My name is Sarah Rav and I am a 20-year-old medical student with a story to share. During the past couple of years, I developed a serious eating disorder which resulted in me almost losing my life.
Trigger warning: The following story goes in-depth about a woman’s battle with eating disorder.
I first realised I had an eating disorder when I was diagnosed with “anorexia nervosa – restrictive subtype” in hospital. Before the diagnosis, I remained adamant that I DID NOT have an eating disorder because my goal was “never to lose weight” but instead to be “healthy”. Nevertheless, this attitude resulted in me restricting my food intake way too much, having intense emotions of guilt and fear about food, over-exercising and developing an attitude towards food that was harmful.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what triggered my disease.
In part, I believe my passion and vast knowledge of health and fitness contributed to the restrictive attitude, but most of the problems probably arose from my perfectionist tendencies. I always go “all out” and commit 100% to anything I do. I won’t stop until I’m the absolute best, until I’ve achieved the highest rank or until I’ve completed my task.
Hence, the main driver of my anorexia was thoughts like “I managed to skip breakfast and lunch yesterday to study instead, so why can’t I skip those meals today to spend more time working instead?” or “I exercised for three hours last week. Why not add another three-and-a-half-hours today?”
Subsequently, if I couldn’t achieve the new goal that I’d set, I’d be filled with immense guilt and worthlessness. I’d hate myself and thought I was “weak”. So, of course, to avoid those feelings, I kept pushing my body to the limit.
As you can imagine, my eating disorder worked its way into every aspect of my life. I would wake up feeling utterly exhausted and dreading the day ahead of me.
Whilst I was suffering from my eating disorder, I became a recluse. I was terrified of going out, especially if it involved food. I would decline any offer to catch up over lunch or dinner because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to count exactly how many calories were in my dish, nor would I be able to hide how little I was eating. I also avoided many events because I wanted to spend that time exercising instead. Eventually, I hardly left the house because I just didn’t have enough energy to get out of bed. I was also always moody and irritable, so I was not a pleasure to be around.
My family and friends never really knew I had an issue until I had lost so much weight that there was no denying I was sick.
Many friends and colleagues expressed their concerns to the dean of the hospital I was studying at and because of this, he decided to take me aside and told me to “take time off” from university. This meant that I couldn’t return until I had Medical Clearance from a Doctor & Psychologist. At the time, I was so confused because I didn’t even realise that there was anything wrong. I felt completely fine!
But upon meeting my GP the next Monday, I realised that I was definitely not OK. She was shocked to see me looking the way I did. When she weighed me (I was 30kg at the time), she sent me straight to the Emergency Department because she was so scared for my life. It was after spending a few days as an in-patient that I was diagnosed with an eating disorder.
At first, I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was terrified that they would judge me.
I have always been seen as the “strong, determined, over-achiever that does everything right”. By admitting that I had an eating disorder, I was worried that they would think less of me or worse, BLAME ME for being “too weak” to fight it. Of course, once I did open up about it, the response was overwhelming. No one blamed me at all. No one thought any less of me. All everyone wanted was for me to get better and they were all willing to do whatever it took for that to happen.
Once I was diagnosed with the condition, I knew I needed to seek help. I knew that overcoming such a terrible disease would be the hardest thing I would ever have to do and that there was no way I could do it alone. I enlisted the help of a psychologist, a dietician and my local GP. Additionally, I had the full support of all my friends and family.
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It took me about three months to regain the weight that I lost and to be considered of a “healthy size”.
Over this time, I gained over 20kg, and went from a BMI of 10 to a BMI of 19.
It took twice as long to fix my relationship with food and exercise, and my “disordered” mindset.
Although having the support of my treatment team helped tonnes, it was very much a mental battle that I had to face myself. I truly believe that it was 100% up to me to WANT to get better and to WORK to fix the disorder, damaging attitude I had. I had to force myself to try foods that would have completely scared me in the past—“unhealthy things” like pancakes, burgers & pizzas—because no one else was going to do it for me.
Each time, I’d be shaking with the fear that that I was suddenly going to become fat and undesirable as soon as I ate it. But my willpower and desire to get better was stronger than my fears and after multiple “food challenges”, I realised that these foods were not the enemy—that they would not make me any less of a good person or any less desirable.
I also stopped all forms of exercise for about two months.
At first, I thought that missing a day at the gym would make me weak, unfit and overweight. Instead, I found that allowing my body to rest and regenerate actually made me feel STRONGER than ever and full of energy. For once in my life, I wasn’t terribly sore each morning. For once, my joints and my muscles weren’t at almost breaking point. After I had reached a healthy weight, I began lifting weights to rebuild all the muscle that I lost. I made sure that whenever I exercise, it is NEVER with the intention to “burn calories”.
Comparing my mindset to what it used to be, I can truly say that I’ve made incredible progress. I now see food as one of life’s many pleasures. I only exercise when I want to and because I enjoy it. I never force myself to do anything that I don’t want to, just because I think it’s “healthy” or “good for me”.
Nevertheless, to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think I’ve fully overcome my eating disorder.
I’ve talked to many other sufferers and unfortunately, I don’t think it ever truly goes away. It’s such a terrible illness that it can resurface at any time. However, after this journey, I now have methods in place and supports to reach out to if I ever feel it creeping up on me again. I know what the warning signs are, and I know what I need to do to ensure that it never puts my life at risk again.
I believe that Instagram played a critical role in my recovery.
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At first, I was terrified of admitting that I had an eating disorder, because, just like with my friends and family, I was worried that my followers would think I was “weak” and that “it was my fault” for being sick.
Conversely, when I did reveal my diagnosis to my followers, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Not a single person blamed me for developing the disease. Instead, they all just wanted me to get better and wanted me to know that they were here to support me.
And their support is probably what saved me.
As I started gaining weight and my clothes became too tight, I had so many negative thoughts about the way I looked.
But it would take just a second for me to find a comment like “You look so much healthier” or “You are glowing, Sarah!” and all these encouraged me to push past those depressing thoughts. My followers were a constant reminder that I was perfect the way I was and that I was fighting for something much more important than looks—I was fighting for health and happiness.
Luckily, I have always excelled in my studies, so there was no major drop in my grades. However, it was excruciating for me to be in hospital (as a medical student, we spend most of our times in hospital with doctors to learn and gain experience). Most days involved walking around the wards for two to three hours each morning to check in on patients. There were many times where I was so weak, I thought I was going to faint during these ward rounds. During my lowest points, I wouldn’t even be able to keep up with the rest of my team, so I stopped going altogether, pretending that I had other appointments.
My eating disorder was so impactful that I was forced to take the year off from university.
At the time, I thought this was the end of the world. I was so ashamed at the thought of having to repeat a year. Now I realise that it was, in fact, a blessing. Whilst I know that I could have completed the year successfully, having the time off has allowed me to complete so many other projects and work on numerous other aspects of my life. It gave me the time to rebuild my relationships with my friends and family, it gave me the time to write multiple articles about my journey and it gave me the time to share my full story via Instagram. To me, this is incredibly valuable because the things I have achieved this year, whilst they may not be academic or career-focused successes, have enabled me to touch the lives of others, which is so much more important.
To everyone who is also suffering from an eating disorder, I want you to know that there is hope.
You can recover. It will be one of the hardest, but also one of the most amazing things you can do. You will need to fight each day for recovery. You will need to fight against your own mind and everything you have ever known. But once you break free from it, you will experience a freedom like nothing else.
You will finally know what it feels like to be able to ENJOY food, to ENJOY each day, to APPRECIATE your body, to be FULL OF ENERGY and to THRIVE. The first step on your path to true happiness, however, is that you need to decide you WANT to get better and to seek help. No one will think any less of you and there is nothing to be ashamed of.
I wish you all the best on your journey and I am rooting for you every step of the way.
Follow Sarah on Instagram at @sarahrav.
Text and images: Sarah Rav