Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it. -Conrad Joseph
Before checking into eating disorder treatment at Renfrew, my family lived in a rose-colored world. We didn’t talk about uncomfortable things, or things that were hard. Obstacles, to us, were achievable, and we were taught to overcome hard things and move on. Everything is fine. No problems here.
Except, when my little (big) problem came along, that disrupted everything. I wasn’t prepared with coping tools other than letting time pass, and I felt like a burden. When I was faced with a big slice of pizza on my first day at Renfrew, I hadn’t eaten pizza (crust and all!) in years, but, I was fine. No, I wasn’t fine at all, but on the outside, I was tough and it was easy, so I hoped to make it look.
The thing is, you can try to fool other people, but you cannot lie to yourself and get anywhere. That’s not how growth or change happens. I carried on my act because that’s all I knew. And, no wonder I never made any progress – I didn’t ask to be there and I couldn’t admit a real problem.
During inpatient treatment, you’re probably wondering what it was like. I’ve known people to joke with me and call it “the psych ward,” which… do you think that’s funny? I don’t.
As a collegiate student-athlete, your reality is team-first. You’re rushing around working for someone else (coach, team, teachers) in practice, class, and weights, with little time to focus on yourself, your thoughts, and who else you are in your life besides a student-athlete.
I’d always identified as a volleyball player, of course, and when I no longer had that, I was completely lost. At Renfrew, there was all the time in the world to think about who I was and what I wanted in my life… it was not an option to keep running from and not facing what I didn’t know about myself, and that was the hardest thing for me. In the end, it was the most beneficial, too. Facing my demons head-on – with a little help from sheer force of those around me – is what saved me.
Because you’re probably curious, and it seems like it was another world, to be honest, here’s a look at what my life looked like in-patient on the daily. While I was facing it, for better and for worse, these were my daily to-dos, in a nutshell. You’ll notice the lack of freedom (necessary) and unavoidable opportunities to do what I’d always dodged, which was talking about difficult things that have nothing to do with food.
This was the beginning for me…
When I first checked in, the staff took me to my room. There, they searched my suitcase for banned objects like sharps (razors, tweezers, scissors, etc., that had to be checked in and out at the front desk), mouthwash with alcohol, food, any sort of drugs including diuretics or Tylenol, money, and a cell phone.
Since I was so underweight and no one there yet trusted what I would or wouldn’t do, I was put on what they called “Partial Day Room.” This meant that, until otherwise notified, I would have to sit in a room all day except for meals.
If I had to go to the restroom, someone would escort me and I would sing or speak the entire time I was in my stall. Otherwise, they’d think I might be throwing up my meals. Some people were on “Full Day Room,” and had to also eat their meals in that room. This was so we wouldn’t burn extra calories traveling the 200 feet to the dining hall or distract other people with our disordered behaviors.
I was assigned a nutritionist and therapist and would meet with both one-to-three times a week… add in a psychiatrist, if you needed to be on medication.
In the morning, a nurse would come to my room around 6:30 AM to wake me up for what we called “Vitals.” This was literally to take my vitals – blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, weight, and sometimes they’d check my body for possible self-harm marks.
We were given hospital gowns to wear in the nurse’s room and would have to shuffle through the halls wearing just that. They didn’t let me see my weight so made me stand backward each morning. (Many people, disordered or not, tie their worth to a number on a scale… so we didn’t look at it, just in case.) If I didn’t lose weight, or if I had gained weight from the previous day’s vitals, that was good. They’d send me on my way. But, if I lost weight, they’d tell me I had an extra snack tacked onto the day.
If I did lose weight, and it happened a few times, I’d argue with the nurse that I had just gone to the bathroom or chose a lighter meal the day before and today was a heavy meal day. They’d argue back that they wanted to see “real” weight, and more weight was better (for me).
I always felt a mix of, “Please don’t make me have another snack,” and, “Please let me have lost weight.” A few residents had to be weighed without a gown because they had tried to add weight to their body underneath, and/or the nurse suspected bruising or cutting.
Then, I’d wait for another nurse to give me my pills (a multivitamin and fiber pill for me) and she’d watch me drink the full eight ounces of water in a Dixie cup. Maybe you don’t know, but disordered patients like to cut corners, and whether it’s logical or not, five ounces of water adds less weight to your body than eight.
The rest of the day was hard and emotional for someone going through it – facing it. But, for someone who can’t relate, it looks like retirement.
It’s important to note that not everyone was underweight. If you didn’t know, there are so many types of eating disorders, and you simply cannot look at someone and know there is a problem. And, it was a true test of not comparing, because we were each on our own journeys. I was at the beginning of mine.
At first, I wasn’t allowed to choose my meals and because I was so underweight, they fed me the smallest meal plan. They asked me if I needed a feeding tube, or if I’d be a good girl and eat through my mouth. The idea of a feeding tube really irked me, though. I liked having the smallest meal plan, of course, because I knew in my regular life that I could eat more than that and not gain weight, but they didn’t know that. Soon, though, I was on the biggest meal plan, with the greatest number of snacks. I felt uncomfortable but didn’t see massive weight gain right away because I was so depleted and had a fair amount of muscle to restore (organs included).
8 AM Breakfast: I still remember my requirements on my meal “Plan C.” 1 protein, 1 dairy, 3 starches, 2 fruit, 2 fat. I liked oatmeal so I could dump my fruit, dairy, and fat into my starch and forget about it. You could choose your food, but you weren’t allowed to serve yourself. Not at first, anyway. An aide would come around and check everyone’s menu with what you’ve eaten on your tray and clear it for you. Your nutritionist got the report: check, or X.
We’d debrief the meal: “How do you feel? How’s your mood today?” It would often be about people having to weigh-in in the morning, followed by terrible guilt about eating breakfast. Possibly, someone would be anxious about a visitor coming, too.
I already had to have a snack at 10 AM, usually a Boost+. I liked the vanilla flavor the best, but none of them, really. I sat with one of my best friends during snack time and could always count on her support and laughter.
12 PM Lunch: It was the biggest meal of the day. 3 proteins, 1 dairy, 3 starches, 1 fruit, 2 vegetables, 2 fats. I was a vegetarian while in treatment and they accommodated me. Actually, they had some good options like hummus and pita (my favorite), but I hated when we had lentils. Once a week, the therapists would eat with his or her group and it was always way more awkward then it should have been. They told you it was just to connect in a different setting, but you knew that it was also to check in on his or her patient’s eating behaviors.
There was another debrief after lunch where I always felt so, so full. That never changed, but the way I felt okay with my discomfort did. I’d listen to residents on the lowest meal plan complain, when I knew I had it the worst. Comparison. I’d often contribute, “How am I going to eat a snack in an hour?” That was often my biggest worry.
I’d check my mailbox and getting a letter from someone thinking of you was the highlight of the day. We’d also have classes you could choose – some led by therapists or aides, and sometimes the psychotherapist would come to lead a group. If you were confined to the Day Room, you could only go to those sessions in the Day Room. If you had an appointment, you’d go to that in this time window. You could go to art or dance therapy if you weren’t, or upstairs to go to a session about relationships or something else. It was always heart-wrenching, honest, hard work.
Art therapy was my favorite. One time I did a body tracing where I drew what I thought my body looked like, and then I was traced to compare my distorted thoughts. Wow.
I had a snack, and usually it was another vanilla Boost + and two granola bars, or graham crackers and peanut butter. Sometimes I’d drink two Boost +’s and forget about chewing.
6 PM Dinner: 2 protein, 1 dairy, 3 starches, 2 vegetables, 2 fats. I was required to have dessert at least once a week, but not everyone had to and I thought that was unfair. Since pizza was my first meal, I loathed pizza day because I remembered what I felt like. There are emotions and memories tied with food, don’t you think?
Another debrief. Possibly another session. For me, another snack, mostly a Boost +, and if I’d lost weight from the day before, I’d have an additional snack here. I was always exhausted, emotionally, and would go to sleep early to do it all over the next day…
We had a level system. If you ate your meals and followed the rules, and if your therapist saw progress with your mental state, you moved up.
I spent two weeks on Partial Day Room. I eventually graduated to get more freedom and responsibility and was granted exercise, which was a huge component for me. In order to be able to participate for exercise, you had to take your vitals and drink a cup of Gatorade beforehand, which was a gentle mix of yoga, jump rope, walking, skipping, and limited running. One morning, I tossed my Gatorade and exercise was taken away. After being an elite athlete, I almost scoffed at what I was doing for “exercise,” but that’s the balance, versus punishment and exhaustion, I needed to learn.
After some time, I leveled up and went on to what was called “Extended Stay,” where I was allowed to eat off-premise and go to a gym, and learn what it would be like to not be told what to do. I joined in the weekly cooking group and was challenged to go to the beach in a bathing suit in my new body. I was relearning what it would take and be like to re-enter the real world, as crazy as that sounds.
During treatment, the biggest question that plagued me was this: “Do I want to go back to play volleyball?” It had always, always, been a no-brainer for me to play sports. It was in my blood and I was as competitive as anyone else. It was fun, more than anything.
But, as time with my disorder went on, my fire for the sport left me and I was tired of being stereotyped as an athlete. I believed that if I couldn’t perform at a high level, I should just stop doing it. All or nothing, black and white. I wanted a new identity, or, I wanted to uncover the one underneath all along.
My therapist encouraged me to watch volleyball, specifically watch film of me playing volleyball, so I did. A couple of times a week, I’d watch a match my parents had filmed and sent to me and took note of how I felt by watching it: did I hate it or miss it? The staff was prepared to reintroduce me to a collegiate strength program.
After I left Renfrew 134 days later, the plan was to go home and be a regular student. And, for five years, I didn’t watch another game or touch a volleyball. Little did I know then that I’d get a second chance to finish my collegiate volleyball career and find a career in the sport, too.