10 Important Lessons From Eating Disorder Treatment

I’ve never been admitted to a psychiatric ward, but I experienced something quite similar: I spent 10 days inpatient, and a total of roughly three months outpatient, in a hospital unit dedicated solely to patients with eating disorders and their co-morbid problems. Here’s what I learned during that time, a little over a year ago:

1. Eating disorders are more than teenage girl problems. 

In treatment, I met teenage boys, middle-aged individuals and even a woman who was 80 years old. I was quite surprised to find I was one of the youngest kids in the group as a 19, almost 20-year-old (I turned 20 during my time in the program).

2. Eating disorders require hospitalization beyond the physical tolls they take. It helps with the psychiatric side, too. 

When I first went to the hospital for my eating disorder, I thought I wasn’t physically ill or “underweight enough” to be there. However, I learned aside from physical stabilization, the unit served as non-stop therapy. It served as a place to get your psychiatric medications stabilized and as a refuge from everyday life. It served as a way to “break the cycle” — to help stop disordered eating behaviors.

3. Someone doesn’t have to “look sick” to be very ill. 

Not everyone with eating disorders is severely underweight, but this does not mean the health complications that come from starving, purging, exercise abuse, and/or binge eating do not exist.

4. Life without technology can be quite nice and relieving.

There was only one hour of cell phone use a day, no Internet access and a cord-phone that looked like it appeared out of the 90s in each patient’s room (I even had to call an operator in order to get in touch with anyone…a strange feeling for a millennial like me!).

5. Sometimes, the eating disorder isn’t the only issue.

Alcoholism, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, traumatic stress disorder, etc. often occur alongside eating disordersYes, my eating disorder was both an additional manifestation of my OCD as well as my way of trying to control my up and down moods. 

6. On that note, research suggests eating disorders and addictions are similar.

I didn’t view eating disorders that way before I sought treatment. I met a number of individuals who were not only addicted to their eating disorder behaviors, but also alcohol and/or drugs. I found myself going through withdrawals from not being able to engage in certain behaviors associated with my eating disorder. It causes both psychological and physical effects that are painful.

7. When it comes to treatment, family therapy is essential. 

I believe it’s so important for families to understand what’s going on with their sick child (or spouse, partner, parent, etc.), regardless of the age of this person.

8. It’s OK to sit still and just be.

I really struggled with this one, and sometimes still do. It’s OK to be imperfect, it’s OK to not run or walk or pace all the time. It’s OK to sit and let your thoughts flow in and out without doing anything about them. This is true for everyone, not just people with eating disorders/mental illness.

9. The bond you make with people who’ve gone through an eating disorder or mental illness is unique and empowering. 

While I don’t necessarily regularly talk to those I spent time in treatment with, it was amazing to have them in my life during that time. I learned so much about the different things people of all ages and experiences go through. I learned how to be a better listener and I learned how to share myself. I learned how to both laugh and be serious. I learned where the deepest of friendships come from — from being open and vulnerable with zero judgment…you don’t need to be in the hospital to have these friendships with others. 

10. Everyone’s journey is different, but yours is what you need to focus on most. 

The comparing game sucks. While you can learn a lot from the journeys of others, keep focusing on you. Your journey matters. Your recovery matters. This was something I really had to learn, and I’m glad I finally did. 

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