I sat with my mother and a fruit cup. We were attending an orientation meeting at the Renfrew Center of Florida, a residential treatment center for women with eating disorders. My mother turned to me in a futile attempt to get me to eat the fruit cup. My stomach was rumbling, I hadn’t eaten anything all morning, and she knew I was hungry. Why didn’t I just eat the fruit cup?
There were many reasons: No one else was eating. I didn’t have a table. I worried people would think I didn’t have a problem if I ate, that I wasn’t sick enough to be in treatment. I was afraid that if I started eating I would never stop. I worried about losing control, about not being taken seriously as a person, about having no way to express my pain.
My mind raced with reasons not to eat the fruit cup, but as I sat in the orientation room on my first day of intensive treatment, I expressed none of those reasons to my mother. I glared at her, frustrated with my inability to communicate and her inability to understand.
Now I’m in a much better place so I can share my anorexia story.
Two months had passed since I returned home early from my study program in Israel because of my eating disorder. Soon after I began treatment, I knew that I was not able to get the level of therapeutic support and structure I needed in an outpatient setting. However, I did not know how to tell anyone that I needed more help.
So I acted it out in a sort of twisted game of charades. During that time food was a constant source of stress and aggravation in my family. I wanted to recover but all external signs indicated that I had no such desire. Every meal was a struggle. The fruit cup incident was by no means unique. It was a scene that had played out again and again and would continue to play out until I learned new ways to cope and communicate.
Residential treatment was considered a last resort. My parents were frustrated and scared to send me far away for treatment, to entrust their daughter to the care of strangers. Their fears were not unfounded. In my first week of treatment, Renfrew professionals advised my parents not to talk to me when I was panicking. At one point my therapist outright told my mother to hang up on me. Although this arrangement was uncomfortable for me and for my family, it was exactly what I needed to begin my recovery.
At Renfrew I was not allowed to continue acting out my messages.
With the care and support of a wonderful clinical team of therapists, nutritionists, counselors, nurses, and other health care professionals, I learned to communicate in words and to finish all of my meals and snack, regardless of how I felt. I began to face my struggles without hiding behind my eating disorder. I learned that my eating disorder was a maladaptive coping mechanism and I learned healthy coping skills, like journaling and art, with which to replace it. Each week I worked with my parents in family therapy to strengthen our relationship and learn better ways to communicate.
When I came home from Renfrew, eleven weeks later, I was not “cured,” but I was in recovery. I was coping with my anorexia. There are always ups and downs in life. But instead of responding to stress with eating disorder symptoms and behaviors, I use my healthy coping skills. It is not always easy but it is always doable. Today my parents and I have a close and healthy relationship. No fruit cup will ever tear us apart. They are no longer the food police. They are my parents.