Every time someone left treatment, we had a ritual. It was a little bit like a high school graduation. We’d sit in a circle in the community room and talk about what we admired about the “graduate.” We’d wish them well and write them little notes of encouragement in their journal. (Because in treatment, everyone has a journal. I still have all of mine, in a box in my basement.) We’d exchange email addresses and phone numbers and even regular addresses. For those people we were especially close with, we’d give them a little gift. A tiny stuffed animal. A handmade card. A crocheted scarf. (Again, because in treatment, everyone crochets or knits.)
Then we’d hug (if hugs were desired) goodbye and see them walk out the door. Into real life. Into what we hoped would be recovery for them, much like we hoped we’d someday achieve recovery ourselves.
This was in the time when Facebook was just getting off the ground, solely confined to those early adopter colleges and universities. Twitter didn’t exist yet. So there was no internet-stalking. No contact until I got out of treatment myself.
After I finished up my stints in treatment, I kept in contact with a few of the girls. One of the boys, too. (Yes, I did encounter eating disordered males during the time I was sick, a fact that many forget is a possibility.) We got together a few times and updated each other on our lives via email.
We talked about our lives and our struggles and reassured each other that we were still skinny. Then we lost touch.
Which was a good thing. Because at that point, we were “eating disorder friends.” We had existed in a vacuum, where all the real-life air had been sucked out. The air left was sterile, manufactured. Tainted by memories and what we were “supposed” to be.
We needed to diverge from that well-worn path of our “treatment” selves and strike out into the wilderness of the paths we were meant to blaze for ourselves.
It’s years later now. More than a decade. I’ve reconnected with some of these people on Facebook. The ones I connected to on a deeper level in treatment, the ones I might have become friends with in different circumstances. Either I reached out to find them or they sought me out.
Either way, we’re back in touch. We’re the recovered ones. The ones who have created lives outside of the ones we used to lead together. I see pictures of their babies and hear about their careers. I smile at wedding pictures and sometimes we even laugh over the weird memories that only people in treatment together would find amusing.
There are some people I was “close” to that I don’t know what happened to. Or that I don’t want to reconnect with. Because I know we’d be different now, or because I was so different then that I don’t want to be reminded of it. It depends.
I wish them all well, though. That’s the hard thing about having been sick. (Okay, one of the hard things.) That you never know what has happened to people. To smart people. To caring people. To some of the strongest people I’ve ever met.
That’s the thing that people forget sometimes when they talk about “people with mental illness.” The strength and the courage that it takes to admit that you’re suffering, then to step into a situation where you will be forced out of your comfort zone every hour, every minute, and every second. Then to keep moving forward, day after day. Either abstaining or learning to moderate or educating yourself on how to live with a disease that many people die from.
It’s the same with any mental illness. No one asked to be sick. No one brought it upon themselves. It happened and we coped. Then we tried to cope. Then we coped some more.
Coping is damn hard. It’s curling up in a ball and crying. It’s knots full of anxiety in your chest. It’s staring into your closet and weeping. It’s not going to a bar or removing all the alcohol from your house. It’s forcing yourself to get out of bed and go to work. It’s cutting off relationships with friends and accepting help and admitting you’re not perfect. It’s arguing with your brain and finally, finally seeing things get easier.
I hope that it got easier for everyone I passed along the way. Because there’s a special place in my heart for all of them:
The girl who dressed her IV pole in a hat and named it Wilson.
The boy who took another girl to her senior prom.
The one who was a prima ballerina at Harvard.
The one who gave us fashion tips.
The girl who woke up screaming in the middle of the night.
The fifty-something year old woman who was still dealing with her eating disorder.
The fifty-something year old man who I saw, months after my discharge, in a Barnes and Noble, looking worse than ever.
The ones I cried with.
The ones I laughed with.
The ones that so many think are weak but are so strong in so many ways.
I had been meaning to start this blog for a while before I actually got up the nerve. Or, more accurately, before I was inspired to, by one of my best friends. She was an acquaintance in high school, someone I saw in the chorus room and did a few musicals with. We connected on Facebook a few years ago, but she lives many states away now. We commented on pictures of our kids and realized that we had a mutual obsession with books. We talked and shared and became close.
Then she disappeared for a while. I soon found out that she’d been in treatment for alcoholism. Which turned into treatment for an eating disorder. She admitted this openly to me, then to her entire Facebook feed. To her community. That vulnerability blew me away. Because to me, vulnerability is strength.
Not being vulnerable, not being open is what kept me sick for so long. It’s what kept me hidden away from the world. And here she was, proclaiming, “THIS IS ME. THESE ARE MY STRUGGLES. LOOK HOW HARD I’M WORKING.”
I have never been so inspired in my life. She gave me the courage to start this blog. Maybe I’m not sick anymore, but I was sick. And I was scared to say that for a long time. I thought it made me less than perfect. I thought it was a sign that I was flawed.
Nope. It makes me human.
This friend is my model of strength. She is human and real and constantly examining herself for what will help her live her best life. She slips and falls and mourns. She goes to meetings and talks to loved ones.
Most of the people I met in treatment were like that. They wanted their lives back. They wanted new lives.
I’m glad I had them in my life.
I hope they’re happy.