Part 4: The Recovery Process
August 2005 was all about new beginnings for me. A lot happened to me during my senior year of high school and there will be future posts dedicated to those incidents, but for now the focus is still on my coping with being bulimic.
As I entered college I was determined to pick myself up from my bootstraps and get over my eating disorder by myself. I felt I had already pained my family enough with this problem and besides, they were under the impression (an impression I was so excellent at maintaining) that I was healthy and the ED was in the past.
For my first two years of college, though, not a lot changed. I was still bingeing and purging, though it wasn’t the intense frequency that it had been at the end of high school. I had sort of learned to live with bulimia as just part of my life by that point. It had been almost three years of near daily binge-purge cycles, so this thing had become about as normal part of my life as anything else. The only difference was that I kept this habit a secret. I did attend psychotherapy sessions with a wonderful woman whom we’ll call Dr. J. I saw her for an hour every week just to kind of keep tabs on my health and progress.
One of the problems that came up in college was that my little binge habit was expensive. It costs a lot of damn money to buy massive amounts of food every day, to then literally just flush it down the toilet. I was scheming all types of ways to keep funding my addiction. I missed out on a lot in college because I was either spending my money on food binges or hiding out in secret at home to eat and vomit. Some days I missed class or didn’t even bother to leave the house, opting instead to just get food delivered and cycle through those binges and purges. It sucks to think about how much time, money, and opportunity I wasted maintaining that lifestyle.
Then finally, the second semester of my sophomore year, I just fucking got sick of it. My body was tired. I was broke. I was hiding this life from everyone around me and I was tired of feeling alone. I was tired of half-assing relationships and not letting anybody get close. I had found myself lying to my doctors again. I didn’t want to keep up this cycle of control and loss-of-control anymore.
Sometimes you just fucking get tired of it.
So I opted to put myself in a more comprehensive rehab program. This time, I would be going every day. I would work at it. I would kick this fucking monkey off my back once and for all. I was ready to change.
I had to fess up to my folks that all was not as it seemed, and they were super supportive of my desire to seek help again. I was ashamed that I had relapsed and I probably was never completely honest with my family about the severity of my bulimia. But my mom (singularly the most constant supporter of my road to health) helped find an excellent hospital in Baltimore that was nationally renowned for their inpatient and outpatient ED recovery programs. I would be a patient there for as long as it took.
. . . . .
Sheppard Pratt is a psychiatric hospital in Towson, MD. I started therapy there at the tail end of Christmas break in 2007. This place was not some easy, outpatient twelve-step meeting program. This shit was an actual loony bin. I don’t mean that in a degrading way– I was a patient there myself, mind you. But the term “psychiatric hospital” meant just that; this was a place for people with very real, very deep psychiatric problems. Initially I was registered as an inpatient, meaning I would live on campus for the first portion of my treatment until I was deemed healthy (and sane) enough to graduate to outpatient therapy.
Checking in to Sheppard Pratt as a resident gave me the one and only time I have ever in my entire life felt deeply, deeply mortified. We’re talking soul-crushing indignation. Scarred for life. Just thinking about that first day right now is absolutely trauma-inducing.
Gimme a sec, I need a beer.
Alright we’re back.
The first day at Sheppard Pratt remains in my mind as one of the most traumatic and emotional days of my entire life. Mind you, I had been living the past several years as a generally normal person– attending college, making some friends, working. I just so happened to have this disorder that I lived with as part of my life and it was there and I dealt with it as best I could and I had come to this hospital of my own accord to try and fix it. I wasn’t out there terrorizing people and I had stopped even hurting myself beyond just bingeing and purging. I was very aware of my position, very motivated to deal with it, and I was generally living a normal life outside of being a bulimic.
Upon intake I was required to enter a small clinical room and have some vital signs taken. The nurse took my height, weight, blood pressure, and other basic measurements for my chart. After that she asked me to disrobe and put all my garments and belongings into a box, which would be returned to me upon discharge. She stood there in the room as I undressed (protocol for a psychiatric ward apparently). Starting to sound creepy? It fucking was. I had to remove all of my jewelry, hand over my cell phone, clip my nails, and stand in front of her bare ass naked. She then proceeded with a full body search of my person for items like razor blades, diet pills, weapons, or any other contraband. This was this woman’s job, and she was doing it sweetly and being very considerate. But when you are in a tiny room butt ass naked with a stranger who is probing your body for weapons like you are a criminal, you just lose your shit. Nothing about that feels okay. I burst out weeping in a way that I had never experienced, terrified for what I was getting into and absolutely humiliated. She was incredibly understanding, tried to console me, and allowed me to put on a pair of medical scrubs, which was to be my uniform during my stay. Elastic, no strings. Socks, no shoes.
The next part of intake was a tour around the ED ward. There were dozens of other patients. This was like eating disorder recovery university. She showed me the dorm rooms, including where I would be staying. There was one shared bathroom for the whole hall, which we had to ask permission to use, and to which we had to be escorted by a nurse. While using the bathroom, one was required to hum or sing or talk to the nurse through the door to ensure that you weren’t throwing up. There was a two-minute time limit. Continuing through the activity/family room, I took note of many of the other patients; a lot of them looked really, really sick. I was at a healthy weight-for-height point at that time, and I was definitely the biggest person in the room. I also felt like the most sane person in the room. Some people were playing cards. Some people sat on chairs and rocked back and forth. A lot of people just lay on the floor curled up.
These were to be my compatriots through rehab. I felt sheer terror.
We had two more stops to get through on that first day. 5:30pm sharp was dinner time. Everyone went together to the cafeteria and we were policed by several nurses as we ate food handed to us on trays. Spoons only. No napkins (no spitting). In order to leave the dining room you had to eat all of the food that was given to you, milk cartons upside down and everything. No exceptions whatsoever. I sat down to eat and realized that some of these people would probably be in here for hours, moving food around their trays and fighting the anorexic voices in their heads to try and eat. Some of them cried and some of them intentionally pushed trays to the ground. The shit was fucking insane.
The second biggest personal insult in my life happened there at dinner. Let me repeat again that I was generally living a normal, functioning life outside of this place. I ate the food on my tray without a hitch. The only thing left was a carton of whole milk. I haven’t drank milk out of a carton by itself since I was in 6th grade. Milk is just gross. It’s a cow’s titty juice. I find it fucking disgusting. Let alone whole milk. Who even drinks whole milk?? But it was on that goddamn tray. I waved over a nurse and told her that I don’t drink milk. Since I was new, she asked if I was lactose intolerant. I should’ve said yes. But in an effort to commit to this rehab and be fully honest, I said no, I just don’t like milk. She said she couldn’t do anything for me, I had to drink the milk.
Now. Has anyone– in your entire adult life– ever said to you, “You have to do this right now and you have no choice in it.” Do you know what that feels like? There I was with a bunch of people who seemed to be ten times crazier than me– and who were, in all reality, way sicker than I was– and I was being treated like I was just as fucking crazy as them. I hate to sound like that, but the reality was that I was a functioning person with a nasty problem, who recognized her nasty problem and wanted to fix it. These were nonfunctional people who clearly were not there by choice and did not really care to get better. I had maybe been ALMOST as crazy as some of these people years ago, but I had come a long way since then. It didn’t feel fair to be treated with the same level of severity.
From there it turned into a fucking hissy fit, more about principle than the milk itself. I told the nurse it wasn’t about the calories in the milk– if she would bring me orange juice, I would drink two goddamn orange juices– double the calories!!– just to not have to drink disgusting white milk. Even a fucking chocolate milk would’ve been better than whole cow’s titty juice. I understood that her job was to ensure that us sick people didn’t cut any corners and get over on anybody– we had to follow the rules of the program. I understood that, but this felt ridiculous. I felt degraded, mistrusted, judged, mistaken for an insane person.
Finally after much much frustration and some crying, the nurse who took my vitals earlier in the day came in to help. She probably recognized that I wasn’t actually as sick as some of the people in that place, and maybe she felt bad about earlier. She replaced my whole milk with two chocolate milks. I downed that shit and have never been more grateful. To this day I don’t fucking touch white milk. If a recipe calls for white milk, I find another recipe.
The final stop of the day was to meet my doctor. I don’t even remember the lady’s name. Her office was behind three or four locked doors (everything was locked and firewalled). I got into that goddamn office and threw a fit. She had me take some test, which I passed, and then I had her call my mom and Dr. J to talk about being transferred to the day program, where I could attend 8-hour sessions every day but be able to come and go and not live in the loony bin. Everyone agreed that I was healthy enough to be in the outpatient program and that putting me in inpatient was probably a miscalculation. I was discharged that night. Thank fucking Jesus. I think spending any time in that place would have turned me insane.
. . . . .
The outpatient program ended up being way more fitting for me. I think there were eight others in my group, and the curriculum was incredibly in-depth and multi-faceted. We had CBT, nutrition, and art therapy just like I had in Solace, but we also had body awareness therapy, movement therapy, group talks (to which we were allowed to invite family), and many, many more behavioral therapy classes that helped us address some of the core issues that had brought on our eating disorders. For all of us, the impact of the media and a desire to just be thin was only a tiny pebble on a mountain of deeper emotional issues, which we learned to cope with in healthier ways.
It was at SP’s outpatient program that I learned to divert negative emotions into other outlets that didn’t cause me harm, to track my moods, to understand and communicate my feelings and opinions, and how to talk to myself in a loving way. I had to learn to logically reason my way out of destructive behavior, recognize triggering situations, and proactively prevent unhealthy coping mechanisms. That type of therapy is fucking difficult. You have to confront a lot of thoughts and habits that in many ways are central to your identity. You have to quiet voices that have been talking to you for your entire life. It calls for complete inner change and re-evaluation of self.
People who do the work to come out of addictions and eating disorders are absolutely the strongest and most emotionally well-equipped humans there are.
I’d like to say that that program was a magic bullet that stopped every bulimic episode for the rest of my life. The truth is that it equipped me with everything I would need to keep battling. Addicts are never “recovered,” they are always “recovering.” I will always be a recovering bulimic because my relationship with my body and food will never be perfectly natural. I will always find myself in scenarios where old thoughts come up, old voices try to sway my path, and I will always have to utilize the tools that I have to fight it. Over the years I have had many missteps. You fall down, you get back up, you forgive yourself. They are now so few and far between that I really couldn’t tell you the last time I had to actually stop a bulimic episode or think too hard about anything.
Actually, in a strange way, my need to be keenly self-aware in the ongoing lifelong recovery process has become a type of litmus test for many situations in my life. If I go into anything and find myself having to fight harder or really struggle to maintain recovery, then I know something is wrong with wherever I am or whatever I am doing (or whoever I am with) and that I need to step back, find the trigger, and move on from whatever it is. My health and my happiness go hand-in-hand.
…. And I am happier and healthier than I have ever been in my entire life. Little bumps in the road like being unemployed and getting dumped are just nothing compared to what I came out of. You learn to appreciate all of that as a wonderful part of being alive.
If the last few years are any indicator of my long-term recovery, then I am going to be just fine. This is no longer something I have to think about every day. This is no longer the central force in my life. It’s an afterthought– something that helped me become who I am.
Thank y’all for reading. I haven’t revisited some of these stories in years. Honesty with one’s self and reconciliation with the past are rare blessings. A forum from which to share those things is invaluable.