“Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through…”
— Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants”
I’ve written a lot of topical pieces here so far, most of which allude to my own story in some way or another. But I suppose it’s time to throw in something entirely anecdotal—my moment of acceptance.
Acceptance at the Prison Door
One month into partial hospitalization treatment, my team told me that 25 hours per week just wasn’t going to cut it. If I was going to kick this disorder, then I needed 24/7 care.
I was terrified, but desperate. So I said goodbye to the day team, and at 5 a.m. on a frigid January morning, my then-fiancé and I rented a car and traveled from New York City to Philadelphia, where I would spend the next 40 days slowly and painfully freeing myself from anorexia. After numerous labs and EKGs, multiple recitations of my mental health history, a luggage search for contraband, and a gut-wrenching goodbye to my fiancé, I began my first week at residential.
Eating disorder aside, I’ve always struggled to acclimate to new environments. I am the person at the pool who wades slowly into the water, allowing myself to adjust to the temperature. I spent my first month at college alternating between states of surreality and paralyzing homesickness, which I relieved by sobbing to my mother on the phone. The distress eventually gave way to an enthusiastic and enduring love for college, but it taught me that I am very sensitive to change.
So now factor in the reason for entering this new environment. The women and girls around me were not new classmates to befriend and form study groups with. Like me, they were locked in a life-or-death battle. And the natural bond we felt was often joined by relentless comparing. We empathized with one another, but also quietly resented that so-and-so was thinner (and thus, I must be a failure and shouldn’t be here in treatment and so on).
Then there was the near total loss of freedom and privacy. The community shared everything from phones to laundry to bedrooms (which were not allowed to be locked). Our bathroom use was monitored. Our meals were supervised. Our “sharps,”—shaving razors, tweezers, and makeup pencil sharpeners—were confiscated and distributed for an hour twice a week. Visitors were restricted to the designated hours—no exceptions
I felt like a child again. I lived on the verge of tears. The days felt eternal, which made the thought of a month in this place seem like a life sentence.
By the time I made it to my first weekend, I was a wreck. I had no desire to attend the Saturday patient-run group, “Inspiration Celebration,” in which the 58-member community discussed a recovery-related theme, such as choice, trust, or acceptance, which was today’s topic.
I found a few inches of free floor space to sit on (the old-timers knew to rush from breakfast to claim a coveted seat on the couch, or at least along the window bench). From my cramped corner, I could see a stretch of sky through the white-paned windows lining the back wall. Naked tree branches formed a lattice against the icy blue, and below them a few snow patches were sliding from the roof of a stone gazebo.
I remembered that it was my godmother’s birthday. She would be receiving a happy birthday text from my phone later that day. We weren’t allowed to bring cell phones, so I’d left my fiancé a list of messages with corresponding dates to keep my family from suspecting that anything was amiss. I thought of her and my mother, who were probably just starting to cook a birthday dinner. This was the first year I wouldn’t be there.
I’m in prison, I thought. I started to cry.
But then I recalled her past birthdays. The day had always been stressful, because it meant negotiating copious amounts of food. By the time I made it to her house, I’d be irritable, weak, and withdrawn, having starved myself in anticipation of eating a few morsels of the meal. Dinner would trigger both relief and dread as I seesawed between self-hate and the instinctual need to feed my starving brain. My mother and godmother would chat jovially while I would obsess about how many calories were in this meal, how drastically it would change the number on the scale, and whether I’d managed to deceive these women into thinking that we inhabited the same reality.
More tears crested as I realized that even if I were with my godmother today, I would be getting no pleasure from the visit. My nostalgia was based in myth. I had lived for one thing, and one thing only—my eating disorder. It mattered more to me than enjoying time with my family. It may have even mattered more than my family—period.
In that moment, I realized I had to be in this “prison” now so that I would never have to be in prison again. Although it seemed as if checking into treatment had stripped me of my freedom, the truth was that I’d never known freedom at all. I was a slave to a disembodied voice that told me I was unlovable and unworthy, and I was prepared to sacrifice everything to it.
After weeks of treatment, I finally accepted that I needed this experience. Granted, I didn’t wholeheartedly embrace recovery after that. I still struggled to adjust to life in the facility and anguished over every change my body went through. But that one brief moment of acceptance did help to put a crack in my resistance, which made it easier over time to continue breaking it down. By the end of treatment, the community had become a second family and the facility had become a supportive haven where I was beginning to peacefully lay my eating disorder to rest.
When recovery is especially difficult, I remind myself of that first week of treatment and the moment I saw what my prison bars were actually made of. I understand now that the strictest rules and sturdiest walls could never confine me the way that my eating disorder did. Which means I’ll do whatever it takes to break free from it.
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