Aged 14 years old, Gemma Walker weighed just 63 pounds. So when the Australian teenager was admitted to hospital, doctors told her she would be dead within two days without immediate treatment. But seven years later, she had done more than prove them wrong.
When Walker, from the Gold Coast suburb of Varsity Lakes in Australia, was admitted to hospital and given that dreadful prognosis, it seemed that anorexia nervosa and bulimia had gotten the better of her. However, the news would set her on a painful journey of eating disorders, self-loathing and, ultimately, recovery.
On the surface, though, Walker seemed to have it all back in 2008. She was beautiful, had parents who loved her, was doing well at school and was even an elite member of the running and swimming squads. But underneath it all lay a much darker reality.
“I was never happy with my body in comparison to the other girls I trained with,” Walker wrote on her blog in 2014. “Along with being bullied at school, having a mentally sick sister and a pushy dad quite possibly are the reasons why I decided to start dieting.” It was the dieting, however, she would take too far.
At first, Walker cut out junk food. After receiving compliments on how good she looked as the weight dropped off, though, she felt she had found something she was really good at. And as she set new weight-loss targets, her food intake reduced to almost nothing.
Eventually, Walker’s weight plateaued. So in order to hit her new “weight goals” she started vomiting up the small amount of food she was eating. Two months later, her dad intervened. In fact, he took her to hospital, terrified she was about to die. And he was right.
“I was admitted into intensive care because my body had started to shut down,” Walker wrote on her blog. “I was given less than 48 hours to live if I refused treatment. My body was crying out for help. I spent three weeks on heart monitors and being tube fed 24/7.”
Walker was ordered to gain a pound a week or face further hospitalization. However, this triggered almost 12 months of deceptive behavior. Each week, she would load her body with accessories and gym weights as her weight gain was monitored. Eventually, she’d pack around 19 pounds onto her 80-pound frame.
Walker’s care nurses were understandably shocked when they discovered her trick. At the time, Walker considered herself lucky when she avoided a second admission to hospital due to a lack of available beds. However, her second stay in hospital would be for psychiatric help.
At the Brisbane psychiatric hospital, though, Walker’s deceitful habits got worse. For example, she would fill her feeding tube with water to avoid enforced weight gains. Doctors told Walker that she was among the most intelligent anorexics they’d ever seen – something she took as a compliment rather than a warning.
Aged 17 and on the morning after the school prom that she had organized, Walker was forced into a car and driven back to Brisbane. However, the desperate situation spiraled further. Again discharged early because of her lies and deceit, Walker had also begun self-harming.
For all of the health professionals she had seen – including among the best eating-disorder specialists in her home state – nothing seemed to get through to Walker. For a further two years, she lost even more weight, until eventually she weighed a staggering 64 pounds.
Having gotten a job as a receptionist at a medical center, Walker was surrounded at work by doctors who were concerned about her wellbeing. Then, in 2012, a dream vacation to Thailand – intended to be a new chapter in her life – turned into a nightmare as she refused any food and drink at all. But then she made a friend who would change everything.
At the medical center where she worked, Walker befriended a doctor who she felt treated her like a normal human being rather than a patient or someone who was dying. It was the first time in years that had happened, said Walker. In fact, the impact he would have on Walker’s life completely changed her attitude to food.
Walker knew her fear of food needed to change, and so she began with foods she had loved as a kid. Getting reacquainted with food after essentially starving herself for four years, Walker finally began to enjoy them again. Eventually, she would even go back for seconds. And then for more.
“After a few weeks I was bingeing almost every day,” Walker wrote on her blog. “I was hallucinating, passing out, unable to put together logical sentences at times doing such extreme things, I did not know who I was.” Walker had lurched too far in the opposite direction.
In fact, she would devour vast amounts of food in one sitting. Once, she admitted, she consumed around 6,500 calories in a single 20-minute binge, only to throw up for hours afterwards. The weight piled on – in fact it more-than doubled in six months – and this only fueled her self-loathing.
As Walker grew more ashamed of her behavior, it’s as if a lightbulb switched on above her head. It wasn’t her relationship with food that was the problem. It was, indeed, her relationship with herself. Finally seeing this problem for what it was, she vowed to change her life for the better.
In June 2013, Walker set off on a journey of recovery. It’s one that led to a happy and confident young woman who now runs her own business. She was quoted by the British newspaper Mirror in January 2016 as saying, “It’s hard for me to look back at the photos, not so much how I physically looked but more so the feelings.”
However, Walker said, “I am the happiest I’ve ever been now, it’s such an amazing, surreal feeling.” Giving praise to her parents and partner for supporting her through the traumatic years, she concluded, “I believe I have fully recovered and that my anorexia is a huge chapter that has closed.”