Taking the Anorexia Battle to the Defence Force

Taking the Anorexia Battle to the Defence Force

Stephanie has conquered Anorexia but that's not good enough for the Defence Force.

Overcoming Anorexia Nervosa is a battle. This mighty big, life or death battle requires much courage, resourcefulness and determination. During the ANZAED Conference in Sydney, 2011, I met a remarkable young woman who has conquered her eating disorder with flying colours. She is blossoming with life as she sets about fulfilling her life dreams. But her history of Anorexia has thrown up an obstacle – not within herself, but within bureaucracy. This is a story about a young woman who has won one battle only to find another. And she won’t give up:

My name is Stephanie and if you happened to bump into me on the streets of Sydney today you’d see me as I am; a typical 22 year old university student who loves life and has the world at her feet (… and a particularly awesome pair of red Doc Marten’s ON her feet). I’m ambitious and determined; hard working but happy to have fun and enjoy the lighter moments of life.
Roll back almost five years and you wouldn’t recognise me, in fact you wouldn’t believe I was the same person. Barely 18 years old, I was lying in a hospital bed in Sweden; I had wasted away to an emaciated, emotionless shell.
My five year battle with Anorexia Nervosa began after many years of illness with various viruses and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I had started a diet which triggered a predisposition I had no knowledge of; I lost my grip on reality and plummeted down a terrifying, seemingly endless, rabbit hole.
Whilst I was ill, my malnourished brain tormented me; it convinced me that I wasn’t ill and did not deserve to live. I was very resistant to treatment and insisted I was ‘different’ from others; I begged people to understand that I was ‘worthless’ and should be allowed to die.
After three years spent mainly in hospital, and with no noticeable improvement, my parents made the decision to send me to the Mandometer clinic in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. After years of tube feeding, and existing on liquids, I slowly began to learn how to eat again. It was an excruciatingly painful process; one that took everything I had and more. My fears were intense to the point where I couldn’t be near food, sit at a table or touch cutlery without screaming, scratching myself and bashing my head on any available surface.
Amazingly I progressed remarkably well, given the severity of my illness, and, when out of the initial critical stage, began to challenge the many rules dictating my day. I found in myself the courage and determination to fight, and fight hard (… I’ve never been one for doing things by halves anyway).
After four months in Sweden, and a further three months in San Diego, I returned to my family and friends in Australia. For the first time I was excited about my future and ready to step into the world – one from which I had been absent for too long.
The next few years were a great learning curve; I gained employment, began volunteer work and started studying for a nursing degree (despite missing my final high school exams). I socialised, made friends and discovered more about myself as a person. I continued to challenge myself and the last of my eating behaviours melted away.
My life went from great to amazing when, after getting decent scores in nursing, I was offered a place at university to study medicine in Sydney. Working as a doctor has been a lifelong dream; to this day I pinch myself to check this is real!
I am in my second year of studies and have happily settled into life as a ‘Sydneysider’. Both the studies and the extra-curricular activities keep me happy and busy. I’ve made great friends and have found myself as a person; I am at peace with who I am and where I’ve been. Being where I am today is nothing short of miraculous and it’s the best thank you I can give to the people who have helped me along my path.
The experience of suffering from and overcoming anorexia has given me the mental strength and fortitude to succeed at my goals. However, some pockets of society hold major assumptions about the illness which are hampering the efforts of myself, and others in similar positions, from becoming everything we can be.

A dream
You see, I have one other big dream I wish to fulfil, but people high up in the chain of command are delivering decisions on my future without meeting me in person. My goal is to work with the Australian Defence Force (ADF), specifically the Air Force, as a Medical Officer. If accepted I would train to be a general practitioner as well as receiving instruction in military procedures, aeromedical evacuation etc. Most of my time would be spent on base, participating in practice exercises and occasionally helping in humanitarian situations.
I decided to initially join the Reserves to get a taste for military life and started the application process in April 2010. I scored very highly in the aptitude test and things were looking promising. However, after handing in my completed medical questionnaire, I was told I was ineligible to ever join the ADF, in any capacity, due only to my history of anorexia nervosa. It wasn’t a case of ‘complete a psych test’ or ‘wait a few years and come back’, decisions I would have accepted, but instead a firm and unwavering ‘no’.
Now before I continue I would like to make clear a few things; I am not applying to work in the SAS or the SEALs. I am not required to undergo long periods marching through the bush with little food or sleep, nor am I required to carry my body weight on my back. In fact the initial military training required for a doctor is as little as four weeks, comprising a basic ‘knife and fork’ course teaching you how to salute and shoot straight.
Nevertheless the ADF reasoned that, having already suffered from a ‘mental health condition’, it was likely to reoccur. I asked for them to cite the journal articles on which they based these beliefs but this information has not been forthcoming. They insisted that those who have suffered from anorexia nervosa have other mental health conditions and lasting medical complications. I suggested they read the latest information regarding eating disorders (i.e. almost all psychological and physical symptoms are due to malnutrition and correct themselves with weight restoration and maintenance1). They insisted that I wouldn’t be able to cope in a ‘high stress’ environment away from family and friends. I reminded them that I am thriving in my life, yet live 4000kms from my ‘family and friends’ and am pursuing a career that has me digesting textbooks.
I understand there is always a risk of relapse, but is that risk large enough to warrant exclusion from the ADF as a whole? I think not. Many things in life can go differently from planned (I don’t like using the word ‘wrong’). Every current member of the ADF is at risk of developing a variety of severe, possibly terminal, illnesses, yet they aren’t being booted out. Just by being male the current CDF (Chief of the Defence Force) statistically has a greater chance of getting cancer than I do of relapsing into anorexia nervosa2,3 … so shall we, by such reasoning, kick all men out of the ADF?
The ADF has refused to seriously consider my appeals over the past two years. I’ve been fobbed off with the same old statistics, source unknown. I wonder what it takes to achieve an update of misinformed policies.
I know that things change over time, that I might want to pursue another medical path down the track and not join the ADF in a full time capacity. I also know that being allowed to apply to the ADF doesn’t necessarily mean being accepted; but if I get knocked back after an interview at least I’ll know that I’ve had a fair go (isn’t that what Australia is about?).
During the past two years I’ve met many clinicians, researchers and activists who back my quest 100 per cent. Details of the ‘experts’ quoted by the ADF when refusing to consider my application remain unknown.
Today, options to gain a review of the ADF decision are all but exhausted. I even went right to the top, sending a nice letter to our Prime Minister Julia Gillard who assured me that she would have the Department of Defence investigate. That was in October 2011. I haven’t heard a word since.
All I ask for is a chance to be judged by my strengths and not by what has been and gone. At a time when the ADF is talking about about a shortage of Medical Officers they are actively refusing someone who would be an asset to their organisation.


1= Dr Timothy Walsh, “Anorexia Nervosa: A persistent enigma”, UF Grand Rounds, 2012.

2= Cancer in New South Wales: Incidence and Mortality 2008

3= Mandometer, 2006

Comments are invited on this important issue – what is your view?
Do you know of similar experiences, or of an instance where an eating disorder has not meant immediate rejection to an application to serve in your country’s defence force? What happens if an eating disorder develops while in the defence force?
To contact Stephanie, write to june@junealexander.com

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