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 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?
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 some more.
One more time.
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.