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Residential Treatment: My Catalyst for Recovery

By Annie Stewart--The eyes—I will never forget her eyes. It was as if her eyes told me a story—a story of hurt and pain, a 15-year-old girl tossed back and forth in the throes of addiction.

Trigger warning: Descriptions of eating disordered behavior.

Her body was exhausted, tired of fighting, tired of being told what she must do, tired of walking a road that appeared to be going nowhere. She was tired of letting people down, she said. She had been hospitalized numerous times and had seen twelve therapists in the last three years. “I just can’t do it anymore.” 

She continued, “It’s like I try and try and nothing helps and I feel so hopeless and defeated every day.” I closed my eyes as tears ran down my cheeks. I too had walked this road. I too felt alone, hopeless and defeated. I slowly started to open my mouth to respond, silently praying that my words would somehow, some way speak light into the darkness, that life would somehow seep through those broken places.

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to visit the residential treatment facility where I was treated for anorexia when I was 16 years old. During my visit, I got to talk to some of the current residents and tell them my story. I left the center on May 4, 2007. Even then, I somehow knew I would come back someday to encourage those who are still struggling to stand in the dark.

Related: Taking Pride in My Recovery Journey

When I was in the hospital, I remember trying to explain to my family what it felt like to be sick. “It’s like you are stuck underground and you can’t get out. That’s what it feels like, you’re stuck, literally. No darkness anywhere; it’s as if you are paralyzed, can’t move, can’t see, it’s hard to breathe. Every single day, you have this voice in your head, at every moment—at the dinner table, in line at a coffee shop, with family, with friends, in line at the grocery store—it never leaves you, it’s always present, all the time.”

As I entered the center, I was greeted by the kind and gracious woman I had been in touch with, and we walked around the grounds, those sacred grounds where healing began to take root and where the real work of recovery began. I began to speak to a group of residents, my voice shaking and my eyes beginning to water, “I-I am here because I wanted to take the time to encourage you because I was actually in your position many years ago.” I began to tell bits and pieces of my story, mostly revolving around my inpatient stay and what the recovery journey was like after I went home. They asked me many questions and I cannot begin to express what a joy it was to see their eyes light up when I spoke of the hope of healing. When I was sick, I never thought I would recover.

However, it did give me hope when I heard someone else’s story of recovery. I remember thinking, “Well, I know that I will never recover but it’s nice to know it’s possible for someone else.” When I spoke of the reality of recovery, I told them it was okay if they didn’t believe me right now. All you can do is put one foot in front of the other each and every day. I spoke of how each and every morning, before I started my day, I would audibly say, “Thank you God for the gift of another day, another breath. Today I CHOOSE recovery, I choose life, I choose freedom.” If there was one message I wanted to leave them with it was the importance of hope—how we cannot lose hope, even on our darkest days, how it is so important to have faith in the possibility of recovery even if in our emotions we don’t feel like that is possible. And do you know what helps us to have hope? Seeing a living, breathing testament of recovery right in front of our eyes.

Related: Becoming Me: How I Took My Life Back from ED

This doesn’t mean that a recovered life is free of struggle. There are still days I have eating disordered thoughts. They always hit me at the same time; that is, when I am stressed, anxious or in the midst of a life change or transition. Essentially, I always have them when there is something happening in my life that involves stepping out into an unknown or taking a risk, where there are factors at play that I cannot control. So I will say to you, dear reader, the gist of what I said to these courageous young girls I talked to that day:

It gets better. No, really it does. As you take one day at a time, moment by moment, choosing recovery every day, it gets better. You may slip but those slips do not define your recovery—what matters is how you react to those slips. Surround yourself with people who love and accept you for the person that you are—no more, no less.

Be careful about who you share your story with—not everyone deserves your vulnerability; not everyone can handle it. Set boundaries for yourself around what you say and who you say it to; do not waver from those boundaries. And on that note, self-care. Self-care is not a sign of weakness; it is not selfish. Frankly, learning how to practice self-care is one of the most valuable lessons I have ever had, and I know it is one I will continue to utilize for the rest of my life, especially because I want to go into the ‘helping’ profession (ideally counseling) as a career.

Related: My Eating Disorder Wasn’t the Only Mental Illness I Conquered

Learn to be good and gracious to yourself and surround yourself with people who do the same. And speaking of self-care, use your SKILLS! The skills I learned in recovery (particularly based on CBT) were and are my ammunition to fight against the attacks of ED. This is so important because your triggers will still be there when you go home; you will have ED thoughts and there may be times when you will be tempted to resort to old behaviors (I sure was during stressful times). This is where the skills come in—changing how you THINK. I had to be hospitalized because my heart rate was fatally low.

Regardless of the physical effects my body suffered because of ED, it really did not take very long for my body to bounce back and recover; however, it has taken years for my mind to change the thought patterns and beliefs I once held. I had to unlearn the lies I had believed for years. Change how you think and you will change your world.

Doing these things is not easy. At first, it may feel like you are going at a snail’s pace, and that’s okay. Be gracious with yourself about the pace of your own recovery and don’t compare yours to anyone else’s. You are on your own unique journey—so focus on your own path. Most of all, never lose hope and never lose faith. You will recover; I know this because I did. This is coming from someone who never in a million years thought she would recover. I thought that an eating disorder was my lot in life; I thought I was always going to struggle and that perhaps I wasn’t meant to be happy. This is a LIE from the deceitful, conniving, filthy mouth of ED.

I saw the life and light in the eyes of the girls I met that day. I saw them come alive with questions and curiosity about my recovery—I saw a spark of life in them, despite their worries and fears about what post-rehab life would look like for them. I only spoke with the girls for about a half an hour, before they had to leave to get on with their days. But before I left, something happened that I will never forget as long as I live. One of the girls came up to me—the 15-year-old who spoke earlier of how she felt hopeless and defeated, how she had been to 12 therapists in the past three years. She had tears in her eyes and she said I had no idea how much my words helped her.

Related: Shattering ED’s Carnival Mirror

“I don’t feel so alone anymore. Like, when I look at you, I think maybe that’s what I can be in ten years,” she said. Now it was my turn to cry. Wow. Wow, I almost had no words. But then I said, “That’s why I came here today, for you, I just didn’t know your name yet. The tears that you shed…those are not in vain, okay? Your tears are precious and one day they will serve you well. Never forget how loved you are—you are more loved than you will ever know.” I have never forgotten this courageous young woman and I never will. I have never forgotten any of these courageous young women I met; actually, little girls is probably a more accurate term, as some of them were as young as nine or 10 years old.

I left the center emotionally exhausted and drained—still shocked and amazed that I was given this opportunity to return to this place—this place where I uncovered wounds from my past, named those wounds and moved on. An eating disorder is a way to numb your emotions, a way to cope after suffering a loss or experiencing a traumatic event. It is only through facing the pain of my past that I could step forward into the future.

And this is what I have come to believe: although the wounds of our past may be deeply rooted and may take a lot of pushing and pulling to recover from, there is no pain that is too deep for complete healing and restoration. Something else happened when I began this arduous yet rewarding journey from brokenness to wholeness. As I emptied myself of ED, as I allowed myself to heal from pain and trauma, this then allowed more life, love and joy to enter my heart—more than I ever knew a human soul could possibly contain. Not only that, but I began to discover my true self—apart from the eating disorder that had taken the past four years of my life.

I lingered a little before I finally left those sacred grounds. I wanted to stand still for a second so that I could treasure that moment forever, standing on the soil where my healing took root, reflecting on my precious journey of recovery. I am, of course, still Annie—however, the shy, fragile 16-year-old who entered that center is not the same Annie who arrived on the same grounds at 25.

Now I see it as my duty and my mission to advocate for those struggling to break free, to bear witness to the life that can be lived, free from the entanglements of ED. If my story can in any way bring light into the darkness and speak life into brokenness, then I have done my duty. This is why I speak and why I stand—and I will continue to do so, as long as I have a voice.

For recovery resources and treatment options, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.

About the blogger: Annie Stewart graduated from university with a degree in sociology and gender studies. She is especially passionate about seeing individuals develop a healthy relationship with food, exercise and the body. Beyond that, she is also passionate about social justice, good strong coffee (usually accompanied by a book), traveling and telling her own story of recovery in the hopes that it can be a beacon of light on someone else's road to healing, health and wholeness. She is currently interning with a human rights organization in England and hopes to eventually go on to graduate school and pursue a degree in clinical social work.

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