I was going to title this post “What to Expect in Treatment,” but I feel that it is important to go in open-minded, and to keep in mind that there are many different approaches to treatment.
As a former patient of multiple treatment centers and multiple levels of care, I have had a lot of different experiences. My first experience in treatment was at the residential level of care. It was nicer than I expected – not hospital-like at all. It looked very homey, and there were positive affirmations written everywhere. There were various comfortable-looking spots to sit, and a huge shelf filled with craft supplies.
But then I looked over to the dining area and kitchen, and the realization hit me – I was going to have to eat, and follow a lot of rules that were brand new to me. I felt anxious, scared, and confused as to how I’d gotten into this whole eating disorder mess. I knew I needed to be there, and I was ready to do the work the program required.
Almost immediately after I walked in the door, a counselor came out and said that I had arrived at the perfect time to start preparing dinner. (The program I was in required all of the patients to cook and prepare their own food.) I felt overwhelmed and didn’t expect to eat so soon after I got there.
With the help of the counselor, I got my food. She then checked to make sure I had all of the foods on my plate that were listed on my meal plan. Once that was approved, I sat and just stared at that plate, thinking that there was no way I could eat that amount of food. My eyes began to well over in frustration – my eating disorder was screaming at me that I would get fat if I ate all of that food.
We began to play a game at the table (as to take away from the anxiety of eating that all of us faced), but it didn’t really help that evening. Night snack was not any easier. I went to bed that night and sobbed out of fear and frustration. I missed my family and my bedroom and my cat. I missed attending school. I missed that feeling of emptiness and hunger that had been numbing out my thought and emotions for so long. I thought to myself, “I’ve been here for five hours and I’m already breaking down. I can’t do this.”
After a few days of getting acclimated to my new surroundings, I began to feel ever-so-slightly more comfortable. The other residents were pretty cool people, and it was a bit of a comfort to know that we were all there for the same reason.
I learned where things were in the kitchen and how to contribute to the grocery list. I became familiar with the rules and daily schedule. Eating was still excruciatingly difficult and painful, and I was struggling with it. There were many meals where I had to receive a supplement drink because I just couldn’t finish the food on my plate. Sometimes I couldn’t finish the supplement, either.
The therapeutic groups and individual therapy sessions were extremely difficult as well. I began to actually face the issues that I had subconsciously blocked out with my eating disorder. I did a lot of journaling and processing my thoughts and feelings. I cried a lot.
What kept me going through all of this was thinking about all of the things I wanted for myself outside of my eating disorder, and eating for all of the people that wanted me to – my family, my minister at the church I attended, and a few other supportive people in my life.
It wasn’t until many years after being discharged from that program that I started to eat for myself - not because other people wanted me to, and not because my team of clinicians told me to. It a few more stints in treatment to accomplish this, and it was not an easy process in the slightest.
I really like the analogy that Demi Lovato uses to describe treatment:
“People think that you’re like a car in a body shop - you go in, they fix you, and you’re out, and you work like you’re brand new. It doesn’t work like that, you know? It takes constant fixing.”
This couldn’t be more accurate. I learned that recovery is a choice I had to make every day, whether inside the walls of a treatment center or not. By no stretch of the imagination was it easy to make that choice day after day – and that’s what made that choice worth it. Recovery is worth every agonizing bite of food, every minute spent in therapy, and every tear shed. It’s exhausting, I know. That eating disorder voice is strong – and you are stronger.
Alison is a passionate advocate for mental health awareness and recovery. She graduated from Salem State University in 2015 with a bachelor's in psychology, and returns to the school annually to speak about eating disorders and share her recovery story. Learn more about Alison on our Blog Squad page.