parts, ‘body checking’, body dysmorphia- seeing your body as out of proportion with reality
Kips: Difficulty concentrating on anything but food, excessive tiredness, dizzy spells
Nips: Perhaps disappearing after meals to purge with laxatives or by making themselves sick, or needing a distraction after a meal to avoid feelings of guilt
Skips: Compulsive overexercise can be a serious problem with effects of damaging bone structure etc. particularly in conjunction with eating issues. Feeling guilt after missing a workout, feeling compulsions to walk excessive distances or complete excessive exercise everyday.
Remember anorexia isn’t the only eating disorder: bulimia, binge-eating disorder and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Officially Specified) are all medical disorders and deserve treatment too.
For more information on symptoms, as well as how to get help visit:
Aside from clinical lists of symptoms, trust your instincts. If you’re worried about someone, speak to them or someone close to them – it’s better to be safe than sorry! If my friends had trusted their instincts, even though it would have been scary to breach the subject, I wouldn’t have had to get to such a critical point before getting significant medical help.
Recovery is Possible
So once you or a friend are receiving help for an eating disorder, one big question is: Does it all just magically go away now? That was certainly what I was thinking; how can the eating-disorder voice that is practically taking over my identity just be- killed off? Surely I would lose everything I was?
But, three years after beginning my recovery journey from late-stage anorexia, I realise that my eating disorder was not everything I was. Recovery has made me who I am today, yes: fighting against yourself 24/7 will do that to you. It’s made me stronger: I’m not saying I don’t ever relapse because I definitely do, but I can recognise a relapse almost immediately and get myself into a position to combat that. I’m not saying all the thoughts have gone away, that I don’t ever want to compulsively overexercise or purge or fast, but the thoughts aren’t there all the time. Some days they’re stronger than others but some days I don’t hear them at all.
I’m weight restored now and I’m 95% recovered, I have my fertility back, I don’t have to go for constant weigh-ins and bone density scans and face threats of hospitalisation every week. Sometimes it’s so hard and I still need help- it’s a mistake to assume that weight restoration and ‘normal’ eating means full recovery- but recovery is very possible and so worth it. I made it to university where I have a lot of wonderful friends and I can go out for nice meals and dates. I proved wrong all the doctors who told me I would be dead by 17. If you’re reading this and you recognise anything that’s been said here in you, please try and reach out for help. It’s difficult, especially with the stigma but f**k, it’s so much better than living in the half-life of an eating disorder.
“There are some days when the numbers take over and there are some days where the greed screams. But there are other days when happiness prevails and those days are sure as hell worth living for.”
To finish, here’s a bit of a prose poem I wrote back in 2015 regarding ED recovery:
(Sorry, us English students are the worst!)
My current convalescence rubbed salt water in my eyes. The pain is sharper than the bones I once longed to expose as I recoil from where the tide has bought me clarity. The darkness that was obscuring my vision now gone, I see the irony dance to life in front of my eyes. The water has extinguished the fire that chased me to the edge, and yet now I feel heat for the first time in years. And now the water is helping me see, the thoughts that led to my dissolution are dissolving themselves until they are nothing more than a bitter aftertaste. And the numbers that define me get bigger as my world expands, and words come pouring out of my hands like the streams that waterfalled from my eyes. The fire that held me prisoner now gone, and yet the stars are shining so much brighter.
And I thought that self-control made me strong, but in my convalescence I’m so much more a fighter.
By Louise Tilly- (remember I’m always happy to talk in more depth about any of this!)
I feel like it’s very hard to fully understand what a mental health disorder is until you experience one yourself. When people hear about depression, they just it means you’re ‘sad’ or ‘feeling low’. This trivial definition has been used more recently as, ironically, the number of people suffering from mental health disorders has increased.
I think this is one of the reasons why depression and other mental health disorders are passed off as ‘less significant’ or something that ‘everyone feels’. For me, and the other 300 million people who suffer, having depression is so much more than just feeling a bit down.
It’s been three years since I was first diagnosed with depression, but it took almost 2 years for that to happen because I refused to accept that I was struggling, and I refused help. And up until now, I’d still only told 8 people.
Why? I felt like I had done something wrong, like I was weak. I felt as though everyone around me was so strong and happy and, because I wasn’t, I had failed. I felt like I would be a burden to my family and my friends if they knew I was struggling. I felt I would be judged if I told people; treated differently because of it.
I was so used to putting on a blank face, so that I could avoid people asking me if I was okay, that I became worried that, if I did then tell people, they wouldn’t believe me. And, of course, if I told people, it would mean I had to accept it was really happening to me. By telling as few people as possible, I hoped that the whole thing would just blow over. I could avoid answering questions and giving explanations. I wanted no reminder that I had a problem.
These thoughts have stayed with me but aren’t quite as strong as they were around the time when I was diagnosed. Sharing my experience is a big step for me, but the right one. I hope that hearing my story will make people see mental health disorders in a different light. There are so many people who are hiding that they are suffering, and this whole experience has taught me how important it is to look after others around you because you never will completely know what they are going through.
In my worst years before and after being diagnosed, people would tell me to ‘cheer up’ or ‘stop being such a downer’. I felt guilty about the way I was feeling and this only made things worse. I hated myself and I hated the way I was feeling. I felt so alone, as though the person I love the most has passed away.
I felt the sadness and grief that accompanies death. I cried like I would never see that person again. I felt guilty like I’d not shown them how much they meant to me. I felt anxious like I’d have to face the world alone without them. I felt like I could no longer enjoy the things I used to without them by my side. I felt like giving up without them there. I got frustrated and angry at the world because life was unfair. And I avoided people to avoid the reminder of my loss.
But it’s only years later that I can see that this person who I was grieving for was me. I’d lost the me who people loved, who I was proud to be.
Before I was diagnosed I found it was easy to suffer in silence. With symptoms that can quickly be dismissed as ‘having a bad day’, I was able to slip through for longer than I should have. Although the symptoms are there, it’s very easy to hide them because they’re not physical. It was harder to tell something was wrong. I needed a coping mechanism given I was going through this alone; a way to distract myself.
My way of coping was through excessive exercise and eating little. It felt so much easier to not be noticed and I felt this way of coping was the only way of achieving that. A big part of my depression was never feeling like I was good enough. I felt constantly compared to everyone and constantly a disappointment. This helped to turn my coping mechanism into the start of an eating disorder.
Not only did the depression stop me from doing the things I loved, but my opinions of my body and how I looked made things worse. I could not socialise without the fear of people looking at me, and without my assuming what they were thinking. My life was controlled by food and I was too caught up on my negative mindset to think about what was happening.
Needless to say, both depression and an eating disorder had drastic changes on my behaviour. I would cry or get angry for no reason, or over the most minor, insignificant things that seemed so major to me. I would isolate myself because I had no energy to deal with people and their questions. I hated seeing my friends and family because they would always be so happy without me – even more of a reminder of how useless I was.
Being in crowds of people made me so anxious that I would refuse to leave the house. People’s opinions scared me to the point that I couldn’t cope being around anyone. I couldn’t hear a laugh without thinking it was a laugh at me, or hear a whisper without thinking I was the subject of it. I felt so far from normal, so stupid. Everything was wrong with me and everyone else was perfect.
And I felt like I deserved it. I felt as though everything I did was wrong, and it was always my fault. I couldn’t remember what happy felt like. Looking back on the worst days, before and just after I was diagnosed, it is clear what a strong effect negative cognitive bias had on me – my brain ignored anything good that happened and only remembered the bad things.
After 2 years of my mood deteriorating, and my health following close behind it, I was forced to get help. With the mental characteristics of depression being harder to detect, it was only when the physical signs started to show that people began asking questions. The memory of my sitting in the waiting room is so vivid, and seeking help was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.
I felt like it was too late and that I had already given up. I felt like it would be too difficult to make any sort of progress towards a normal life again. But I was wrong. Yes, it has been hard, and yes, I still have many days which are as bad as they were 3 years ago, but compared to then I have come a long way. Recovery is a frustrating and difficult process but it is 100% worth it.
I was able to come to university and meet some incredible people. I’ve been able to experience and achieve things I never thought I would. And, most importantly, I have hope for the future again. I’m still learning though – I’m discovering my trigger points and understanding what causes my issues to flare up. And I want people to learn from my mistakes too: talk about how you’re feeling, accept help, and don’t be ashamed if you feel like you’re struggling.
I have three tips which always help to make me feel better when I’m having a bad day:
- Get some fresh air. Go outside, have a walk, and let your mind wonder.
- Have some zone-alone time. Have a 15-minute zone out on your own. Put some music on and shut your eyes for a bit.
- Write down your thoughts. This will bring you some perspective, help you organize your thoughts, and clear your head.
For those interested, there is a short video on depression by TED: https://youtu.be/z-IR48Mb3W0?list=LLs4WnxFQRUx5Ze59XEMmmvA.
And for more information about mental health disorders, guidance, and support, Mind is an excellent charity: http://www.mind.org.uk.
SHAG week – LGBTQ+ Sex
Sadly, sexual health awareness weeks often leave out queer people. Of course, some of the information we will be providing generally will apply too, yet I think it’s also important to give some more specific LGBTQ+ advice. Firstly, breaking some myths…
Gay men only get HIV.
Truth: HIV is the most common STI amongst gay males. This does not mean it is the only one, or that only men who sleep with men are at risk for contracting HIV. Gay men are susceptible to almost all STIs. In fact, in 2015 70% of new cases of gonorrhoea occurred in gay men.
Myth: Queer women don’t get STDs and so don’t need to use protection.
Truth: Yes, they can. Some infections may even be more likely to transmit from person to person if the individuals are engaging in non-heterosexual sex. STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea that are usually passed through penetrative penis-vagina sex, can also be passed through toys, fingers, hands and oral sex. Think about using dental dams, which are provided by the College welfare team and by LGBT+a welfare (Molly Smith), and if you could be using condoms to practice safe sex even when they are not required as a birth control method. More info on dental dams to follow.
You can share toys without risk.
If you must share toys, put a condom over them. Remove and replace whenever someone new is using the toy. Do the same for a strap-on, or a packer if you are trans.
Spit/ Vaseline/ butter etc. work as lube.
No matter what you see in porn, this is not true (Hey, since when could we ever trust porn!) Spit dries too quickly and increases the chance of the condom tearing.
‘Homemade lubes’ like Vaseline or butter are oil-based and so can break latex condoms and cause irritation.
In male-male sex, I only need to apply lube once.
Actually, if the sex lasts a long time you should really apply more lube. ‘Too much’ lube is always better than not enough lube, to avoid pain and increase pleasure.
You will always know if you have an STD.
Definitely false. STIs/ STDs are often asymptomatic. However, they can cause problems in the future and can still be passed on to sexual partners even if you experience no symptoms. HIV is an infection that may not originally present symptoms, or may just appear like a flu. Regular checkups are therefore important, and don’t feel bad for wasting doctor’s time – they are there to prevent as well as treat!
Bisexuals/ pansexuals are sexually promiscuous.
Like straight people don’t want to sleep with everyone of the opposite gender, and gay people don’t pursue sex with everyone the same gender, those who are polysexual don’t want to bonk everyone. Sexual identity and sexual behaviour are completely unrelated. So guess what: just because someone likes two/ all genders does not mean that they necessarily want a threesome with you and your girlfriend!
Asexuals are always completely uninterested in sex.
It’s a spectrum. Some have sex, some don’t. Some masturbate, some don’t. Grey- asexuals feel that they identify with asexuality with some exceptions. Demisexuals can only experience sexual attraction after forming a strong emotional attachment to someone. Remember not to make assumptions about asexuality: it’s individual!
More Useful Information
Sexually Transmitted Infections
If you’ve had unprotected sex with a person of any gender, then you could be at risk of an STI. They can be transferred through close bodily contact or through the transfer of blood or semen. They can lead to serious health problems if left untreated, such as infertility and physical illness, as well as impairing your sex life (note, however, that they don’t have to stop it completely!) You can find out more information in a variety of ways:
-Through the LGBT+a society (leaflets in the office, welfare drop-ins: see their website for more details)
-The College Welfare team
-Reliable online sources such as the NHS website
Many STIs don’t show symptoms: which is why, if sexually active, you should get tested regularly at a GUM clinic.
If you find out you have an STI, being educated on how to cure it or manage its symptoms is key. It should not make you feel dirty or unconfident.
How to avoid STIs
As part of the LGBT+a welfare programme, protection can be provided. If you need something specific that is not provided (i.e. different sized/ latex- free condoms), then Molly (Welfare Officer) will try her best to order some. Protection can also be offered by our College welfare team:
Male condoms offer the best protection against sexually transmitted diseases for both partners – but only if they’re used properly. Every condom packet has an instruction leaflet inside – take the time to read it and make sure you know how to put the condom on properly, as well as checking for the use-by date. Check for the CE mark to ensure the condoms are of a safety standard. Use a new condom every time you have sex.
Make sure you get the right size: this is measured by girth not length
Store condoms away from sunlight and heat
Make sure you use lube that is safe with a condom, e.g. no oil-based lube with latex condoms.
Make sure the penis is erect before applying the condom. Squeeze the tip to remove the air before applying the condom. After sex hold the base of the condom down when removing. Dispose of the used condom in a bin not a toilet.
Despite their misleading name, dental dams are actually a form of protection (not anything to do with dentistry, although there is a story of misunderstanding involving that… Just ask Brogan!)
They are used to prevent the transmission of STIs when giving oral or anal sex to someone. It is a rectangular square of latex to provide a barrier preventing direct contact with the genitals.
You can ‘make’ your own dental dams by cutting the ends off a condom and slicing it down the middle to make your own flat square. However, they are also provided by College welfare and LGBT+a welfare.
To help them stay in place, put a small amount of lubricant between the dental dam and the genitals. This will keep it in place and increase sensitivity.
Finally, never re-use a dental dam.
There are two types of lube and it is important you check which one you are going to use:
Water based: Easy to wash up and safe with condoms and dental dams
Silicone based: Safe with condoms and dental dams. Waterproof. Harder to clean off but less is needed. Do NOT use with silicone- based packers or sex toys as they can break down over time.
Where to go if you are worried about STDs/ STIs
GUM clinics provide free testing, treatment, advice and supplies. County Durham and Darlington GUM clinics aim to be inclusive of all gender identities and sexual identities. Their services will ask questions about your sexual history in order to treat and advise you best but this information will be kept confidential.
Follow this link to find out more about local GUM clinics and how to book an appointment
As with all heterosexual relationships, consent must be affirmative. That is, it’s not “no means no” but “only yes means yes.” A healthy relationship is a healthy relationship no matter the sexual orientation- and consent is still very necessary.