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To the People Who Think Eating Disorder Treatment Centers Are Too Harsh

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I want to talk about eating disorder treatment. I have friends who’ve been to various levels and types of treatment for substance-use disorders and for assistance getting drugs and other substances out of their body. But when I talk to my friends who are in recovery from substance-use disorders about what my experience was like in treatment for my eating disorder, they’re shocked. They usually don’t know what to say and they’re horrified any treatment center could be so strict and so controlling or demanding when it comes to meals and food. So, this piece is for them.

This piece is for people who believe eating disorder treatment centers are too harsh, too strict or too controlling. This is for people who wonder how on Earth I can possibly look back and be thankful for such a place. People wonder why I have good memories from treatment at all, why I cry when I find out someone I knew from treatment is struggling substantially with their eating disorder and with maintaining recovery. How I could possibly have any fond feelings for a place so rigid with food. Well, let me explain to you how I have the fond memories, the gratitude etc. the way I do.

First of all, the opportunity to get to go to any higher level of care, to get to go into treatment, was a blessing I never thought I’d receive. I fought my parents, doctors, therapists and insurance companies for years to get the treatment that I, from the very beginning, believed I truly needed. So, as much as I despised the rules of my partial hospitalization (PHO)/intensive outpatient (IOP) treatment center, I was thankful to finally be there (both times; I had to go two different lengths of times).

Yes, meals were difficult, meal-plan increase days and meetings with your dietician were days dreaded by all. I hated walking into the dining room for meals or snacks and not knowing what we were going to be eating. Even if I could choose my snack, I never knew if they might have run out of it, and if I’d be forced to replace my request with another equivalent. There were two times, both during my second admission, that I walked out of a meal, mid-meal, because my anxiety was so high, and I so greatly despised the food or the portion placed in front of me. Those two occasions are not ones I am proud of, but there were plenty of other occasions in which I could’ve reacted the same way, but I didn’t.

See, eating disorder treatment facilities are strict with what you eat, how much you eat, how much you finish eating and the equivalent of meal-replacement shake (Boost, Boost Plus and Ensure are the typical ones you’ll encounter) you’re asked to drink as a “supplement” for the percentage of food you didn’t eat — because their job is to re-normalize food, portions, volume and the dining experience to you as a patient, among many other responsibilities they have to you.

Food isn’t all there is to treatment. There are process (talk-therapy) groups, art therapy groups, yoga/body-movement, journaling, mindfulness, nutrition, psycho-educational groups and various other groups depending on your particular treatment center and its programming. I made friends in treatment, and although we don’t talk too often now, many of us keep up with each other to some extent since being discharged from the center. I talked, laughed, cried, got angry and bared my soul with the ladies I was in treatment with. Those are not experiences, or people, you forget overnight.

My time in treatment helped launch me into recovery and has helped me stay in recovery, and for that, I am eternally grateful. I am grateful for the staff and for everything they did for me, for pouring their hearts into my recovery, for their patience and understanding and for the genuine desire and passion they all had for making me a better person and for helping me achieve recovery and wellness.

So yes, the food aspect of eating disorder treatment is challenging, rough and arduous, but it’s supposed to be that way. The staff is challenging you to change your thoughts, feelings, beliefs and habits around food and dining, and that’s not easy nor is it in any way, shape or form, fun. But take it from me, someone who’s been there: it is so, so, so worth it.

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: March 18, 2016
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