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The People Behind the Doors of the ‘Mental Hospital'

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The stereotypes of the psychiatric hospital rushed through my head when I heard the words, “You are detained under section two of the Mental Health Act.” I thought the psychiatric hospital was full of “crazy” people who were all abusive. I thought they were aliens who were scary, etc., etc. There was no way I was going to a psychiatric hospital when I only had a fear of food and had to recover from anorexia. I was not actually one of those “scary people in the mental hospital.

I arrived shaking and worrying I might get something chucked at me. I entered and there were 17 girls, aged between 12 through 17. They were all welcoming. We sat down in community group, and I was introduced to them all. I start worrying that maybe all this was an act and there weren’t actually people calmly painting canvases to decorate the walls and playing “Mario Cart” on the Wii.

During my first evening in the psychiatric hospital, I sat crying on the phone to my parents, and a patient came and hugged me. I never thought a patient in a “mental hospital” would be kind enough to hug me. From that moment, I thought maybe the psychiatric hospital was not filled with“crazy people,” an idea that had been derived from all the stereotypes.

I spent four months at the psychiatric hospital and every day I received immense kindness and support from all the people there. I was placed on the eating disorders unit to recover from anorexia. However, I did often have social interaction with the generalized mental health unit in the hospital, too.

I never thought I would be able to make friends with people in the hospital. Yet, to this day, they are some of my closest friends. We all have a group chat where we talk about how well we are doing and about how there is life outside the hospital. I also never thought I would be arranging sleepovers and meeting up with the “crazy people,” but that’s happening, too.

I have received handwritten letters under my hospital bedroom doorstep from the patients who have self-harm scars all up their arms and across their legs. I have received so much love and positivity quotes from people who cannot feed themselves. I have laughed and had dance parties with people who, like me, are sectioned under the Mental Health Act because they cannot take care of themselves. I have gone on outings with people who have to take medication for their mental health conditions. I’ve had people write messages on the mirror, including the words, “You’re beautiful,” and “You have the most amazing body.” These are the same people who cannot even think to associate those words with themselves. I have had the most beautiful, happiest conversations with people who saw people who were invisible to others.

I learned a lot from the psychiatric hospital. I learned more than how to recover from anorexia. I learned people with mental illness care so much for others. I had people stay up with me to help me stop crying about how much I missed my family. I had other patients tutor me in my studies when I was too sad to even open a textbook. I had patients crochet me a blanket and hold my hand and wipe my tears through meal times.

I met the most amazing people in the psychiatric hospital. People with mental health conditions are not scary. They are in fact the kindest people I know. And that is the one thing I wish I knew about people who live with mental health disorders.

Image via Thinkstock.

 

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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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What It's Like Having an Eating Disorder the First Week of College

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For my family and friends on Facebook, it comes as no surprise when I tell them I started college this week. They’ve liked and commented on my photos, wishing me well and sending good vibes. But for my new college peers, they may be surprised to find out I have an eating disorder.

I chose my college for the way I felt when I stepped onto campus. The cliché that we always hear from student recruiters is my truth. I feel at home there. Not to mention my scholarship package made it an offer I couldn’t turn down, and I was on my way to committing myself to the university before someone had a chance to ask me if I was sure about my decision. I didn’t have to question whether or not I chose the right university, and I still don’t.

As a freshman, I found myself pondering the typical dilemmas of a college student. What if I gain the “freshman 15”? How am I going to keep all of my classes straight? Can I have a social life and an extra-curricular filled schedule all while maintaining my GPA?

But, I also found myself pondering the typical dilemmas of an individual with anorexia. What if I relapse again? How am I going to keep myself ‘sane’? Can I maintain recovery? These are the “intrusive thoughts” they talked about in treatment.

My university put together a four day program known as “Orientation Adventures,” something I have found to be a huge blessing in terms of starting college. It has allowed me to begin on the first day already having a sweet group of friends. I realized on the first day at the ballpark how much of college is focused on eating as a social event, mac n’ cheese cups because that’s all we can afford and Walter’s cookies from the Marketplace, which are just too hard to say no to. As someone in recovery, I found myself excited for a future of eating intuitively, but wondering, with just a small ounce of fear, how I would ever get there.

Having an eating disorder during the first week of college isn’t a glamorized story told online about a beautiful girl who got so stressed with her workload, peer expectations and college life that she starves herself to feel something. Having an eating disorder during the first week of college is comparing myself to every girl I saw each day. It’s the sick jealousy of wanting to change the body that people keep trying to convince me is beautiful. Having an eating disorder during the first week of college is eating significantly more than I am used to. All the while, I am trying to brush it off as “eating like a football player” or “loving these cookies so much I can’t stop,” but really I am just trying to keep my cool through each and every meal with peers.

Having an eating disorder during the first week of college is wearing a bathing suit at the amusement park and jumping around in the wave pool with my friends. Yet, I am feeling as if I have to keep myself covered and contained as I have such awful thoughts about my body. Having an eating disorder during the first week of college is not all bad, but don’t get the idea that having an eating disorder during college is any kind of good.

Let me explain. Having an eating disorder during the first week of college is being willing to explain why I’m eating so much, as my weight rehabilitation plan requires a higher intake. Having an eating disorder during the first week of college is being honest about my struggle and telling stories of the stipulations and restraints I was up against during my hospitalizations. Having an eating disorder during the first week of college is asking how I can bring my eating disorder awareness campaign to campus to teach both guys and girls about the severity of these disorders and how negative body image can impact each and every one of us.

I have an eating disorder, and I just completed my first week of college orientation. I have an eating disorder, and I am growing. I am healing. I am pushing forward.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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When You Feel Like You Can’t Escape the Flames of Anorexia

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Editor’s note: This piece contains descriptions of disordered eating that might be triggering for some. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had issues with my body image and the overall picture of myself in my mind. As young as 8 years old, I was referred to as “the ugly kid” and “the anorexic girl” – when we were all too young to really understand what anorexia really was. Being naturally tall and thin placed me as an ideal candidate for the judgmental comments and stares as others always wondered if I did truly did starve myself to be a model or accepted by the peers who never seemed to be interested in legitimate friendships.

Fast forward 10 years later, and I am struggling to recover from my eating disorder for the second time. The disorder I was accused of having as a child entered my life full-fledged two years ago and hasn’t given me a chance to breathe since.

Imagine setting up a fire pit. You start with the burning site, your body. Over the years, you are collecting sticks and firewood – each piece coming from your stressors, judgments, unmet expectations, mistakes, and core beliefs. After a period of time, you strike a match and light the fire. But it’s not enough. With anorexia, it is never enough. The fire starts to dwindle, and one day you find yourself in the grips of the disease – which leads you to the gasoline. You pour the gasoline on the fire, and it goes up in flames – burning, messy flames. That is what it is like to start the fire of anorexia.

Once your fire is left burning for a time, you can feel yourself getting cold, so you move closer. You move closer, and closer, and closer, until you feel the heat too closely and burn yourself. You jump away in pain and angst, but your coolness remains, and you return to the heat of the flames. This is what it feels like to look in the mirror or step on the scale time after time after time. You throw yourself into the fire even though you know how badly it hurts and burns your body.

Being self-conscious of my recovering body feels like it should be normal, but I have tried to disconnect myself from my body so I do not have these feelings. Most days, I am content with making weight and feeling healthier and happier, but nights like tonight I struggle to see through to the positives. It isn’t until I see people in the place I used to be, physically and mentally, that I long for the days I was deep in the fire with a sick sense of jealousy.

I find myself looking around my unit at the hell other women and men have wreaked upon their bodies. I long for the thin, for the depressed, for the scars that line the arms of the other patients. I ask myself, “Why do you want that?” and the only response seems to come back is that there is something about my disease that makes me special, or unique, or that there is a strength associated with the discipline of the behaviors. This is where my cognitive distortions find their burning ground.

The other night, I looked in the mirror and traced the shape of my body with my index finger. The curves of a woman were there, the hips that will help me to carry a child in the future are there. The curves of my legs, indicative of the strength that exists within them to help me move and navigate the world on a daily basis, are there. My two-minute experience with the mirror was gratifying, yet scary, because I didn’t know it was possible to see my reflection and not hate what I was looking at.

I am struggling to accept with a sense of peace my body in the beginning stages of a second shot at recovery. I have not stepped back into the fire by any means, and it is my goal to refrain from returning to the intimacy of the flames. However, some days I find myself comparing my body to others’ bodies, both those with and without an eating disorder. I guess what I am trying to say is if this is where you are, I feel your pain, too. I feel the chill of the disorder, and the heat of the flames begging me to return so I can have the body my disordered thoughts believe I should have.

Even though I am feeling the temptation of the flames, I have felt the warmth of the sun on the other side of this battle, and would rather walk by the sun than the fire any day.

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To the Professor Who Asked My Friend With Anorexia to Drop His Class

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Dear My Best Friend’s Professor,

I wanted to start off by letting you know I think you’re amazing. I don’t know the extent of what you do here at UCLA, but I do know in order to have reached your esteemed position at this university, you have done incredible research and have played a huge part in shaping the minds of tomorrow. For these things, I thank you.

I’m writing to you because I didn’t feel I could adequately express my concerns on the quarterly evaluation form. As you know, your student (my best friend) has been in treatment for her mental health-related difficulties. And as you are well aware, this has taken a toll on her class performance.

My best friend was diagnosed with anorexia this quarter. Her condition steadily worsened to the point that her resting heart rate was measured at 42 beats per minute when it should have been around 60-100. Anorexia was killing her. She should have been hospitalized on the spot.

Through steady support and love, I pushed her to pursue an intensive partial hospitalization treatment program. I wanted to talk to you about what this looks like practically, because, as indicated by your responses to her, I am led to believe you don’t fully know what treatment for her mental illness looks like.

My best friend’s treatment is three days a week, from 8:15 in the morning to 3:15 in the afternoon, and for those seven hours she is asked to confront her greatest fears. She is asked to consume food, something her anorexia screams at her for doing. She is asked to gain back weight that her anorexia stole from her, convincing her of the lie that without the weight maybe she could someday be worthy of love. She is asked to engage fully in the program — mentally, physically and emotionally — when all she wants to do is run out the door and never look back.

When you told her to work harder, she heard you say she wasn’t good enough. When you asked her to drop your class, she heard you say she was a failure. When you brought in her department counselor to convince her again to drop your class, she heard you say she doesn’t deserve to be at UCLA at all. I encourage you to consider that maybe being enrolled in your class is the only thing in her life that makes her feel normal.

Professor, you aren’t the only educator at this school that has said things like this to students struggling with mental illness. I’ve had friends that, in the midst of anxiety attacks, have been told by their professors to sit back down and finish their tests. I’ve heard professors mock mental illness, misuse the words “depressed,” “bipolar” and “psychotic,” and, without realizing it, promote stigma and isolate students with mental health difficulties.

I don’t believe any of these professors intended to hurt their students. I believe these reactions and statements speak more to the culture of stigma than they do of the professors themselves. That being said, even though these professors may not have intended harm, the reality is, they have harmed. I challenge you and your fellow educators not to make a student’s mental health difficulties their problem, but instead to recognize that cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is our problem, and it is vital we take steps to change this paradigm. As a professor, you are in the unique position to do this, starting with the way you treat students like my best friend.

Professor, my best friend is smart, driven and capable. Every single day she walks into the hospital, she has to put aside her anxieties and trust in the hope that this grueling treatment program will afford her some freedom from this debilitating affliction. I urge you to consider this is not just about her class performance, this is about her life and value as a human being. I ask that instead of pouring your energy into kicking her out of the class, pour it into supporting her in the best way you can by offering extensions to her when things get particularly hard, checking in on her feelings and just understanding that she is a human being before she is a student.

Help me celebrate her for fighting this illness. Help me celebrate her for fighting for her education despite this struggle. Help me celebrate the fact that she is still here with us. The way you and I respond to her in this critical time affects the way she will continue to seek treatment for the rest of her life. I urge you to understand and take this responsibility seriously, because it truly is a matter of life and death for her and for so many students.

Sincerely,

Your student’s best friend

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When You Feel Like You Don't 'Deserve' an Anorexia Diagnosis

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Throughout my childhood, I dealt with various traumas by chronically over-eating. By college, I had gained enough weight to be considered medically obese. At 19, I decided to diet, but my perfectionism took over; it turned to restriction. Whenever my body couldn’t handle restriction, I’d go back to overeating for a few days (not enough to be considered a binge), using exercise as a means to purge. Guilt would inevitably set in after a few days and I would resort to restriction. Eventually, it progressed to exercising in the mornings so that I could restrict all day, being able to put my weight-loss at maximum speed. If I could’t get both in, I was sure to purge by any means possible. I got down to a “normal” weight within three months — which, to most, was an achievement. However, professionals and people with eating disorder in my life knew how dangerous it was and I finally decided to get help.

Fast forward three years: I have been through an intensive outpatient program and have not been back since I discharged. Now, once a week, I sit in a room with women talking about struggling to maintain their almost-underweight bodies, scared of all the foods I love to eat and worried they won’t be able to eat enough by the end of the day. My eating disorder loves to tell me how terrible I am at having an eating disorder; that these women are what I am supposed to be — I am weak for eating things like donuts, ice cream and cake so easily and regularly. I am a phony for not being as thin as them. I worry about struggling not to over-eat rather than under-eat. I make it up because I seem to improve in areas of my eating disorder quicker than most. I am underserving of an eating disorder diagnosis because I am a restricter who actually still needs to lose weight. I’m not even a proper “bulimic” because I never went too extreme with any of the binging/purging behaviors.

I have atypical anorexia.

Despite my eating disorder (as well as misinformed people in my life) telling me my eating disorder isn’t “bad,” my thoughts are what are severe. My eating disorder is always there, always lying. I never get a break. I went into treatment when the thoughts took over my life and I could’t function normally anymore.

But I belonged there. I “deserve” my diagnosis. I am not supposed to be a certain way to know my eating disorder is valid. Before I could start recovering, I had to accept this. To keep going, I have to accept that my eating disorder is what it is; my body is where it is at. One day my body may be different, but it is all a process; it doesn’t make me any lesser than the thinner eating disorder warriors that surround me every Thursday evening — we’re all fighting for our best lives.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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On the Other Side of an Eating Disorder

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My eating disorder began at a young age. It wasn’t about me trying to look like the models on television. It wasn’t a means of getting attention. I had always been an overachiever, wanting to have the best grades or be the best daughter. To put it in perspective, I was already Googling what the requirements for Harvard were before going into junior high school. There was so much I wanted to do. There was so much I wanted to become and so much of that felt out of my immediate control.

I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly why or how my preadolescent mind came to the conclusion that starving myself would be my ultimate channel of controlling at least one aspect my life, but it did. To me, my eating was the only thing completely in my power. There were no variables. There were no external forces that could alter what I put into my body, how much I decided to exercise or how much weight I could lose. Queue not even three months later, I was hospitalized for having a heart attack. My body could no longer take the physical toll I had been forcing on it.

Thankfully, in a darkly humorous way (if you don’t laugh, then you cry after all), I was in the right place at the right time for my heart to give out. My parents had admitted me to the hospital earlier that day after finally having enough of seeing their firstborn child starve herself within an inch of her life.

I would like to say this was the reality check I needed to stop harming my body. Yet, I was too far down the rabbit hole. My eating disorder had wrapped its suffocating vines around every inch of my mind. There is a happy ending though. I promise.

A year and a half later, I finally got the help I needed. It took a lot of work and involved me having to be admitted to an eating disorder recovery facility for nine months. My days revolved around every type of therapy under the sun: horse therapy, art therapy, music, meditation, group, family and one-on-one. I knew so much about therapy that I was basically the Freud of 13-year-olds. I’m now 21 and happy at what I’ve accomplished and who I’ve become. I have a job I love, a body I can rely on and friends and family who mean the world to me.

I don’t regret what I went through. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to the person I am today if not having gone through what I did. Instead of having to learn through struggling through your own eating disorder, I want to share the lessons I learned that help guide me. If you are struggling or know someone that is, hopefully these can help you with your courageous battle.

1. Play nice, and put yourself in one another’s shoes.

This one is simple, elegant and can save you a lot of time and frustration when dealing with people in your daily life. Your mom probably told you growing up to play nice, and I think far too often we forget to do this with people who we may not take the time to understand. The people I met, who were struggling with the same disease I was, were and are some of the most remarkable, inspirational women I have ever had the honor of meeting. Their eating disorders, however, could be pretty ugly. What I mean by this is the person who is seemingly a jerk in front of you may just be someone going through a difficult time. Why make someone’s day harder than it needs to be?

The truth is, a lot of times, unless you are that person, you’ll never fully understand what it is they’re going through. So listen to your mother’s words and do your best to put yourself in their shoes and play nice. You’ll save yourself the energy that goes into being frustrated, and maybe help someone open up about their issues.

2. I can do anything and everything.

This one’s a biggie, and when it sounds overtly confident, it’s meant to. I can and I will do anything and everything I decide to put my mind to. No challenge will compare to having to battle the demons that go along with overcoming a mental disorder. I don’t just have a toolbox of gadgets in how to overcome obstacles, I have a Home Depot of Freudian supplies at my disposal.

I’m not saying things don’t get overwhelming or are hard at times. I get upset and stressed with finals. I get into arguments with my sister and mess up at work. What I’m saying applies to everyone. You’re stronger than you think. Whatever issue you have, no matter how big it seems, is not bigger than you. If you allow yourself to ask for help, then you can and will beat whatever issue is in front of you.

3. Your looks don’t matter and neither do anyone else’s.

Society tells us at an early age that your value is based on your appearance. This applies to both men and women. Whether it be the guy needing a Rolex and six-pack to be happy or the girl who feels she needs a thigh gap paired with a set of Ds to be be pretty. I don’t think most people with an eating disorder have one because they just wanted to be thin. For me, it was wanting control in my life. For others, it’s a form of escape. Eating disorders are not typically contrived from a person’s desire to be the next Victoria’s Secret model. As an eating disorder progresses there does, however, become a fixation on appearance as being a measurement for your worth.

4. Not being OK is OK.

Who said struggling is a sign of weakness? Or that it’s not OK to not be OK? I’d like to think it takes a lot more bravery to swallow your pride or fear of judgment and ask for the help than to pretend everything is fine. I am fairly open about discussing what I’ve gone through. I do this because I want mental illness, or any struggle for the matter, to stop being a taboo topic of conversation. In telling my story, I have gotten to hear others’ inspiring accounts of their own battles or those of a loved one. I’ve gotten to have people come up to me and say how reassuring it is for them to have someone attest to the fact there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there are others out there who understand. No one is perfect. No one goes through life seamlessly, and by opening yourself up and being OK with that level of vulnerability you can receive waves of support from people who want to help.

5. A strong body is the best type of body.

An analogy my good friend says is to treat your body the way you would treat your puppy. Would you starve your dog? Would you run your dog until it almost collapses or treat it like it’s worthless? I sure hope not. Treat yourself to the occasional dessert because you’ve earned it. Look in the mirror and see your body as perfectly imperfect. Work hard to love your body and yourself for all of its amazing capabilities, loyalty and effort in keeping yourself alive and well.

I don’t always feel confident about my body. There are times when I think it’s too fat, too pale or whatever nit-picky thought that won’t leave my head. However, it’s my body, and it’s the only one I’ve got to last me a lifetime. It’s a body that by treating right, has allowed me to climb mountains, go to the other side of the country for school and travel to other continents. It’s a body that will allow me to do whatever else I decide to do in a life that never would’ve possible if I weren’t healthy and if I hadn’t learned what I had from my eating disorder.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

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