Today (or tonight, or tomorrow, or yesterday, depending on what country/time zone/dimension you are in) I am going to talk (write?) a little bit about hospitals. Specifically clinics which provide therapy for mental illnesses.
In my case, I needed to go inpatient to find a safe place to stay and get the professional, intensive help I needed. My binge eating disorder was killing me and it was time to do recovery, cold turkey hardcore intergalactic-war style.
The hospital I was about to enter was not like the hospitals where you wait to get an X-ray and leave, where you get a scan and then drive home for dinner, or where you do a test and decide what to do for the afternoon. This one was different. I had my suitcase full of clothes, magazines and university workbooks, not knowing how many weeks I would be spending there. You couldn’t open the windows, the bathrooms had no hooks, the doorknobs were suicide-proof. There was carpet, and handing over sharps, and therapy sessions. There was being thrown into a TV-reality drama like situation in which I suddenly had to accustom to living with at least twenty other strangers, all of whom had eating disorders.
It’s interesting, isn’t it – many people see mental illness as something trivial or easily fixed, so telling some people afterwards that I had been in hospital for 6 weeks got a nice reaction of sympathy and acknowledgement. But unless they were friends or family, I didn’t tell them why, or that it was a psychiatric hospital. For some sad reason, I was ashamed. Worse, I wasn’t the only one. There were girls who I met while inpatient whose friends thought that they were on holidays, or in for some physical malfunction. It’s so sad that we are afraid to tell the truth, fearing judgement, exclusion and criticism. When telling a good friend personal problems, they (should) react with support, acceptance and warmth. So why is it so hard to tell people that we are in recovery for an eating disorder? I could say “I spent 6 weeks in hospital” and people gasp, realising it must be serious, but for some reason the phrase “I went to hospital for 6 weeks to recover from an eating disorder” would carry less weight (hahaha… pun not intended.) Yet in my experience, the reality of eating disorder recovery is extremely frightening and requires a huge amount of effort, courage and bravery. With a shattered bone, they’ll put you under and fix it up, adding a few screws and plates. The physical pain will eventually go, and after some physiotherapy and checkups everything will be almost back to normal. With an eating disorder, it feels as if you are piecing hundreds of shattered bone fragments back in place by hand, without an anesthetic, with no rest allowed.
I thought that when I was in hospital I would have heaps of time to be productive and study. Nope. While I did have spare time, I was too exhausted to do anything remotely taxing – when they say recovery is hard work, it actually is. It takes energy, concentration and heaps of effort. We all crashed into bed at 9pm, exhausted after a day of constantly fighting the demons. It was hard to concentrate and memorise things, as I had used up all my brain power resisting urges and facing my fears.
It was certainly an experience though. As the weeks passed and people came and left, ‘graduating’ at different rates and needing different levels of support, the dynamics of the inpatient group changed – sometimes mums and married women dominated the common room, other times it was mainly 16 to 18 year old girls. In many ways, these teenagers were much more mature than many people I know who are in their twenties. Forced to grow up quickly, with their high school in disruption, dealing with thoughts and fears that make an adult curl into a ball and cry, aware of suffering and struggle. I admired them. The few men that were there seemed lonely, surrounded by females, dealing with an extra layer of loneliness.
There were injokes about medicines, there wasn’t much to gossip about apart from which nurses would be on which shift and if any new people were coming, the bitchy backstabbing was aimed at people who were not complying with their meal plan or cheating (such as exercising in secret.) At times I felt like a retired grandma, surrounded by tea, crocheting and sitting around. Other times I felt like a prisoner, eating at set times, unable to go to the bathroom after meals, not able to go or do what I wanted.
Even though I was surrounded by people, it was extremely lonely at times. It was frightening, terrifying, challenging and overwhelming. The outside world went on without me. Parties, movie outings, beach days passed as I painted, tried to sleep and used 23GB of internet. I was constantly reminded of my situation and there was no break from it.
Other times, however, it was a comfort to be with people who knew what it was like. To be with people who had also had their illnesses questioned, judged, minimised. To be with people who wanted to stop damaging their body. The phrases “I ate a potato even though it was my fear food” or “I drank soft drink for the first time in years” may seem insignificant and even silly to some, but someone could say it there and know that it would be acknowledged as a real and worthy achievement.
Going inpatient made a huge difference to me and I am so glad I went. I am also grateful my parents and I could afford it. But I couldn’t have made the most of it if I hadn’t been ready to recover. There are places you can go where they’ll force feed you so your heart doesn’t stop beating and your bones don’t disintegrate, but that’s not recovery. This was a place for those who needed help in dealing with the thoughts and urges; and wanted a better, freer life.
While inpatient was a massive help, it didn’t fix me. Upon getting out, I still needed therapy, visits to various doctors, I am still not 100% recovered, even though it’s years afterwards. Please remind those who may not know – you won’t come out of inpatient completely recovered. It takes more than just 4, 6, 12 weeks to be free of intense fears and be able to consistently cope with thoughts. People may expect you to be completely back to normal and unfortunately that won’t be the case, as recovery is a long journey and much more complex than just a broken bone. But at least it is worth it.
I could go on and on about my experiences in hospital, but I’ll just blab on about them further on another occasion.
See you next Thursday. Take care! :o)