Tara’s story

Tara Swanston

Tara, 20, Medical science student who was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at 13 years of age, CANBERRA

Full-time medical science student, Tara, 20, Canberra, began displaying signs of disordered eating at the age of 12. Throughout the ensuing year, she shed substantial weight.

 Due to the gradual onset of Tara’s eating disorder, it wasn’t until her mother returned home from a trip one day that she noticed just how much weight her daughter had lost. Feeling concerned, Tara’s mother immediately took her to their local GP, but was disappointed with the GP’s initial dismissive advice, so sought a second opinion from a psychologist.

 In 2013, Tara was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa by her psychologist. She spent the following year undergoing treatment with a multidisciplinary team, which included family-based therapy.

 Today she is no longer receiving treatment, and is excited to be participating in the Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI) – the world’s largest genetic investigation of eating disorders ever performed.

 Given she was neither bullied by her peers, nor pressured to lose weight, and is unable to pinpoint an event or moment in time that triggered her eating disorder, Tara suspects there is a strong genetic component to her illness.

 This is Tara’s story.

 At only 12 years of age, Tara began to exercise excessively and exhibit signs of disordered eating, consuming only vegetables, skipping meals where she could, eating extremely slowly and with a small spoon, all in a bid to limit her food intake.

A year later, in 2013, Tara was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. By then, she was severely underweight and experiencing pain in her stomach.

“My eating disorder left me constantly cold and physically exhausted. Mentally, anorexia nervosa consumed my thoughts. I couldn’t stop thinking about calories and when I’d next have the chance to exercise.

“It became so obsessive for me that it left me little time to think about anything else, including my friends and family,” said Tara.

After her diagnosis, and armed with support from her mum, Tara immediately commenced family-based therapy under the guidance of her psychologist. At first she saw her psychologist once every few days. However, as her treatment progressed, and her condition improved, these visits were reduced to weekly, and then fortnightly over the ensuing year.

Throughout this time, Tara also received GP and dietitian care.

“When I was diagnosed [with anorexia nervosa], I had to take a few weeks off school as I was placed on a strict eating schedule. Missing school was difficult academically, but also socially, and left me feeling isolated from my friends.

“My mum took time off work to prepare my food and supervise me and my eating 24/7 during the initial few months of my recovery,” Tara said.

Today Tara is no longer receiving treatment and is now in the final year of her medical science degree. She hopes to continue on with medical research or study medicine to become a doctor.

Tara believes genetics are likely a significant contributor to her illness.

“I believe it’s likely there’s a strong genetic component that increases a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. I’d never experienced bullying about my weight, or pressure to lose weight from anyone, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led to its onset, save for general social factors. Which is why I feel it’s so likely there’s a genetic aspect,” said Tara.

Tara has chosen to participate in the Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI) – the world’s largest genetic investigation of eating disorders ever performed. The study is aiming to identify the hundreds of genes that influence a person’s risk of developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, to improve treatment, and ultimately, save lives. She is hoping her contribution will help others living with, or predisposed to developing eating disorders.

 She considers EDGI an opportunity to help curb the stigma associated with eating disorders.

“There’s still a huge stigma surrounding eating disorders, as with other mental illnesses. If enough people participate, hopefully this research will enable the development of new, and more effective, personalised treatments,” Tara said.

Importantly, Tara urges anyone with symptoms of an eating disorder to seek professional help as soon as possible, knowing first-hand the support required to begin the journey to recovery.

Should you suspect that you, or a loved one, may be living with an eating disorder, speak to your local healthcare professional without delay, or head to www.insideoutinstitute.org.au to complete their screener and assessment, and to access more information and professional support.

Australian professional patient support services offering 24/7 helpline services include:

  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • LifeLine: 13 11 14
  • Men’s Line Australia: 1300 78 99 78
  • Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800. 

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