It was February 5th, 2007. The bears had just lost the Super Bowl the day before and I was waking up in a hotel room in Warrenville, IL at an ungodly hour in the morning. Having grown up on the coast of South Carolina, it was my first time experiencing a winter that was below 50 degrees. On top of which, according to news reports that morning it was “the coldest winter in Chicago history.” I arrived in Chicago a few days before and upon exiting the airport I went into shock. I had never felt cold like that before, nor had I ever conceived in my mind that it was physically possible to be that cold. Sure, I had seen people act that cold in the movies, but that was the movies. In the movies people also end up “happily ever after,” which I think is one of Hollywood’s greatest fabrications, but that’s a topic for another blog.
So on this cold February morning in Warrenville, IL, I packed up my bags, waited for my dad outside of our hotel room and the two of us headed for the place that was going to change the course of my life. In some ways this was my hope, and in some ways it was my fear. I so desperately wanted change from the life I had been living, but I was so desperately afraid for the change to actually take place. I wanted to be at a point where I could look back and say “look what I’ve come through, and look how I’ve healed from it,” but I didn’t want to actually go through what it took to get to that point. I wanted the title of a champion, without having to fight for it.
Despite my desires to skip the process, my body moved forward while my mind dragged behind. I got in the car and I remember the drive being really silent. It was about 30-45 minutes from where we were staying and everything was covered under a white blanket of snow. I remember being in awe and hoping that the drive would continue on without ever stopping. It’s quite a paradox when I think about it now: while staring out of the car window that day I wanted the journey to never end, with no destination in sight, at least in the external, physical sense; but while looking inside of myself, I just wanted to get to my destination of being healed without ever having to begin a journey. It’s funny how two such opposite feelings and desires can co-exist within the same person. I have often considered myself a walking contradiction, but that day certainly sticks out in my mind as one of the most aggressive wrestling matches between my thoughts.
As we neared the town I would be living in for the next two months, I began to feel a bit more anxious. I had no idea what to expect. I remember passing a large Buddhist temple on the way and thought it would be the perfect opportunity to stop and sight see, but dad thought it might not be the best idea if we wanted to make our 7am “admissions” appointment.
Admissions. I hadn’t heard that word since I was in high school when I applied for college. What was I doing at 23, a college graduate, seeking admissions again. It might seem acceptable, even admirable, if it was admissions to a great new job, or even a graduate school of some sort, but it wasn’t. And so I didn’t feel acceptable, or admirable, or even lovable. I felt alone, and lost, and completely worthless, which is probably exactly why I needed to be admitted… to some place, any place that would accept me as I was, without a resume of great accomplishments or picture perfect credentials. In fact, it was in my efforts to strive for perfection that landed me in the place of feeling worthless and not good enough and in the very seat where I was sitting at that moment.
So dad kept driving. His spirit was as calm and peaceful as the quiet, white snow on the ground, and it was his peaceful presence that helped calm my anxiousness. I remember the exit. I remember driving over train tracks and into a section of town that looked like abandoned warehouses and it made me nervous. “Where are we?” I thought to myself. “I should have gone to California.”
We turned into a gated area, maybe there were signs for the place, maybe they’re weren’t, I don’t really remember, but what I do remember is the long driveway up a slight incline, surrounded by trees that were covered in snow. I was fascinated because to me they were more than just trees covered in snow; to me they were childhood stories coming to life! And whether that be because I had never really seen trees covered in snow or because my imagination was less grown up than it should be at 23, I was enchanted by my surroundings. I grew up hearing stories of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and all the chronicles of Narnia, and in that moment I remember feeling like we were driving into Narnia (that is, if Narnia could be driven into). I remember seeing a lamp post and actually picturing Mr. Tumnus standing beside it, shivering in the cold. I smiled to myself, not because it’s funny to see a faun shivering in the cold, that would be quite rude, but I smiled because for a split second I had the thought “we found it!” and I wasn’t worried.
The second passed and we pulled into a parking spot outside of a big building. Nothing brings you back to reality more than a parking lot full of expensive cars. “Parking lots, big, fancy cars… Oh right, we’re in America,” I thought to myself. I closed the car door and I followed my dad up the wet, wooden stairs. We had to wait outside to be buzzed in the front door. The inside of the building was kinda of dark, with a little bit of natural light coming in through some skylights… at least that’s how I think I remember it. There was a big staircase in the middle of the room and some benches and large fake plants. “Narnia would never have fake plants,” I jokingly thought, so as to keep myself from the reality of where I was. The rest of my time in that building is still a haze. I remember paperwork and talking, but not much else.
My dad and I got in the car and followed someone to the other side of “campus,” which wasn’t really far enough to justify driving to. We should have walked but I guess between the suitcases and the snow, it was probably a good idea to loop around a few feet away from where we were. We approached two sets of double glass doors, both locked and alarmed, only to be unlocked and disarmed by the person we were following. My heart was pounding. I followed in behind my dad, and standing there in a row were what seemed like 20 adults (but it was really only like 7), two of which had on white lab coats. It was eerily quiet and a bit intimidating. Introductions began all around… doctors, nurses, behavioral health assistants. I didn’t remember any names that day, but a few of the faces I grew fond of over time.
I met with each of the people standing there and talked about the same thing with each one of them. I was really quite tired of repeating myself and thought that perhaps they should do a better job of communicating between themselves instead of asking me to repeat myself seven times. The last meeting my dad sat in the room with me, where he did more talking than I, thank God. They told me my dad was going to leave and I was going to have to stay. I wanted to respond with “I’m 23, I know how this works,” but I very quietly said OK. I think I appeared to be more scared than I actually was, but after my dad left and as the day went on, I realized I was more scared than I actually appeared to be.
My dad kissed me goodbye and I sat silently in the room, waiting for a nurse to come and get me, as I was told. The silence was so loud. “Where am I?” I kept thinking to myself, “how did I get here? Why am I here? How did this happen?” My questions were followed by affirmations, “I’m glad I’m here… I think. I mean, I’m glad I’m not alone. I’m so glad I’m not alone in this anymore.” The nurse came in and she introduced herself as “Liz.” No “Mrs.,” no formal last name, not even “nurse Liz,” just “Liz,” and I remember I liked that. Liz had a sweet face and a warm smile. She had short, curly, salt and pepper colored hair, with probably more salt than pepper (a sign of wisdom, no doubt), and her eyes hid behind a pair of small framed glasses. She had a very halcyon presence and I instantly felt calm when I was around her. She told me it was time for the “awkward part” of the day, as she had to examine my body, but said not to worry because it would be over quick. I liked that she just called it like it was… “awkward.” Maybe it wasn’t awkward for her since she has examined numerous people’s bodies over the last however many years, but assuming that I didn’t have numerous people examine my body on a regular basis, ever, it was kind of her to express that she understood how I felt.
I followed her to another room where I handed her my clothes and of course felt awkward and exposed. I knew I was hidden in a place where no one could see me, and I trusted Liz, but I still couldn’t help but feel ashamed. I hated what I saw, so I stared at the white-washed brick wall. I looked up and down all over the room as Liz just looked me all over. She wrote down every scar and bruise that made itself known to her. The questions entered my mind again, “Where am I? What am I doing here? Why am I here? How did this happen?” I remember clinching my fists and almost feeling unable to un-clinch them until I got my clothes back. Liz was kind enough to make small talk while I stood there without them, but even the sweetness of her voice wasn’t enough to make me comfortable in that moment.
I thought I would be fine as soon as it all was over, but once I got comfortably back into my clothes Liz told me it was time for lunch. “I think I’d rather stand here naked,” I thought to myself. When I walked out of the “examination room”, as I came to call it because you knew what was going to happen anytime someone went in there, the once quiet lobby that I had first walked into was now loud and filled with girls of all ages. I was so overwhelmed by everything going on around me. I didn’t want anybody to talk to me, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be alone.
Usually at meal time all the girls were escorted to the cafeteria to eat, except for the ones who misbehaved, they had to stay behind and eat in the lodge (where I was at this point). The other exception for girls who couldn’t go to the cafeteria were the girls who were on exercise restriction and the girls who were new arrivals. New arrivals were on lock down for 24 hours, meaning they couldn’t leave the lodge at all. Technically, we were always on lock down since we were locked in, but after 24 hours from the time you arrived, you were allowed to be escorted to other parts of the campus, making you feel at least slightly above a prisoner.
And so, Liz walked me to the kitchen in the lodge where a few girls were already sitting. I sat quietly and looked at the other girls. I sort of smiled in way that said “please don’t talk to me even though I’m desperately lonely and need a friend.” Before introductions began a guy walked in with a styrofoam to-go box and placed it in front of me. I hesitantly opened it and almost cringed when I saw it… lasagna, peas, and a baguette roll. “I’ll eat the peas,” I said to myself, “but nothing else!” On the outside I just smiled and began eating my peas. The guy who brought my food in sat down at the table next to me and introduced himself. He said his name was Nic without a ‘k,’ which I really liked because I always tried to explain to people that my name was Jennie with an ‘i-e’ not a ‘y.’ I hate when people spell my name with a ‘y,’ and I was sure Nic understood how I felt since, like most other people, I probably would have spelt his name with a ‘k’ too had he not have told me.
As I was “eating” I was very aware of two other girls in particular sitting at the table. One who was sitting at the end of the table, rocking back and forth with her head down and whispering something to herself (at first I thought she saying grace before her meal, but when she didn’t stop I had a feeling that was not what she was doing), and another who was just staring at me. I had that feeling again of “where am I?” followed by “are these people crazy? Am I crazy?” The one girl who was staring at me finally asked me my name and I quietly told her. The girl at the end who was rocking herself lifted her head and said “that’s a pretty name,” then lowered her head back down and went back to rocking and whispering. The other girls introduced themselves too, I think about 5 all together, but it was those two girls that I specifically remember. The girl who was staring at me then started getting loud and boisterous and all the other girls followed along. “Misbehavior, ” I thought to myself, “plus they seem way too comfortable to have just arrived.” I could tell the once staring, now loud girl had a heavy influence on all the others, at least the ones in the kitchen, so I was going to make it a point not to associate with her so as not to conform. At the time I didn’t realize I could be a friend to her without conforming to her lifestyle, but I don’t hold it against myself because at the time I could barely think clearly enough to survive.
“My mom hates me because I love women,” the girl yelled, and everybody started laughing. “I’m serious, my mom hates me. And I love women!” I felt sad, and uncomfortable. This was my first time living somewhere outside of southern culture where even if women did love women, no one dared to say it. Mixed in with being sad and uncomfortable was a small dose of admiration for her honesty. Nic told everyone to quiet down, then very nicely addressed the girl who was rocking and whispering at the end of the table and told her it was time for her to stop what she was doing and start eating. The other girls then began to encourage her and she slowly started to lift her head and smiled as she began to eat. Upon seeing this, my heart softened a little bit towards the other girls because I realized that even though they seemed intimidating, they really cared about this girl and maybe at some point they could even care about me. The funny thing is that I was older than most of the girls in the kitchen, but I was coming from a place of such bondage for so long that I felt like a child in their company.
I finished my peas and began to close the box and then Nic told me that I had to finish everything. In fact, what I soon found out was that the reason he was in the kitchen was not only to monitor the girls’ behavior, but to make sure certain girls, myself included, ate everything on their plates. My heart sank and I literally went into shock. I almost felt like I couldn’t breath. “I watched the other girls eat and they didn’t finish everything,” I thought to myself, “how come I have to? This isn’t fair!” I was literally freaking out on the inside, preparing a rebellion in my mind, yet on the outside I was cool and collected. No one ever would have thought I had a care in the world. It’s scary how good I was, and even sometimes still am, at that… pretending. I quietly asked Nic why I had to finish what was on my “plate” and why the others didn’t (they were all done and out of the kitchen by now). He said it was because I was on a meal plan and they weren’t, and until I met with a dietitian, who didn’t come in until the next morning, I just had to eat what I was given. I was screaming on the inside and I began to tear up; the tears were the only thing I couldn’t keep in or hide very well.
Nic asked me if I was OK and asked what it was that I didn’t want to eat. I thought his asking meant he was going compromise with me, but it didn’t. He was literally just asking, which is when I first started to realize that guys don’t actually use hidden messages… what they are saying is actually what they are saying. “Really?” I asked myself, “it took me coming to this place to figure that out?”
I did as I was told and ate everything I was supposed to, but it took me almost 2 hours. Nic told me since it was my first day he understood it taking so long, but then said that by tomorrow I would have to finish my meals in an hour, and if I wanted to go to the cafeteria at all, in under an hour. He said it very gently so as not to hurt my feelings, but I was still upset. I cringed again, “how can they expect me to do all this? This is too much, too fast, this is ridiculous!” I was pissed. I hated every bit of how I felt. I was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t stand it. My stomach was so full it physically hurt and I thought for sure these people had no idea what they were doing. I thought about the ingredients in the food that were now in my body and it drove me insane. I hated not knowing what each ingredient was and I hated not knowing how many calories I just ate, though I had a pretty good guess, and I hated that it was all just sitting there in my stomach; but more than all of that, I hated not having control. I hated it so much that it consumed me. That is was what I think really drove me crazy, and that is why I ended up exactly where I was in that moment.
I sat there in my anger long enough to let myself think it defined who I was, then I stood up and told Nic I needed to use the restroom. He said he’d go get Liz and I couldn’t help but wonder what Liz had to do with it. “I know where it is,” I told him, but he said I needed Liz to unlock it. “They keep the bathrooms locked?” I asked myself. Not only did they keep the bathrooms locked, but certain girls, myself included, were placed on bathroom restriction; meaning that if they wanted to use the bathroom within 2 hours after they’ve had a meal or a snack, a behavioral health assistant had to go with them. Considering the fact that we had three meals a day and three snacks in between, that left me little to no room to find un-monitored bathroom time. My anger elevated to an unethical degree and I suddenly decided I could hold it much longer than I had originally planned. Girl mode set in as I thought about the horror of what would happen if I had to go “number two.” Two all of a sudden seemed like such a large number and I panicked at the thought of something so private becoming so public, even if it was only in front of one other person. Number two is not an experience to be shared between two people, and though at that point I only needed to experience number one, I wasn’t ready to share that either. So I held it.
I don’t remember exactly what happened next, I remember meeting girls and just listening in on conversations. I let time linger and I thought I had waited long enough for a full two hours to pass after my meal, but it was slightly under and I just couldn’t hold it anymore. My bladder was about to pop like a pre-teen pimple. I finally informed someone that I needed to use the restroom and sure enough one of the female behavioral health assistants (I will refer to them as BHAs from now on) led me to a bathroom in one of the back bedrooms. When we got back there she looked at me and said “I don’t have to go in with you, I can just stand at the door” and there was this glimmer of hope with music and all for a split second, until she followed it up with, “but you’ll have to sing or something so that I know you aren’t… you know… doing anything else.”
“Tactful,” I thought to myself, followed by “is she serious?” I went in the bathroom, left the door open and got in position. Nothing happened. It was dead silent. How could anything happen? After all, if any one’s bladder has stage fright, it’s mine. Much like my sleep habits that require white noise for any sleep to take place, if I am in a public restroom, it is almost impossible for me to “let the river flow” if there is no white noise of some sort to encourage the floodgates to open. Whether it be in the form of the faucet water running or pretending to be out of toilet paper so I can “accidentally” shake the toilet paper holder too hard, there has to be background sound of some sort. But this time it was just me and the silence… and one other girl. It was so awkward. I knew she was standing at the open door, listening, and it freaked me out.”What if she thinks I’m trying to go poo and I can’t because it’s too quiet (God forbid she think I would go number two)? What if she thinks I was lying about needing to go just so I could get into the bathroom and… you know… do something else? What if she… oh god, please just pee, you idiot!” I couldn’t understand it! I was literally just busting at the seams a few minutes ago but as soon as I got the chance to do something about it, I couldn’t get a single drop out! Before I could continue bullying my bladder to make a move, her voice chimed in, “hey, can you sing the ABCs or something?”
There I was, 23 years old, singing the ABCs to the person who was monitoring me using the bathroom. Talk about getting knocked off of your “I have everything under control” horse. I bashfully began to sing the ABCs, but between my deprecating thoughts, the girl at the door, and apparently the inability to multi-task singing while peeing, at least to a complete stranger, I couldn’t go. I didn’t even get all the way through the alphabet before I gave up. I was crying inside. I felt helpless, and even more so, stupid. “I swear I really did have to go,” I told her, “it’s just that now that I’m here, I can’t seem to.” She said she understood and that “we” could try again later. “we,” I thought to myself. “There shouldn’t be a ‘we’ involved, I’m 23 years old, I’m the only person that should be involved in me going to the bathroom.” I followed her back out to the lobby with my head hung low as if I has just lost the biggest game of my life. Before I could sit down I was informed that someone was now going to go through my suitcase with me to make sure I had nothing illegal or harmful hidden away somewhere. Wonderful. How about we squeeze just a little more lemon juice into my fully exposed paper cut of pride?
I was exhausted and felt weak in every way… mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. All I wanted to do was lay down and sleep, but I kept up my pace and followed closely behind yet another BHA. I ended up going to the same back bedroom where I was previously taken to use the bathroom. “Deja-vu,” I tried to joke with myself, but not much was funny at this point. I think I even told myself to shut up. One of the guys checking my bag was Brian, and though my mental state was so far out of whack for me to even have noticed, at least this early on, I can look back and appreciate that he was probably a good looking guy. He took everything electrical out of my bag including my hair dryer, hair straightener, and my beloved fan, whose comforting white noise I had never slept without. He said he had to go “test” them and he’d bring them back, even though when he brought them back I was going to have to put them in a locker that I did not have a key to. Upon his return he said they all cleared, which was obvious because they now had little green and white affirmation stickers on them saying they “passed.” To this day my hair dryer and hair straightener have those exact stickers on them. On one of them the writing is rubbed off, but on the other it says clear as day, “TESTED FOR ELECTRICAL SAFETY By: BM On: 2/05/07.” So long as I have those hair appliances in my possession, and I plan to keep them until they give out, I will never take those stickers off.
What didn’t make it back to the room where I and my wide open suitcase sat was my fan, my beloved fan. Where was it? Brian told me that because of the fan blades, and issues involving girls who would use anything to self harm, I was not, nor was anyone else, allowed to have a fan. I explained to him that I only needed it to sleep at night. “It’s purely for noise,” I politely exclaimed, “I promise, you can keep it during the day, I just need it to sleep. I have to have it to sleep!” He said he would ask someone and let me know before nightly curfew. Curfew… there’s another word I didn’t want to hear, though at this point that word didn’t surprise me. I was going to ask when curfew was but I found myself distracted by the gloved woman pulling my underwear out of my suitcase. She was pulling everything out of my suitcase, but it was the underwear that stood out to me; probably because it was my UNDERWEAR! Not to mention, Brian was still in the room trying to hold my attention as he was explaining some of the policies of the facility. I don’t remember much of what he said, I just remember having the thought “if he looks over there right now he is going to see my unmentionables, oh god!” I don’t even like it when male cashiers ring me up at a grocery store for tampons, but at least I more than likely won’t see them again. With Brian, I was going to be spending the next two months in the same building as him, the last thing I wanted him to see was my underwear, even if it was just in my suitcase. My underwear was obviously going to make it onto my body at some point, and I didn’t like the thought of Brian knowing what it looked like.
It felt like weeks had gone by since my dad left that morning, but sure enough, when I looked over at the little green and white sticker on my safely tested hair dryer, it confirmed that it was still only February 5th, 2007.
The gloved woman and Brian proceeded to sort through all of my belongings. “Any shampoo, conditioner, lotions, soaps, etc. with alcohol as an ingredient… you can’t have,” they said very matter of factly. “Any razor blades, bobby pins, safety pins, pencils, pens, i.e. anything sharp or potentially sharp… you can’t have. Any cell phones or cameras… you can’t have.” Brian continued reading the long “you can’t have” list as the gloved woman pulled almost all of the very objects that were listed as prohibited out of my bag. I knew they were just following protocol and saying what they had to say to every girl upon arrival, but I couldn’t help but feel as if they were exclusively addressing me, this detestable new girl who couldn’t be trusted. I felt like a liar and a sneak for even having shampoo in my bag to begin with. The fact that I had in my possession numerous items that “normal” people used on an everyday basis, but were deemed “contraband” and taken away to be stored in my “locker,” that I didn’t have a key to, made me begin to under if I was crazier than I thought and therefore in need of all this heightened security.
I explained the reasoning behind all my “contraband,” assuming that no one had ever explained it to them before, and that they would somehow reach enlightenment on the issue and in their state of “OOOOH OK,” they would hand it all back. This was not the case. As the gloved woman gathered up my pink, bic razors I envisioned the scratch attack that would take place in my arm pits if I wasn’t allowed to shave them within the next few days. I assumed she would understand as I explained the sole reason I had them was for shaving my arm pits, and an occasional leg when I wasn’t feeling lazy, and she said she understood, but her look was one of “that’s what they all say!” She followed up with her look with, “for the safety of everyone, razors and other sharp or potentially sharp objects are strictly forbidden.” I wanted to punch her in the face for saying “potentially sharp” again. “What does that even mean?” I thought, “Like I can’t even have an un-sharpened pencil because it has potential to be sharpened?”
Truth be told, all the heightened security about sharp objects was new to me because this was my first time being in an environment where girls openly struggled with, or had previously struggled with, self harm. I basically needed Brian to spell out for me what “self harm” meant. I was picturing girls beating themselves up, so it caught me really off guard when he blatantly said “the girls cut themselves.” In that moment, I felt a little bit bad for making jokes about sharp objects, but at the same time I didn’t because of my own ignorance on the subject matter. I didn’t understand why you would cut yourself if you weren’t trying to commit suicide. I didn’t understand why “those girls” would want to do that. Their addiction made no sense to me, but then again no addiction does make sense, and so I can only assume that I didn’t understand their addiction at the time because I was in such denial about my own. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I had a problem, obviously, there I was locked up singing the ABCs to a person with the title “Behavioral Health Assistant,” but I also thought my problem was very different, and honestly, not as bad as theirs. At the time, I didn’t see the correlation between my issues and their issues because all I saw was the methodused to numb (or feel) as opposed to the reason behind wanting to numb (or feel), so I didn’t care… about them.
A quick disclaimer before you deem me heartless and refuse to read the rest: I eventually got to the point when I did realize that we were all the same in our struggles, and when these girls, who were once “those girls,” became my sisters, and they allowed me to enter into their pain as I allowed them to enter into mine, but that is later in the story. For now, at least for in this part of the story, I’m still an ignorant bitch.
So my contraband was gathered up and taken away to a “safe place,” never to be seen again… at least not until I walked out of those doors as a free and “healthy” woman; meaning it was definitely going to be a while. My biggest loss in the contraband removal was, of course, my beloved fan, but also my Dean Martin Cocktail Hour CD. I forgot to mention that CDs were one of the many items considered “potentially sharp” because if broken they could do a lot of damage. Who knew such good music could be so bad? Good old Dean… contraband! Can you believe it? I mean, maybe in his day his music was considered contraband to a few Southern Baptists, but this was 2007, and this place was definitely not Baptist of any sort. I found his removal from my life to be quite unnecessary, but if it was for the safety of everyone else, I figured I could do without his swooning voice singing “Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am.”
The only thing left in my suitcase was my clothes, which I was thankful for at least not having those taken away. As my contraband removal session was ending, another girl filed in behind a BHA who was about to begin hers. We were introduced and told we would be roommates, which made the adult count for the facility a whopping total of 3. Almost all of the patients were considered “youth,” which meant under 18. The other adult girl and myself were told we’d be sleeping in the lodge next door, as the lodge we were currently in was for youth, but that almost all of our sessions would be held together in the youth lodge. I was glad when I was told we’d be staying in a different lodge, and that there were only 3 of us. Even though I was in a back bedroom away from all the activity, it was still so loud from where I sat. Being so drained already, I certainly did not want to walk back out there and be around a bunch of “youth.” Uh oh, the separation had already begun in my mind.
I sat on one of three beds in the big back bedroom, in no rush to to go anywhere, which worked out perfectly because I was told I could wait there until they finished confiscating my roommate’s contraband (though not in those words). I watched a BHA go through my roommate’s stuff and though she didn’t have much, I wondered if she felt how I felt while they pulled all her mentionables and unmentionables out of her bag. She was much more outspoken than I was about what they took away. I spoke up in my mind, but never out loud… well, except for the life of my beloved fan, but other than that, my wise cracks I kept to myself. My new roommate, (who I will call Ashley from now on, though let it be known that was not her name, which I think it a shame not to mention because she had such a beautiful name, but for the sake of her own privacy, which I respect, Ashley will do) Ashley, on the other hand, was quite outspoken with her wise cracks and I remember taking to her right away. Not only was she a fellow Southerner, but she was not your typical Southern woman, meaning I knew she wasn’t going to pretend to like me and say things like “bless your heart, darling, and all your sweet little problems” and then walk out of the room and talk about how my life was an abomination and that I was heading straight to the pit. I liked that about her. I’m sure you can understand why.
(Disclaimer and quick side note before the objections start coming: I am not saying that all southern women are like this, for there are many who are near and dear to my heart. But for those who are curious about Southern women in general, watch Something To Talk About with Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid; if nothing else, it’s just a great movie. And since we’re on the topic, also see Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, two of my favorites.)
So Ashley was very obviously from the South in the way that she spoke with an accent, which I loved and hadn’t heard in another person since my dad left that morning (geez, was it only that morning? it seemed forever ago), but she was very obviously not from the south in the way that she was way more outspoken than most of the Southern women I had encountered. She made it known if she thought something was stupid, and she also made it known when she wasn’t going to comply with something because she thought it was stupid, which was the next thing I found out about her…
This wasn’t her first day in the facility, as it had been mine, she was actually admitted a good week or so before me. The reason she didn’t have much stuff is because shortly after her admittance, she had a “freak out,” as she described it, and was sent off to a psych ward where she stayed for three days before being allowed to return. She only had a small bag of clothes that I guess someone dropped off for her while she was there. She voiced that she thought it was dumb for someone to go through her bag (again) because a BHA packed it for her and brought it to her under even more heightened security than what we were under, but in compliance with the rules of the facility, they searched it anyway. After telling me she was in for substance abuse, she told me she was bi-polar and that some of her doctors thought she might have borderline personality disorder. Not really sure of what that was, I couldn’t help but wonder if it had something to do with her “freak out.” I didn’t know what she meant when she said she had a “freak out,” nor did I ask in fear that it might spur on another one, but either way, I still really liked her company and I was really glad she was going to be my roommate.
Before dinner we had snack, even though I was still full from lunch. When I left the kitchen I was introduced to the 3rd adult in the facility who was also going to be a roommate of mine. She couldn’t have been more opposite of the first girl, but I liked her just as much. She was very quiet and soft spoken, with a bona fide mellow presence that made me feel as if I could fall asleep at any given moment while we were talking; not because I was bored, but because I felt so tranquil when I was around her, even if chaos surrounded me left and right. I knew she would be quite a good friend to have, especially in the months to follow. Though other girls that day would blurt out “so why are you here?” and stare me down as they waited for my answer, Lauren (as I will call her from now on), after having told me about her own struggle with depression and some reasons why she found herself in the facility, gently questioned “so if you don’t mind me asking, why are you here?”
Now, the other girls were so abrupt in their asking that even when I answered them I did so out of anger and frustration, without the reality of my answer really hitting me, which is why I haven’t mentioned why I was there until now. It was in that moment of talking with Lauren and sitting in the atmosphere of her mellow mood that I felt safe to answer. And so when I answered, I answered truthfully and calmly; and in the calmness of my voice I heard the truth, instead of the anger, and I acknowledged not just to Lauren, but to myself, why I was really there…
“Well, no, I don’t mind telling you,” though I did hesitate, “I’ve… I’ve struggled with depression for a really long time, but… I guess I’m really here because… I have an eating disorder.”
Most of the other girls would respond with “how long have you had it?” or “what kind?” or “how bad is it?” Some asked in this way because they had no tact, others because they were sizing me up and comparing my problems to theirs, and still others because they were just simply making conversation and they didn’t really know how, so I can’t hold that against them.
Lauren sat quietly and breathed in, almost as a therapist would do (I remember because I journaled about it), and then said “yea, that is really hard. I’ve struggled with that sort of thing before, which may have led to the depression, I don’t really know, but I suppose I’m going to find all that out while I’m here.” I couldn’t believe how calm she was, and though she’d probably still deny it, how wise she was. I felt as if I was sitting at the feet of some great theologian, partly because I was sitting on the floor at this point and she was sitting on the couch, so I was quite literally at her feet, but also because of her responses to questions and the time she would allow herself to think before actually responding.
While sitting in the truth of why I was there, I started to feel uncomfortable. The internal conversations started taking place… “I don’t really have an eating disorder, I just have issues with food. I don’t really need to be here, do I? I mean, this all seems a little extreme, doesn’t it?” That went on in my head for a while as I watched the girls interact around me. Lauren and I talked a little while longer until the girls were rounded up to go to dinner. She left with them and I stayed behind with the mis-behaved and the exercise restricted. Fortunately for me, since Ashley was readmitted back to the facility that day, she was on lock down as well. I don’t think she was too happy about it, but I remember being glad that she was going to stay behind with me, even if it wasn’t voluntary on her part. I don’t remember much about dinner, other than being angry. Angry about the food, angry I had to eat it, angry I had to hold it in, angry I was still full from lunch and snack. I was just angry.
Ashley’s wit me laugh some, so that helped me through, but it was borderline impossible to get out of my head. “borderline,” I thought to myself, “maybe I have that.” You see, I remember conversations like this going on in my head because in a treatment facility, surrounded by girls with varying issues and varying degrees of them, it’s hard not to try and start diagnosing yourself. This is something that I did all throughout my stay at the facility. I’d hear just enough of a girl’s story to relate it to my own and then I’d convince myself of a greater issue at hand within me. At one point I had diagnosed myself with trichotillomania (a compulsion to pull out one’s own hair), dermatillomania (compulsive skin picking), bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, and self harm, even if not in the form of cutting. I was probably an insurance company’s worst nightmare. I would hear a word, or a behavior that I had done maybe once before, and when I found out it could be an actual disease or an addiction, I would label myself as such. It sounds silly, but more than anything, I simply just wanted a reason to explain why I was the way that I was, even if the explanation was just for myself.
The trouble with that was, even if I had never suffered from those diagnoses before, I started to develop characteristics found in them simply so that I didn’t have to focus on my eating disorder. This went on for a little while until I realized that I wasn’t actually recovering from my addiction, I was swapping one addiction (or diagnosis) for another… but that is later in the story.
For now, in this part of the story, I’m still an angry and bitter girl, sitting at a dinner table, with a behavioral health assistant telling me I need to finish what’s on my plate before I can leave the kitchen. I felt more like a toddler in that moment than when I actually was a toddler, probably because when I was a toddler, I wasn’t aware of it.
Yes, I would agree that ignorance can very often be bliss.
The Five Minute Rule
So there I sat, again, same kitchen, same day, almost drunk in my anger and drowning in my anxiety, and before me was yet another meal I had to force down. Truth be told, I don’t remember what food was placed before me that night, but I know if I look hard enough I still have my “food logs” stored away in a box somewhere where I keep everything. The food logs were a sort of journal I had to keep to write about every meal I ate and about every emotion involved in eating that meal. Some of my food logs were just nasty, not so much because of the food, but because of what I had to say about how I felt. They were full of anger, the sort of anger that had someone, rather divine or tangible, not intervened it could have easily been birthed into hatred. Some of them were depressing to read, even after having left treatment, so I don’t know why I kept them, except for the fact I keep everything I write down (well, truthfully, I actually keep everything, finding it hard to throw anything away… a characteristic that many people have tried to free me from). But other than that I suppose that for as depressing and angry as they were, keeping them has served as a reminder of how far God has brought me. I will try to do some investigating to locate my food logs (a funny name when I think about it), so as to possibly share some of my early thoughts about meals in treatment, but that will come later.
Now, much like at lunch (as written about in “the beginning”), all the other girls were able to eat whatever they wanted, while I was limited to what was in the styrofoam box sitting in front of me. Along with my roommate, Ashley, the same girls from lunch were in the room for dinner; the quiet girl who whispered to herself and rocked back and forth (this went on again at dinner), the loud, epicene girl whose mom hated her because she loved women, the few other girls who would egg on rebellion in any form, and then myself. I was quiet, and sad, and smiled a few times so as not to draw attention to myself for not laughing at the girls who thought they were funny, but mostly I just wanted to cry.
As I was taking in all of the girls being loud around me, my attention once again fell on the girl who was whispering to herself. It was obvious she was trying hard to focus, and though I didn’t know what she was trying to focus on, it was clear that it was difficult for her given the noise around us. A female BHA leaned over and hopefully whispered something encouraging because the girl then lifted her head, picked up her spoon and began to eat, smile, and look around as if there wasn’t a care in the world. I barely overheard someone saying “she made it through her numbers,” but I didn’t really know what that meant, nor was I going to ask. Looking back on the situation, I don’t think it was obvious, but it might have been, when I realized that I didn’t care about what “her numbers” meant because I found myself staring point blank at her hands. As her spoon lifted from her plate to her mouth, I noticed her right hand for the first time and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. She had her left elbow on the table with her left hand tucked in between her plate and herself, and I was able to see enough of her left hand to make out that it looked just like her right.
Her hands… they were covered with cut marks. I mean, not just a few here and there, but patterns from below her wrists up to her fingers of small cuts. I remember feeling shocked and scared at the same time. It looked as if she had been keeping score of something on her hand and each cut was a tally mark of some sort, and she just kept cutting, or tallying, until she ran out of room. “Dear God,” I thought, “is she OK?” I wasn’t expecting an answer, nor did I get one, but I remember just being so shaken in how I felt that the only thing I could think to say over and over again was “Dear God, O Dear God.” I looked at the stark contrast between my hands and hers and it literally gave me the chills. I don’t think it was so much out of ignorance as it was me just sincerely wanting to know, but I couldn’t help but keep asking myself “what is wrong with her?”
I felt in that moment that I wanted to talk to her or be nice to her in some way, but I didn’t know how. I was scared, and worried that I might say the wrong thing and offend her, which would then send her into a state of something other than reality. She was so young, at least in high school as she had on a letter jacket, and seemingly pleasant to be around when you weren’t freaked out by her rocking and whispering. Mid-way through her meal, she stopped eating to rock and whisper again. A BHA took notice and addressed her, “Corrie, you need to finish your meal, we’ll worry about your homework later, OK? It’s OK.” I was trying my best to keep up with what was going on, but I felt so confused about my own self and why I was there that it was hard to keep track of the others’ “drama.” Corrie whispered for a little bit longer, as if she didn’t hear the BHA, then continued with her food.
“You see,” someone yelled out, “if you just leave her alone she’ll finish!” I looked up and it was the loud woman-loving, ring-leading girl from lunch standing by the kitchen counter. “Annie, sit down!” the BHA snapped back in a manner that was sort of serious and sort of joking. “What?” Annie laughed, then pulled up her baggy pants, twiddled her lip ring and stuck a spoon full of peanut butter in her mouth. In that moment Annie made it seem as if she cared about Corrie, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more out of a desire to be the center of attention then it was out of concern. The BHA rolled her eyes and looked at Corrie and smiled. My attention left Corrie’s hands and went right back to Annie, as I’m sure that’s right where she wanted it. She was a beautiful girl but seemingly tried hard to make herself look like a boy. She wore baggy clothes and a beanie that hid her short hair underneath. She continued to talk loudly about her love for women, mind you she was 16, and would often refer to some of them as “bitches.” I had wondered if it was as degrading for a gay woman to call a woman a bitch as it was for a man to call a woman a bitch, but I didn’t ask. Ashley spoke up and said something about it, which made me feel proud, solely because she was my roommate and not afraid to speak her mind, but when questioned, Annie implied she meant “bitch” in a loving way. “Interesting,” I thought to myself, “maybe men and women really have been misunderstanding each other all these years.”
One other girl at the table, Carson, was Annie’s accomplice, so to speak. I think Carson was confused about her own sexuality and found something comforting about Annie’s confidence in her own. Though Carson would say she was her own person, she followed Annie around and encouraged her in all that she did. She sided with her against other girls or against staff, though that was going to be something I wouldn’t find out until later. The main image I have of Carson in my mind is one of her hunched over her cereal bowl, laughing at everything Annie did. As far as I knew, Carson was just a side kick without much conviction of her own, but at the time I didn’t realize how dangerous of a place that is for someone to be.
Between Annie and Corrie, the table would go from loud to silent to loud again. I remember just sitting there, trying so hard to take it all in but also feeling so much like I was in a dream, about to wake up at any second. Between my attention being distracted and my desire to not eat my food anyway, I took just as long as I did at lunch to finish my meal. Everyone was done and out of the kitchen while I was still working on a side dish of some sort. I was frustrated that even Corrie was done before me. Sure, I wanted to be nice to Corrie, but truth be told I also wanted to be less crazy than her, and the fact that I thought the food on my plate was pure evil wasn’t going to help me plea my case for sanity.
I remember the BHA trying to ask me questions to possibly lift my spirits enough for me to lift my spoon to my mouth, but I was about as interested in her questions as I was in my dinner. I would answer with one word, if even, and kept my head down while I ate as slow as possible. I remember wanting to cry because my stomach physically hurt and I thought that there was no way eating more could possibly healthy. It had been so long since my body not only had that much food in it, but held it down, and so my stomach, along with my mind, was freaking out. The most talking I did at the dinner table was when everybody was gone and I tried to explain to the BHA the pain I was in. She said she understood, I doubted it, and that it would only be that uncomfortable in the beginning as my body just needed to adjust to the changes.
To make matters worse, I began to feel as if I was going to be physically sick. It wasn’t nausea, but it was certainly the feeling that my food wasn’t going to stay down. I remember wondering what would happen if it didn’t. What would happen if I couldn’t help myself and just threw up right there on the table, not even because I wanted to, but because I felt like I couldn’t help it? This feeling continued after most meals for a while, and I later learned that just as my body was adjusting to the food I was giving it, it was also adjusting to to “keeping” the food. Though it was self induced, my body was so used to rejecting any large amount of food, especially certain types of food, that it almost seemed natural for it to continue in the state of rejection, even in treatment. It’s not like I could tell my gag reflexes that I was in treatment now and things were going to be different.
After dinner I was drained of every emotion I could hope to express, even anger. I was just too tired to be angry, but dear God was I uncomfortable. I do remember just feeling gross, disgusted with myself even. I constantly felt my stomach, wondering if I was gaining weight that very moment. I was hoping that maybe by a sheer miracle there were some some laxatives still lingering about in my body, as I had taken them the whole weekend before entering treatment, but I was fairly certain that was wishful thinking.
After waiting around in the main lobby for a little while, once again just observing the interactions of the girls around me, Ashley and I were told we were going to be taken over to the adult lodge so we could unpack before coming back over to the youth lodge for snack and a nightly group. We were escorted outside and through the snow to the building next to the one we were in. I still couldn’t believe all of the snow, especially at night. I remember loving the sound of snow crunching underneath my shoes and leaving foot prints the size of my feet. Before entering the lodge where I would be lodging, I felt for a moment that I was somewhere else, somewhere magical, where it snowed at night and the sound of snow could be heard under your shoe… somewhere much like the mid-west in winter, I suppose. I entered through both sets of locked doors that were disarmed by the BHA who was leading us and reality set back in… “I am not somewhere magical, I am in treatment.”
Ashley and I were led to Lauren’s room, which quickly became “our room.” The rooms were quite large with 4 twin beds, but since there were only 3 of us we used one of the beds as a table to throw our stuff on. There were 4 tall dressers as well, one beside each bed with about 5 drawers a piece. I knew I wasn’t allowed to keep enough stuff to fill all the drawers, but I still liked the idea of having all those drawers. I’ve always liked the idea of hiding things, including myself, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on what or why I am trying to hide. Ashley and I started unpacking and Lauren came in shortly after us. We talked as we unpacked, but about what I don’t specifically remember. I discovered two more drawers underneath my bed and those quickly became my favorite drawers where I hid my underwear and letters from loved ones. If I would have had anything else to hide I would have hidden it in those drawers, but the BHAs had already taken anything worth hiding away.
I placed a Boyd bear on my bed that my aunt and uncle had given me the day before leaving for the facility. It wasn’t the most comfortable bear to sleep with, as I think it was made more for a shelf than a bed, but it was the only thing I knew I would have to keep me company at night. It had little wings and a halo, obviously resembling an angel, but instead of enjoying it’s angelic features, I actually grew annoyed by them. It’s wire wings would poke me in the neck or it’s glittery pipe cleaner halo would stab me in the face. I should have put him (or her) on a shelf where he (or she) belonged, but despite my annoyances I couldn’t let go of him (or her) at night. As silly as it sounds, having that bear, even at 23 years old, made me feel loved and not so alone.
As I finished unpacking I felt my stomach to check and see if I had gained any weight. There were no mirrors in the rooms, only in the bathrooms, but those remained locked at all times. I felt disgusting, but I tried not to let it show. I looked over Ashley’s side of the room, then Lauren’s. I tried not to compare, but I did. Ashley seemingly came from money, Lauren didn’t. I figured I was somewhere in the middle, but told myself to shut up because it didn’t matter anyway. I noticed that Lauren had a small CD player on her dresser which I thought was interesting because they had taken all my CDs away, and if one couldn’t have CDs, why have a CD player? I asked her about it and she said it belonged to the facility and that one day she had asked if she could use it during the day, but whoever had given it to her forgot about it and so there it still sat in our room. I asked her if she had any CDs and she said she did because whoever had given her the CD player for the day had also given her her CDs and they forgot to take those back as well. Prior to that moment I never in my life would have thought that I would be so excited about the idea of smuggling CDs, but there I was, thrilled at the thought of having something deemed as “contraband” so close to my possession. She allowed me to thumb through her very small collection of CDs… a few burnt CDs of mixed music, followed by The Killers, Gorillaz, Jet, and a sermon by Desmond Tutu.
As I was examining Lauren’s pittance of music, I was told by a BHA that I could put my toiletries and such in my locker where they were to be kept on lock down at all times. I could use my tooth brush and tooth paste and non-alcoholic shampoo, but I had to ask permission for said toiletries to be used, in which case a BHA would follow me to my locker, unlock it, and take note of what I took out. After making use of said toiletries, makeup and dental floss included, I had to inform the BHA that I was done so he or she could lock everything back up until I asked for permission again. So, the BHA walked me down the hall and showed me my locker that looked like a square of no bigger than 10 inches by 10 inches. I loaded my locker up with my hairdryer and hairbrush, and all of my other toiletries, and watched the BHA lock them up as I thought to myself how crazy it was that I couldn’t even have my hairbrush out. Ashley, Lauren and I were then told we would be walked back over to the adolescent lodge for snack and our nightly check in group.
Before heading back out into the snow, I put on my layers of sweaters and covered them all with the bright orange Harley Davidson Jacket that my Chicago native uncle had loaned me since I had never owned, nor had I ever planned on owning, a winter jacket. Not having had time to go shopping for a winter jacket between landing in Chicago, watching the Bears loose the Superbowl at my aunt and uncle’s house, and checking into treatment, I just had to take what I was given. Being that my uncle may still be one of Harley Davidson’s biggest fans, there wasn’t much he could have offered me that didn’t have “Harley Davidson” plastered across it somewhere. I have since grown fond of Mr. Davidson, but never in a million years would I have planned on sporting such a winter jacket as that one. I guess it’s funny because I had also never planned on having an eating disorder, let alone going to treatment for one, yet there I found myself… in a men’s large, bright orange Harley Davidson jacket, flames and all, standing behind two sets of locked double doors, waiting to be escorted out. John Lennon so poetically sang once that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” and that is exactly how I felt when I wore that jacket.
In addition to adjusting to treatment, as a born native to the coast of South Carolina, I was also still adjusting to the Chicago climate change. I had to figure out how to move about in a down jacket, especially one that made such a loud statement in contrast to the serene, white snow. When I walked outside it was as if my presence was screaming “HERE I AM, BITCHES!!” Why my presence had to include the word “bitches,” I don’t know, but I thought it was something that someone wearing a Harley jacket might be prone to say, which may sound like a stereotype, but I felt okay making that judgement since just earlier Annie had said that “bitches” could be used as a term of endearment.
And so, as if it wasn’t enough of a shock for me that I was wearing a flaming orange Harley jacket in the freezing cold of a Narnian look-a-like town outside of Chicago, I could have never been prepared for the shock that was about to take place when we walked back through the doors of the adolescent lodge.
As the night was coming to an end we arrived back at the lodge where my morning started. The BHA who was with us couldn’t even unlock the second set of double doors before a BHA from inside came running to the doors, out of breath, telling us not to come in yet. I heard yelling coming from inside and I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew something wasn’t right. As I stood in the middle of two sets of locked doors, loud yelling on one side and the quiet of the snow on the other, I clinched my fists in an effort to relieve the stress I felt.
“It’s a five minute rule!” the BHA from inside snapped at us, as if I understood what that meant. Lauren with her “oh no!” and Ashley with her “oh shit!” seemed to know what “five minute rule” meant and judging by their reactions, it didn’t sound good. The BHA who was with us said that the five minute rule meant everyone had to go to their rooms and shut the doors until told to come out. “But why?” I asked. “Because somethings going down!” Ashley blurted out. “Just for the safety of everyone,” the BHA quickly chimed in. The BHA from inside said she needed all the staff help she could get, so for our BHA to walk us into the group room off to the side as quickly as possible, close us in there, then follow her. Ashley joked by saying she’d help “lay the smack down,” but the BHA from inside cut her a look and said “seriously, go straight to the group room!” Everything was happening so fast and it was all so ambiguous that I started to get anxious.
We got through the second set of double doors and down one of the three hallways I heard someone yelling “FIVE MINUTE RULE! FIVE MINUTE RULE!” Our BHA rushed us to the group room, shut the door and left. The group room was quiet. I looked at Ashley and Lauren… Lauren looked concerned while Ashley just grinned. “Congratulations!” Ashley said to me as she laughed, “no one ever gets introduced to the five minute rule on their first day!” Her warm welcome was interupted by a girl yelling on the other side of the door… “I’LL GO TO MY FUCKING ROOM WHEN I FUCKING WANT TO!” I looked at the glass door that was covered by a curtain, which Lauren was peeking under, then I looked back at Ashley. “Welcome to fucking treatment,” she said sarcastically, “you might as well sit down because this is going to take longer than five minutes.” I clinched my fists again as the comotion outside of the door got louder and F-bombs where being launced through the whole facility like hand grenades. There was only one thing that came to my mind in that moment…
where the hell am I?
The Night’s End
Lauren pulled herself back from the door through which she was peeking, “It’s Annie and Carson,” she said in a worried tone. Ashley rolled her eyes and made a remark about the two of them always raising hell and how sick of it she was. “I swear,” she said angrily, “if this whole place is on lock-down tomorrow because of them, I’m gonna be pissed.” I just kept looking back and forth between Ashley and Lauren, meanwhile the noise outside of the doors to the group room were getting louder.
The exact timing of all that I heard happening that night is probably a bit off from how it all actually went down, but I will do my best to retrace the steps of what I experienced sitting nervously in that group room on the night of February 5th, 2007.
“DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH ME! GET AWAY FROM ME!” one of the girls yelled. We heard loud banging noises every so often, but what it was, I still don’t know. “Should we do something?” Ashley asked. “I just hope they’re okay,” Lauren responded, now even more concerned than before. “They’re fine, they’re just being stupid,” Ashley said “If someone would just let me talk to them, I could calm them down.” Lauren and Ashley’s short exchanges were followed by more loud banging and then a high pitched scream. It was right at that point that I was about to pee my pants.
“DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH ME! GET THAT AWAY FROM ME! CARSON, DON’T LET THEM TOUCH ME WITH THAT!”
Knowing she didn’t speak in third person, I realized it was Annie who was yelling for Carson to help her. Annie didn’t sound much like a ring-leader in that moment, but Carson was still playing the role of the accomplice immensely well. “Damn it, Annie” Ashley said out loud, but to herself, “just calm down, stop freaking out, it’s only gonna get worse.”
“GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF OF HER!” Carson yelled, which was followed by another loud bang and a high pitched scream. At the sound of the second high pitched scream, a calmer, but still loud, voice chimed in, obviously a BHA, “I just need you to CALM DOWN!” she said, “if you calm down nothing will happen!”
“FUCK YOU! GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF OF HER!”
Lauren was beside herself, “Oh, if only they would just stop! No one is listening to anyone! Someone is going to get hurt.” Meanwhile, I was sitting in the corner in my bright orange Harley Davidson jacket. I looked like a bad ass, but the only thing going through my head was “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, OH MY GOD!”
Annie and Carson started screaming each other’s names, and by the sound of it, being held down by a number of staff. “GET OFF OF ME, DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH ME WITH THAT! I HATE YOU!”
There was so much yelling and so much noise that it was hard for me to take it all in. I felt like I was hiding in the tunnel of a war zone. I was safe in my little corner, but all I could hear was kicking and screaming and the sound of something banging against the wall, or on the floor, I couldn’t tell. I was rolling the scene in my mind and picturing Annie and Carson in camouflage, launching F-bomb hand grenades at the staff. The staff tried to dodge each grenade as they just crept toward the two girls. “GET AWAY FROM ME,” one would yell and launch an F-bomb. The staff would duck and the F-bomb would skim the back of their leg or arm, but the relentless staff would keep moving toward the girls. Despite all of Annie and Carson’s defense mechanisms and attacks, the staff was determined to take them down… not so much in real life, but in my minds view of the war that was happening outside of those doors.
This went on for a bit before one of the girls, I couldn’t tell who, started crying. They were screaming for the one to help the other, but they were both apparently not in a position to do so. Ashley now peeked out from under the curtain that covered the door, “I can’t see them, I think they’re down the hall.”
In that next moment I heard screaming, screaming and more screaming, then a gradual fade of their voices, and then a thud, followed by another thud. I waited to hear something else… but I heard nothing. Dead silence. I sat there with my hands to my mouth and looked at Ashley and Lauren. Dead silence. Lauren looked under the curtain one more time and gasped. I couldn’t take it anymore and ran to the door to look under the curtain. I saw enough to catch the tail end of four pairs of legs being dragged away. “Oh my God,” I blurted out, “did they just get tranquilized!?!” I think it was Lauren, only because the response was so calm and quiet, though I can’t quite remember because I was in such shock, but she simply said “basically.”
“Oh my God!” I said out loud again, followed by “Oh my God!” My thought process was quite profound in that moment. “Holy shiiiiiii, they just got tranquilized!” I was in shock. My mind and my heart was racing. “I’ve only seen that done in the movies, I didn’t know people actually did it! Oh my God! Dear Jesus…”
Jesus might have been waiting for me to finish that sentence, but I didn’t.
“Welcome to treatment!” Ashley said, as if what just happened didn’t phase her one bit. My mind kept asking myself questions that I just couldn’t answer… “OK, seriously, where am I? What am I doing here? What just happened? Is that normal? Seriously, did that really just happen? What is my problem? WHAT AM I DOING HERE?”
The three of us sat in the group room waiting for someone to come and get us and tell us that the war was over, that the valiant staff had once again triumphed over the crazies, and that everyone could return home safely to the privacy of their monitored rooms.
“Where’d they take em’?” I asked whoever was willing to answer. “To their rooms,” Ashley spoke up, “they’ll be alright, they’ll just wake up with a big ass headache tomorrow.”
I don’t remember a staff ever coming to get us, I don’t remember having snack that night, I don’t even remember walking back through the snow to go back to the adult lodge, but all of those things took place because I ended up right back at the adult lodge, with a full stomach. I think I was just so caught up in my mind, replaying the scene I had imagined and matching it up to the reality of the sound bite I had just heard. It was as if my body kept moving how it was told to be moved, but my mind was stuck replay mode, not really aware or even interested in what my body was doing.
We got back to our lodge to prepare for bed and my roommates and I were quiet. Before I walked into our room, I turned to the BHA who walked us over and told her my beloved fan had been taken away earlier that day and I desperately needed it’s soothing white noise to lull me to sleep, especially after such a chaotic night. She said she didn’t know about it but would ask someone in the morning. My heart felt heavy and even though it was just a fan, I wanted to cry. The day had drained me of any sort of strength or pride that it was really just all gone at that point. I started to tear up, trying not to let my roommates hear me, “I really can’t sleep without the noise.” The BHA said she understood, I doubted it, and that she couldn’t do anything about it until tomorrow. I walked in our room where Ashley and Lauren were getting ready for bed, aware that they overheard me. “Do you need noise to sleep?” Lauren asked. I wanted to act tough, but I couldn’t, “well… yea. I’ve never slept without a a fan before, at least not inside.” I felt the need to add “at least not inside” so she wouldn’t think I was spoiled and sheltered. It’s funny how even in your weakest moments, pride can rear it’s ugly head.
“Well, I don’t have a fan,” Lauren said, “but maybe you could use the CD player, if Ashley doesn’t mind the noise.” Before I could even turn to look at Ashley for approval she hollered out from her side of the room “don’t worry about me, I took my sleeping pill, I won’t hear a damn thing!” Apparently somewhere in the shuffle of the war clean up and snack, nightly meds were handed out, but since it was my first day and I had yet to meet with my assigned psychiatrist, I also had yet to be prescribed to what would keep me from ever needing a fan to fall asleep again.
“What about the night staff?” I asked Lauren, “if they hear the CD player, won’t they take it away?”
“Probably not as long as you play it softly. Plus, Mona, she’s the overnight shift, she’s really cool.”
Mona was not and still is not the name of the woman who was the overnight shift, but I will call her that out of respect for her privacy. Lauren was right, she was cool, for lack of a better term, and that very night she became my favorite BHA.
Mona came in shortly after to escort whoever needed to go to their locker for their toiletries. She took notice that I was new, a quality that I admire in other people, and introduced herself. She had her hair up in a yellowish gold head wrap and she had the smoothest, most beautiful chocolate colored skin I had ever seen. She was tall and slender, but wore a big over sized fleece. I quietly told her my name, but she said she would just call me “boo boo.” I liked that, as I had always wanted to be considered somebody’s “boo boo,” but seeing as I had only ever dated white guys, it just never really caught on. She made me smile, the most I had done that day, at least authentically, and I thought about how much I enjoyed being around someone who could bring an authentic smile to my face, a quality that I admire in those who have and do.
After I brushed everything I needed to brush for bed and washed everything I needed to wash, Mona took my stats… blood pressure, heart rate, weight, and temperature. She said she (or whoever was working depending on the night) would be taking my stats every night and again every morning. “In case I gain weight while I sleep?” I asked her. She laughed, “girl, you silly, you ain’t gonna gain wait while you sleep! Too funny.” She didn’t know I serious, but I liked that she said I was funny, so I smiled. It had been such a long time since I felt like I was funny. Even I knew I was too sad to be funny.
Sensing that I could trust Mona, probably solely based on the fact that she called me “boo boo,” I told her about the removal of my beloved fan and explained that I knew she probably couldn’t do anything about it, but asked her to keep it in mind if she happened to see a fan in a locked closet somewhere. She laughed and said she would. I asked her if it would be okay for me to listen to the CD player to go to sleep, and she said since it was already in the room she thought it would be okay. I thanked her as she wrote down my blood pressure and packed up her equipment, “you’re welcome, boo boo, but try to keep it quiet.” I promised her I would and I smiled, not only because she said okay, but because I liked my new nickname.
While Mona took the other girls’ stats, I looked through Lauren’s CD collection again. I sorted through back and forth and as Mona was finishing up with Lauren, Lauren looked over at me and said what I was thinking, “none of it is really music to sleep to.” It was true… Gorillaz? No. Jet? No. The Killers? No. All good, but not to sleep to. Mona walked over to Ashley’s bed and had to shake Ashley a little, as her sleeping pill had already kicked in and she was passed out on top of her covers. I giggled a little as I watched Ashley jerk up… “Ah fuck, I’m awake!” she yelled out in a drowsy voice. Mona laughed too, “I just gotta get your stats, girl, you can stay in bed.” Ashley rolled over and flung her right arm out, “yea, yea, do your thing!” Ashley didn’t remember any of it the next morning.
I went through the CDs one more time and since they were all still the same, I settled on the last thing I thought I would settle on… a sermon by Desmond Tutu. “That’s probably your best choice,” Lauren said, “and it actually really is a good teaching.” I wasn’t interested in being taught before bed, but I was desperate for a calming noise of some sort, even if it was the voice of Desmond Tutu, a man I had heard about just the year before on a trip to South Africa. It was that very trip that triggered my awareness of the severity of my eating disorder, and it was in that very country that I fell to my knees and cried out to God that I couldn’t live the way I was living any more. I had wanted to forget everything about that trip because of how miserable I was and how close to death I felt; but that night in the facility, my first night in, I was reminded of the darkness of my time in South Africa, as the retired Archbishop of that very country spoke silently in the background through Lauren’s borrowed CD player.
The sermon was titled “God has a Dream,” and it was comical to me because I had asked God to heal me, to fix me, and to make all the pain I felt during those dark times to go away; but he didn’t, at least that’s what I thought, because there I was… in treatment, getting treated for the very thing that God wouldn’t heal me from. I didn’t want to actually listen to Desmond Tutu’s words, especially if they were about God, as I was so angry at Him, but I needed something that resembled a fan, and a sermon about God seemed to be just the thing… a meaningless gust of wind that would put me to sleep. Even now it scares me to write that out and to think of the possibility of that thought ever being real.
The trouble was, despite how drained I was from the day or how angry I was at God, the day’s chaos swam about in my mind, keeping it fully alert as my body laid still. So it was after I pressed play on the CD player and had gotten into bed that I heard the first few remarks of Desmond Tutu’s “God has a Dream.” He spoke as if he had written a letter, and quite possibly, a letter to me…
“Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness. We all come at times to despair and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in our world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that the suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now… in our personal lives, and in our lives as nations globally. The most unlikely person, the most improbable situation, these are all transfigurable. They can be turned into their glorious opposites. Indeed, God is transforming the world now, through us, because God loves us.”
The sermon went on, but it was always at least by that point that I had either fallen asleep or tuned it out. I held onto to the boyd bear that my aunt and uncle had given me, the one dressed as an angel, and as it’s halo poked me in the face, I thought about those words “because God loves us.”
I wish I could say that I heard those words that night and my whole mindset changed… that I suddenly had hope, and was able to grab a hold of the truth that God knew what He was doing and that He really was going to take care of me.
But I didn’t.
That night in my bed, in the darkness of our room, I felt safe… a kind of safe I had never really felt before because it wasn’t regarding God keeping me safe. It was a kind of safety that was free from the judgements and criticisms of other people, especially Christians. It was a safety from the Baptist Sunday school teachers who expected the preacher’s kid to be perfect. It was a safety from the charismatic church leaders who said I didn’t have enough faith to be healed. It was a safety from the Catholic friends who said we could do anything we wanted as long as we asked for forgiveness.
As I thought about how safe I felt from all the faith based claims or accusations spoken to me throughout my life, I also thought about that evening’s events with the five minute rule. I realized that the girls in the facility had no clue who I was, where I came from, or what I believed, nor did they care… they had their own problems. I felt safe from the pressure to measure up, and safe from the pressure of being a “good Christian,” whatever that meant.
I said those words to myself again, “because God loves us,” and I laid there for a second. In the quietness of the room, except for the voice of the archbishop in the background, I rolled over in my bed and whispered exactly how I felt about those words…
“I don’t care.”
My tears tasted bitter that night, but I welcomed the bitterness. It was the first time I felt free to say how I really felt. I thought I would feel afraid if I were to voice that I didn’t care about God, or if He loved me or not, but I didn’t… I felt relieved.
And so, February 5th finally came to end, looking much different than how it had started. I never thought that when I woke up that morning and prayed with my dad, before reaching the facility, that I would go to bed that night most confident that God hadn’t heard me that morning, or ever at all. I knew that February 6th was going to be the start of a new life, not just because I was going to start recovery, but because I was going to start it without God.
The relief was overwhelming, and it put me right to sleep.
The Perfect Patient
Before I introduce you to the rest of my time in treatment after February 5th, 2007, I feel the need, or the desire rather, to back up and share a few snap shots that each play a part, some big and some small, in what led to my arrival at the facility outside of Chicago, IL. Seeing as how I went to bed on February 5th, 2007 wanting nothing to do with God, I will avoid the beaten path around the bush and get straight to the point by starting with just that… God. He is who I wanted nothing to do with that night, and He is who has me sitting here today, telling a story of redemption that is still in motion.
On that note, let us begin…
As with most people I know, I was a child once. As a child I grew up in a beach community on the coast of South Carolina. It was a small town, and as with most small towns in the south, everybody knew every body’s business. As if everybody didn’t already know every body’s business, my father was the pastor of one of the few local churches, the better of the church options, in my biased opinion. It didn’t matter whether I wanted people to know my business or not, they did simply because my father was a public figure, and as with most small towns in the south, the community wants their public figures and their families to be on their best behavior, especially if those public figures are Christian. I get it, I’m not saying I don’t understand that mind set, but I am saying that putting the pressure of perfection on someone, even a public figure, is quite an un-Christian thing for Christians and un-Christians to do.
People’s expectation for my father to be perfect began at a young age for him as well, in another small town in the south, long before a family of his own was ever an idea in his young little mind. My father’s father was a music evangelist… you know, the kind everyone loves and praises because of his devotion to God, yet his own children don’t even know him as their father. After all, how can they when he’s out on the road singing about Jesus to everybody else? This may sound harsh, and in some ways, it is, but the truth is harsh, and the truth is that I’m sick of bearing my family name and being expected to smile just because I have a grandfather who sings about Jesus to everybody else.
Along with that, I am almost positive one of the first things my grandmother taught all of her children to do was to smile. Sounds sweet, right? With phrases like “smile, Jesus loves you,” “turn that frown upside down,” and “with Christ in my vessel, I can smile at the storm,” my grandmother was never not smiling. It seems like a pleasant enough idea, but when a child is told not to cry but instead to smile, regardless of how they feel, it can actually be quite damaging. It wasn’t intentional poor parenting on my grandmother or grandfather’s part, I truly believe they were doing the best they could with what they had, so I’m not trying to paint them in a bad light, but I am trying to paint them in a real light. A light that exposes the hurt underneath the smiles and underneath all the songs about Jesus. My father didn’t know his own father and he was told to smile about it. I wonder if my small town in the south knows about that.
And so my father grew up, and married a woman who thought she was marrying into the perfect family, only to discover the oppression that came with each and every smile. She took on a last name that meant she had to play a certain role, and when she began to question that role I can just hear my grandmother’s response in her sweet, southern voice, “now honey, we don’t question, we smile.”
No questions, just smiling. This, in a nut shell, from a child’s perspective, seemed to be the Christian philosophy my grandparents lived by. And this is the sort of Christian philosophy I want nothing to do with.
And so we have my parents, in my small town in the south, leading a church under the notion that they simply had to keep it all together or else. People who had seen my grandfather on t.v. were now watching my father in the flesh, and I’m sure they wanted just as good of a performance. Let me clarify, as I’m not saying my grandfather was merely performing and that’s all, the man still dearly loves Jesus and I admire that, but just like the worship team that sings great songs with awesome crescendos on Sundays, when you’re in the spotlight sometimes performance more than actual worship is just unintentionally part of the gig.
I can’t say that everybody expected such a performance. I think some people were real enough with their own hurts to say they didn’t mind that their pastor wasn’t Christ himself, but I can say that many people expected my father to be just that. I know this because many people expected that of me.
I remember the day I realized I was different, not because of who I was, but because of who my father was. I was in fifth grade. It was during Sunday school, which is where all the kids were dismissed to after the music so they didn’t have to sit through “big church.” The kids were divided by age. My older sister was out of Sunday school by then and trying to endure big church, not because she liked it, but because she was trying to be a big girl, and my younger brother and sister were in the age class below me. My Sunday school teachers were a married couple, older, obviously to a child, but I remember thinking they were probably approaching death soon since they were in their late forties or fifties. That day the class was asked to recite the Bible verses they were supposed to have memorized from the prior Sunday. I was called on first, go figure. I had huge bows in my hair, a southern classic, and a dress with semi-poofed sleeves. That day, though so long ago, remains etched in my mind.
I giggled and said I didn’t know. The husband asked what I meant when I said I didn’t know; the wife just smiled. It all seemed so familiar, like deja-vu. “I didn’t memorize the verse,” I said. The husband sighed as if disappointed, looked at me and replied, “well, Jennie Barrows, out of all the kids in this class, you should be the first one to have had it memorized… you’re the preacher’s kid!”
I didn’t say it out loud, as I was still trying to figure out the difference between talking back and voicing my opinion, but I remember thinking to myself, “what does my dad have to do with this?” The husband called on the kid next to me, I still remember who, but I won’t call him out, and of course he had his verse memorized. When the husband told Bible-boy next to me that he had done a great job, I wanted to ask if it was because his dad was an architect.
From that day on, I realized I was being watched, and how I lived my life was going to be reflective of my father’s role as the pastor. I remember being scared and anxious, wondering what would happen if I messed up, what would people think of my father. I held the pressure in my hands and I squeezed it tightly… something I still do when I get anxious. I hated my Sunday school teacher that day, which seemed like the worst sin possible at that age, but I felt like I suddenly had to grow up when I wasn’t ready. That seemingly small comment never left me, nor the pressure that came with it. It followed me all the way to treatment on February 5th, 2007.
I don’t believe my Sunday school teacher had any idea of the impact his comment would make, nor do I believe he meant it maliciously, in fact he probably forgot all about it after that, and so I no longer hold it against him, but as a fifth grader, I wasn’t so convinced of his innocence. Realizing at a young age that people had certain expectations of my life and the life of my family, I began my quest for perfection so as not to let down those around me, and especially those who thought the pastor’s kid should know better than all the other kids when it came time to behave.
It’s funny (now) because, for me, what may have looked like a happy and pleasant life to people on the outside, I remember being filled with much anger and anxiety. What if I mess up? Why do people care? What will they say about my dad? How will I keep up? All of these questions filled my mind and the harder I tried to be the good pastor’s kid, the more angry I became. I kept up with my manners in the community, but it was the community I was mad at. I never felt the pressure for perfection inside my home, it was never my parents who led me to believe I needed to be perfect. They were beautiful in how they displayed grace and most excellent in the area of discipline. After growing to love the flavor of vinegar from having to “taste the bitterness” of my words so often, they resorted to “washing my mouth out” with soap; a creative effort on their part, but an angry heart with a dirty mouth is hard to clean.
When being punished they always clarified that I was being disciplined in love, and it was for my benefit that they wanted me to learn the consequences of my actions. My mother was always quick to separate the action from the identity of the child by saying things like “you’re not a bad girl, but what you did was very bad.” I knew my parents loved me, but once out of the house and in the public eye, I felt the need to perform, wondering who actually liked me for me and not for who they wanted me to be… a “Barrows”.
While I felt loved inside the home, it was inside the home that most of my anger came out. My siblings retell stories, in laughter now, of me chasing them around the kitchen with a butcher knife, throwing a chair down the stairs, a lamp at my sister’s head, and really anything else I could get my hands on. We laugh when we tell stories about how I would scream and cry, kick down doors until they literally came off the hinges, break window panes and punch the wall. We laugh because it’s over and we all survived, thank God, but I sometimes still can’t help but feel sad for that little girl who was so alone in her anger. I wonder if my small town in the south knows about that.
My parents, God bless them, had more than enough to deal with already, so I’m sure my anger didn’t help the strain of small town living. I’m sure my anger didn’t help the strain of church living. And I’m sure my anger didn’t help the strain of family living. But none the less, they embraced what they got and what they got was me. I have been through many phases with my parents, some of which I will touch on later, but what I will say is that they have never given up on me, no matter how dark and ugly my struggle, and I consider it an honor to be a part of their most imperfect, most beautiful lives. I shall stake my claim here and say that I will never give up on them.
So our family continued on in our small little community and I continued to resent those around me. Though my father spoke beautifully about grace and love on Sundays, I never payed enough attention for it to actually sink in. I was always falling asleep on the person’s lap next to me, one time actually drooling on another girl’s Easter dress, or trying to light my friends hair on fire during candle light services, or most of the time just wondering when dad would wrap it up so we could go eat lunch. During one service I actually stuck my arm up in the air and pointed at my wrist and mouthed “LUNCH.” That one didn’t go over too well.
All that to say, had I maybe have been paying attention to this idea of Jesus being about grace and love and not about smiling all the damn time, like at family reunions, I might have learned how to love those around me who I resented so much. I might have realized that they were hurt and broken people too, who put unrealistic expectations on me because they had unrealistic expectations on themselves. I might have felt free to be myself because Jesus saw the ugly nature of my heart, even as a child, and loved me anyway. I might have come to all of those conclusions, but then again, I might not have. Either way, that’s not for me to figure out now. I don’t think God works in the “what ifs” or “would haves,” so what’s done is done and my story is my story.
But there is hope, because God is still writing it! It doesn’t always go the way I want it to go, as some chapters are harder than I would have them be, but God has this gift as a creator, an artist, and a writer to make beauty out of pain and the most blinding light out of deep darkness. As a child, I let the church write my story, perhaps unaware that they were even playing such a key role in my life. I did what they told me to do and lived how they told me to live. I went home, angry and tired, beat a few walls, perhaps a few siblings, and often cried myself to sleep. I think I was too angry to let truth penetrate my heart, and I increasingly grew less and less interested in what God had to offer. Never would I have spoken that aloud, not to a single soul would I have ever revealed the questions I had about this God who smiled so much. Not even to God Himself would I ask those questions. I knew better.
So at a very young age, I had come to know the term perfection and I got to working on it. At the time, I associated perfection solely with Christianity, but it was only a matter of time before this idea of perfection seeped into other areas of life; areas I thought I had compartmentalized and could keep separate from Christianity, so as to take a breather when I needed it. Little did I know, perfectionism doesn’t allow much time for breathers and trying to keep up was going to lead to a burn-out from exhaustion.
Leaving this snapshot, but the memory of it still fully present in my mind, I woke up on February 6th, 2007, quite imperfect and perfectly content with the idea of abandoning the God of perfection, who I thought had already abandoned me.
Mona came into the room to get our stats before any of us had gotten out of bed. She unlocked the bathroom so I could relieve myself and change into a hospital gown so that she could weigh me. I remember being quite glad that I could pee first and take off all my clothes before being weighed so that the number on the scale would appear less, even though I wasn’t allowed to see it. I didn’t realize I actually wanted to play the opposite game with the staff, while keeping my weight down I wanted to make it appear to be more so that they wouldn’t make me gain any more weight.
The number on the scale to someone with an eating disorder (perhaps depending on the sort) is both a badge of honor and a mark of shame. You’re never actually satisfied no matter what the number is. If you can get it to be less than before, you feel high and mighty and accomplished for a second, but before you finish that thought, you begin to think about how you can make it go down before you step on the scale again. I heard an angry girl once say “scales are for fish!” I didn’t know what she meant until I experienced my own obsession with the scale. To this day, I will not step on a scale, unless at the doctor’s office, in which case I ask not to know the number. I almost lost my mind to a scale, and so I’m done with scales, scales are for fish!
On the morning of February 6th, 2007, however, at 6:30am, I stepped on the scale and tried to peek under the piece of yellow paper that Mona had covered up the number with. I was worried as I saw her write on her notepad. “Is it more or less?” I quietly whispered, as Lauren and Ashley were still sleeping. “Girl, I can’t tell you that,” she sort of giggled, ” but don’t worry boo boo, you’re just fine!”
I started to go through my dresser drawers as Mona took the other girls’ stats. I laughed watching Mona try to wake up Ashley. Ashley just shot her arm straight up in the air and mumbled “do your shit,” which sounds mean but when whispered by a girl just waking up from her sleeping pills, it actually sounded quite nice, and more funny than anything else. Upon Lauren getting up, she turned the lights on and the three of us were stirring about getting ready for the morning. After Mona was done, Lauren put on a Gorillaz CD. “By the way,” Lauren asked, “how did you like that CD last night?” I told her I had fallen asleep before really hearing any of it, but that I did like Desmond Tutu’s accent and mimicked it as best as I could… “Dea Chald oof Good.” We both laughed as we continued getting dressed. I will never forget Lauren that morning, shuffling around, bobbing her head back and forth to “Feel Good Inc” by Gorillaz. When the time came in the song, the three of us, Lauren, Ashley and I, would throw our heads back and in unison sing “AH HA HA HA HA HA!” I was never a fan of Gorillaz before that moment, and I still couldn’t tell you what other songs they sing, but that song will always bring back a pleasant memory for me.
Before the CD was halfway through, we had all gotten dressed and locked our toiletries back up. Lauren shut off the CD player, I put on my bright orange Harley Davidson jacket, and we walked out to the lobby where the morning BHA was waiting to take us over to the adolescent lodge. I was nervous about walking back through the double doors of that lodge given what had just happened the night before, but I figured it couldn’t get much worse. When we got there most of the girls were waiting by the doors to be escorted to breakfast. I was told I had to eat in the kitchen lodge again as I was still on 24 hour lock down for new admissions. “Come dinner time you should be able to go to the cafeteria,” a BHA said to me.
I sat down in the main seating area of the adolescent lodge, which I think we just started to call “the lobby,” and again watched all of the other girls around me. Though there were only 3 adult patients, I was the only one admitted for an eating disorder. I looked at the adolescents in the lobby and tried to guess which ones had eating disorders, which ones were cutters, and which ones were crack addicts. Truth be told, I was sort of disappointed I couldn’t tell. Whether it be a great detox program or the cold Chicago winters that had everyone bundled up and looking the same, I couldn’t tell much difference between myself and them. It might have been the competitive mindset of someone with an eating disorder, or just that sweet southern nature that has one looking at everyone else’s problems instead of their own, but either way I was armed and ready to judge all of the other girls around me.
All the girls, minus the ones on bad behavior or those admitted within the last twenty-four hours, were escorted out of the lodge to the cafeteria while the rest of us sat behind and watched. There weren’t many of us left, but enough to fill the lodge kitchen. I sat down at the kitchen table next to Corrie who had already begun her morning rocking and whispering. Amanda, a female BHA with bright red hair, came walking in with Styrofoam to-go boxes. She placed them in front of the girls who were on meal plans, myself included. I was given oatmeal, which I was okay with at first, but when I saw what I was supposed to put in my oatmeal I started to panic. Though Corrie looked crazy on the outside, I knew her behavior was exactly how I felt on the inside, I just wasn’t expressing it. In little individual packets I saw brown sugar and butter.
My very calm and rational thought process went something like this: “FUCK THAT! I am not putting that in my body. I’ll eat the oatmeal, but there is no FUCKING way I am eating butter or brown sugar! These people are crazy. What is wrong with them? It’s disgusting what they think is okay. They want me to get fat. They’re jealous and they want me to get fat. Everyone that works here is fat and it’s disgusting. All of this butter is probably why. I’m not touching it. I don’t care what they say or what they do, they can tranq me for all I care, I’m not FUCKING touching it!”
Now, mind you, being someone with an eating disorder, I had done all the research there is to do on food and nutrition and diet and exercise. I understood the difference between mono-unsaturated and trans fats, I understood that muscle weighed more than fat, and I understood that carbs were necessary for “fuel” which was necessary for exercise, my second obsession. The problem was not that my “research” was completely false persay, the problem was that my “research” was twisted, distorted, and exgaurated to a degree that was unhealthy and unrealistic. I used facts to back up my distortions (like what many people do with scripture, but more on that another time).
I literally thought that if I had that tablespoon of butter or small scoop of brown sugar in my bowl of oatmeal in that one sitting that I would gain weight… right there on the spot. I literally thought that certain foods, which by the time I entered treatment were almost all foods, were pure evil. I was about as certain as any severly paranoid person could be that the American food industry was out to get me… me personally. I have somewhat of a chuckle when I think about the severity of my paranoia on the matter, but that’s only because I am on this side of recovery. Combine a heavy dose of anger with a good bit of paranoia and add an eating disorder on top of it and it makes for one pretty crazy person. I can say that because I am talking about myself. It seems silly, right? and almost pointless to talk about getting so upset over oatmeal add-ons, but the fact of the matter is, at 23 years old I found myself forced to sit in front of a plate of food and I couldn’t do it without completely freaking out. To be afraid to eat when eating is necessary for survival… how does one possibly recover? I doubted one could and I hated the girls who said they did. I deemed them as sell-outs instead of recovered.
While Corrie sat next to me and whispered her thoughts, I sat staring at my oatmeal, churning my thoughts about in my head. Amanda asked Corrie to start with her breakfast and then looked at me and asked me to do the same. “Oh God,” I thought “she’s associating me with being like Corrie. I am not that crazy.” When I think back on how I used to look at Corrie, I can’t help but see how stone cold my heart was and how the only person I cared about was myself. As I was staring at my oatmeal, another girl sitting across the table from me blurted out “why are you here?” I looked up and she was staring at me. She had mascara smeared under her eyes and if she hadn’t been in treatment I would have thought she was high. I just sat there not really knowing how to answer her, as I was wasn’t even 100 percent certain she was taking to me. She kept looking at me, “why are you here?” she asked again.
“For an eating disorder,” I said quietly.
“How long have you had it?” she asked, and I was irritated that she even wanted to know. “For about two years,” I responded, just glad that it kept me from eating my oatmeal. She looked at me with her painted black eyes, looked at my food, then at hers and said “that’s a long time,” and then went back to eating. It was an awkward exchange between the two of us, but it wasn’t the awkwardness that made me uncomfortable, it was my answer… “about two years.” Without even thinking about it, that was the first time I answered that question honestly. I had been in denial for so long that it caught me off guard when I realized exactly how long it had been since I had first started struggling.
In that moment I knew I didn’t want to struggle anymore, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to put that butter or brown sugar in my body. I had decided I would get the help that I needed, but I also decided that I would do it my way, not realizing how harmful that was going to be for my recovery in the long run. I took a few bites of my oatmeal and waited until no one was paying attention to me, then I picked up my small packet of brown sugar and the gold pad of butter with my napkin and crumbled it up in my hand. I held it there until breakfast was over and then got up and threw it away. This one small act in and of itself was not a big deal, I get that. But this one small act was the first step in the direction of deception as I learned how to cheat the system and only pretend to be the perfect patient.
Further along in the story I find myself in front of a panel of doctors, confessing that I had been throwing my food away while under their care; all of whom were shocked and said out of anybody in the facility, I was the last person they would have ever expected to be breaking the rules. Performed perfection… I had learned it well while growing up and this was just another role I found myself in where I had the opportunity to master that “skill.”
But coming to that realization is later in the story… for now I am just an angry and mentally unstable preacher’s kid who is sitting in front of a bowl of oatmeal, blaming everyone else, including God, for everything that is wrong with her. I knew that I wanted help, but I wanted it my way, and I won’t find out until later that my way just doesn’t work.
The Cries For Help
After throwing my oatmeal toppings away, I walked proudly out of the kitchen and went and sat down in the lobby. I felt like doing a strut as I had regained confidence in my ability to control what I ate, even while in treatment. My life was falling apart around me and had been for the last few years, but as long as I could control what I ate, I felt like everything was going to be okay. Though I thought I was in control, something as “simple” as food had complete control over every part of who I was. Every thought, every move, every bite, every action was guided by how much weight I could lose, how much further I could run, and how many calories I could cut out. It was easy for me to think that I had dealt with the anger from my childhood or the many other heartbreaks and let-downs, of which I will touch on later, but the only reason it was easy for me to think all of that was simply because I was numb… to everything. What I didn’t realize was that I didn’t actually deal with any of those issues, I just stopped thinking about them because the only thing I could think about was food, food, food. There was no healing in my life, there was just numbing. And that’s pretty much how I remember feeling during my early twenties… numb.
The problem with numbing… you can’t just numb out the bad and only feel the good, you numb it all. Sure, I wasn’t sad when I was thinking about food all the time, but I wasn’t happy either. I was emotionless, driven only by what went in or out of my body. During that time period my mother once described me as a hollow shell, as if all the life had been sucked out of me. I functioned those years, but I wasn’t living. My mind was sold out and my heart went right along with it. My mother was right. Didn’t someone say once that mothers always are!?
So, day two at the facility and I’ve already abandoned God and figured out how to cheat the system… I was off to a great start with my recovery. If I’m really honest, abandoning God made me feel like a bad ass, but somewhere deep down I knew that I still wanted Him. I didn’t want the life I had lived with Him before, but there was something about Him I still wanted. I so badly wanted Him to be someone other than who I thought He was, but it just seemed too difficult to figure out. I didn’t want a God of rules, but a God without rules I just couldn’t understand. I hated formulas, but I needed them if I was to accomplish anything, and that was how I felt about God. None of my formulas to get to Him seemed to be working, so instead of abandoning the formulas, I decided God didn’t care and I abandoned Him.
I sat in the lobby after breakfast sorting through my thoughts about God, telling Him I wasn’t going to talk to Him anymore, even though I was still talking to Him in that moment. I felt conflicted not knowing who or what to believe. I think I decided I would still ask God for help because I have journal entries in which I did, but I also decided that this time around was going to be my final round of asking. It was as if I was putting God on trial and saying, “OK, prove it!” To be honest I was scared to even consider it so final, to ask one last time. As long as I wasn’t asking for help I could still hope that there was help to be offered, but if I asked and didn’t receive then all hope would be lost. What does one do without hope? I had desperately pleaded for God to help me months before going into treatment and when it didn’t happen (the way I thought it would), I was much too afraid to ever ask again. It was easier for me to think God was pre-occupied than to think He wasn’t there, but when it really came down to the questions, I would say it was much easier to think that God wasn’t there than to think He didn’t care. I’d rather have no god than a god who didn’t care.
Girls began to pile back in from the cafeteria after breakfast, running about the lobby and getting ready to separate into their different groups. I looked down the hall and saw Annie and Carson, who had been tranquilized the night before for causing an uprising. They were being escorted to the nurses station, barely half awake as their eyes struggled to stay open. I asked one of the girls why they got so upset last night and she explained that Carson had a panic attack and started to cut herself with a safety pin and when the BHAs tried to stop her, Annie came to her “defense.” “Where’d she get the safety pin?” I asked. “It’s easier than you’d think to sneak stuff in here,” she said “or just to hide stuff and get away with it.” She smiled as if she were hiding something, but she also seemed to be one of the sweetest, most innocent girls there. I smiled because even though it was only my second day, I knew exactly what she meant since I had just thrown my oatmeal toppings away without anyone knowing. “I’m Katie,” she said quietly with a smile. She asked what I was in for and I told her an eating disorder. “Me too!” she said somewhat excitedly, which I found to be a little odd, but I suppose the excitement was over the fact that we had something in common, not the fact that we both had eating disorders.
Katie was one of the first adolescents that I really liked. She was just so friendly to everyone, but not in an obnoxious way, like someone who is just trying to be nice to everyone. She was mostly just quiet, not going out of her way to come across as someone special, but you realized she was special when you came to her and felt her warmth and her genuine kindness. As we sat on the couch in the lobby Katie explained that Annie and Carson got into trouble all the time. She didn’t say anything bad or derogatory towards them but simply just stated facts. I liked that about Katie because it seemed to me that there were plenty of bad or derogatory things to say about Annie and Carson, but she opted not to. She told me they would be put on a sort of behavior probation where they would be monitored 24/7 by a BHA. I didn’t know Annie and Carson that well, but I knew they weren’t going to like that. As we were talking I looked at Katie’s arms. One of her long sleeves was slightly rolled up and I noticed all the cut marks hiding beneath her clothing. I didn’t say anything but I couldn’t help but wonder what this sweet girl had done to herself, and why. I just didn’t understand why. I had always thought that someone cutting them self was simply for attention, but Katie didn’t seem to want attention. I felt distracted while we talked as I wrestled with the thoughts in my head.
Liz, the nurse I was quite fond of who checked me in the day before, came from the nurses station and called out that it was time for medication. As girls were lining up for their meds, the morning BHAs started filing in through the front double doors. A few of them asked how my first night was and I said the same thing to most of them, “interesting.” I was a girl of few words during that time leading up to treatment and much of the time during. I felt so unlike myself, but then again I truly didn’t know who “myself” was. Does anybody, ever? Even after people “find themselves” doesn’t life just catch up with them again and they begin to wonder who they are and how they got here or there. I know this seems to be the case with me… a continual cycle of growing and changing, finding comfort in who I am for a short while, only for something else to come my way and shake things up a bit, or sometimes a lot. It is good, yes, I am glad and thankful not to remain stagnant and complacent, but that doesn’t minimize the fact that it, life, can be and often is hard.
As the girls got their meds I was told by one of the BHAs that I would be able to meet with a psychiatrist as well as my new therapist that day. “Your dad wanted you to have a Christian therapist,” she said, “and since we don’t have one here one will be commuting from another location, so it will be later today.” I was honestly embarrassed that she said that out loud and really glad that most of the girls were getting their meds so as not to hear. “Great!” I thought to myself, “I’m the only one here that’s having a therapist wrangled in because I need to have one who’s a Christian. I’m gonna be seen as the typical Christian who only wants to associate with other Christians. I don’t even know if I am a Christian.” At the time I was much too worried about what other people thought of me to see this as a blessing, which it ended up being, though not right away.
I was more concerned about my meals than I was about meds or therapy so I asked when I would be able to meet with the dietitian. “Probably not until tomorrow because she doesn’t come in on Tuesdays,” the BHA smiled as she said it. I was livid, though I didn’t show it. “I was told that I would be able to meet with the dietitian ‘tomorrow’ yesterday, and now I’m being told today that I can meet with her tomorrow, what about my meals?” I asked. I could tell that the BHA was slightly nervous about how to answer seeing as how eating disorder patients are likely to snap when it comes to matters of food, just like a drug addict would if you tried to take away their drug. “Well,” she paused, “you’ll have to just keep eating what they assign you until you can meet with her.” I tried not to cry. She could tell I was upset, “but the dietitian will definitely be here tomorrow.” I was just as upset about feeling mis-led as I was about what I would have to eat. If there was one thing that I could not stand it was being told what I wanted to hear instead of the truth, which is kind of ironic because I was always so good at telling people what they wanted to hear instead of the truth. Maybe that’s why it made me so mad when it happened to me, because it was something that I didn’t like about myself.
Before lunch I was also informed that I was put on exercise restriction, meaning I wasn’t allowed to exercise until I gained weight. What I didn’t realize was that their idea of exercise meant any movement at all in which calories might be burned (at least that’s what it felt like to me). I wasn’t even allowed to walk to the cafeteria, which all the girls did because it was just up the hill. Instead, I and two other girls who were on exercise restriction, Katie being one of them, had to wait for a van to come pick us up at the front doors of the lodge and be driven a total of five seconds to the cafeteria. It was, to say the least, in my opinion, ridiculous. I was pissed about not being able to exercise, especially thinking about the amount I had to eat without the option of throwing it up, or taking a laxative, or now being able to burn it off. I wasn’t in the van long enough to think too much about it and once we got to the cafeteria I was just so glad to be out of the lodge that I literally stepped out into the cold and wiped the lodge smell off of me.
The cafeteria was big and sort of divided into two dining areas. The girls were divided into two groups… those with eating disorders and those without. The girls without eating disorders all sat where ever they wanted and were able to go through the line and get whatever they wanted to eat, while the girls with eating disorders were confined to one table monitored by two BHAs. One BHA would sit at the table the whole time while the other would follow the girls through the food line. The “benefit” of having an eating disorder in treatment was that you got to go first through the line, but if you had an eating disorder then more than likely you didn’t even want to go through the line, and the girls who actually wanted to eat had to wait longer, so it wasn’t really a benefit to anyone.
The eating disorder girls all had meal cards which they had to hand to the servers and the servers would then fill their trays with what was on the cards. The meal cards were prepared each few days by the patient and the dietitian and together they would pick out certain food groups to comprise a meal. Since I had yet to meet with the dietitian I didn’t have a meal card, and I wasn’t allowed to pick for myself so I had to wait at the table for someone to bring me my assigned meal. Thankfully it was a mixed salad with tofu, “yes!” I thought to myself, but it was the biggest salad with the largest amounts of tofu I had ever seen in my life, “daggum it!”. Even if it was just mostly lettuce, I wondered how the hell I was going to fit this mountain of leaves and vegetables into my stomach cavity that was three times smaller.
To take a few steps back and glance at another snapshot before entering treatment, I had lived and labeled myself as a vegetarian for the last year and was greatly considering becoming a vegan. (Katie and I had talked earlier that morning about us both being vegetarians, another exciting commonality.) Though I get the cool vibe associated with being a vegan because it requires a lot of discipline, keep in mind that it is also very easy to be a vegan when you have an eating disorder. I was basically eating salad leaves and fruit except for when I would binge and purge. I think for me to be a vegan just would have meant to stop binging. I had a way of disguising my problems by associating them with “normal” life styles or medical diagnoses. In another instance I told my family I was lactose intolerant, when really I was binging on ice cream and sweets and then making myself throw up. I thought it was genius.
It may have been genius if I wanted to continue to live as a functioning addict, but I have the journal entry dated 11/29/06 where I recognized that I had a problem and that I didn’t want it anymore. It was on a trip to South Africa where I found myself binging and purging all through out the trip simply because I had broken one eating rule. Once I broke that one rule, as an extremist, I couldn’t get back on track. At the time I didn’t realize being on track, for me, meant anorexia (because of my severe food restriction and over-exercising), I just thought it meant I was being healthy. Getting off track, binging and purging, was what brought me to a place of admitting I had a problem. Getting help was going to be a long process because my idea of getting healthy was just another addiction, another disease, that I wasn’t willing to admit I had. Nonetheless, at least admitting I had a problem of some sort was a baby step in the right direction. Much like Bob Wylie in What About Bob? I don’t think I could have handled dealing with all of my problems at once.
My journal entry from that day in South Africa, November 29th, 2006 was as follows:
Today I realize I don’t want to live my life in bondage, and even more so, in secret. Today I want to stop pretending like nothing is wrong with me. Something is wrong with me. Making yourself eat until you feel sick just because and then making yourself throw up is a problem. Not only is it a problem, it’s disgusting, and I’m disgusted with myself. I don’t know how to go about getting the help I want and need. I know the church is there, but it’s hard to know who to talk to who won’t talk to others, especially since I’ve been a leader in the church. I feel so ashamed of myself because until this trip I had gotten in great shape and lost all my weight by exercise and nutrition- the “right” way, the long way, the hard way. I really worked hard. And on this trip when I started gaining weight, I started taking the easy way out. Everyone thinks I’m lactose intolerant. I’m not lactose intolerant, I’m bulimic. When you feel you have to hide what you’re doing, you should know it’s a problem.
Once I admitted I had a problem I did okay… for a few hours. But even after deciding that I didn’t want to live in bondage anymore and that I needed to change, I found myself repeating every behavior I had vowed to get rid of. Addiction is a terrible beast, a monster that truly can not be controlled if it doesn’t want to be. Even an addict who wants to get help can’t just simply stop what he or she is doing by choice. I had made a choice to stop, but I was stuck in a cycle too far in to be able to get out on my own.
After just a few hours I recorded these words:
11pm. This is no way to live. I hate it. I did it again. I don’t even want to write it out because I am so ashamed. Tonight I gave in again. My stomach hurts, and I’m sure it’s under tremendous stress, which is probably another reason why my skin is so bad. I keep blaming it on other people, but I really think I’m stressing myself out. I know I’m stressing my body out. I need help, and even though I feel so confused right now, the Lord seems to be the only one I can call for help. Of course, I honestly don’t know if He’s actually helping me, or if I’m really truly calling on him, or just saying that cause I know I should. I have to keep reminding myself that this is just temporary- this trip. Of course my problems will continue to follow me if I don’t deal with them. I’m so unhappy. What has happened to me? I’m run down, I’m worn out. I’m tired of trying to keep up- with everyone- with society, with Christians, with my family. I’m running a race I can’t win so I don’t even feel like trying anymore. I know I need to talk to somebody, I just can’t seem to take the step to do it. Knowing and taking action are two different things.
I will never forget that night. I fell on my knees on a hard wooden floor as a party was going on in the living room beneath me and I begged God to take all the pain away. I asked Him to either take it all away or to please not wake me up the next morning. I honestly would have rather died than wake up another day and be stuck inside of my head. I wasn’t actively suicidal because I had the smallest bit of hope that if it could all just go away then I wanted to live, but if living meant nothing more than what I felt in that moment then I just wanted God to take me out. I begged God to bring me Home that night and allow me to see Jesus. “I’m going to bed now,” I cried, “please just don’t wake me up unless this will all go away, OK?” I was as sincere as a little child asking their mother or father to lay with them in bed until they fell asleep. I was terrified to wake up again, alone in my struggle.
As God would have it, I woke up the next morning, but nothing had changed. I assumed He understood that I meant for the pain to go away as soon as I woke up, not at some point down the road after being woken up. My heart felt heavy and incredibly sad as I felt somewhat ignored and neglected by God. I assumed my problems weren’t big enough for Him to deal with. After all, with so much else going on in the world, what are my problems to Him?
That day while going around a mountain pass, I felt like my mind had been completely taken over. I sat silently on the back seat of an SUV, surrounded by my parents, my younger sister and her friend who was driving. As he zipped around each corner all I could think about was how much I wanted to die. I was gripping so tightly to the edge of my seat and I just kept thinking, “I want to be fucking shot. Please, just let it be done quickly and have somebody shoot me.” All I could think about over and over again was being shot. I was memorized by the thought of it. It was like I was aware that I was going crazy and there was nothing I could do about it. I finally asked if we could stop the car and get out. We pulled over on the side of a ledge and everybody got out to take a breather. No one had any clue what was going through my mind. I looked over the ledge and thought to myself “if I just jump, this could all be over.”
I think there was a beautiful view over-looking the mountains of South Africa, but I really don’t know… all I remember thinking about was death waiting at the bottom of the mountains. I stared like a person obsessed with an idea that they couldn’t get out of their mind. The bottom of a mountain had never looked so beautiful until that moment.
“God, I can’t take this…” but before I could finish my mom walked over to me.
It was a few days later on that trip that I would confess to my parents that I had a problem and that I needed help. They promised to get me help as soon as we got back to America and kept a close watch on me the rest of the time. Despite their efforts, I still binged and purged, often in the middle of the night and always before going to take a shower. I thought admitting the problem would just made it go away, I didn’t realize it was only the first step in a long list of steps to overcome addiction. Upon returning to America I told my parents I was fine, and that I was just out of control because of the stress of the trip. It would be another 2-3 months of living my life still in bondage, knowing I wanted out but not being sure how to get out, before entering treatment. I lived in a constant state of fear… fear of having a single bite of food because I was certain I wouldn’t be able to stop if I started. I feared going home at the end of the work day, I feared just being awake, stuck in my thoughts and tormented by the site of my body.
One night in January of 2007 after having dinner at my sister’s house and “giving it back” in her bathroom, I set out to drive home. I was discusted with myself as I drove and the only way I knew how to deal with my feelings of discust was to numb them out. I had already made up my mind to binge and purge as soon as I got home. My mind fought with itself as I went back and forth between whether or not I would. It wasn’t even a matter of wanting to or not wanting to, I literally felt like I had no control, like my body craved something, and without my permission it had already decided that it needed to binge and purge. If I were to walk into that house there was no way I would be able to keep myself from doing it. I cried because I didn’t want to do it anymore, but I felt like I didn’t have a choice. It was like I was two people duking it out in one body. The eating disorder literally had a voice of it’s own that over powered any bit of sense I tried to make.
As I drove home I cried and cried and begged God to take the feelings and the urges away. When I felt no relief I just kept driving. I knew I couldn’t go home so I just kept driving. I drove to a town an hour and a half away from home and I parked in an empty parking lot. I sat there in my car and I screamed and cried. I let God have it, again. How many times had He heard me come running to Him? How many times had He heard me ask Him to take it all away? How many more times was I going to have to ask for healing? After screaming I sat silently only to hear the sound of my breath and the snot dripping from my nose. I waited for that moment, that triumphant moment when God shows up and light shines in and your whole body gets warm. I waited to feel His arms around me and the whisper of His voice to say “It’s okay, my child, I am here.” I waited in silence, breathing like a two year old who just wore herself out from a temper tantrum. I whispered one more time… “please, God, please, just show up.”
So I waited.
Still nothing happened.
In that moment I felt so unworthy of God’s love that my heart just completely broke. It broke so much more than it had ever broken before that I literally felt as if I couldn’t breath. I did the only thing I knew to do. I opened my car door, stuck my finger down my throat and made myself throw up. Even when there was nothing left to rid my body of, I kept trying because I simply could not sit with the thought that God didn’t love me.
That was the hardest I had ever prayed in my life. I couldn’t have added any more meaning or any more faith to my prayers. That was quite simply all I had in me, and where I was expecting at least a whisper in response, nothing happened. I couldn’t comprehend what that meant. Wasn’t God supposed to heal if I asked in Jesus’ name? Wasn’t I supposed to find Him if I sought Him with all of my heart? Wasn’t He the one who said if you had faith the size of a mustard seed that nothing would be impossible unto you? At one point later on in treatment I remember thinking, “my fucking mustard seed has been planted, sprouted and over-grown and now the birds that rest in the branches at the top are shitting on me down below.”
Wasn’t God at the very least supposed to care?
God’s silence was so loud it made my ears hurt. After feeling as though God was never going to heal me I started to realize I needed somebody elses help, anybody elses help. But even after I finally drove home that night after sitting in the parking lot, it would still be another few weeks of binging and purging before telling my parents that once again I really needed help. Never did it cross my mind that God would use a method other than snapping his fingers and making it all magically disappear to heal me. Never did it cross my mind that God was asking me to wait just a little bit longer, that He had something bigger and better in store for my healing and He wasn’t going to let me die along the way. Never did it cross my mind that while I was begging God to do something, anything, He was already unfolding a plan that would lead to life abundant as I had never known it before.
No, I did not think or know any of those things at that point prior to treatment, I just knew that I was angry and alone and well on my way to telling God I was done with Him, which I did the first night in the facility. It was just the night before I found myself sitting in the cafeteria that second day with salad mountain sitting in front of me. I didn’t know the dietian yet, but I hated her already, for salad mountain was going to be impossible to finish.
At one point in my life I might have looked at what seemed impossible before me and approached it with the mindset of repeating over and over again: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I once won a hot dog eating contest that way, just repeating that verse over and over, and beat out six guys… but I was also bulimic, so I had the advantage. But that day in the cafeteria, after all I had been through and the countless times I had asked God for help or for Christ to strengthen me, like my time in South Africa or that night in my car, I looked at what seemed impossible before me, even if it was just lunch, and with a tone of anger and hatred in my voice whispered, “fuck it!”
Eventually I will get to the point where I see God’s silence not as neglect and abandonment but as taking precise and intentional care of me. I will come to know Him not has a god who withholds love and grace and mercy just to watch me suffer but who gives me those gifts freely, despite my selfish efforts and my dirty mouth, so that I might learn to rest in Him and find my worth like I had never it known. But even still, that doesn’t come until later in the story. For now I am even more so determined to do life on my own so as never to allow myself to be hurt by anyone, including God, again. In retrospect, salad mountain wasn’t so big in and of itself, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in which I found myself saying “I can do all things through my own strength.” A very dangerous place to be.
I don’t remember much of the rest of that day other than getting extremely upset after every meal. I managed to throw away my salad dressing and a few other extra things, but I was still angry about the amount of food I had to eat. I explained to any BHA who would listen that my stomach literally felt like it was going to explode and there was no way it could physically hold that much food. I just kept saying it wasn’t fair as I fought back the tears. 23 years old and I was crying at the dinner table because I had to finish what was on my plate.
Come dinner time the BHAs kept telling me to talk about it with the dietitian tomorrow. I felt like Princess Jasmine (minus the “perfect” body) in the movie Aladdin when the soldiers arrest Aladdin in the street and Jasmine, who’s posed as a commoner, unveils her disguise and says “UN-HAND HIM! By order of the princess!” Everyone, including Abu, Aladdin’s faithful monkey, is shocked that she’s the princess and that she actually has a say in the matter regarding Aladdin’s arrest. The soldiers kneel and apologize but the head soldier responds “I would, princess, except my orders come from Jafar, you’ll have to take it up with him.” The camera flashes to Jasmine and there she stands with her arms crossed and anger in her eyes as she says in a deep and disgruntled voice, “believe me, I will!”
As the BHAs told me to discuss it with the dietitian tomorrow I sat at the end of the table and replayed that scene with myself. I crossed my arms and with anger and disgust in my voice replied “believe me, I will!” I was trying to act like a bad ass, but at the same time trying not to laugh because I realized in my attempt to appear like a bad ass I was actually just re-enacting a scene from Aladdin, of all movies. Oh, if some people only knew what went on in my head… I might have stayed in treatment a bit longer.
Aside from the emotions in regards to my meals and exercise, the only other thing I remember from the second day is meeting with my psychiatrist. I don’t even remember meeting with my therapist that day but a journal entry tells me I did and that I actually liked her. More on that to come.
My psychiatrist was a short, somewhat heavy set woman with just the slightest bit of curly hair on her chin. She appeared to be from the Middle East but seeing as geography was the last thing I cared about at that point I wouldn’t be able to tell you from what part, but I would guess probably somewhere in the middle. She asked me so many questions though I sometimes felt as if she wasn’t actually listening, but instead shaking her head and saying “ummhmm” right on cue. I told her about my anxiety and what I called “sort of depression.” As a Christian I wasn’t comfortable calling it depression because my understanding was that if you had Jesus then you shouldn’t be depressed. But when I thought about the possibility of me not being a Christian anymore I started to feel more comfortable claiming the depression.
Once again, not being a Christian started to feel more freeing than it did lonely or scary. After all, not being a Christian was making me feel more honest than I had ever felt in my whole life. I didn’t know it was okay to say “I am a Christian, and I have a problem,” I always thought it had to be one or the other. I have since then realized that this is not so. Today my hope does not lay in the problems going away, my hope lays in the fact that I have Someone to carry me through them.
By the end of our session my psychiatrist, Dr. Lynn, had prescribed me to Prozac for depression, Buspar for anxiety, and Trazodone for sleeping. Before entering treatment I had previously been on medication for A.D.D., but since I had a history of abusing it in college she thought we might wait to see how I would do on the other medications before pumping my bloodstream with more… how kind. “Besides,” she said, “prescribing Adderall to someone with an eating disorder is quite risky because it suppresses your appetite.” Damn. I think she knew that was why I wanted it.
Though I did like the fact that Adderall suppressed my appetite, I also found that it helped me focus incredibly… I’m sure most college students would agree. I missed having that focus in life, even if it was chemically enhanced. Maybe my body needed the medication she prescribed me because it wasn’t wired like everyone esles, but at the same time putting all those chemicals in my body without thinking I was abusing them was hard for me to accept. I trusted Dr. Lynn knew what she was doing simply because she was a doctor and I wasn’t. I knew I didn’t want to be on medication forever, but I also knew that I wanted to feel something other than nothing.
When I was actually experiencing emotion it was either anger or anxiety and I just couldn’t do it anymore. The sleeping pill was optional and she told me I could take it as I felt I needed it, so I decided that I didn’t need it, though I didn’t tell her that. Like with my psychiatrist, when I first entered treatment I didn’t say much of anything to anybody unless I had to. I mostly just listened and judged without saying a word. I kept thinking I wasn’t as bad off as the other girls which I mis-led myself to believe that meant I didn’t have a problem. People knew me as quiet and sad, but with spurts of “tamed anger” like my Princess Jasmine re-enactment at dinner. Only I knew that the anger deep down was so much more fierce than that of a Disney Princess, it seemed foolish to even relate it.
I remember before going to bed that night calling my aunt and uncle. Part of the reason my family decided on Illinois as the place for me to go to treatment was because my aunt and uncle, my dad’s brother, lived 45 minutes from the facility. Seeing as there were not many options in South Carolina for treatment facilities, plus the fact that I just wanted to get away, my parents still wanted me to have family close by if I went off some where. If it had been solely up to me to pick a treatment facility I would have picked a spot nestled on the coast of California… give me the beaches and the warm weather any day. The idea of going somewhere as cold as Illinois was not appealing to me at all, but thankfully there was a greater plan than my own at work. Having my aunt and uncle close by helped me get through so much of my time in treatment. Girls often had visitors come to see them and I definitely underestimated how refreshing it was (and still is) to see a familiar face in a foreign land. I barely knew my aunt and uncle before moving to Illinois, mainly because of the physical distance between us, but during my time in treatment they became like a mother and father to me.
And now I introduce a most important character in this story…
He is a man who has my heart unlike any other; not more so than my own father, and obviously in a much different way than a man I have fallen in love with, but Uncle Buddy’s tough love brought warmth to my heart during a time when it was bitterly cold. Even if others were trying to say the exact same thing to me that he was, I never actually heard what they were saying until it came out of Uncle Buddy’s mouth. He might still not know this, but those first few months of treatment seemed as if he were a translator, giving value to the words that other people tried to speak into my life. He’s not quite what you would expect from the hard exterior, but the interior, which he would never admit to, is mostly warm mush. I think you might have to know Uncle Buddy a little bit better to truly understand what I mean. Allow me to try to paint a picture…
Picture Paul Teutul Sr. of Orange County Choppers (and if you don’t know who I’m talking about click here), subtract some of the grey hair, take a little less off the mustache, but not much, add a thick southern accent (even after having lived in Chicago for twenty plus years), and combine the cooking abilities of Paula Dean, the decorating techniques of Martha Stewart, and the cigar smoking bad ass presence of X-Men’s Wolverine, and there you have my Uncle Buddy. Some of it doesn’t make sense, right? How can Martha Stewart and Wolverine be in the same category? I know, and you wouldn’t understand it unless you met my Uncle Buddy. A true rebel at heart, with the physique to match, this man is not someone you want to mess with. That said, his capacity to love is overwhelming and his genuine smile makes Disneyland look boring.
Uncle Buddy and my Aunt Amy are the ones who suited me up in the flaming orange Harley Davidson jacket (see previous posts) . I’m not actually sure Uncle Buddy owns an article of clothing that doesn’t say Harley Davidson. Not only does Uncle Buddy ride a Harley Davidson, he named his dog Harley David. If I were to play a word association game and the words “Harley Davidson” came up, I would say “Uncle Buddy.”
So this macho man won my heart and my trust quite early on. His wife, Amy, loved me as if I were her own daughter, and the two of them welcomed me into their lives, not as a project to be fixed, but as a person to be loved.
My first month in treatment they called me every night before bed. One of my favorite memories of Uncle Buddy during this time involved one of his nightly phone calls.
Every night after snack we had our final group of the day to sort of do a check in before bed. After group we were allowed to have phone time for a short while which was always when Uncle Buddy or Amy would call. I don’t remember the details, but I remember we were held in group longer than normal and we ended up losing phone time because of it. Uncle Buddy called and was told I was still in group. When he called again he was told group time went over and phone time was up, meaning he would have to call again tomorrow. As of the girls that night were upset that they didn’t get to make or receive their phone calls. A few of them threw fits, and as I got more comfortable with my surroundings I cared less about what the staff thought of me and started to throw fits too. “My therapist told me I need to use my voice,” I yelled, “so I am voicing that I need to use the phone! It is not my fault that group time went over, and it is not fair that I can’t use it!” My favorite phrase when arguing in treatment was always to start my argument with “MY THERAPIST SAYS…”
I didn’t win that argument, nor did anyone else. Extra BHAs were called in to calm girls down and take them to their rooms. After sleeping pills were distributed the night ended calmly, but I knew there was going to be someone who was going to be really upset, and I knew that if anybody could win that argument it would be him…
It was only going to be a few days later that I was going to see uncle Buddy come to my defense and make the director of the program think twice before ever cutting into phone time again.
The Family Night
Only a few nights after our group time went over time and cut into phone time, the parents of all of the patients were invited to a family night hosted by Dr. Dan and Dr. Jen. Parents and patients came together to discuss anything they wanted with the doctors, a great opportunity for any lingering questions or suppressed criticisms to be released. Seeing as how my parents lived in South Carolina, it was dear Uncle Buddy who proudly arrived as my father figure.
The evening started calmly enough, but as more mothers wanted to know when their daughters would either start eating again or stop using heroin, the heat kicked on and people started getting agitated. If there is one group of people you don’t want to agitate, it would be a group of bi-polar, heroin addicted, starving women. Such a group would make for a violent street gang. To Dr. Dan and Dr. Jen’s credit, some questions just didn’t have answers, after all who’s to say that the length of treatment for one girl is going to look exactly the same for another girl? Not even doctors can make that call, and so when they didn’t, girls got pissed.
As girls got pissed, Uncle Buddy got annoyed. If there’s one person you don’t want to annoy, it’s a macho Harley man surrounded by a group of bi-polar, heroin addicted, starving women. Such a man would wipe a violent street gang right off of the street. While girls yelled back and forth, the somber and barely to be heard Dr. Dan tried to get people to calm down but to no avail. Dr. Jen must have left by this point because I don’t remember her being present. Uncle Buddy leaned forward in his chair and unclasped his hands, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was okay. I said I was and I suppose that was all he needed to hear in order to get going, “ALRIGHT,” he yelled in his deep Southern voice, “AYE, AYE, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT!” His arms spread out wide as he yelled. The girls got quiet, the mothers bounced their eyes in his direction, I knew they were admiring more than his ability to command a room, Uncle Buddy is also quite easy on the eyes, it’s a family trait.
“Look,” he said as he sniffed and scrunched up his mustache while staring at Dr. Dan, “I get that you don’t have answers for how long the girls are in here, especially seeing as how it’s for all different reasons that they’re in here…” Dr. Dan looked relieved as if Uncle Buddy was going to come to his rescue. Dr. Dan didn’t know Uncle Buddy. “So, whatever,” Uncle Buddy said as he threw his hands up, “don’t give an answer for that, but give me an answer for this… when you tell me that there are certain times I can call and talk to JJ and I call during those times, why then was I told the other night that I couldn’t talk to her?”
“YEA,” the other girls yelled as they recalled their anger from that night before being given sleeping pills to knock them out. “That’s true,” a mother chimed in, “I tried to call my daughter during phone hours as well and they wouldn’t let me speak to her. Isn’t that the purpose of having phone hours?” Concerned parents started agreeing that they wanted an answer for what happened the other night seeing as how there was already such a small window for them to be able to talk to their children. Dr. Dan shifted in his chair, “well it’s my understanding that the groups ran a little late which cut into the phone time…” “Then extend phone time,” Uncle Buddy interrupted. “YEA!” the girls yelled growing more and more fond of Uncle Buddy.
“Well,” Dr. Dan said looking increasingly uncomfortable, “we want the girls to stick to a schedule as much as possible and if we start changing up the times of free time and phone time then we start to lose structure…” Uncle Buddy remained calm as he interrupted a few more times, each time Dr. Dan giving an excuse for what happened the other night. As Dr. Dan was fumbling over his words, Uncle Buddy started to stand up, “LOOK,” he yelled, “if our daughters are in here day in and day out and we only have a small amount of time to talk to them, then you better be damn sure that we actually get to talk to them! You say you don’t want to change up their schedule when it comes to their phone time, but you certainly don’t have a problem changing up their schedule when it comes to their group time by making the group go longer and cutting out their phone time completely! Part of their schedule and their treatment should be that they get to talk to their parents if they want to (his voice growing louder and louder), so if I’m told that I can call at a certain time and talk to my daughter and I call during that time, then DON’T tell me it’s too bad because your group went over! Pull her out of the group or end group time, I don’t care what you do, but when I call DON’T EVER again tell me that I CAN’T talk to MY DAUGHTER!”
“YEAAA!!!!” the girls clapped and cheered. The other mothers nodded their heads in agreement, one mother fanning herself. “UNCLE BUDDDDDDY,” one of the more gender neutral looking girls yelled in a deep voice. I was elated with pride. My heart skipped a beat when Uncle Buddy called me his daughter and I felt protected in a way that I never really had before. I don’t think Uncle Buddy was even aware of the cheering that was happening around him, he was breathing heavy and staring intently at Dr. Dan as if to say “I dare you to challenge me on this.” Dr. Dan, the man who I felt barely listened in our group sessions due to his inability to stay awake, looked bright eyed and bushy tailed as Uncle Buddy commanded the “conversation,” which Uncle Buddy reminded him wasn’t a conversation because there was nothing to discuss, it was as simple as “when I call during phone time, make sure JJ has a phone!”
Dr. Dan ended the family night and girls and mothers alike came around Uncle Buddy to agree with and thank him. Uncle Buddy smiled his big smile and pulled me close to him as he enjoyed everyone’s compliments. Here was this macho Harley man, relating to the mothers of bi-polar, heroin addicted, starving women. It was then that I realized I wasn’t going to be the only person in my family to be impacted by my reluctant choice to go to treatment. Whether he was aware of it or not, Uncle Buddy found himself in a role he had never played before and relating to people in circles he had never been a part of.
Uncle Buddy coming to my rescue was so tangible and measurable that it only confirmed my suspicions that I didn’t need God. God’s silence didn’t discourage my belief in His existence, but it did encourage my belief in His lack of caring. Little did I know at the time that God caring could look like a macho man in a Harley jacket, God seemed more like a Dr. Dan who was trying to stay awake as I was discussing my problems.
Sometimes you think you know everything, as I did and often still do, and sometimes you realize you know nothing, as I have realized in the last six years since being in treatment. Though I wasn’t at the time, I am more and more convinced that should I see God visibly and tangibly walking the earth today, He or She would probably be wearing a Harley jacket, and would most definitely be my buddy.
To be continued…