This post offers a lot of details/numbers, symptom use, and warning signs, so if you are easily triggered please click on another post to read!
Before I can really offer any advice, I must first share my story.
Middle school was very rough for me, since most of my close friends had gone to different schools, and the academics were not challenging at all. During these three years I was very socially anxious and not confident in myself; I missed out on numerous opportunities because of this. I also had slight OCD, having compulsions to do things a certain number of times; however, this wasn’t serious. Finally, I started at a new, more academically-advanced school my first year of high school. It was where one of my closest friends had gone to the year before, and so I decided to try it out as well. It was (and still is) INCREDIBLE!!! I absolutely adore the academics there- I was finally stimulated and interested. The school is very small, so I got to know everyone intimately, and formed strong bonds with people that I now call my very best friends. However, there was still an underlying layer of shyness and very low self-esteem. The body-image part did not present itself as much as the low confidence in myself and my abilities did, though. But, for the most part, freshman year was truly a blissful experience. It thus came as a surprise when my eating disorder appeared.
It all began late April/early May of 2019, during a vacation to Disney World with my family. I remember being very self-conscious about myself and my physical appearance on that trip, even though I looked completely and perfectly fine. I started thinking about the calories listed on menus for the first time in my life; I even remember crying to my mom about feeling guilty for having had pizza. This was not normal teenage behavior, but I didn’t think much of it. When we got back home, I started having more of these abnormal thoughts. It started off innocently enough: I’m just trying to be “healthy”, I’m getting rid of extra/unnecessary sugar, that’s all; I’m going to start eating more organic, whole foods; I’m going to exercise more. Although on the surface this reasoning seems perfectly fine, it quickly escalated into rigid rules and an unhealthy relationship with food. If you notice this happening to yourself or a loved one, PLEASE keep an eye out for them and make sure it doesn’t turn into a strict rule that must be followed. I suddenly found myself checking the calories on the back of every single food product available; it turned into this sort of sick game of “which granola has the least calories?” “Which salsa has 3 calories instead of 5?” and so on. I could no longer eat before 7 AM or after 7 PM without feeling very guilty. My list of foods to avoid kept growing and growing, and if I was able to skip a meal or eat a little less I was overwhelmed with pride and a sense of strong will-power. Each time the number on the scale dropped, I felt more intelligent, more powerful, more cunning.
The thing is, this had never been an issue before- I was always on the slimmer side, I loved food, I was relatively neutral towards my body. I guess this was all a manifestation of pushed-down social anxiety, stress about school and grades, my confidence in myself, body image, and that slight OCD. All of these, although not defining factors, make an individual much more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. If either you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, look out for them and make sure it doesn’t escalate into anything serious. I strongly encourage getting therapy!
END OF THE YEAR/ACADEMICS
By the end of the school year, it had gotten really bad. I clearly recall coming in to school to take my AP US History exam, and being so malnourished and fatigued I could barely think. We had a break in the middle of it for lunch; my lunch was a singular hard-boiled egg. The amazing thing is, I still managed to get a 5 on that exam. I simply cannot imagine what could have happened to my academics if my eating disorder had started earlier in the year. This clearly shows the toll eating disorders have on your brain; even if you do not have anorexia specifically, an eating disorder still distracts your brain and denies it the proper nutrients it needs to think properly. Losing your capabilities to learn and question is NOT WORTH IT.
Now, at the beginning of summer, my mom finally realized something was very wrong. She took me to the doctor’s for a regular check-in, and got the news that I was terribly underweight- 91 pounds for a growing 5’5 girl. The doctor gave us a week for me to get my weight back up, and if that didn’t happen he’d recommend an eating disorder facility. Both my mom and I were so terrified of this news, since we had never dealt with mental illnesses before, much less something as severe as an eating disorder. I don’t think either of us really accepted the doctor’s diagnosis; we simply could not believe that such a thing was happening to me. That was our mistake. We came in the next week with my weight the same, if not lower; nonetheless, we completely disregarded the doctor’s recommendations, not wanting to think that it was that bad. Our family had made plans for the summer that we really did not want to cancel, and we just didn’t want to admit that I had anything wrong with me. Looking back on it now, I really wish we had sought treatment as early as possible. Even if none of us wanted it to be real, had I gone to treatment at the beginning of the summer it would have spared us so many tears and misery. Please listen to specialists’ advice; going on trips and participating in life is not a good choice if you are really only semi-living.
So, we continued on, my weight getting lower and lower by the day. I was miserable, tired, AND FREEZING. I remember having to sit outside in the blazing heat to try and get just a little warm, but it would never help. My fingers were freezing and purple, and my vision was always tinted with a shade of blue. I was exhausted all the time, and yet I still compulsively exercised and tried to be as active as possible. I couldn’t think clearly, I was always depressed and miserable. Nothing brought me joy. I was constantly thinking about food; everything revolved around it and planning the next meal. Whenever I went out, all I could see was restaurants and food-related shops. It was a miserable excuse for a life. My fifteenth birthday on June 20th was quite possibly the worst birthday I have ever had. I had a photo-shoot as a present, in which I looked like a physically-drained skeleton; the photographer had to photo-shop the blue out of my hands and arms, and my face had so little fat that my cheek bones were on full- and not very appealing- display. Afterwards, I had a breakdown over food and a devastating argument with my dad at a restaurant. What was supposed to be an amazing day ended with tears, anger, shame, and fear.
OUR CONTINUED MISTAKES
Soon after this I went to a 10-day trip to Europe with my school; it was an incredible experience, but I was so tired and malnourished that I barely could enjoy it. We did so much walking and touring, but I couldn’t even eat the meals they gave us, thus denying my body of nutrients it badly needed. When I got back home from the trip my weight was at 85 pounds. This was absolutely terrifying for my entire family; this wasn’t a joke anymore, it was a matter of life or death.
Unfortunately, we still did not get help. We lived vicariously, through terrible arguments and negotiations; we went to all the places we had planned to go, like the beach (where I threw away food whenever I could, was self-conscious about wearing a bathing suit, and could not swim in the water because I was too cold), and Canada to visit my aunt (where I argued with my family constantly, wasted food that my aunt had spent her hard-earned money on, and had to bring packed food everywhere I went because eating at restaurants was too scary). I kid you not, this was literal hell. If we had just gone to a treatment facility at the beginning of the summer like our pediatrician had recommended, I could have much more fulfilling and happy vacations. However, I really did not want to believe I had anything wrong with me. I was very adamant about my actions being “healthy”; even by the end of the summer, I was in denial. My point here is, acknowledge the warning signs, don’t try to deny the illness, and seek treatment as soon as possible.
BEGINNING OF TREATMENT (finally!)
After those terrible, terrible experiences, during which I was so undernourished that I was never happy or energetic, we went home. My mom had scheduled an appointment with an outpatient facility (the lowest level of care) earlier in the summer, and their first available slot was for August 20th. So, on August 20th, we went to the hospital, expecting a magic cure that would help. Instead, we were informed that I was at an astonishingly low weight of 81 pounds, and was transferred immediately to inpatient (the highest level of care); I was brought to the cardiology department by wheelchair. I was in extreme danger of a heart attack, with my heart beat below 35.
I had stood on death’s door step.
This experience of having to lay in a hospital bed all day; of clutching my mom in the middle of the night when the heart monitor beeped to inform me my heart beat was below 30 (my dad had stayed home to take care of my little brother); of being wheeled around in a wheelchair- all of this truly shook me to the core. I will never be able to forget those six days of unremitting fear.
Finally, after 6 days, my heart rate was high enough to be able to transfer me directly to Renfrew’s residential facility via an ambulance. There are five levels at Renfrew, level 1 being the lowest and level 5 the highest. Most people with a stable or close-to-stable weight come into residential at level 3; I came in at level 1, bound to a wheelchair. For two weeks, I was on strict bedrest, unable to move or go to groups. After those 2 weeks of torture, I was finally able to do things. I made absolutely amazing friends, and went to therapy for the first time in my entire life. The average stay for residential is 4-6 weeks, but I was there for 8 because of my weight. However, even though it was incredibly painful and heart-breaking to sit in a strange, unreal place, knowing that the real world is going on right beyond the “speed bump” (there is a speed bump that marks the spot residents can’t go beyond), I am so glad I got to be able to stay there as long as I did. I was able to get all the way to level 5, F.O. (the highest level of dining), and T-stage (the highest level of group-therapy). I really got the full-blown experience, and was so affected by the whole process that I have an overflowing level of motivation and confidence in myself. Thank you, Renfrew, for saving my life.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH DAY-PROGRAM
After that I went to day-program for one week, then IOP for another. Both of these were not very useful for me, because a lot of the groups were essentially the same as- if not less beneficial than- residential’s. The stages of recovery others were at were not very similar to my own. My experience with day-program was that it was more laid-back, less structured, and generally quite repetitive. I felt it was not benefiting me. Thus, my parents discharged me from day-treatment, and we moved to outpatient. However, I highly encourage you to try day-program if you are looking for some kind of treatment, as it is a good segue into therapy and has a very welcoming community! It is truly a great resource, with a nutritionist and therapist built in. It simply did not work out as well for me, but that doesn’t mean it won’t help you!
My first day back at school was probably one of the best days in my entire life. After all that therapy, I finally felt confident in myself; coming back with such a healthy mindset was an incredible relief. I simply cannot express in words how overwhelmingly grateful I was that day; I was grateful for being able to use my legs, grateful for being warm, grateful for being able to see the changing leaves. I had not expected to cry, but when I left the car and looked back at my mom we both burst into tears. I walked into school to sign in at the sign-in sheet, and saw my entire group of friends waiting there for me. I let my tears flow out like a broken dam; my heart was so full for them, for my teachers, for my darling school! When I got to my first class, physics, I could not stop smiling– I was able to learn new, fascinating material, in a real life classroom! Something I value so much is knowledge and learning new things, and my eating disorder took that away from me by not giving my brain the nutrients it needs to function. That fateful Monday morning, I was able to take one step closer towards getting rid of my disorder for good. I was overjoyed to finally be around the people I love most, and be able to actually live life to its absolute fullest after “half living” for such a long time. With my eating disorder, I may have been happy, but I was never JOYFUL. That day, I was able to very distinctly tell the difference between the two.
This is a shout out to my friends, who have supported me since day one, faithfully coming to visit me in a place that may seem very intimidating from an outsider’s point of view. I love you guys so much, from our never-ending Instagram chats, to our numerous inside jokes, to our easy-going conversations, to just being able to be my authentic myself around you. I love you 🙂
And thank you, Mama, Papa, Misha (my little brother), Babushka (my grandma), and Ruthie (my cat). Thank you for being patient; thank you for never losing faith. Thank you for taking time out of your hectic days to see me, thank you for religiously coming to family therapy. Thank you. I am forever indebted to you for all the trauma I put you through, and I hope that one day I will be able to repay you somehow.
I love you. And the adventure continues…