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February 15, 2011

What Really Happens Inside an Anorexia Clinic

meg haston anorexia recovery true story
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I am still reeling a week later, and not only from the diagnosis. They have taken everything from me here, and I can feel the anger growing. It gets a little thicker every time a staff member stares at me while I pick at my meal. Every time I have to ask a nurse for a tampon (we are allowed only one tampon at a time, supposedly to prevent us from soaking them in water and swallowing them to fake weight gain). Every time I have to ask a staff member to flush the toilet for me, as we are not permitted to flush on our own.

This afternoon, I am on my way to bulimic group therapy. I'll humor them, I tell myself. But I'm not like these people. I'm riding in the back of a golf cart since the hospital bracelet on my wrist is stamped with a T, for transport. Given my low weight, I am not permitted to walk to group on my own.

Bulimic group is held in the kitchen of a small house on the grounds, around a long wooden table. For some of us, the kitchen table is the only place we have ever been able to exert control, and the place we most fear losing it. For others, the kitchen is linked with memories of trauma. For all of us, it is a terrifying place to be.

The other women and I know the second we step through the doors that something is horribly wrong. Our chatter stops the instant the sickeningly sweet smell registers in our psyches: a combination of baking cinnamon rolls, frosting, and melted chocolate. My stomach lurches. I wonder whether I could outrun a golf cart.

"Come on in, ladies." Our dietitian and one of the therapists are standing next to the kitchen counter, which is packed with every snack food imaginable. "Today is our binge-food experiential." Peanut butter, chocolate, cakes, and cookies: The assortment is literally dizzying. I grip the edge of the kitchen table, hard. I can't do this. Next to me, one of the women starts to cry.

Somehow, we all find our way to a seat around the table. Our dietitian explains: We are to take a small amount of our favorite foods typical of a binge. We are meant to taste it, to show ourselves that we are capable of enjoying food, neither avoiding it entirely nor consuming all of it. For many psychologically healthy women, such a task might be enjoyable. The smells might evoke pleasant memories of time with family or friends. Special occasions. But I am instantly transported back to my worst binge/purge episode in recent months.

I am lying in bed next to my best friend, a man I love desperately, but who is in a relationship with another woman. He is holding me; his heartbeat is grounding. It reminds me that I am here, that I am alive. But he needs me to understand that I am not the only woman in his life. Why can't I understand that?

The phone rings. It's her. He lies, hangs up the phone, and asks me to try to understand how painful this is for him. And then he is gone. He has left, confirming what I already know: that I am defective. That there is something fundamentally wrong with me. The rage and shame are too much to bear. I stumble blindly into the kitchen and pour a bowl of cereal. And another. And another. There is ice cream in the freezer. Robotically, I consume it all, stumble back to my bathroom, and throw up. The cycle continues until there is nothing left. Exhausted, I pass out on the cold tile floor of my bathroom. I have reached my end goal. I feel nothing.

"Meg?" The dietitian prompts me. "Will you choose some food, please?"

She's kind, and I want to bean her with one of these pies. She's not just asking me to eat. She's asking me to value myself enough to stay alive.

Stomach clenched, I choose a scoop of ice cream and a bit of cookie dough. I'll choose Recovery tomorrow. Just don't make me do this. I'm a glutton for punishment, I suppose: This is the same food I chose during my binge episode. But my experience of it now could not be more different. I am sitting at a table instead of standing in my kitchen in the dark. I am with others who understand exactly why this is so frightening. And after a week or so of regular meals, I'm thinking more clearly. I'm thinking that maybe I am capable of change. I'm thinking that maybe I don't want my experience with a broken, selfish man to affect my will to live. That maybe I have it in me to move past this. And damn it, I'm thinking that that cookie dough smells really good.

So now you choose. You choose Recovery, or you choose your eating disorder. There is no other choice.

I lift my spoon and take a bite.

"IT'S A GRIEVING PROCESS." My body-image therapist, a beautiful woman with an enviable comfort in her own curvy flesh, is sitting next to me. "When you make the choice for Recovery, you have to grieve the loss of your eating disorder, like losing a close friend."

The shame I feel for my tears makes it impossible to look at her. "I want my old body back." Already there is softness where there was none before, a sway to my hips that betrays my womanness. "This body isn't mine."

"It is," she corrects me gently. "It just takes time to accept it, to relearn it."

I know she's right. We have just finished an exercise in which I have shaped pieces of string into what I believe to be the circumference of my thighs, hips, and waist. I learned that I view myself to be at least 50 pounds heavier than I actually am. How can I begin to accept a new body, a new relationship with myself, when my view of myself is so horribly distorted?

So this is the real work that begins in the hours, days, months, and years after treatment. To grieve the loss of my illness just as I do the loss of my relationship, of what I thought both could do for me. To allow myself to feel anger, sadness, and betrayal. To accept that health means softness and curves, embracing my identity as a woman.

The grieving process is not linear; there are still many days when I long for my old body or am tempted to cope with life's stresses in unhealthy ways. But I am learning. I am learning to celebrate my identity as a writer, a daughter, and a sister, instead of a sick woman. To nurture with gratitude a body that can move and make love and, should I choose, bear a child. I am a Recovering Woman who makes a choice for health every day. Because there is no other choice.

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