Emma's Story

Why taking time off from my dream course was the best thing I did


I had just completed my first year of my post-grad clinical psychology degree when I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa for the second time in my life. By the time I got the diagnosis I just wasn’t coping, so I had to make a hard decision that many people with eating disorders grapple with – I made the devastating decision to take intermission from my dream course and press pause on my life. It felt like I lost a piece of my identity, it went against everything I had worked towards and dreamed of, my nature, my drive for achievement and perfection, to not feel inferior, and the whole ‘not sick enough’ narrative that I told myself. It meant I would be behind my beautiful cohort.

Taking intermission was my first act in surrendering control and accepting how things were, huge lessons that I learned over and over again in my recovery. Surrendering and accepting is really hard, and it took time to get to this point after every barrier or set-back. I eventually learned to surrender control of my body to the professionals, to accept the body changes that came along with this, to accept that I wasn’t recovered yet after many months of hard work, or that it was still so hard to regulate my emotions, or that the anxiety was still there. Accepting doesn’t mean ‘liking’ it, acceptance means understanding that what you feel, and where you are, always makes sense given everything you have experienced up until now, and that it’s okay. Acceptance means learning to be kind to yourself as you navigate this struggle and it is a whole lot more effective in recovery than struggling against reality and criticising yourself for it.

I later realised that taking intermission and pausing from life was one of the best things I could have done for my recovery. Taking time off allowed me to learn that it’s okay to take time for myself and slow down, and that this does not diminish my worth. It proved my unhelpful beliefs about perfection and achievement were wrong. I built up hobbies, things I liked to do, reconnected with my art – I became me again. I hope this gives some hope for others that are deciding whether to take a break from study/work, that while life may seem stagnant, you are growing and learning to be authentically YOU, how amazing is that.

Going back into the course, I could see that others around me were still in the toxic mindset where burnout was a badge of honour because how hard you were working = how worthy you are. And so I’m grateful to have been taught this lesson early in life, that being kind to your soul and body is number one priority. Going back into life was scary but exciting. The shame of having an eating disorder, especially in the health professions is real. It took me a while to overcome this, but I am confident in my worth as a person and that the eating disorder is only one small part of me, and there is so much more to me that I can offer the world. I used to be really self-conscious about my face until it was pointed out to me that for my future clients, my face portrays compassion, trust, a safe space. That they won’t be concerned about how big or small my face looks, but instead my smile conveying compassion, my eyes that mirror their sadness and make them feel seen, and my ears that listen with non-judgement. My face, and me as a whole, will be an inherent tool of therapy and I now respect it no matter how it looks