Treatment friends and empathy.

On my anorexia recovery journey, I spent 3 weeks in a daytime treatment program and 6 weeks in a residential treatment program in 2018. On my first day in the day program, during breakfast, I thought I had entered a looney bin. And I didn’t belong there.

I learned more about empathy in those 9 weeks than I have in my entire life.

Your family doesn’t get it. Your closest friends don’t get it. They all misfire accidentally or (even worse) intentionally in their attempts to spur you on to a recovered self.

But treatment friends, people who have never met you at all, they get it. They spend 7 hours a day (daytime program) or 24 hours a day (residential) with you. You all share the journey of recovery from an eating disorder. While the disorder itself looks completely different for each of us (though diagnosed into neat little categories), we get each other in a way that our closest community doesn’t.

The Stuff that Becomes Super Normal in Treatment

  • Peeing and pooping under surveillance
    • I needed to know the exact intake form that would mean I can’t pee alone anymore so I could have that one last time
  • The freedom you had is gone by simply walking in a door and signing a form
    • You can walk out but it requires 72 hours notice or you have to pay the daily rate, which trust me, you don’t want to do
  • Only being allowed to have 3 dislikes on your food list
    • And then that 4th thing you hate is served at dinner
  • The chef’s forgotten she works for ED clients and makes everything way too spicy
    • Hello, we have enough digestive problems already and I’m taking as many TUMS as is medically possible
  • The admin forgot she works at an ED facility – the A/C is blasting
    • And she sent ALL the blankets in the entire place to the laundry place
    • Hi, we are all 10x colder than the general population
  • The rules change without notice
    • Wait, we we can’t have yoga and a mindful walk on the same day anymore?
  • Waiting every week on Insurance Day to find out if you were getting kicked out, or if any of your friends were getting kicked out, prematurely
    • Oh, I can give you a ride because I just found out that I’m leaving at 7am tomorrow. Also, I’m screwed.
  • Waiting every week of Level Day to find out if you leveled up or got your weekend passes
    • YESSSSSS. I can go out of eyesight of staff…
    • Noooooo. I have to stay here all weekend…
  • Every rule is there, even the ones I can’t imagine why, because someone’s ED told them to do something
    • I’m sorry, I can’t play music in the bathroom while I get ready because someone may try to barf while the noise is covering it up

So, treatment friends get that.

In all seriousness, they also get these things leading to Empathy Immersion 101:

  • I hardly know you, but here’s all my dirty laundry
  • My family says hurtful things
  • We have all suffered some pretty intense stuff to be where we are today
  • The way we deal with our pretty intense stuff is with an eating disorder
  • It’s not a choice
  • We love each other so much because we all know we can’t love ourselves
  • What happens at treatment, stays at treatment
  • We don’t trust our treatment team…until they get it

Someone talks for 3 minutes and you feel like they read your journal for the past 10 years. Even if they are so different from you, you know you wouldn’t have talked to them in another setting, you feel like you’ve known them for ages. They describe their emotions, fears, doubts, and reactions in ways that feel so familiar.

My treatment friends are male, female, and gender non-binary. They are anywhere from 19-50. They are students, professionals, even nurses and therapists themselves. They are smokers. They self-harm. They are of varying ability. They are African-American, Hispanic, White, and more. They don’t have enough money to pay rent. They lost their job to get treatment. They are loved by their parents. They are disowned by their parents.

They are my treatment friends.

I wish I could post pictures of them here. They were people that I will never forget. People that I probably would never have met or connected with in any other setting. They are the people who know me in a way no one else does, even though we shared a space for only a short time. But I’ll tell you about some of them

  • My Rory Gilmore: a 20 year old nursing student who I watched Gilmore Girls with every night; anorexia had sucked her away from all she loved during her senior year of high school, and she was in hot pursuit of recovery so she could become a nurse and return to enjoying breakfasts with her family
  • The One who used to be Me: a 20 year old college student who told me on my first day that she related so much to me, which I needed to hear at a time when I literally believed I had just entered the looney bin. With only one other person in our day program, she and I shared a bond that you just feel when you have 7 hours of therapy with someone else every day for 3 weeks.
  • The Other Mom: a 27 year old SAHM who was the only other parent for most of my time in treatment; with 3 young kids, she fought everyday to heal from past trauma and be better so she could be the wife and mom she wanted to be; also one of only 2 Christians I met in treatment and inspiring to see someone work out faith while in recovery; we died laughing at an Ali Wong comedy special about pregnancy that no one else could really understand
  • The Ballerina: one of my first roommates was a former ballerina. She was confident in her recovery and I needed to be around that. She taught me to knit and read about 20 books in her 2 weeks at the center. She made me smile.
  • The Girl on a Mission: one gal who was in treatment with me at both the daytime and residential program was astounding to watch in her journey. When I first arrived at residential, she helped me figure out what was going on, including why people would take the option of drinking their calories via a nasty shake when they could eat them? Why not just take neither?
  • The Musician: A woman who had endured trauma in a way I could hardly wrap my mind around and composed fantastic music (complete with her own YouTube channel), was someone we all surrounded to protect from harm when we could. She needed more help than the center could give, but we all did our best to show her love.
  • The Writer: kept small notebooks and constantly wrote down gems of wisdom from each session. This person’s unique perspective on all things kept me from getting too inside my head and brought wonderful humor to a tough place.
  • The Grass Group: the non-smokers circle during smoke break. This was the group where I could actually talk about real stuff that got “buzzed” in the normal setting. This was my unofficial therapy, that often helped more than the actual therapy.

And so many more. These are not just people with eating disorders in some far-off treatment center. These are real people with real journeys who I am still in touch with (for the most part) today, thanks to social media.

I learned empathy from them. I learned how to sit with someone else in their story and feel their pain. I learned how to truly see another person, without judgment.

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