In the third year of my studies, mental illness unwittingly crept up into my life. After studying abroad for a semester I came back home to Australia much richer in terms of experience, but significantly lighter in terms of weight. Without realising it, or expecting it, I had developed an eating disorder – Anorexia Nervosa. Unintentionally, it never occurred to me that things like this could happen to people like me – my views of eating disorders were based upon stigma and stereotypes, and this is something that needs to be changed in all facets of mental health. I am sharing my story because I want to reduce this stigma, and also raise awareness about eating disorders and the impact that it could have in one’s life.
Perfectionism, I learnt, is a trait that many eating disorder sufferers identify with and is certainly a characteristic that I would previously used to describe myself. Through this experience, I met many others who were also facing the same internal battle on a daily basis. Interestingly, whilst most appeared to be driven and have it ‘all together’, for many, this was far from reality. I consider myself a fairly rational person, yet my decisions with regard to food were anything but. I began imposing harsh restrictions on my diet and turned down social events as a result. I became a much more irritable and angry person. My relationship with my father really struggled at this time.
I felt like no one really understood what I was going through, and I didn’t really understand it myself. If you notice any behaviour changes in a friend, I encourage you to kindly ask if they are OK. Eating disorders can occur at any size or shape. Although I looked unwell during the peak of my illness, it wasn’t until I came home and saw my parents that anyone really asked me. Later, I learnt that many of my friends were very worried, but were afraid to say anything.
During my recovery, I saw GPs, psychologists and dieticians. It wasn’t until I reached out to others with a similar diagnosis that I started to actually seriously consider making a change. A main motivator of mine was realising that as a future health professional and advocate for health and well-being, I need to be healthy and also set an example for others. Over a year, I slowly restored back to a healthy weight, however, I still don’t believe I am truly fully recovered. Whilst I may ‘look healthy’, that impulse to think about my next meal, its nutritional value, when I am going to eat and how is still there. I don’t know if that will ever completely disappear, but I have learnt to ignore those thoughts and not act on them anymore. My experience made me re-evaluate what I consider strength – not controlling all aspects of my life, but actually “letting go”. I hope encouraging open discussion about this topic helps others realise these things to.