When people ask what I do, I typically say that I work at an eating disorder treatment center, and I try to create more awareness about eating disorders in our community. Depending on who I’m talking to, the person might hear “eating disorder” and get uncomfortable, wanting to change the subject. There is still a stigma around the illness, and many people don’t know how to respond. Even though eating disorders impact a wide cross-section of the population, people of all backgrounds, body sizes, ages, and genders…society can make it seem like only celebrities and young, white women are affected. More than thirty million Americans are diagnosed with clinically significant eating disorders: neighbors, friends, family members, people you see at the mall and the park and the gym and that local restaurant you love. But you won’t see them featured in the news or in the plethora of tabloids decorating the checkout aisle at the grocery store. What you’ll see are pictures of bone-thin celebrities in bikinis beneath headlines like “Scary Skinny” or “Shocking Eating Disorder Confessions,” right next to dieting and weight loss ads.
We surely get a lot of mixed messages about food and weight and eating disorders in our society, and it can make a person believe, as I did for many years, that eating disorders are a vanity issue. Or that recovering from an eating disorder is as simple as finding the right diet or meal plan.
The truth is that recovering from an eating disorder is a deeply personal, complex, and courageous journey. My heroes are the women I see at Montecatini every day, the ones who have suffered from bulimia and anorexia and binge-eating disorder and OSFED, but have decided that in spite of their fear, they want to recover.
In treatment, they are going to challenge everything they think they know about food and weight and life and love and worthiness; they are going to unlearn the unhealthy behaviors they’ve been using as crutch for years; and they are going to do the inner-work on mental, emotional, and spiritual levels, that eating disorder recovery requires.
Because recovery is not just about learning how to eat again. It’s about learning how to live again. How to live without a disease that, as destructive and dangerous as it is, masks itself as our security and protection. To the person suffering from an eating disorder, binging or purging or restricting or over-exercising or taking laxatives is not the problem. Life is the problem. Feeling is the problem. Ambiguity is the problem. And we want a way out of it.
The eating disorder offers a way out, temporarily. It seductively whispers, or sometimes shouts, “Come over here! I will shield you from discomfort and pain. I’ll be something certain for you, you’ll never have to be alone again!” And we, who are tired of being uncomfortable and lonely and feeling too much in our hearts… oblige.
We begin walking down the road of anorexia or bulimia or binge-eating disorder, and before we know it, the world has lost it’s color and aliveness and joy. Then we ourselves lose our color and aliveness and joy. We become isolated and depressed and unhealthy in our bodies and in our minds. We desperately need help, but we are afraid to ask for it. We are afraid of what life looks like on the other side of the eating disorder.
The women who walk through the doors of Montecatini are afraid, and I know that fear all too well. Sometimes I can feel their fear as if it is my own, pulsing in my chest, making my heart beat faster. I understand that seeking treatment is perhaps bravest decision a person can make in her life, because I did it ten years ago. When I admitted into eating disorder treatment at twenty-three, I didn’t feel brave. I felt like a failure.
This is why I am so passionate about my job at Montecatini. As a Recovery Advocate, the most important part of my role is sharing with women, who are on the fence about treatment, that full recovery is not only possible, but worth it. I share with them what I know to be true from my own recovery, and what I witness at Montecatini: Sometimes we take leaps of faith, and sometimes we take tiny steps. Even the tiniest step in the direction of recovery is a big deal.
Like climbing out of denial and admitting our need for help. Like trusting someone who says we won’t die from eating a bowl of pasta, and taking another bite. Like reaching for a pen or a yoga mat when what we really want is to reach for a laxative. Like searching for a smile in our hearts when the mind is busy screaming about how sad and serious we should be.
It is hard, sometimes impossibly so, to take these brave, big, tiny steps alone. And that’s why treatment is so important. When a woman admits into Montecatini, she immediately gains a community of support. They are both her peers and the professionals (therapists, dietitians, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, yoga instructors etc.) who are committed to her freedom. Suddenly, she is no longer fighting alone. There is always someone in her corner celebrating her every inch of progress.
There is always someone in her corner, reminding her that if she moves backwards: she is still worthy and powerful and above all, loved.
When people ask what I do, I really shouldn’t say that I work at an eating disorder treatment center. I should say that I work among eating disorder warriors, and that they have taught me everything I know about becoming free.
In a world where most people are looking for heart-numbing and mind-numbing comforts, looking to step out of life and into booze or drugs or food or sex or shopping or Facebook or TV, the women at Montecatini are not. They are no longer hiding or distracting themselves from fear and loneliness and pain; they are facing it head-on. And with support.
When you are surrounded by that kind of courage,you can’t help but be inspired. You can’t help but to become more authentic and warrior-like yourself.
And for that, I’m ever-grateful.