Recovering from an eating disorder: What it’s meant for me

Recovering from an eating disorder: What it’s meant for me

This December, I traded the freedom of an unsupervised bathroom for the freedom from a knock-down-drag-out fight against my eating disorder by admitting to the Anna Westin House, a residential treatment facility in St. Paul, Minnesota. I entered with twin threats looming over me: a petition filed by my care team requesting my involuntary placement in treatment, and the very real possibility of death.

It’s impossible to pinpoint a single cause of my eating disorder. It was my attempt to manage my body as the rest of my life spun out of control. It was the strain of emotions so overwhelming and painful that I resorted to numbing them with starvation on the one hand and suppressing them with food on the other. It was my perfectionism manifesting itself physically: If thin is good, then thinner is better and thinnest is the best (even if that comes with a punch-card to the emergency room). It was a culture that glorifies an airbrushed, objectified, body-shamed definition of ideal female beauty. Hell, it was “Robyn, do you really need another slice of cheesecake?”

Initially diagnosed when I was 13, I repeatedly denied the severity of my eating disorder, rationalizing that it couldn’t be that bad as long as I lived a normal life, at least outwardly. But inwardly I was a mess, and over the past year, I engaged in an interminable game of Eating Disorder Whack-a-Mole. When I interrupted the binge/purge cycle, I compensated by restricting caloric intake. When I followed a prescriptive meal plan to combat the restriction, my compulsion to overexercise to the brink of collapse reared its ugly head. And when I enrolled in a treatment program and my insurance denied approval, I fell back into this vicious tailspin.

During the commitment process, I received a phone call from a county attorney who equated residential treatment with imprisonment, effectively criminalizing my eating disorder and framing my care as punitive. His prison analogy couldn’t have been more wrong. Far from feeling as though I was being held there against my will (which, the court ultimately decided, was the best course of action), I approached my stay at the House as an opportunity to reclaim the life that at that moment I was barely holding onto.

Over the following eight weeks, I had the privilege of being immersed in a welcoming and supportive community that included doctors who encouraged me, therapists who enlightened me, dietitians who challenged me, and residents who inspired me, all of whom have been an integral and indelible part of my recovery.

My treatment team provided the structure and instruction that allowed me to tear up the root system of my eating disorder, which extends both deeply and radially. (The assumption that eating disorders arise primarily from dissatisfaction with physical appearance both trivializes and obfuscates the complexity of the disease, ignoring such components as genetic vulnerability, a dizzying array of psychological factors, and sociocultural influences.) I was given the space to make a mess—to dredge up buried memories, unpack emotions, dismantle unhealthy habits— before I began to pick up and rebuild my life.

My fellow residents were some of the most courageous, insightful, determined, resilient women that I have ever encountered. Each of us entered the House armed with our own story and we shared our struggles and victories, supported one another, and ate meal after snack after meal together in our mutual goal of recovery.

So far, my recovery has meant allowing myself to feel, think, and experience all of the feelings, thoughts, and experiences I had anesthetized with food or denied myself by starving.

It has meant grieving the loss of my eating disorder. When you lose something—even if it’s deceitful, destructive, and potentially fatal—you experience a profound pain. You’re left with a scar and although that scar fades over time, it still begs to be scratched (and the best time to scratch it always seems to be at night).

It has meant internalizing the mantra “recovery is possible” despite my aversion to tired clichés. After all, they’re clichés for a reason and damn it, recovery is possible.

It has meant toasting the new year with Boost two hours early in order to return from pass on time.

It has meant breakthroughs in some areas, missteps in others; momentum here, frustration there.

It has meant falling asleep without wondering if I will wake up in the morning, my hand clutched over my heart in an imploring gesture to keep it beating.

It has meant feeling a very specific kind of elation when given permission to use the stairs after weeks of elevator confinement.

It has meant acknowledging the fact that chocolate chip pancakes taste better than skinny could ever feel.

It has meant leaning on and being infinitely grateful for my support people, who have tolerated my off-color food humor and loved me through it all.

As I begin intensive outpatient programming, I continue to remind myself that eating disorder recovery isn’t a linear progression bounded by self-loathing and self-actualization. And it isn’t so much a journey as it is a series of lows and highs, disappointments and triumphs, lemons and lemonade. I refuse to believe in easy answers, quick fixes, and neat conclusions, knowing that the work that lies beyond and beneath them will be difficult and exhausting and ugly (and so worth the undertaking). As I continue to fight for my life, my eating disorder is fighting for its own. Hard. I will fight harder. It will be strong. I will be stronger.

Recovery is possible.

Robyn Schindeldecker