When I Was In Prison

A personal memoir about choice, fear & love.
Ten years ago, I made a decision that would change the rest of my life: I decided to live. That choice didn't come easy. I had to descend to the deepest, darkest place I've ever been in order to see light.

When I was 21, I checked myself into an inpatient treatment program for an eating disorder that had controlled my life for the previous seven years. I will point out that checking yourself in to a hospital for any mental illness is no small task. Insurance companies want the order from the doctor – not the patient. Yet, I seemed to be the only person who realized that I was on the brink of death (other than, perhaps, my parents and close family who were an infinite well of love, support and patience – and who took me seriously when I said I needed to do this… a love worthy of it’s own memoir.)

I perceived my doctors to be failing me – stringing me along to continue profiting from my disease. The psychologist who nodded off during our sessions; the psychiatrist who could barely hide her disgust of me. I knew this was it. This or nothing. Life or death. My last resort.

Seven years prior, I was an A+ student-athlete who suddenly found myself with a copious amount of time on my hands after a devastating sports injury. Hours previously spent with teammates working toward a common goal turned into sitting at home alone, internalizing my victim-hood, growing hips and boobs and curves, and stewing over what I was missing.

It’s important to note that this sports injury wasn’t the reason I developed an eating disorder. That would be drastically over-simplifying things. Rather, the injury was the catalyst for adopting the thoughts and behaviors that lead to an eating disorder. In fact, it was crippling depression that acted as the umbrella illness for all of my other abnormal behaviors. This was the result of a complicated web of lack: of self-worth, self-love, self-esteem (a topic with so much of it’s own weight, we’ll unpack it another day). For the reasons of this article, understand that I didn’t feel good enough. Overwhelmed with fear of my own potential, I wanted to disappear.

My solution, like so many others, was to try to do just that. My weapon of choice was bulimia. I had dabbled in restrictive eating and extreme exercising early on, but something about the binge and purge routine took firm hold. It was also easier to hide bulimia. At least, that’s what I told myself. Bulimia is how I got good at lying.

So there I was, seven years deep, on the verge of adulthood and scared out of my mind that I would enter into a world a damaged freak-of-nature who had no control over my thoughts, emotions or behaviors – and whose physio-chemical response system could be reduced to that of a laboratory rat. Mostly though, I was scared of myself. Scared of what I might do; scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it – and terrified that I couldn’t visualize myself living past my 20’s.

By the time I arrived at the hospital, I had years of therapy and a long list of prescription cocktails under my belt: anti-depressants, anti-anxieties, anti-psychotics. For me, personally, they were anti-feelers, which made each one harder to swallow. I also had plenty of destructive relationships to boast about: with people, substances, illegal behaviors – each one a novel manifestation of the same unworthiness I felt within.

I was talked-out, pilled-out, peopled-out, drugged-out. I understood intellectually everything about my condition. I had an elevator pitch. I’m sure it sounded either eloquently insightful, or just sad. Because my body and mind were controlled by insane behaviors, simply knowing the information wasn’t useful. I needed to feel. And to do that, I knew I needed to submit myself to a place that would strip away my freedom to perform the behaviors that gripped me so tightly. Forced vulnerability. It was that, or give up and die. So I voluntarily checked myself into what could easily be mistaken as a prison – except the inmates here were being protected from themselves, rather than the the world being protected from the inmates.

The treatment program was made up of a myriad bunch – mostly women, a few men. The majority young, a few middle age. We sat around. A lot. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with a little less crazy. Or, who am I to say – I was the crazy. The facility was newly-built, made to feel like a sterile Hampton Inn. We had a few cushion-y chairs, and a patch of carpet when the chairs got too cushion-y. Our beds were standard hospital beds with remote controls because, hey, why not?

My comrades and I couldn’t ever be alone without supervision. Let me repeat that: patients could never be alone. This was for our own protection, lest we give into the destructive behaviors that put us there, or try to harm ourselves in a more permanent way. Attendants watched us shower and use the toilets, eyes glaring with suspicion at our naked bodies and broken spirits. We were forbidden to wear clothes that could easily hide things: sharp objects, food, feelings.

The one luxury I brought with me was my CD player. I remember having just one CD: Moby’s B-Sides. One night at dinner, I suggested to a nurse that perhaps the group would like to listen to something other than the Yani album that played on repeat all hours of the day. Just a little something to help make the worst part of the day (mealtime) a little more bearable. The group was thoroughly behind this decision. I chose whom to ask carefully and the wish was granted…for about three minutes. The screech of music was audible in it’s sudden non-existence. All eyes turned to me, as the director informed us that we were to listen only to the prescribed music, or nothing at all. Ouch.

Days later, I was lounging on the carpet when another patient began sharing her personal story within our small group. With, what seemed to me at the time the self-awareness of a fruit fly, she remarked, ‘Yeah, this is my ninth time here’.

This memory still makes my blood run cold.

‘My ninth time here.’

I was floored. As in, I felt like I was melting into the floor.

How could she say that?, I thought. Nine times? There is no more after this. THIS IS IT. Doesn’t she understand that? If this doesn’t work, there is only one other alternative, and it’s irreversible. There is no ‘Oh I’ll just check back into this hell hole’. I wanted to shake her. I wanted to slap her. I wanted to take my fist to her face. I had to get out of there.

A few days later, feeling trapped in a place I didn’t belong, I decided to call my ex-boyfriend, with whom I had had a madly-in-love but tortured relationship. I was trying desperately to re-build a house of comfort I had previously burnt to the ground with my penchant for emotional arson. He would have none of it. He shut me down in one swift punch to the gut. And over the phone nonetheless. It was the most life-changing conversation I’d ever had – and it lasted for about 10 seconds. He was the one person I thought I could rely on, other than my parents, to fight for me when I couldn’t (wouldn’t) fight for myself. But this time, he made it clear that he was done fighting.

I hung up the phone. Blackness crept across my field my vision. I lost my hearing. I was, for a moment, stunned. Then, something unexpected happened. Rather than my usual response cycle: hurt, guilt, anger and a heap of tears, I experienced some kind of personal, spiritual intervention. In that moment, in a flash of bright light (I kid you not – my memory of this moment is an overwhelming sense of light), I had an epiphany.

This is my life. This is my life. This is my life.

THIS IS MY LIFE.

I repeated it in my head over and over, as if I was swiftly and powerfully rising from the bottom of the sea, about to burst to the surface and take life-giving breath for the first time. I certainly felt alive for the first time. I remember looking around the room, as if I had stumbled upon the meaning of life itself and thinking, ‘am I the only one who knows this secret?’

Suddenly, like rapid-fire, I had revelation after revelation:

I choose.
I choose to get well.
I choose to live.
I choose to be happy.
My doctors do not choose for me.
My parents do not choose for me.
My friends do not choose for me.

No one has more power over how my life turns out than I do. No one benefits from me getting well more than I do. Why should anyone else care about me getting well, if I don’t care enough for myself?

I choose.

This moment was the first time in seven years that I truly believed I could get better on my own. Finally, I wanted it more than anyone else wanted it for me.

Writing this out, all these years later, seems a bit trite. I can see the headline clearly: ‘Angst-y, Privileged, Self-absorbed, Young Woman Learns of Her Existence and Becomes Enlightened, Privileged, Self-Absorbed Young Woman.”

I get that people may read this and roll their eyes as unwarranted Bon Jovi lyrics enter their heads. I’m fine with that. Because it saved my life.

Every perceived illusion I had told myself prior to that moment: the one about my doctors’ ineffectual treatment of me, my lack of compassion for another patient’s journey, my astonishment that the one person I least expected to give up on me did just that – they were all reflections of me and my fear. No one else.

And what did it take for me to understand this? It took giving up 100% of my liberties and privacy in order to discover what freedom truly meant to me: everything.

But what I’ve come to fully appreciate all these years later, is that the real prison had been inside of me. Walls made of fear, and I was the master brick-layer. A prison where I played all the roles: inmate, guard and parole officer. I firmly believe there are no scarier prisons than the ones we build around ourselves – self-imposed fortresses created to protect us from the outside world when, in reality, they simply keep us from getting out.

It took getting imprisoned in the physical sense for me to realize what I had done to myself in the metaphysical sense.

After I checked out of the program, I felt awake. The shred of hope that had kept me alive for seven years had turned into a tapestry of limitless possibilities. Yet, full-fledged re-entry into the outside world took time. The walls of my prison hadn’t shattered entirely, but they had been severely weakened. Just as it took years to build them, it took years to completely tear them down. But I made peace with this, because now, I knew that I had the time.

It took several more years to totally let go of my bulimic behaviors and tendency for emotional sabotage. But with each healthy, life-affirming choice I made, I let go of a destructive one. In the years since, I’ve created a life full of love, but I’m aware of my capacity to build new walls around myself, if I’m not mindful.

With every new phase of life, every new day, every new moment, we are faced with a choice to go forward in love or in fear.

It goes like this:

Love.

Love again.

Love some more.

One more time.

Repeat.

Yet, fear creeps in when I’m not looking. I have to continually check in with myself. When I become aware that fear is taking over, I try to look it in it’s face. This reminds me that I am separate from it. It’s not who I am. And I have the choice to either accept it, or let it go and choose love instead.

This is a daily battle, but it’s one I’m willing to fight. Because every day I wake up breathing, and every day I get to look over and see my husband, my champion, beside me, and every day I get to talk to my parents and sister and brother, and every day I get to walk into my daughter’s room where I’m met with a squeal of pure delight over the fact that I’ve shown up for her, I thank my lucky stars that I chose to show up for myself, all those years ago – and that I continue to do so, each new day – each new moment – of my life.

So, friends, what about you? Are you living inside your own prison? Do you know someone who is? Please share your story in the comments if you feel so compelled – or share my story with others, if you think it could be helpful to them.

{ 45 comments }

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Grace GIlbert June 8, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Em, you are a such a profoundly brave lady! THank you so very much for sharing this. there is nothing of the “privileged, self-absorbed” woman in this piece, just brutally honest self-reflection and beautifully hopeful self-realization. I cried as i read this for the parallels in my own journeys and battles, most of which were also self-inflicted, as well as for your tribulations. but, i think the harder the battle, the greater the chance for wisdom and insight gained, and i’m so very glad that you have shared yours. keep writing! love, Gracie

Aunt Joyce June 8, 2014 at 1:01 pm

So beautifully written, Em. You are such a beautiful person inside and out. I feel so GREATful to be apart of your life. Love you Aunt Joyce.l

robin June 8, 2014 at 1:29 pm

TEARS TO MY EYES!!!! SO GLAD YOU ARE HERE TODAY. Very inspirational.

Aunt Mary June 8, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Dearest Em,
You are an amazing and brave soul. I love you for it. Beautifully written. We all are on a journey that allows us to learn and love along the way (if we let it). You touched my heart.
Love,
Mary

Adam June 8, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Beautiful reflections emily. You have a powerful story and i feel privleged to get to read your telling of it. There are few who are willing to be vulnerable before others, and its awesome to see someone like yourself who is. I’ll pray you continue to tear those walls down, and if or when you can’t tear anymore down, that you’ll have others nearby to help you tear them down.

Paje CrOss June 8, 2014 at 2:55 pm

An amazing person then and an inspiring human being now! It’s through you and the strength that you offer that others will find their light! Your beautiful light was always just under the surface now the world is blessed to see it shine! Much love!!!!

bonniE french June 8, 2014 at 3:21 pm

EmilY,
You are a brave person to write about your past. I am so thankful that you made it through Such a low time in your life! You are talented in so many ways. You have made so many proud of your accomplishments! You are a wonderful mother and companion to Sean! Love Aunt Bonnie

Katie Hausenfluck June 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Emily this is truly amazing! Yes, many of us do live in our own prison at times but stories like this help us to remember one of many things…we aren’t alone! Thank you for sharing this, you’re a true inspiration and a very strong woman! Love you girl!

-katie

Stefani Zellmer June 8, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Wow.

This is a beautiful, hopeful story, and one I relate to on so many levels.

I’ve struggled with my own addiction issues and bi-polar-ism. Good to hear that I’m not alone in the underlying cause of all of our issues: low self-worth. The upside to getting old is getting wise and getting over those things that have tied us down and held us back for so long.

I’m so happy for you that you found the love you deserve from self, husband, daughter and life.

xoxo

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Thank you Mary, I love you!

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Adam, thanks for your touching words. I hope this for everyone: “…when you can’t tear anymore down, that you’ll have others nearby to help you tear them down.” Beautifully stated!

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Thank you Robin!

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Page, I have so much love for you. Thank you for your friendship all these years and for so many more.

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Aunt Joyce, I hope you know how much your love and support got me through that time. I am eternally humbled and grateful for you. Love you.

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Aunt Bonnie, thank you so much. I couldn’t have gotten through it without family – everyone who believed in me, when I didn’t believe in myself. Thank you for that.

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Katie, thank you so much. You are absolutely right – we are never alone. Sometimes it can seem that way, but it’s simply the walls we create around us. You are a light!

Emily June 8, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Stefani, Thank you so much. You absolutely aren’t alone – thank you for revealing your own struggles. The more we talk about them, the less power they have over us. And the more older generations of women confront the insidious culture of low self-worth (and why it exists as it does), the less power it will have over our daughters and granddaughters. Shine, lady!

Margot fitzsimmons June 8, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Dear emily,

Thank you for Sharing your Journey with all of us. You Are an inspiration and you give me hope. You reminded me to continue to live in love even when going through the most Difficult struggles.
ThaT is going to be my new mantra! Keep writing!!!!

Margot

Emily June 8, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Thank you so much Margot! I love that mantra – “Live in love even through the most difficult struggles’. Beautiful, like you.

Emily June 8, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Grace, thank you so much! I’m so sorry to hear about your own struggles. My heart breaks for anyone who has had to go through their journey alone. But the more we share with one another, the more we heal, and, hopefully, create a world with a little more love and a little less fear. And you’re right – the harder the battle, the greater chance for insight gained. So very well said. Thank you for sharing – I love you Gracie!

KAra (bradfield) miller June 8, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Emily–
You have an amazing story! I have a dear friend that i jusT found is anorexic. I was wondering what facility you were in and if you have any good links to websites with helpful info.
Thank you!

Dee-Dee June 8, 2014 at 8:40 pm

BeautifulLy written, the struggle to unlock our spirits, it brings great joy to read and know you are finding the peace and freedom we all desire. I feel profound sadness knowing some never may.

Alicia Kingree June 8, 2014 at 10:39 pm

You are brave for sharing your story. An eating disorder is a very private thing. My story is a lot like yours. I too had to choose to continue with my behaviors or die. I almost did die. It is something that will never go away but I am thankful for it because I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Thank you for sharing your story. It is comforting to know that there is someone out there that understands. God bless.

Christine June 8, 2014 at 11:29 pm

wow, sister. what a powerful and beautiful piece of beauty. Your vulnerability opens the heart. Thank you for this. I remember feeling like this with my love addiction. It took over my life and it was just like that like you described that I had a shift and I just couldnt live lik e that anymore, it took years and it takes daily check ins to love love more, but its worth it and now we get to share our story and help others to know its all good and they can thrive and be stronger than before. love this!!

bella June 9, 2014 at 1:42 am

i just had my epiphany today that it was fear painting what i was doing. this happened today. now i read this and you wrote it so well and expressed everything for me. i feel like i’m you except with my own tweaks to the story. every major point mirrors something in my life.

Emily June 9, 2014 at 7:50 am

Kara, I’m so sorry to hear that – I’ll email you directly!

Emily June 9, 2014 at 8:01 am

Dee-Dee, thank you so much. How beautifully put: ‘the struggle to unlock our spirits’. I think that is the struggle of our times. I too feel profound sadness knowing some may struggle all their lives without feeling some kind of freedom. Hopefully, more conversations like this will lead to truly compassionate conversations with one another that will help those struggling the most begin taking down their walls. I believe this kind of connection could save the world. Thank you.

Emily June 9, 2014 at 8:05 am

Alicia, thank you so much for sharing this. I am so sorry to hear that you shared a similar struggle, but I am so, so happy you are still here. You are absolutely right: we would not be the people we are today – we are stronger, wiser and more compassionate toward others struggles because of it. And – we aren’t alone. You are beautiful. Thank you.

Emily June 9, 2014 at 8:08 am

Christine, thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m so happy to hear you made the shift into Love, in it’s purest form. Keep sharing your story so that others know they aren’t alone.

Emily June 9, 2014 at 8:11 am

Bella, I am so grateful for your epiphany today. Hold onto it, and continue to choose Love. You are not alone, and you are here on this earth to give the gift you were meant to give. Thank you for sharing this.

lAUREN June 9, 2014 at 11:41 am

Emily, you are such an amazing & inspirational person ~ We are so lucky to have you in our life! love you!
Lauren, Pat, & Georgia

Emily June 9, 2014 at 12:08 pm

I love you guys!

Molly June 9, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Brilliantly written, Emily. What courage and grace it took for you to share your darkest hours with us. But I feel so much more connected to you for it and THANK YOU for allowing me into your world.

It’s funny, I feel as though on some level I am that “ninth time” girl…making promises, trading one self-hatred addiction for another, only to realize that they all swell up to the same conclusion – exactly as you said, I was waiting for someone else to choose. Even before you wrote those words, I said to myself, “I need to choose myself just like she did.”

Thank you for the inspiration, the bravery and wisdom. You are an angel.

bless,
Molly

Emily June 9, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Thank you Molly! I’m so grateful that you feel more connected to me now. Real connection with one another is the stuff of miracles. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts – I love your insight: self-hatred addiction. It’s so true – and it can manifest itself in so many ways. What’s funny is that I was than ‘ninth time’ girl too, just in different ways – that’s why I got so upset with her about it – it was a reflection of my own journey. How courageous of YOU to see that in yourself as well. I believe in you – in both of us – to turn self-hate into self-love. Thank you!

Catherine Adam June 9, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Dearest, precious Emily,

The words you write here are written with so much intelligence, compassion and raw truth (ain’t no ‘pride’ getting in the way here!). Just beautiful Emily. It takes a brave human being to openly share one’s less than positive experiences in life – so many people feel shame over these experiences. BUt as you express so eloquently here, had you not fought this inner battle you would not be the shining light of a person you are today. The battles sure are hard at the time, and not everyone makes it through them – but the rewards at the other end are just so worth living for aren’t they! Life involves battles, it is almost as if they are given to us as tests – and they take many forms, but if one has the will and the strength the battles successfully fought result in more loving and aware people.

Love to you Emily, I feel blessed that we crossed paths in NYC and are now lifelong friends. You just radiate ‘beauty and compassion’ – I saw this the very first we met 🙂 LOVE YOU!!!! xxxx

Emily June 9, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Oh my lovely Catherine, thank you, thank you, thank you, so much. I am so overwhelmingly happy and grateful we are in each others lives. You make me shine brighter. I love you!

Matthew June 9, 2014 at 9:30 pm

Your journey made you the wonderful, strong, independent woman that you are today. Welcome back!

Tammy Andes June 12, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Very inspiring Emily…so glad you conquered this. Your aMazing! God bless you!

Emily June 12, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Thank you so much Tammy!

Marcie June 12, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Oh my Emily you are a brave one!

Aunt Gloria June 12, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Dear, dear Emily, You are so special. What a well written story. you have such a gift and sharing your life with others so they can find their way is so giving of you. I am so proud of you. God Bless you. Love you.

Emily June 12, 2014 at 11:46 pm

Thank you Marcie!

Emily June 12, 2014 at 11:46 pm

Thank you so much Aunt Gloria. I love you.

Laura Rothafel March 7, 2015 at 6:03 pm

Emily, I am so glad you chose life. As someone who has experienced enough of my own hell and now as a therapist we both know there is something about choice in how we handle our pain and relationships that is more powerful than even given situation. I appreciate you sharing your story and know that it will resonate with someone and it will make all the difference. It is hard to know how we matter and even to whom we matter. Just knowing that you do and you ability to love yourself and others has changed the world we all live in. Enjoy your family and all the delightful chaos it brings!

I plan on sharing this with others who have similar struggles…

May you feel joy most days of your life.

Laura

Abbie April 12, 2017 at 4:11 pm

This is a truly inspiring and brave post. Stay strong for yourself and your beautiful family x

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