The skies turned the color of a plum, and the nurses herded several of us away from the windows in the day room and under a table. We were all ill and frail. I felt depleted, having traveled all night to this hospital, where, trying to save myself, I had checked into the eating disorders unit. "Only to get blown away by a tornado," I thought.
But the storm passed. That evening, I had my first real meal in at least a month. This was Day One.
When I read Amy Lambert's story of her struggle with an eating disorder, I recognized myself. I remember that summer 24 years ago—my senses dulled from malnutrition, my muscles atrophied from lying in bed for most of six months—when hospitalization was the last resort.
Physically, I wasn't as thin as many of the girls, probably because my mother periodically force-fed me vitamin-packed chocolate malts. But mentally, I was out to lunch. For years, I'd had a combative relationship with food. As a child, the dinner table was where the day's childhood crimes were dissected and reviewed, the punishment announced, the sentence meted out. It wasn't vanity that compelled me to reject food; it was conditioning.
So the hospital staff laughed when, emboldened after a few nutritious meals, I announced that I would be well enough to leave in 30 days. Fortunately, my father's job included health insurance that covered me and my treatment until I was 22. I had 10 months before I would become ineligible.
It could take that long. Although I wasn't far from my goal of 112 pounds, the complex mental issues would take far longer to mend.
That's why many of the patients in the eating disorders unit were repeat customers: the teenage girl whose spine looked like a xylophone as it protruded from her hospital gown. The sullen, middle-aged woman whose face was streaked with pink rivulets because the force of repeated vomiting had broken her capillaries. The dancer whose skin barely stretched over her hip bones.
To feel empty is to feel light, nimble and unencumbered. Fasting, at least initially, is exhilarating; it lights your mind on fire. And then lightness turns to frailty; exhilaration falters and exhaustion sets in.
Intensive healing is expensive and multifaceted: daily group therapy, weekly individual sessions, nutrition education, occupational therapy. I cross-stitched a cardinal and built a wooden box. I had not finished my plastic dream catcher when one morning the doctor told me I could leave. I said goodbye to no one. I walked to the Greyhound station for the long trip home. It was Day 29.
I now realize that after I left the hospital, I was not well for many years. For more than a decade, I rarely cooked or, at home, ate at a table. Occasionally I still feel anxious when confronted with a full plate. But I'm learning to cook. And two months ago, my husband and I got a dining room table.