‘Numbers’ and ‘counting’ are key words in my life as an anorexic. The numbers were something I could count on, and I counted a lot of things in order to make decisions on what (not) to eat. These words became even more crucial during my recovery, especially when I got myself admitted to a clinic. I counted on their help. Suddenly, ‘numbers’ and ‘counting’ gained an entirely different meaning.
It sounds so simple: just get some help. Yet before you can do that, you have to admit that you have an eating disorder, and that takes a lot of courage. Admitting that something’s wrong with you makes it feel as if you’re not normal, and that’s painful. However, my experience with finding professional help was even more painful than that.
July 2010: it had been ten months since I confessed my eating disorder to my boyfriend. While I had definitely made progress since then, I felt I could use some professional help – a push in the back – and so I phoned an institution that would be able to guide me. They asked me questions to determine whether they could offer me treatment or not, including my weight. I suspected they would ask, so that morning I had weighed myself, only to find myself shocked at the number. Despite my expectations, my weight had diminished since admitting my eating disorder. After giving the institution all the information they needed to complete my registration, we made an appointment for the intake.
Everything would be fine, they assured me during the intake. A short-term treatment would deal with my motivation. Realising how anorexia had ruined me and my life gave me the desire to become healthy again. I was told we would discuss the details during the next appointment. And that’s where everything went wrong. I arrived expecting to discuss my treatment, they told me they couldn’t treat me. I weighed too little for the treatments they offered. I was beyond baffled; they knew my weight during my phone application. What struck me even harder was that my weight – a number – was apparently more important than my overall health and my motivation to become better — something quite essential (to say the least) for successful recovery. I felt like I didn’t count, and I couldn’t count on them.
The urgency waiting list
Instead, the clinic put me on a waiting list for urgent cases at a clinic specialising in treating eating disorders. After four months of waiting, I still hadn’t heard anything from this clinic, and so I started working seriously on my own methods for recovery. Apparently, this ‘urgency waiting list’ lasted for over six months, so you can imagine how astonished I was when a letter with the appointment date fell on the doormat. Even though I was doing rather well at that point, I figured giving it a chance wouldn’t hurt. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The girl that did talk
“I don’t belong here,” I whispered to my boyfriend and my parents. This clinic was the real deal. They would not only examine me, but include my parents and boyfriends’ perceptions of me as well. Fine. But what wasn’t fine were the other girls around. The image of walking skeletons gained a new meaning — they all had empty eyes and seemed to lack the desire to live. None of them babbled with their parents like I did. At one point, a girl came in and sat with us in the waiting room, talking. She had been a patient for two weeks now.
“I’ll eat whatever they tell me to eat, just so I can get away here and see my friends again”
I smiled at her as if I understood, and even though I did, I was past the point of agreeing with her. She didn’t want to get better; she just wanted to get the hell out of there, which was exactly what the atmosphere felt like. No one seemed to care how they left the place, just as long as they could escape. I felt terrible and couldn’t see myself recovering in this place.
When the clinic discussed their methods with me, the disconnect became even clearer. They expected patients to gain a pound a week and change their eating pattern drastically according to the clinic’s eating lists. If you didn’t adhere to their rules, you were punished by deprivation of privileges, like using a computer. Obviously when you’re close to dying (which, sadly, is not uncommon with eating disorders), it makes sense that you have to gain some weight first — yet it doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is in the mind; the disordered eating behaviour and extremely low (or high, in the case of obesity) weight are symptoms of that. But if you have torn your menisci, you’re not going to learn how to walk again without having them removed or repaired first, are you? But I got the impression that, in this clinic, numbers were much more highly valued and used to measure your health, rather than your individual needs.
Two kinds of health
Even though I was still feather-light (I had gained about half of what I needed to gain for a healthy BMI) and probably weighed less than some girls there, I felt I had made more progress and was doing much better than them, simply because I was figuring out what the foundations of my eating disorder were. I was understanding why I had these abnormal thoughts and how to deal with them, how to change my behaviour slowly, so I wouldn’t panic and fall back. My recovery was not about numbers at all, and I felt that I didn’t really count in the clinic because of that. The people who examined me were amazed, to say the least. They thought I had no chance of recovery in their clinic, and that I should continue to pursue my own method.
Without counting on clinics
I couldn’t have been happier. During all the visits I had I felt like a number rather than an individual. All treatments were institutional, according to procedures based on your numbers. But I’m an individual, just like all those other girls; what works for me might not work for them. And what works for me is not focusing on the numbers, not counting on them, but counting on myself instead. Am I happy, healthy (and becoming healthier still?), and have I stabilised my eating disorder? Yes. Then what does the number, be it weight or BMI, tell me? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I might not yet have reached a healthy BMI, but I feel better than I have in years — without counting on clinics. And I’m proud of that.