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I Was Force-Fed for My Eating Disorder: Now, I'm Grieving

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

When I was just 13 years old, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and entered an outpatient program for children and adolescents with eating disorders. What should have been my last year of middle school before entering high school that following year signaled the beginning of a string of long-term institutionalization.

The amount of complex trauma that long-term institutionalization results in is not often talked about. We as a society tend to associate hospitals with healing and recovery: places of hope and safety. For me, I now live with complex PTSD because of the neglect, mistreatment, abuse and dehumanization that came along with long-term psychiatric institutionalization.

I was first hospitalized when I was 14 years old, after about a year of not progressing on the outpatient level. I had gone to the doctor to get my weight and vitals routinely monitored as part of the eating disorder treatment protocols, and after my doctor noticed significant deterioration in my vital signs and weight, she called an ambulance. The ambulance transported me to the local children’s hospital where I was hospitalized on the medical psychiatric unit: a unit for children and adolescents with co-occurring psychiatric and medical diagnoses, one of the most common diagnoses seen being eating disorders.

The re-feeding process (learning how to physically and emotionally tolerate and adjust to proper amounts of nutrition after prolonged starvation) was incredibly painful. I struggled tremendously with getting myself to physically walk into the dining room and sit down in front of food. On my second day of the hospitalization, I was unable to complete a supplement to replace the food that I didn’t eat, and a nurse ushered me into a side room labelled “the treatment room.” I sat down on a cold, paper-claud table as the nurse spoke. I still remember every word she said to me. She said, “You didn’t meet the expectation today at breakfast. We now have to help you.”

She held up a clear tube and told me it would be passed down my nose, down my throat, and into my stomach, and then she would take a syringe, fill it up with nutritional supplement, and push it into the tube into my stomach.

I panicked. I began to hyperventilate and remember vividly covering my nose with my hands and even promising to drink the supplement. I was given no choice. The nurse told me, “If you can’t be compliant and allow me to put in the tube, I’m going to have to get people to help.” She gestured towards a restraint board propped up against the wall. “We’ll have to use that.”

I tried to calm myself down. She removed the tube from the packaging and held up against my nose to measure. She gave me a cup of water to hold on to. She lubricated the tube and began to push it down my nose. When it reached my throat, she instructed me to sip water. My body and mind were actively fighting back against the tube insertion and I kept gagging as the tube hit my throat. She pushed the supplement as I cried. She said nothing reassuring or comforting. In fact, she barely engaged with me at all.

I had never felt more dehumanized. My body didn’t feel like mine.

For years following that first tube feed, I spent years of my life in and out of hospitals being force-fed for the treatment of my eating disorder. At one point in my life, I spent a several month-long admission getting forcibly tube-fed six times a day, to the point of physical damage.

Now, I am left with nothing but grief.

As an abuse survivor, being force-fed as an adolescent took away any semblance of control that I felt like I still had over my own body. Today, I’m still picking up the pieces of extensive trauma that these incidents caused me. I am still grieving what happened to me. I am still hurt by the lack of dignity the staff spoke to me with. Being force-fed intrinsically changed my view on myself.

Today, I am 21 years old, and I am still grieving for the teenage version of me who never got a chance to not be OK. The teenager version of me ate out of fear of being restrained, not because she felt worthy of food.

I am 21 years old, and I am still unlearning the terror and dehumanization that my (at the time) local children’s hospital instilled in me. I have learned to associate my body with shame. I have learned to associate “care” with pain. I have learned that I must “comply.” I have learned to be silent and stoic and to do what is “expected of me.”

I never got a chance to grieve. Where is the outrage for people like me?

Where is the advocacy for people like me?
What happens to children who are traumatized by the system that was created to help them?

Getty image by Ponomariova_Maria

Originally published: February 1, 2022
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