Six Things I Wish I’d Known Before Going To Eating Disorder Treatment
When I walked into the mansion (that I’m still not convinced isn’t haunted) where my residential treatment would take place, I had no idea what to expect. An alumni of that facility had become one of my closest friends in the preceding year, and she frequently referred to it as, “a luxury maximum security penitentiary where people sometimes hide cottage cheese in their bras,” which I have to admit, was enticing. Nevertheless, I felt scared and overwhelmed.
Thanks to the generosity of Project Heal, I was able to attend residential treatment for six weeks, partial outpatient for two weeks, and intensive outpatient for three weeks. I learned a lot about the process of recovery during that time, and even more about myself. Should you need to enter into a higher level of care, hopefully this list will help better prepare you for the shit that no one tells you about when it comes to eating disorder camp.
1. This Ain’t Linear, Henny
It’s been over two years since the first time I set foot in a treatment facility, and it’s still an everyday struggle not to do weird shit with my food. And honestly, that’s how it goes for most people. To be clear, there are some people that are able to recover after one stint at treatment, and you shouldn’t necessarily enter feeling that relapse is inevitable. That being said, according to statistics gathered by NEDA, 80% of people with eating disorders relapse at least once.
The reason that I think it’s important to note this is that relapsing does not equal failure, and it most certainly doesn’t guarantee a lifetime of suffering with an eating disorder.
It can feel very discouraging having to admit to yourself and others that you need to seek intensive treatment again, as it’s easy to feel like you exhausted all this energy in an attempt at recovery just to end up back where you started. This notion is untrue, however, for no time spent recovering is wasted. Even if you have to return to a higher level of care, you still carry all the experiences and knowledge you gained throughout your past with you.
Like an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the recovery process can be tumultuous and unpredictable. While that may sound disconcerting at first, once you let go of a timeline, you realize that there’s no “right” way to recover.
The only way you can truly mess it up is to stop trying.
2. “F” Is For Friends Who Do Treatment Together
I don’t know how many people I’ve met outside of treatment that would stick by me after seeing some of the shit I pulled in treatment.
It’s safe to say I didn’t go in planning to make friends. Upon walking into the lounge, I was greeted by a dozen girls who all gave Kristen Stewart’s resting bitch face a run for its money. They all seemed so odd to me—wrapped up to their necks in thick blankets, despite it being a boiling summer day in Manhattan; constantly holding pillows in front of their stomachs; and furiously knitting. I was sure I would never relate, and therefore had no intention of getting to know them.
The thing is, though, you can’t not get to know the people you’re in treatment with. From the jump, you’re all put in situations purposely meant to make you as vulnerable as possible. Having incredible support and understanding in such a high-intensity situation quickly creates a deep bond. At the end of my first day, I remember journaling, “I didn’t think that anybody else would be able to talk about food for as long as me, but it turns out, a lot of people can. And do. One bitch talked about goddamn almonds for 30 minutes in our group therapy session.”
And I’ll tell you, there is nothing like a treatment friend. It takes a really special type of person to watch you throw an Ensure across the room at a therapist, and still want to get PM snack with you after.
3. Take Care Of You First
That being said, everyone goes through recovery at different stages, and staying close to each other during that process can be really tricky. While at times it can be rewarding to help a struggling friend (or vice versa), it can also quickly turn in to a very triggering situation, leaving both you and your friend feeling hurt.
While I don’t want to discourage you from continuing a friendship after both of you have discharged from treatment, I think it’s important to know that there will be times in which you have to create distance from people you love dearly in order to prioritize your own recovery.
In my experience, my friendships made in treatment that remain the strongest are the ones whose status I wasn’t too precious with. I went into the relationship with full awareness that becoming too close would probably become toxic. I was happy to be their friend, but didn’t let myself become so attached that it would be crushing to have to let them go, if need be.
In addition, I think that friendships formed in treatment, no matter how they end, teach you a lot about relationships. I remember being incredibly scared to leave treatment after my second time through, and lamenting to a friend I’d made there, “I’ll never be able to have this type of friendship again! No one in the real world will get bagels with me after I have a suicidal episode because my fake ID got taken! They’ll just leave because I’m acting like a fucking psycho!”
My friend responded, “I don’t know about you, but when I first got here, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, much less be friends with them. But over the course of time, I grew to love everyone here. The relationships you’ve made in this place are proof that you absolutely can do this again.”
4. You Can’t Be Bulimic on the Weekends
There’s a moment I’ve noticed tends to happen for most people about midway through recovery. It’s a common stage where you’ve been able to admit that that the eating disorder is detrimental to your wellbeing, but you’re also not ready to give it up completely. You want to keep the “good” parts of the eating disorder; the parts you think are still serving you.
Well, I’m suuuuuuper sorry to break this to you, but you can’t. You don’t get to be bulimic on the weekends.
And I’m going to be honest, deciding to officially surrender everything sucks ass. Your eating disorder serves a purpose for you. You wouldn’t be putting yourself through all this shit if it didn’t, and giving it up is really scary.
But you have to. You can’t experience all the beautiful things life has to offer if eating bread puts you in crisis mode.
5. It Can Be Fun, If You Let It Be
It’s very easy to fall into the disconsolateness of a place as intense as eating disorder rehab, but if you consciously make an effort to let yourself find humor in your situation, you will have an exponentially easier time.
I know this is going to be hard to believe, but in the midst of all the therapists looking at my poop and not being able to shave my armpits, some of the times I’ve laughed the hardest in my entire life happened during my residential stay. One time at dinner, my friend made me laugh so intensely that I literally had to run into the kitchen because I was worried I was going to throw up, and I didn’t want to trigger anybody.
When I entered residential, I hadn’t laughed in months. Seriously. I would do improv shows and completely bomb because I could not for the life of me find the humor in any situation. But one day, all the clients were asked to write and present letters to their younger selves. Most girls’ pieces leaned on the somber side, but I decided to write mine with a more lighthearted perspective. I was able to make the entire room laugh, without invalidating the very real pain that my eating disorder had caused me.
Now, whether I was actually funny, or that entertaining a room of incredibly under-stimulated girls isn’t the hardest feat, hearing their laughter sparked something in me that I never wanted to let go of. I started allowing myself to step outside the gloom that had previously felt encapsulating, and thusly felt my soul slowly start to repair itself. From then on, the atmosphere in treatment completely changed, and my recovery propelled forward.
6. Leaving Will Be Harder Than You Expect
Having entered into residential treatment feeling cynical and scared, I never would have expected to get attached, but I did. It was the first place I’d genuinely felt safe in a long time, and I didn’t want to leave that behind. Not only were the people around me understanding and supportive, I’d grown accustomed to an environment where I didn’t have much autonomy.
At first, not being able to make most of the decisions concerning where I went and what I did felt stifling. Eventually, however, I understood that I needed to let go of control surrounding things that didn’t matter as much (getting to have a cell phone, or like, not being watched while I peed) in order to give myself more space to focus on the things that did.
This environment that once had felt so restrictive now felt like the only semblance of sanctuary I had, and the emotional weight of my impending departure grew heavier with each minute that passed. An hour before my ride was scheduled to pick me up and drive me back to Queens, I decided to break the rules one last time and walk further out into the courtyard than was allowed, into the shaded area that isn’t as easily supervised.
I sank cross-legged into the grass and laid my head in my hands. I sighed as I nostalgically recalled the past six weeks, and my eyes grew misty. With my vision focused on the earth, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Anna, one of the mental health workers.
“Feeling a little weepy?” she asked.
“I’m just really going to miss this place,” I responded after a moment. “It’s so beautiful here.”
“It is,” she said, glancing over the immaculately landscaped grounds. “But there are other beautiful places.”
“I know,” I said, eyes still focused on the ground. “I’m just scared of convincing myself that Irvington is the only beautiful place I want to be at.”
It’s easy to romanticize treatment. It’s predictable, and therefore feels safe. As I said, there’s very little autonomy as a client, which can feel like a relief to some. It’s difficult to make the “wrong” decision if you’re barely making any decisions at all. But eventually I came to the realization that I craved adventure and love more than I wanted to feel in control and coddled.
There’s so much more to more to life than choosing between drinking a chocolate or vanilla Ensure, and you can’t see much of the world if you’re only allowed to walk twenty feet from the door.
About the Author: Haley Albright Johnston
Haley Albright Johnston is an comedian, writer, and singer living in Chicago. For years, Haley has dazzled audiences with her wit, charm, talent, beauty, radiance, and humble attitude. A Project Heal Grant Recipient, Haley is dedicated to continuing the dialogue around eating disorders and mental health, in hopes that creating a broader understanding will reduce the stigma surrounding those issues. You can follow Haley at @haley_albright on Twitter, and @haleyalbrightjohnston on Instagram.