For those of you who have read my Weekend ED Series from start to finish, you’ll know that I’ve never been admitted into an eating disorder treatment center.
The reasons vary on why. Before I even dared admit to myself that yes, I was suffering from anorexia nervosa, I was spending hours and hours in the library and my local Borders bookstore reading up on the subject. Unconsciously, I had already admitted to myself that something was wrong with me. And although I couldn’t pinpoint my issue exactly to anorexia (but anorexics are supposed to think she/he is fat! But anorexics don’t eat anything and I eat soooo much!), I was fascinated with what it is, its symptoms, and its treatment.
It’s true that an eating disorder is a self-engrossed disorder–– particularly because eating disordered individuals are completely lucid except when it comes to certain issues. We know what’s disordered and what’s not; we just can’t seem to do anything about it. Personally dealing with such a irrational obsession obsesses us with the irrationality of it all.
Anyway. One thing that fascinated me the most was eating disorder treatment centers. I guess deep down, I wanted to change. I wanted to be treated. And it seemed like every book pointed towards treatment centers as the ultimate solution: “Do you suspect your daughter/sister/friend is anorexic? Get her help! Send her to a treatment center!” And I guess it’s the same solution we come up with most addictions and psychiatric issues: Drug addict? Rehab! Alcholic? Rehab! Depression? Therapy! And shots of drugs!
So it was entirely depressing to read about the pitfalls of eating disorder treatment centers as well. Contrasting those self-help books were also autobiographies in which individuals shared how they went into treatment only to come out even more disordered than ever. After all, what are treatment centers but an enclosed gathering of equally disordered individuals?
The thought of spending three months with other anorexic girls didn’t appeal to me at all. In fact, it sounded downright toxic to me. I remember when I was sick, the first thing I noticed about another female was her weight. Was she skinnier than me? Was her waist narrower than mine? And then: What is she eating? More than me? Less? I didn’t think I could survive in that kind of hyper-sensitive, hyper-observant, hyper-competitive environment and not come out scarred.
Plus, just reading books about eating disorders inadvertently taught me even more disordered “tricks.” How much worse can it be when immersed in a society of intelligent people who are all struggling to even want to recover? Not to mention the rigid structure of the days during treatment. From the books I read, it seemed like each day followed a certain routine. Meals are fixed and based on meeting a certain requirement of calories. What the…that sounded exactly like how I was already living at the time! How would that help once I was released into the “real world?” How do I deal with the sudden spread of options, choices, and social situations?
The only thing that appealed to me about eating disorder treatment centers were the meal plans. And to be honest, that was my main purpose for reading those books. I wanted to be told what to eat. I wanted a strict plan I could follow, I loved that the treatment centers divided each meal into x amount of starch, y amount of vegetables or fruits, z amount of dairy or protein, which totaled into xyz amount of calories. I liked the rigidity of it, because it removed all freedom from me. I wouldn’t have to cry over having eaten too much or too little, because I’ll be given only the exact amount I needed. It sounded wonderful to me, not having to deal with choices. Not having to worry about unplanned situations and meals. I loved controlling things, yet I also desperately wanted to give it all up.
Thus when it actually came to the time when I wanted recovery…I talked with my parents and we decided not to go that route. Not that we had much of a choice, really, because I didn’t have health insurance, and treatment centers can cost over $1200 a day. A day! And you need to stay for at least three whole months for proper treatment. That’s about 90 days…about $108,000!! Who had that kind of money? Only big insurance companies, and not all insurance policies covered treatment centers anyway.
Oh, and I didn’t meet the requirements for treatment centers, either. During my first hospitalization, the doctors talked to numerous treatment centers all across the country, and all of them refused to admit me. Understandably, because with my medical condition at the time, I was a deathly liability to them. I might die in their facility, and the way I looked couldn’t possibly be healthy for the other patients. In addition, most treatment centers’ philosophy is that an eating disordered individual must meet a certain standard of nourishment and weight in order for recovery to take place. I would be the person I dreaded in a treatment center.
The doctors then had a final solution for me: let’s chuck you into the ICU, feed you calories intravenously and thus fatten you up a bit, and then send you to a treatment center. That’s when I totally flipped and checked myself out of the hospital.
About a few months after, I watched the documentary Thin with my mother. Thin, directed by Lauren Greenfield, was the first inside-look documentary revealing the day-to-days of The Renfrew Center, America’s most well-known eating disorder treatment center in Florida. I ordered the DVD as soon as it was released on Amazon. Even having denied treatment centers, I was still deeply intrigued by it. My dad refused to watch it because he said he was “already living in that reality” with me. So it was just my mother and I, with my mother sitting on the sofa, and I standing because sitting made me anxious.
I remember crying as I watched a particular scene in Thin. It was Polly’s (a patient) birthday, and the treatment center team celebrated it by basically forcing her to eat a cupcake. All the other patients had a cookie on their plate. They hugged and shouted words of encouragement and support to Polly while she stared with white knuckles at that fake-colored cupcake. After finishing that obligatory birthday present, she went to her room and cried.
As I watched her struggling to eat that cupcake, I was shaken with horror and empathy. At that moment, I felt like that was the worst birthday joke to play on a person struggling with anorexia. How is that supposed to help at all? Also, all the other patients had one freaking cookie! That’s like, 150 calories compared to the 250 calories of a cupcake! For the birthday girl! How completely, devastatingly unfair!! (It sounds a bit ridiculous writing this now, but that was honestly how I felt at the time).
By the end of that documentary, I felt heavy with the weight of despair. If treatment centers couldn’t completely treat us, then what? Isn’t that supposed to be the ultimate answer to our suffering? Are we doomed to a life of just maintaining our disordered behaviors? Just…surviving? If even paying hundreds of thousands of money, or fighting tooth-and-nail with an insurance company, and relegating months of personal freedom can’t help us…what can?
My mother, who was also tearing up beside me, turned to me and said, “Only Christ.” And I at the time struggled to believe that, because I wondered if Christ would deign to help someone as pathetic as me. And I wondered, what if this is God’s plan? What if He meant for me to live my entire life with a thorn in my side, as the Apostle Paul did? Maybe His purpose is to live with this disorder so I can be humbled and turn to others with empathy.
That night, I guzzled three bottles of vanilla-flavored Ensure. I don’t know, I guess I was suddenly desperate to be instantly better and be rid of this nightmare I was living. But the next day, the obsessions, the voices of anxiety and fear, the clings of self-disgust and hatred, started all over again.
I receive a lot of emails. Some of them have been from parents, desperate for help yet sucked dry of energy. Some of them have been from husbands, too, who pore through the Internet seeking help for his wasting wife. And most of them ask: What can I do? Can you recommend a treatment center to us?
And I have no answer. I’ve never been to a treatment center, and for a long time my perception of it has been leaning negative. But how do you tell a parent or a husband that? So I have no answer, only a twisting sympathy for these aching families.
I’ve been living without thinking about eating disorders for a long time now. Well, it feels long after having obsessed about it day-in-and-out for about five years. But the last few weeks, my obsession with it has been rekindled. The reason is because I’m researching treatment centers again…this time, as a journalist.
For the final project of my investigative journalism class, I’m focusing on investigating eating disorder treatment centers. As a reporter though, I’m re-looking at with an open mind. I’ve talked to individuals who tell me horror tales of their experience with treatment centers, but I’ve also had coffee with individuals who told me that their treatment center have changed their life for the better. I’ve even attended a conference about eating disorder treatment in San Diego, in which I’ve learned about some of the new skills and school of thoughts regarding treatment for eating disorders.
Things are gradually changing in the eating disorder field. Perceptions are shifting, and new research and technologies are approaching eating disorder treatment with gravity and hope. And I’m realizing that one eating disorder treatment is not the same as the other. And a treatment center five years ago is not the same as a treatment center now.
And here’s where I turn to you, my readers. In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding on this subject, I need a lot more interviews. If you’ve ever had experience with a treatment center in the United States, whether personally, or through a close family member, or as a health practitioner, please consider talking to me.
I mentioned that this is for a college class, but I’m planning to work on it longer term and hopefully, actually get it published. It might take a year. Or two years. I just want to do a thorough job.
I understand it’s a highly sensitive and personal subject. I am willing to work with you in terms of confidentiality and your comfort zone in revealing certain details. I have no intentions on turning this into some kind of sensationalizing piece. In the end, I want what every person involved in this field wants: to portray hope. Hope that recovery is possible.
Think about it. And when you’re ready, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and include the word “interview” in your subject title. I also welcome any kind of suggestions, advice and questions.
And if possible, please spread the word for me. Tweet it, Facebook it, etc. Anything helps.