In second year of medical school, I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa and subsequently developed Depression as a consequence of that. Thus began a detour and a pain-staking but ultimately rewarding process of self-discovery and rebuilding throughout my recovery. My battle with Anorexia necessitated 3 years off from medical school. During 1st year I had already unintentionally lost a fair amount of weight however I certainly didn’t have any of the behavioral or psychological manifestations of an Eating Disorder then.
In 2nd year however, I lost a little bit more weight and my thinking started to become increasingly irrational around food. With further weight loss fueled by the Eating Disorder mindset, it got to a point where my ability to make rational decisions about my health was impaired. Whilst I could think rationally about other things, my ability to eat enough to sustain myself was compromised by the illness. In May of 2nd year I did a rural clinical placement. Whilst away I had to eat normally with other people and I found that challenging, which is when I firmly realised something was wrong.
The Eating Disorder mindset strengthened almost exponentially within a matter of weeks; I became overtly worried about my Caloric intake and was restrictive about what types of food I would or wouldn’t eat. I despised and feared eating around others and avoided social situations at all cost. I missed normality, I missed food- not that the illness would allow me to acknowledge that let alone act on it. Sometimes I got so frustrated that I couldn’t just do what I knew was rationally right, that I couldn’t do what I needed to do to get better.
After that the weight loss slid quite quickly and spiraled out of my control. I was threatened multiple times with medical admission to hospital due to medical instability. I finished the year, though in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have. For a while nobody said anything, it seemed nobody had noticed how unwell I was or that I was literally fading away before everyone’s eyes. But they had noticed, they just didn’t know how to broach the subject. My friends became very worried about me and went to the Faculty academic head to relay their concerns. I had an excellent GP that I had no trouble talking to but I was unable to admit to him that I was mentally ill. He knew me as Mel the med student, the future doctor. I had my own stigma to deal with and that was a barrier to me seeking help. My best friend ended up sending me a letter in the mail- she expressed her concern and reminded me that her and my other close friends were there for me. To this day I credit her writing that letter with me starting on the path to recovery.
I went to a Uni GP and through sobs and tears blurted out “I think I have an Eating Disorder”. Many GPs including the one I saw, don’t know where to refer people with an Eating Disorder or even the appropriate baseline medical management. He wasn’t aware of the specific specialist services available in Melbourne and didn’t order any blood tests, take my vital signs or weigh me. He referred me to a psychiatrist and from there I was referred to a dietician who specialised in Eating Disorders. In the months since I had first realized I had a problem and wanted help my illness had deteriorated, yet I was quite literally running around medically compromised, still attending Uni.
Ultimately, my dietician was very competent, literally a life saver and treated me throughout my entire recovery. Via a referral from my normal GP; the one I was so terrified of initially presenting to, I found a brilliant psychologist who had done a PHD in eating disorders and the majority of my psychological therapy throughout the years thereafter was through her. However, due to the lack of progress from a nutritional and weight restoration perspective, and despite a great deal of insight into my illness, I was too physically unwell to be able to take the necessary steps to modify my behaviour and challenge the inner dialogue of the Anorexia until I had restored enough physical health such that my brain was able to think more rationally. It was days out from the commencement of the new Uni year that I made the devastating decision to defer University for 3rd year, a decision which at the time was one of the hardest I had made to that point in my life. Looking back I know it was unequivocally the right decision. Being a medical student I knew I was extremely medically compromised with a heart rate of 28 yet I was unable to do the very thing which would reverse that- EAT!
A further nine months elapsed with little progress and finally I was referred me to a Clinic in Melbourne that specialized in Eating Disorder treatment. After 3 months on the waiting list I spent 13 long weeks there and began the process of restoring both my physical and mental health. I left weight restored, happy, healthy and for the first time in over 2 years, hopeful that I could beat the illness that had taken so much from me and threatened one of the things I was most passionate about; Medicine.