Today is the start of yet another National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Last year, I hesitantly posted this story and shortly after that, I started this blog. I had what I thought was a great topic to post about this year, but after thinking about it I started having doubts that it would be well received. Yikes; such an anxiety-provoking awareness week!
In the past, most of my qualms with this week have centered on misconceptions that I think those “on the outside” sometimes unintentionally spread in the name of awareness. For example, often I felt that certain factors were overemphasized and others not at all mentioned when talking about what “causes” eating disorders. I hated the thought of people being fed an over-simplified idea of what all eating disorders were or were not, when I knew just how diverse and complicated they were.
This year, however, I realize that many of my reservations are now related to misconceptions that I think are perpetuated by some of my fellow sufferers. I know I have to be careful when talking about this, because the last thing I want to do is invalidate anyone’s personal struggle.
As I’m sure some of you have noticed, these days NEDA week is often “celebrated” by a current or former sufferer posting a dramatic “before and after” collage on instagram (or Facebook, or Tumblr, or whatever their platform of choice is). These collages often feature photos from their very bone-jutting sickest next to pictures of their smiling twinkle-eyed face today. When I see these posts, I’ll admit, I kind of want to scream. A post like that tells me absolutely nothing. All it tells me is that you used to be really skinny and (apparently) quite sad, and now you’re healthy (maybe) and (apparently) quite happy. Yay! Good for you, really. However, I’d much rather see a candid non-photoshopped picture of you doing something you love, or read about all the things you can do now in recovery that you couldn’t do in your eating disorder. That would be way more interesting and inspiring to me, but of course it’s the dramatic before/after collages that get all the “likes” and re-blogs.
One more word about the pictures, and then I’ll move on. It’s perfectly fine and even admirable to be so proud of how far you’ve come. And while weight is not a factor in every eating disorder, it is in many, and I realize firsthand what a big accomplishment it is to finally begin to accept yourself at a more normal weight. Please, however, think before plastering these kinds of pictures all over social media. This is a very competitive illness, and people can be negatively affected by such things at all stages of illness and recovery. If you feel the need to hold onto all of your sick pictures, fine. Keep them in a box and pull them out whenever you need a reminder of how far you’ve come. If you feel the need to share them, share them with your cat (sorry, cat!). Don’t post them on your public instagram tagged #soinspirational because I can almost guarantee you are not inspiring people in the way you hope.
Another troubling mindset that I notice is rampant in the eating disorder community is that idea that “more treatment is always better.” Whenever anyone currently struggling with an eating disorder even hints that they’ve recently been struggling more than before, the first thing their so-called supportive friends (all of whom also have eating disorders) often say to them is, “Go back to treatment!” Surely, $1,000+/day residential treatment is the answer to everything, right? Because a good couple months of half-assed art therapy and challenge snacks is all anyone needs to break a lifetime habit of self-destructive behavior! That must be why anyone who goes to those places never needs to go back, because the treatment is just that effective! Oh wait… that pretty much never happens. 😦 What does happen (more often than not) is that person gets sucked into the toxic treatment center vortex. They do well in treatment because everything is neatly packaged and decided for them, and all the triggers of everyday life are removed. When they’re finally forced to leave (often due to insurance “kicking them out”), everyone seems surprised that they can’t keep up what they were able to keep up in the treatment center bubble. As soon as they struggle, they’re sent right back to treatment to repeat the whole cycle all over again. To many of us on the outside looking in (many of whom have been caught in our own treatment center vortex at some point), it seems so obvious. “Treatment” isn’t working. You’re never going to learn how to live a healthy life by being trapped in a completely unrealistic bubble for months at a time. I’m glad I finally realized this myself, before I wasted even more time in the treatment center vortex.
Before I go any further, I should clarify something– I am not saying that all treatment is toxic or unhelpful. I am certainly grateful for much of the treatment I was fortunate enough to receive over the years. In many cases, it kept me alive and/or helped me get to a place where I was able to make more rational and life-focused decisions for myself. I am not against treatment when it is truly needed from a physical or psychological standpoint.
After all these years though, I do think I can honestly say that I am almost always against long-term inpatient or residential treatment when similar treatment can be provided in a less-restrictive environment. I’ve just seen too many people I know and care about become overly reliant and harmed (yes, harmed) by this kind of treatment. It is not healthy to keep a person in residential treatment for years at a time, or to lead that person to believe they are utterly helpless without that kind of 24/7 support. (Click here to read more about my thoughts on residential eating disorder treatment).
For many years as an adolescent and young adult, I was blessed to have really amazing health insurance. This meant I was “lucky enough” to have several long-term treatment stays completely covered by insurance. If ever I was set up to make a perfect recovery, it was then. But what actually happened? I left each treatment center more hopeless and frustrated at my inability to get better. Any progress I seemed to make while in treatment was completely erased once I got home. When I lost this insurance back in 2008 (this is back when they cut you off from your parents’ plan at age 24, not 26), I thought I was doomed. And yeah, the first few years really sucked, but I eventually learned to be more resourceful and I think it was during that time that I finally started to think differently about myself and what I was capable of. When I truly needed it, I was forced to spend time in a few very unpleasant state hospitals, and the only actual “treatment” I could access involved me agreeing to be a guinea pig for a bunch of eating disorder studies being conducted at the time. What I realized though, is that however much I thought that treatment “sucked,” it wasn’t really any worse than the treatment I received at the expensive residential centers. It was just different. At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter where the treatment was or what exactly it consisted of, what mattered was what I decided to do once that treatment was over.
I know several people who I’d say are quite seriously “addicted” to treatment. They don’t know how to live without that continuous 24/7 support. These are adults who have not been able to experience anything remotely “real” in years because they’ve been kept in this overly protective bubble. Sometimes I don’t even know who I’m angry at for this or if it’s even anger at all. Half the time I don’t think these people even realize why it’s so bad for them. I didn’t really know this myself, until I got out. Do I get mad at the people who are telling them to stay there, when they should know better, after all these years of seeing the cycle repeat itself? I don’t know.
Of course “getting out” of the vortex is only the very first step. It’s not like I just stopped going off to treatment and suddenly figured out how to handle my illness on my own. Not at all. For many years I was kind of just “white knuckling” it, as they say. I knew I couldn’t do it completely on my own but I also wasn’t about to throw all my progress away and get sucked back into the treatment vortex. I started trying out support groups and therapists. I encountered a lot of really unhelpful therapists (some downright harmful), and groups that sent me into high anxiety and panic. For a while it seemed like I really was completely on my own.
Eventually though, I stumbled upon a system of support that works for me. I am now lucky enough to have amazing insurance again, although this time I’m not using it to run off to treatment whenever things get hard. I’m using it to get valuable outpatient therapy to work on the things I never had time to work on before, when I was too busy dealing with the latest crisis of the hour.
Everyone’s journey is different, and I try to respect that. I just really doubt that a glitterized before/after collage is ever going to be the key to anyone’s recovery, nor is that 17th stay at that famous center in Denver.