Over the last few years, I lost my identity, friends, family, perspective and life. However, I know that these years have changed me as a person, and will have shaped whom I will become in the future. I am not ashamed of what I have been through, and I’m proud of my journey so far, and the strength I found in asking for help. Despite this, I’m aware of, and fear, judgment and stigma from those who won’t attempt to understand.
Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, and throughout my years as a medical student, I developed Anorexia Nervosa. It’s difficult to tell people about because many assume it was a lifestyle choice. A diet gone wrong or a fear of food. It is not. I always knew it was much more than that, and during the process of recovery I have become aware of how much my eating disorder stemmed from anxiety, a need for control, a fear of emotions and a fear of the unknown. My self-worth was non-existent, and I saw no hope outside of the Anorexia tunnel.
My eating disorder disguised itself as a form of ‘protection’. It was, and is, a coping strategy to avoid real emotions. My hunger seemed to give me power and energy to deal with study and relationships.
With time, it became isolating.
I made excuses and focused on study as a Medical student. Initially, I would spend hours in the library, and spend my breaks counting calories and thinking about my next meal. Soon enough, study became challenging because the other thoughts in my head left no room for it. I became fixated on exercise, how much to eat, what to eat, when to eat. My perception of my body was skewed, and its relevance to achievement in life was thrown out of proportion.
My eating disorder took priority. The only way I had a sense of satisfaction was seeing that I had lost weight. Whether it was three kilos or 100grams, there was a moment of elation. However, this was only fleeting, and my eating disorder would never let it linger for more than a second. As soon as I reached one goal, my mind would reset and focus on a new number. ‘My life will be better when I reach this weight’…the biggest lie and hope I lived by. As soon as I reached whatever value, my mind lowered it again and told me that there was still more to be done.
I didn’t choose to have an Eating Disorder. For years I didn’t believe I had a problem. However, after months of spiralling downwards and visits to various clinicians eventually I saw a psychiatrist. Armed with blood tests and a DEXA scan, she told me that I was very unwell, and repeatedly told me that I had a serious illness and that it was taking control of my life.
I had unfair expectations of others around me; I had hoped that they would notice what was going on in my head because it wasn’t initially shown in my physical appearance. For me, I ended up losing so much weight that I struggled to make it through the day, I felt cold constantly, I was irritable. I started losing my hair, had a low white cell count, and an abnormal ECG.
At my lowest and weakest, I weighed less than I did in primary school. As a 24 year old woman, this scares me and I now find it unbelievable but at times I still feel like I am in a child’s body.
A difficulty faced by those suffering from any mental illness is that an observer can’t necessarily visualize their distress and sadness. I wished that I had a ‘real’ illness, like the illnesses I saw day to day on the wards because I would be free to show people what I was dealing with. However, an Eating Disorder is predominantly an internal battle. Ultimately, I became depressed and lost interest in life and myself. I felt guilty, and ashamed of what I was going through, and just wished I could snap out of it.
The turning point for me was during a time where I had been forced to become independent. This time of life which was supposed to be liberating, actually worsened my behaviour and forced me to seek active help because I didn’t think I would come out of it on my own.
Now, I feel like I have arrived on the other side of recovery. The progress in recovery is slow and challenging and inconceivable to many living with an Eating Disorder. At times, it leaves you vulnerable and scared. I realized that I held the core belief that I was not ‘good enough’. Despite believing so strongly in this idea, there was no evidence that I hadn’t lived my life to the fullest and that I wasn’t excelling at school or in relationships. I had an H1-average and a supportive family, but this nagging feeling of failure and fear of disappointment remained strong and acted as a driving factor for my starvation.
I am trying to alter my core belief, and live by new values. This is what we are taught as part of recovery. Despite the old thoughts still penetrating through in times of anxiety and fatigue, self-compassion, acceptance, and emotional awareness are what I try to focus on now.
I can only try and see the benefit of my experience over the past few years. I feel that my journey has given me a greater sense of empathy to those with mental illness, those feeling hopeless, vulnerable, and alone. I now have the chance to make something of my life, and to discover who I really am after spending so many years focused on my Eating Disorder.
Although this is just my story, I feel like it can act as a reminder that as medical students we are not immune to these illnesses. My rational mind had told me that I had a problem, I knew food was nurturing, I knew it was fuel for my brain, so why didn’t I eat? I had an abundance of insight into my condition, but couldn’t act on it and I was able to live two different lives too easily. I was able to dissociate from my sick mind and still be a high-achieving student – I could complete an OSCE station on Eating Disorders, ask all the right questions, and only realize afterwards that it was like I had interviewed myself.
I want to see this as a phase in my life – years which will not be returned to me, and countless travels, romances and excitement that I missed out on. However, I now feel stronger, resilient and empowered. I am thankful for my friends and family, who have been here to greet me on the other side of recovery – and to offer support on those days where I might drift backwards.
I speak of this now because an eating disorder lives off secrecy and I can see that. I see this as a step forward once more in my recovery, and as a chance to educate those who have not been touched by mental illness. Unfortunately, I have encountered both at university and in family many that judge or laugh at my illness. I have never been strong enough to stand up for myself before and say that those suffering from mental illness are in need of your non-judgmental ears, and an accepting smile. For an eating disorder, the food and weight restoration seems to be the easy part to come back from – it is the entrenched core beliefs and fears that keep it alive. Instead of anxiety and fear, I now try to replace these thoughts with those of excitement and adventure.
I’m getting there, and every time I think back to those days where I refused to eat or leave the house, I take a few deep breaths. Despite feeling out of control in recovery, I can now see that my eating disorder was becoming louder in this stage because it knew that I was getting closer to a life without it. Every day I remind myself that living with an Eating disorder was not living at all.
Life is about love, excitement, hope, and change. I am so grateful that I am now in a position to help others, as well as myself. I am really looking forward to the year ahead, and for once I really do mean it.