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Why the Key to Surviving Eating Disorder Treatment Is the People There With You

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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.

I have found there is no way to survive treatment without forming deeply intense connections with the other people walking through their own personal hell beside you. You bond instantly, not needing words to know you understand the same pain. You smile-grimace as you pass on the way to 5 a.m. vitals, cry through pizza night, and give them a hug at the end of a day that felt like it would never end.

These are the people who trade you “tips” on how to minimize calories at morning snack, and also the ones who go bite for bite with you, not allowing your eating disorder to win at the next meal. You take nutrition supplements together, throw ice, teach each other how to solve Rubik’s Cubes and cry through the outside world events that you miss while in treatment. You play endless games of Bananagrams together and share inspirational quotes that get you through another minute, another meal, another month.

These are the people who speak your languages: the self-torturous eating disorder jargon in your head; the treatment lingo of dialectics, exchanges and mindfulness. This is who you turn to when a shake filled with ice cream and heavy cream gets added to your already full meal plan, who help you make opposite action playlists to chair-dance to while taking each painful sip. They will play rounds of table games, help you breathe through the stomachaches and laugh at ridiculous Buzzfeed articles because sometimes the only options are laughter or tears. They lend you books to read and stand by your side when you just need to rebel against the staff and rules a bit to stay “sane.” This is who you have late-night conversations with, insisting they need to take time off from work or school to pursue recovery because their life is so incredible, while simultaneously finding it hard to believe in your own worth. Their brains are so similar to yours that you don’t have to challenge their thought distortions because they are your thought distortions.

I have met the most wonderful people in treatment. There’s the brilliant girl whose gymnastic career was cut short for the sake of her health, who can read multiple books a day and will tell you to eat your goddamn ravioli. The psychiatry resident, who is going to help so many people in her career as a doctor, and already knows more than most of the staff. There’s the teenage boy who is so excited that for the first time in years, he can’t count his ribs. The matriarch of a family, who came into treatment combative and angry, whose personality came back to life with the help of some time and food. That engineering student who just wants to be a “normal,” boring adult. The mom of four kids who is fighting fiercely to get home to them. The high schooler who is sick of getting bullied for her weight and her past, who just wants college to be different. The girl I was in a support group with for multiple years, who finally took the leap of faith in going to a higher level of care. I have spent hours with some people who drive me “crazy,” whose humanity I have come to see through their struggles and successes.

The best thrift shopper I have ever met, a future eating disorder therapist, the cutest emotional support golden retriever who thinks he’s a lap dog, and someone who struggles to see her own strength because of the cup of nutrition supplements in front of her. There are people who are in their first round of treatment, and people who have been in and out for years, and are still fighting. There are future doctors, parents, authors, current teachers, graduate students; people somehow living their daily lives while getting through the struggle.

I am these fighters, and they are me. Yet there is something inherently ephemeral about these relationships. Each time I leave or another treatment friend discharges, we exchange phone numbers and hugs (whether allowed by the staff or secretly in the hall), words of encouragement and often tears. “Take care of yourself, and I never want to see you here again.” We promise to text and to see each other if we are in the same part of the country. We say it almost ironically because we want to stay in touch, but we also know that staying in touch means maintaining a connection to the eating disorder and is thus on some level incompatible with life in recovery.

People you have been in treatment with will be in vastly different places. Many will relapse, while some will go on to live full, happy lives. A few may lose the fight. At any point in time, some will be doing better or worse, and everyone has learned to be mindful of triggering others who might be struggling or kicking ass. Often, even though we know it serves no positive purpose, we are ashamed to admit we are not where we want to be ourselves. So conversations with treatment friends will be reduced to quick video calls, maybe a couple of texts, an inspirational message. You might send each other a gift when you know someone has gone back to a higher level of care. They send you a funny meme, ask how your holiday went and if you’re drinking your Boost. You text them through all the conflicting emotions when your period comes back for the first time in years. But much of your relationship remains entangled in your eating disorder.

And in some sense, you get really close with these people immediately, and you know their deepest, truest selves. You see them at lowest, you have seen their strength, you have had intense conversations about their families, lives and dreams. They are the only people who understand that completing a piece of cake, a glass of chocolate milk, a slice of bread or a carrot can test every fiber of your being. They understand how impossible it can feel to exist in your body and brain. Most people can’t understand, and there is something beautiful about — after so many years of struggling alone — being with people who truly get it. But in another sense, you know these people through your disorder and know you have to let go to get well.

Occasionally, friendships can transcend the treatment barrier. They can become people you call when you want to laugh, smile, cry or just tell about your day, who for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) reasons you just don’t disclose the origin of your relationship.

It can be so painful to be open and vulnerable with people from the moment you meet, to hear their wisdom and see their strength, just to move on and know that’s what is best. You have driven the struggle bus together because you have long surpassed the point of riding it as a passenger. When someone steps down I am so happy for them that they have reached this point in their life and recovery that they are able to move on. And, I am overcome by a wave of nostalgia because we are losing each other as meal support, as puzzle buddies and as the voice we need to hear during a process group.

It is simultaneously comforting and painful to think about all these people I wrote about, knowing that so many of them I will never see again. So many of them, I would be friends with in non-treatment life, and so many of our paths would never have crossed, and I am so incredibly happy that they did. There is beauty in the transience.

So I choose to reframe my goodbye message: I am incredibly grateful for the shitty life circumstances that led me to these wonderful and gorgeous humans. Let only our eating disorders be strangers. Thank you for everything.

Photo by Evelyn Mostrom on Unsplash

Originally published: February 20, 2020
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