Elephants in the room.

Elephants in the room..jpg

When my high school friends from the comfortable suburban bubble that we all called home swung by the psych ward to visit me in between their summer jobs and keg parties, they had that awkward, uncomfortable look that people at funeral home viewings always have.

While several of them knew I had been going through "some stuff” in high school, none of them really knew. They were being confronted by a mega dose of truth on the Eating Disorder Unit though, and I could tell it was a lot of reality to digest, pardon my pun, all at once.

My mixed doubles tennis partner, who happens to be a doctor now, made a crack that somebody should really keep an eye on Angela while she showered to make sure she didn’t slip down the drain.

A sense of humor was key in the psych ward. It beat having to acknowledge the elephant in the room, which was: some of my new friends were as big as actual elephants.

The most uncomfortable truth—that I was in the same class as these freaks—was one that none of us was ready to face, so we laughed instead.

As promised, my parents popped in to visit as soon as they were able to make their way back from the Caribbean. Imagine visiting your child in a psych ward. Granted it was a swanky enough looking place and I was being well cared for, but still, I think they were in shock.

I told them that I wanted out ... that this was all a huge misstep ... that if they had been in town, I would never have ended up in this mess. I insisted they talk to the director of the Eating Disorder Program and demand my immediate release. They said they would see what they could do. I felt certain I would be freed before lunch the following day.

But here’s the message the director had for my parents: “Your daughter is very ill. She definitely has an eating disorder, she has depression and she is probably an alcoholic. Frankly, she should have been here years ago, but at least she’s here now. You can choose to sign her out, but it would be against my medical advice for you to do that.”

I was radio silent when my mom dropped that bomb. She then proceeded to agree with pretty much everything the director had said. She told me that she and my dad loved me very much, but they didn’t know how to help me, that they had never known and that maybe I was finally in the right place to get the kind of help I needed.

I wanted to kill her with my bare hands, but instead I engaged in what I now know to be massive amounts of manipulation because I believed I could talk my way into anything, including freedom.

“This place isn’t helping me,” I said. “If anything, it’s making me worse. I hate it. These people are crazy. I am nothing like them. Plus, all we do here is group therapy and therapy has never helped me at all.”

“I don’t know. Maybe the therapy has kept you alive,” she said. “Maybe it’s done that much. Anyway, dad and I think you should stay here. You need to stay.”

Maybe I didn’t give a f*ck if therapy had helped or if this hospital would because I just wanted out.

I didn’t want to stick around and play by somebody else’s rules for one more second. Though I wasn’t “committed” to this institution like by law, and I wasn’t an imminent danger to myself or others like Psycho Joe, I knew my parents weren’t about to spring me against the advice of the best minds in eating disorder treatment.

Was I sick? How sick? Was I sick, but not so sick that I belonged in this place? Trust me, nobody on my treatment team was about to heed my testimony about what was good for me. I wouldn’t have called myself as a witness in my own defense. I was an emotional wildcard—on new meds no less—so yeah, I was going to remain here for as long as insurance would allow.

I would continue attending group therapy, meeting with a social worker, having family meetings and participating in the program in its entirety. I also had no choice but to keep eating precisely what was put in front of me. It was ironic, but I felt a sense of relief when controlling what, when and how I ate was literally and figuratively taken off the table and replaced with three nutrient-rich meals and a snack.

After the first few days of terror, I couldn’t deny that my body was doing what bodies are supposed to do with food: digest it and use it as fuel.

In addition to having to acknowledge that the food part of the program made more sense with each passing day, the recovery party line was starting to get in my head. People often say: treatment doesn’t work if you’re just doing it to get other people off your back. Somewhat true I guess, but treatment started making me think about things that I had spent my short lifetime trying really hard not to think about.

I kept up the front that I thought this place was a joke, but nobody was laughing with me. There was nothing funny about my being here, especially the part about the director of the unit telling my parents that I was “probably an alcoholic.” She didn’t even know me. We’d never had cocktails together. Seriously, that’s kind of a major accusation to throw around. I’d have to figure out this eating thing, and the depression would have to go, but if she thought that I was going to stop drinking at 19, she was the one with mental problems. 

The director called it like she saw it. Apparently, she had pretty much seen it all, and she saw right through me. Turns out, I wasn’t terribly unique. Every floor of this hospital housed drunken, addicted, depressed and eating disordered boys, girls, men and women of all ages, races and creeds.

I still wanted to believe that it was just about the food, being skinny and achieving some arbitrary goal and maintaining it that would result in life-long happiness. Like April, I didn’t want to be bulimic ever again—bulimics were messy, undisciplined liars whose “normal” appearance on the outside belied who they really were behind closed kitchen and bathroom doors.

And if bulimia was messy, alcoholism was immature. It was totally fine to be a binge drinking, blackout drunk at 19, but to continue that nonsense into your 30s exemplified a lack of stability, plain and simple. I arbitrarily assigned age 30 the cutoff for kid stuff.

I certainly knew I had the genes for alcoholism, but I was way too smart to end up alone and under a bridge with a brown paper bag. That’s what alcoholics were to me—homeless dudes with beards and dirty fingernails who had long ceased functioning.

So I made a choice at age 19 to never be an alcoholic. I absolutely thought it was up to me to choose. While I was in the nuthouse, I would be an alcoholic though, if it meant I could leave the unit to go to meetings. I would also be a practicing Catholic, too, if it meant I could leave the unit to go to church. I would have agreed to be a puppy if it meant I could leave the unit to go for walks.

The one AA meeting I attended during my hospital stay was a treat. First, I realized that all of the really young, attractive patients were addicts and alcoholics—my bad for choosing the Eating Disorder Unit.

Troubled boys with drug and alcohol problems were right up my alley. We didn’t get much time to chat, but some of them gave me the eye. I was looking good, too, thin, but not too thin, well rested and free of the booze bloat and bloodshot eyes that had ensued after a week of partying hard. One of the rehabbers asked me what I was in for. I replied that I wasn’t an alcoholic, that I just had an eating disorder. He wasn’t impressed.

During that meeting, I listened to some guy tell his story and I knew that I was nothing like him. Much of what he said is a blur, but I believe his life was an undisputed mess. He was a grown-up trainwreck while I was mostly on track in life. Okay, so I was off the rails at the moment, but this was just a brief detour, an unplanned convalescence of sorts.

This hospital visit was not to be a defining moment in my life. I was only 19, I wasn’t losing jobs or wrecking cars. I didn’t see what the director of the Eating Disorder Unit saw, mostly because I wasn’t willing to look at all the warning signs. I would continue to ignore them for another 17 years.