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'Around Your World': The Moment I Finally Broke Free From My Eating Disorder

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With each step I take, deep heat sends shivers down my spine. One hundred and six degrees and yet I freeze. Grabbing the rubber band from my right wrist, I catch a glimpse of my green hospital bracelet – “no transport.” To think just yesterday I wasn’t allowed to walk more than 10 feet on my own for fear of causing myself a heart attack or fainting due to irregular orthos, all because of my eating disorder (ED).

I pull my hair back in a low ponytail, allowing my eyes to wander to the round pen I assume is the final destination for me and my therapist, Alan. I start to slow down my pace, watching Alan drag his feet and knuckles while leading with his belly. He turns his stubbly face back to me, adjusting his eyeglasses and making sure I don’t turn and make a run for it like some of his previous patients.

“I signed you up for experiential therapy with the horses. It’s called ‘Around Your World.’ I think it will help us to get you feeling some emotions.”

Though I normally jump at the chance to work with the horses, the murmurs I have heard from my peers about what an immense impact this exercise has on their recoveries causes my very limbs to tremble. My heart races as I begin to realize I have no idea what I am doing or how exactly I am expected to start “feeling emotions.” I had spent the past 11 years detaching myself from all sentiments. Now Alan – weird, awkward, male therapist Alan – expects me to look at some beautiful horses and fall to my knees in tears? What if I can’t do that? I forgot long ago how to cry, how to open my heart. Being vulnerable has never paid off, and I’ve been surviving fine without wearing my heart on my sleeve. Food, numbers, exercise, calories, laxatives, diuretics and purging keep me from feeling. Taking that away terrifies me. It’s comfortable and safe. I know it landed me in a hospital in the middle of nowhere, Arizona, but I just let it get out of hand. I can control this normally; it was just a bad couple of months. I don’t have any use for this experiential. I need to just go home and stop wasting my parents’ money. I am obviously not nearly as sick as some of the other girls here.

My thoughts break as Alan inquires where my mind has run off to.

“Oh, I was just thinking about how beautiful the mountains are out here. I love it,” I say without hesitation. My thoughts dissipate as I begin to take in my surroundings. I look within the pen and find a square block of hay in the center. Along the edges of the pen are five buckets, evenly spaced, filled with what I assume are horse pellets. “So what exactly are we doing here? Do I get to ride the horses, pet them, stare at them, throw pellets at them? What?”

With a deep chuckle Alan gazes at me with his all-knowing I’m-a-shrink-and-I-have-everything-under-control look. “When Amanda gets here, she will explain.”

As I lean up against the burning metal railings of the pen, I fidget with my yellow feeding tube and begin to count down the days until I can get back to my life. More importantly, I want to pull this plastic out of my nose that is pumping pure calories into my stomach, putting what I believe to be an unnecessary amount of meat on my bones. Just when I start to tear my appearance apart, fat roll by fat roll, rib by rib, Amanda appears, leading the horses Tyson and Jake down the hill from the stables. I smile to myself, thinking about how stubborn Tyson was yesterday in area therapy, as he tried desperately to take the reigns from me.

Amanda, who leads the forum for the Appaloosa community every Friday, greets me with a smile. As she ties the horses to their posts, she casually asks me how I am doing, probably knowing she’ll get the same answer I’ve given her the past two weeks.

“I’m really good, how about you?”

“So has anyone told you about this experiential?”

With my signature smile I shake my head no. She begins to explain the mechanics of the journey I am about to take. I listen as closely and as intensely as I can, desperately trying to hear her through the fog of malnourishment.

“OK, first you are going to take a piece of chalk, and on Tyson and Jake, you are going to write two aspects of your eating disorder.” Seeing my confusion, she continues, “Some girls might write ‘body image,’ ‘anger,’ or ‘depression’…”

Holding the damp blue chalk, I write the words ‘Control’ on Jake and ‘Shame’ on Tyson. Next, I am asked to name two individuals in my support system. My mentor Dawn, who actually found Remuda Ranch for me, is to be Amanda’s persona. Alan gets chosen to play my mother. That’s a strange thought – weird Alan pretending to be my mom. I am then told during the experiential, I will not be allowed to refer to Amanda or Alan by any other title than the names of my chosen supporters.

The five buckets of pellets surrounding the pen now have to be labeled with things I consider most precious. I write “God,” “Family,” “Friends,” “Theater” and
“Compassion” on large index cards and tape them to the edge of each bucket.

Amanda, aka Dawn, leads me into the center of the pen and instructs me to stand on the center of the block of hay.

“This square of hay represents your life. If you step off of it, you die. You are not allowed to leave it. You are standing in the center of your life. I am going to let “Shame” and “Control” into the pen, symbolizing aspects of your eating disorder, and your job is to keep them from eating away your passions and your life. Seeing as you can’t move, you have to utilize your mom and me. Simple enough, right? Except no one is allowed touch the horses. Just like you can’t physically see or touch your eating disorder, you won’t be able to physically touch the horses. Are you ready?”

Tyson and Jake enter the pen and immediately head toward “God” and “Family,” devouring with much force. It seems like hours pass as I patiently ask Alan and Amanda to protect the pellets – to protect my life. I watch them chase these horses around and around the pen, never once getting angry, just graciously doing as I ask.

Finally Amanda peers deep into my eyes and asks, “Why are you still smiling? Your eating disorder is wrecking your life.”

I feel frustration and pain bubbling up from the pit of my stomach as reality fades away and imagery and role-play encompass me. Suddenly, I am no longer standing in the middle of a horse pen, but looking at my life and fighting desperately for survival as my eating disorder slowly destroys everything. My smile fades.

I watch Dawn and Mom as looks of defeat set in on their faces. They’re tired. They did everything I asked, listened, supported me, but nothing they did made my eating disorder turn and run in the opposite direction. I feel my heart crumbling as I begin to comprehend how much the real Dawn and Mom have tried to help me and how much I’ve shut them out.

Looking around the pen, I realize how symbolic it is that the buckets are 50 feet away from me in all directions. I’ve secluded myself from my world to continue practicing my eating disorder. I’ve stopped talking to my friends and family, I haven’t done a show in a year and most importantly, my relationship with God is at a standstill.

Then I get the bright idea to move the buckets closer to me. If I start participating and involving myself in my world again, my eating disorder won’t have such free reign, right? With my passions closer, I could protect them, and my support would have an easier time as well. But “Shame” and “Control” follow the buckets to the center and continue to munch away without concern. I ask my support to stack the buckets on top of one another, but “Control” continues to eat my compassion, while “Shame” begins to slowly kill me by eating every last straw he can get his teeth on. If I move the stack to the left, “Control” moves to the left. If Dawn steps in front of “Shame,” he just goes around her. Overwhelming fear sets in. I’m going to die. Not just in this experiential, but in reality.

I am 20 years old, 5 foot 5 and only 89 pounds, and I have a prolonged QTC in my heart, failing intestines, elevated liver enzymes, amenorrhea, osteopenia, severe dehydration and severe malnourishment. The face of ED is finally visible, and it terrifies me. I can’t stop the horses. I can’t stop my eating disorder. I am dying.

Silence rings as I stand stranded in the middle of my disintegrating life. All I can hear is the chomping of horse pellets in a soothing rhythm. I’m feeling too much, so I begin shutting down out of fear. I look to Alan for rescue, and like a typical therapist, he asks me how I’m feeling.

“I’m… I’m frustrated. I can’t do this. It’s too much. I can’t stop it, this… the horses. I can’t. I really can’t do this.”

“Are you angry April?”

All of my experiences with anger have been traumatizing. I have never been allowed to get angry, according to my eating disorder, because it wouldn’t be safe. I would be out of control and end up hurting someone – just like the loved ones whose anger I’ve experienced.

“No, I can’t be angry. I don’t know how to be angry. I don’t get angry.”

“But is it OK to be angry with your eating disorder? “Shame” has almost killed you and “Control” has consumed all of your compassion and your relationship with God. ED is destroying your life, taking away everything you hold precious, even your very life, and you’re telling me you can’t be angry with him? Why?”

“I’m scared.”

I’m terrified of finally walking away from my eating disorder – of getting angry at him/it and recognizing my solace and comfort have really destroyed me. It’s all I’ve ever known. For 11 years I’ve convinced myself this eating disorder is my friend and that it would save me.

“Yes, it’s scary. But no one said recovery would be easy – just worth it. You have to get angry, April. You are a lovely girl with a big heart. You are a sweet spirit, but you can’t go through your life smiling like this or you won’t have a life at all. You have to get angry at your eating disorder – not at yourself or anyone else, but ED. You have to yell at him.”

“Go away. Get.”

“April, you aren’t yelling. You aren’t angry. What are you afraid will happen? Scream at it. It’s killing you.”

“I don’t think I can do it by myself. I can’t, I…”

“April, you are the only one who can save yourself from ED.”

It’s at that very moment, after 11 years of never shedding a tear, that the dam breaks and I begin to sob.

I scream louder, harder than I ever have. I want that f*cking eating disorder to leave my f*cking life alone. I’m tired. I’m exhausted of carrying the world on my shoulders, of feeling weak all the time, of hating my body, my life and the world. I want freedom, no matter how terrifying it may seem. This lump rising within my throat will be my white flag of surrender. Just as the pellets have disappeared, so has my entire essence. I’ve lost myself to this disease. ED has nearly destroyed me, but now it’s my turn to destroy him.

As my screams rise, a miracle happens. I see “Control” and “Shame” begin to shrink away, no longer interested in destroying me. I crumble to the ground, barely feeling the hay poking through my jeans. I’ve finally stood up to ED. I’ve finally seen him for who he truly is. In the depths of despair, I’ve found the strength of an army. I am sweetly broken. Wholly surrendered. For the first time in my life, I am ready to fight for myself and my world. I am ready to live.

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.

Originally published: August 4, 2016
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