As my freshman year at Brown drew to a close, I was not in a good place. Despite the fact that I had started therapy with M that winter, I was still swirling in self-destructive behaviors. Alcohol was relatively easy to access. I smoked like a chimney. No one was paying attention to how much I was or wasn’t eating. There were plenty of campus bathrooms where I could purge anonymously. I worked out every day, usually twice a day. I was obsessed with the scale, with dieting, and with being as thin as I could possibly be. Even with all of this going on, I was thriving in the classroom, and thus under the radar of the deans, professors, and counselors.
But I was afraid to go back home. As bad as I felt at school, I was afraid I would feel worse without the independence of college and the support of my new circle of close friends. At my last session with M, we talked about things I could do to take care of myself and agreed that we would talk by phone every other week or so.
“If things get too hard,” she said, “just call me.”
With this emotional rip cord in hand, I returned home for the summer. And as I suspected, I began to unravel. I’d go days without eating more than a frozen yogurt and massive amounts of coffee. By August, I was scared that I would do something that might hurt myself seriously. I felt like I couldn’t go back to school and become a peer counselor unless I took care of myself first.
So I called M. “I’m done. I need help.”
After several discussions with her and with my parents, we decided that I would go to OnSite, Sierra Tuscon’s week-long eating disorder intervention program in Arizona. It was an intensive, experiential-based program that would help kick-start my recovery, give me a place to breakdown, and lay the groudwork of building me back up. Of course, food and eating were not at all the central issues I faced, but it was clear that until I emerged from the fog of body and food obsession, there would not be time or space for other healing.
Of the 50-60 people there for the week, I was among the youngest. To this day, I feel fortunate that I started my healing early – before too much damage was done and before thought patterns and behaviors became entrenched. There were women there who had been struggling with the same set of food issues for 20-30 years, and many of them had not yet even started to scratch the surface of what drove them to act out shame on their bodies.
The structure of the program came as a relief. Every day, there was a meditation of sorts, several extended sessions of group therapy, meals that were eaten together in the company of therapists, and an experience or challenge, like a desert hike, a cooking lesson, etc.
Over the course of five days, I had the opportunity to explore the origins of my eating disorder and reflect on the ways that my relationship with food impacted my life. My eating disorder had been a part of my life since my junior year of high school when I lost 20 pounds over a summer, returning to school with people telling me how great I looked (including my guidance counselor). Participating in the school’s dance program didn’t really help either, as it was a regular reminder to look at, criticize, and judge my body.
For me, obviously being sexually abused impacted the way that I viewed my body, but there were other things that happened to me as well. Being hospitalized for asthma multiple times made me feel I wasn’t in control of basic things like breathing. Some of my food issues were inherited, whether a focus on dieting, foods that were viewed as good and bad, a Jewish-grandmotherly desire to use food as love.
My eating disorder offered the promise of simplicity and control in a world that felt completely chaotic. If I could just weigh 105 pounds, I would be happy. If I could eat just 500 calories, I was in control.
I also realized how quickly an addiction or behavior could become a friend. It was all I had, all I could think about, and all that I wanted to do with my time. But it was a pretty lousy friend. In the eyes of this friend, I could never reach perfection. Not until I was dead.
With other addictions, abstinence can be an effective part of recovery. This is not the case with an eating disorder. I had to face my addiction, and the shame and stigma around it, multiple times a day. To do that required learning about what triggered me to restrict my eating or purge, and how to be present with my feelings without numbing them out. Without the obsession of an eating disorder, I was going to have to decide whether and how I wanted to live.
Looking back on that experience – and the journals I kept – from that period in my life, my 5-days at OnSite laid the groundwork for the core self-care and healing practices I continue to utilize today.
- Recognize and avoid toxic or triggering people and environments. It’s just not worth the drama, and I don’t like getting swept up in it.
- Don’t own feelings that aren’t mine. People get hurt and angry. It’s not always my fault. I can take responsibility for my actions without taking on someone else’s reaction.
- Speak from the perspective of my own experience. It’s the only truth I know.
- Scan my body for feelings when I sense that something is off. My body holds the key to my emotions.
- Let my emotions come up, and deal with them gently. Shutting myself down is never the answer.
An eating disorder never really leaves you, and remnants of my old friend still exist in my life. I don’t like to eat in front of people I don’t know. I tend to universally refuse offers of food and drink from others. I make poor decisions about eating when I get too hungry, but have a hard time recognizing hunger in my own body.
At the same time, I’ve embraced the fact that my body is the home for the many wonderful parts of my Self, and it’s best to learn how to live with one. I eat frequently so I don’t get hungry. I avoid over-eating. My exercise program focuses on strength and what feats I can accomplish with my body, rather than on calories and thin-ness.