A student doctor whose studies were waylaid by a severe eating disorder is making her recovery story public. She has also returned to medical school to qualify as a doctor in the hopes of helping others.
Sarah believes that certain features of her childhood predisposed her to an eating disorder. As an immigrant, she always felt like an outcast, describing the experience of trying to assimilate with Australian culture as if “wearing a mask” and “pretending” to be something she wasn’t just to fit in.
At 13, Sarah built a collection of high-end fashion photos on her Tumblr account, deciding that she wanted to become a model herself. To achieve her dream, she found her inspiration in skinny high-end models and made her mind to lose some pounds.
The best way to lose weight, she reasoned, was to stop eating.
Sarah convinced her parents to sign her up to a modeling agency. She wasn’t booked straight away, and the rejection propelled her weight loss efforts. Eventually, Sarah found herself obsessed with the idea of achieving “perfection" in every other aspect of her life, including her fitness lifestyle.
She thought that “being fit, healthy and an overachiever” defined who she was and that she would be “less worthy of a person and less liked by others” if she didn’t keep these things up.
The teen also forced herself to run “insane distances,” even when her body was breaking down, and even until her feet bled.
“I couldn’t let myself take a day off,” she said.
Sarah reduced her calorie intake to “a ridiculously low number” just because it filled her with a “sense of “accomplishment,” she said. Her typical breakfast during this time was a fat-free, sugar-free yogurt; lunch was a protein bar and a Diet Coke; and dinner comprised lettuce, zucchini, or broccoli and a low-calorie dressing.
Wishing to eat more but still “look good,” Sarah became interested in weightlifting, but now knows that her punishing regime was a coping mechanism for her anxiety due to the “overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame” if she didn’t hit her so-called fitness goal for the day.
By 2018, Sarah’s exercise regime and self-imposed limit of 400 calories per day were taking a dangerous toll. Then 20, she was experiencing fatigue, trouble sleeping, pressure pain when sitting or lying down, and a diminished social life.
Sarah weighed just 30 kilograms (approx. 66 pounds) with a BMI of 10—a healthy BMI for a young woman is between 18 and 25. Her doctor sent her directly to the emergency room. After seeing both medics and psychiatrists, it dawned on Sarah that her eating disorder—anorexia nervosa “restrictive” subtype—was real.
Sarah was closely monitored, even being accompanied to the bathroom, but credits the nurses for making her hospital stay bearable.
“They knew that I was coming from a place of hurt and a place of fear,” she said. “That is something that I hope to take with me into the future as a doctor: to treat the patient, not the disease.”
Sarah was discharged with an eating plan and joined a community rehab program, allowing her to manage her recovery with the support of her parents and a psychotherapist. She admitted that regaining weight was difficult, but credits her medical knowledge for being able to accept her body’s healing process.
Sarah credits her mentor in particular, Dr. Richard J. Brown, for reminding her exactly why she wanted to become a doctor. Now 22, Sarah is back at university and has returned to what she describes as a “normal weight.”