By Heather Price
*This post contains potential triggers for disordered eating*
When you are about to do something for the first time, no one really tells you the horrible things they’ve witnessed. They generally overload you with positive experiences; relive the great memories they had, and for the most part, fill you with excitement as you embark on a new journey. However, life is never just rainbows and butterflies, unicorns and fairytales. Recovering from anything is difficult. It could be a major surgery, a breakup, an illness, let’s be real—the list can go on forever. Or, you may be like me, and the recovery you’re facing is from an eating disorder.
When you finally get to the point where your only option is to check into treatment, you start hearing: “You’re going to do great!” or “Things are going to be so much better once you get out!” or my personal favorite: “Just eat and you’ll be OK!” No one ever tells you the real shit. What it’s actually like. No one tells you these things because, if they did, chances are everyone would run away from treatment and never fully embrace recovery. There are 6 absolutely necessary truths that you must know before going to rehab for an eating disorder. You can thank me later.
1) It’s hard. Like, really hard. It’s not a quick fix. You don’t go to treatment, follow your meal plan, get discharged, and live happily ever after. You fight. You fight every day and it’s exhausting. You will struggle. You will struggle to eat your meals. You will struggle to find motivation. You will even toy with the idea of not even having an eating disorder in the first place. You think “I’m not as bad as that girl over there.” or “I’m in my weight range, I’m totally fine.” You will struggle with judgment, comparison, and body image issues. You will struggle with guilt and shame, with fear and being lonely. But just because you struggle does not mean you aren’t doing the right thing. The really great thing about being in treatment is that we’re all struggling. We are all in the same boat. We have the same thoughts, the same fears, and essentially the same behaviors. And guess what? It’s OK to struggle. It’s OK to doubt. That’s the nature of the disorder. Your eating disorder wants you to struggle. It wants you to give up fighting for recovery. But you wouldn’t be in treatment in the first place if you had chosen that option. After you make it through treatment, you are thrown out into the real world. You are expected to thrive and be a “normal” member of society. Your family and friends expect you to be fully recovered as soon as you’re discharged and for you to never have another eating disorder thought or behavior again. But, let me tell you: This is when the real fighting begins. You thought days one, two, and so on of rehab were tough? Think again, kiddo. Once you’re discharged, you find out how to really fight. You find out how hard it is to go back into your old routine, your old habits, and your old life. You find out just how strong of a hold your disorder has on you, and you feel weak. You feel like there’s no way on earth you aren’t going to relapse. But lucky for you, treatment prepared you for this fight. They gave you the tools, the skills, and the strength you need.
2) It gets bad. It gets very bad. There will be times when you seriously don’t think things could get any worse—but then they do. You gain weight. You bloat. Your pants don’t fit anymore. The number on the scale shows digits you swore you would never see. You feel disgusting. Your emotions go crazy. You get angry. Your gym membership is put on hold because you exercise too much. Your treatment team tells you that you aren’t allowed to run competitively for an entire year. You have to take medical leave from work or time off from school. Your depression and anxiety spike. You start to search for new behaviors that can take the place of your old ones. You convince yourself that no life at all is better than a life without your eating disorder. You rationalize how staying in your eating disorder is the safe thing to do. Except, I’m here to tell you that it’s not safe. Your eating disorder is killing you. Imagine a life of happiness. A life full of joy. A life where you aren’t sick. The weight you gain eventually redistributes, your hair grows back, and your skin starts to glow. Your circulation improves, and your organs learn how to function properly. You have energy. You finally start sleeping again. You find freedom and you find passion. You find that you don’t have to be chained to numbers, enslaved to a scale, or held captive by your disorder. But, you have to give it time. You have to trust the process. You have to hold on to the fact that it does get better.
3) You are overloaded with therapy. Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, music, art, relapse prevention, body image…there is SO MUCH therapy. And eating. Lots of eating. You thought you hated or feared food before? Wait for it. The other patients and I counted. We figured out that roughly five hours of our day was devoted to eating, the rest was spent in therapy: breakfast, process, snack, behavior therapy, lunch, therapy, snack, and more therapy, and dinner, therapy on top of therapy, snack, and bedtime. We’re the people that avoid food. We either choose not to eat it or we find a way to expel it from our bodies if we’re actually forced to eat. People typically think that “rehab” is a place to detox and get your life back. I wish it were that easy. Our “drug of choice” is to neglect the very thing the human body requires to survive. So, no; we don’t get to detox. Instead we get to spend hours talking about and facing the thing that scares us the most. It’s harder than anyone can imagine. Food is fuel. That is a reality that must be accepted in order to recover. And that’s terrifying.
4) You find out who your real friends are. The world is full of “fair weather friends.” You think you have a really good group of friends until you have a do-or-die situation. Going into treatment is essentially that. You either do treatment, or you die. After entering treatment, you will find that people are selfish. If you don’t add to or benefit them in some way, you’re useless. I have an entire spectrum of friends, and my going into rehab was what exposed them for who they really were. There are the friends that truly care. The ones that send you cards and letters, text messages and emails. They leave voicemails and don’t expect a call back because they were simply calling to say they were thinking about you. You have the friends that genuinely love you. They are the ones that are scared. Your eating disorder scares them so much that they do research. They identify your red flags. They reach out to your family and to each other. They are the ones that ultimately push and beg, hope and pray that you will get help. They will do anything necessary to support you every step of the way. They know you well enough to recognize when you’re struggling. They let you live with them while you’re out of work. They know you won’t eat, so they buy groceries for you and they help you cook. They know you need meal support, so they sit at the table with you. They want you healthy, so they hold you accountable. They go with you to the gym so you won’t over-exercise. Then, there are the ones who run. They disappear when you need them most. They don’t respond to your text messages. They tell you that you aren’t really sick, that you don’t have an eating disorder. They want to hang out or be friends only when it’s convenient for them. They’re always busy and they don’t call you back. You tell them how tough things are and all you hear are crickets. Sometimes, these are the people you want to be there. You desperately want them to catch you when you fall. But they don’t. Your life falls apart and they leave you alone to collect the pieces. But the fantastic thing they will never know is that you aren’t alone. Just because they proved they’re shallow doesn’t mean you don’t have an entire army waiting to help you pick up those pieces. While you may not realize it in the beginning, figuring out who your real friends are is a blessing.
5) You meet your best friends. You thought you had friends before? Just wait. The people you meet in treatment end up being the ones you count on; they are the friends that actually understand your struggles because they are struggling with the same things. You quickly learn that you are not alone. You find out there is no one else you want to share your life with because these people are the ones who can truly identify with you and validate what you think and why you think it. I had no hope for myself and I certainly didn’t believe that there were other people like me. Face it—your eating disorder convinces you that you are alone, and even worse, that you are lonely. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You are faced with two options. One is to keep to yourself, not trust anyone, stay isolated and resist treatment. The other option is to be vulnerable, open up, and let your walls down. You’ll eventually realize that these people actually want what’s best for you. The even better part is that they are going to fight alongside of you the entire way. If you had told me before I went into treatment that I would come out on the other side with new best friends, I would have told you that you were crazy. I wasn’t shopping for new friends, and I certainly wasn’t keen on trusting people with my darkest thoughts, my deepest fears. These “strangers” end up being the ones you trust more than yourself; they mean the world to you. They see you for who you really are when you’re hiding everything behind a mask. And they stay. They stand with you, day in and day out; they don’t leave your side. They fight with you, they fight for you, and they make fighting your eating disorder easier. They share your struggles and they catch you when you fall. They pass you tissues when you cry, but they also cry with you. They hold your hand and they walk with you through the flames. And when the fire finally dies down and the smoke clears, all of you are left standing. You are all standing stronger than you were before, stronger because you fought together and you were victorious. Together. These are the friendships that do not break; the bonds are too strong. Your life has been changed for the better because you know you will always have them.
6) You learn to love yourself. Before treatment, you are completely consumed with your eating disorder. You lose who you are as a person. You actually hate yourself. You’re depressed, anxious, and you don’t understand why anyone would love you. So you isolate. You become secretive. Every breath you breathe has something to do with an eating disorder behavior or thought. But slowly, that changes. You discover who you are without your behaviors. You find what you’re passionate about. You uncover your true identity. Maybe you’re an artist. Or a writer. Maybe you’re brilliant in a nerdy way—technologically savvy even. Once you find out what makes you happy, you see that there is somebody inside you itching to live. You don’t need permission to eat, or permission to love yourself. You are a living, breathing human and that fact alone makes you deserving. You are unique; you are the only “you.” Embrace the things that make you different. If you are enjoying your life, it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with who you are.
I’m good at self destruction, I’m great with depression, and I’m a pro at discrediting the positives and focusing on the negatives. I mean, clearly—I have an eating disorder. That’s why recovery is challenging. My therapist told me to take a step outside of my box; just one step. I can still stand next to it; I don’t have to leave it behind. She even gave me permission to go back inside if I decide to later. What is on the outside of my box? Well, I don’t know exactly. I’m putting my faith in the unknown. But let me make one thing clear: It’s got to be better than staying inside.
Recovering from an eating disorder is tough. While I can’t promise you an easy recovery, I can promise you hope. I can promise you life. I can promise that you aren’t alone. And I can promise you that it is definitely possible.
Heather is a self-proclaimed nerd who enjoys reading and writing a little too much. She dabbles in art and could potentially be the most opinionated millennial in Columbia, South Carolina. She’s a Banker with a degree in Biology and she’ll eventually figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. She loves her family, her Chesapeake Bay Retriever, long distance running, and all things southern.
Photo by Nico Nordstrom