A year ago today, I checked into a group home, beginning a thirteen-week program alongside seven other people with eating disorders, hoping that I might finally end all the self-hatred about my body (and the rest of myself).
My meals were monitored, with portions measured out to make sure I was taking in enough of the right kinds of foods. The program strove to introduce me to a new way of looking at food, replacing four decades of fearing meals and restricting my intake. Through a reduced exercise regimen that permitted only five one-hour workouts per week, my body was supposed to recover from being constantly overworked, part of an endlessly desperate attempt to work off calories, love handles and an oversized belly that existed, I am told, more in my mind than in reality. While some people with eating disorders have bulimia and throw up foods they binge, exercise has been my way of purging anything that I considered to be harmful intake.
With the other residents, I attended a hospital program four days a week, a combination of individual sessions with a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a dietitian and group sessions led by a rotating team of professionals.
A year earlier, I’d belonged to an out-patient provincial eating disorders program, picking and choosing various courses and making absolutely no progress. I resisted everything. My eating disorder had become my way of coping with the uncertainties of life. I may not have been able to control external factors, but I’d mastered how to control my body. If I forfeited my eating disorder, I suppose the thinking was that I’d be left with chaos. Instead of forgiveness and self-acceptance, I would experience a spike in self-hatred. There was no chance I’d make progress in a casual program. I knew I was a complex piece of work and I begged to be admitted to the group home program.
I contend that my eating disordered thoughts and behaviors became deeply entrenched because it took so long for me to be diagnosed. I’m far from the prototype for an eating disorder. My body has only looked like what you’d see on an eating disorder poster a few times in my life. Usually, I feel certain that my body needs to lose weight and that it’s not just in my head...anybody would see that if I ever strayed from the baggy clothes styles that came into fashion in the ‘80s.
I’m male and men are under-diagnosed for eating disorders. I grew up seeing photos of emaciated teenage girls and knowing that Karen Carpenter died from an eating disorder. It was a feminized condition.
My family doctor missed it—even when I said outright, “I think I’m anorexic.” The doctors and psychiatrists in the psych ward missed it, even as nurses complained about me refusing to eat and doctors assigned me daily consultations with dietitians (whom I stressed out) and brought in a cardiologist due to abnormalities with my heart.
I was well beyond my teens when I was finally diagnosed; I was fifty-three. This was not part of some midlife crisis. My symptoms first appeared before I reached my teens. I offer this background information to illustrate why I’m still conflicted over my eating disorder diagnosis. I’m the “wrong” age, “wrong” gender and “wrong” weight.
While in programs, I glance at protruding collar bones and frail arms of young women sitting across from me and I have to fight the feeling that I’m an impostor. Most programs have wait lists and I feel I’m taking up a space that should be for someone with more urgent needs. I regularly share this with professionals and they always assure me that I belong. (Gee, is that a good thing?) In fact, they denied my repeated requests to be put on the wait list for the group home because the team felt I wasn’t ready. I would fail without first being admitted to a more intensive seven-week in-patient hospital program. That required another wait list. All along, I asserted that the hospital program was wrong for me and it was with a twisted sense of triumph that I went through that whole thing making zero progress.
Ha! Told you so.
As it turned out, the group home experience didn’t work out either. My mood crashed. I battled with the dietitian. (Taking away my cottage cheese and forcing me to eat peanut butter felt very threatening!) Just as in the hospital program, I lost any sense of independence, my writing routine—my life’s passion—almost disappeared and other immature, attention-seeking personalities in the house became a huge distraction. I made the decision to leave after five weeks.
And now, a year later, my eating disorder is on autopilot. My one slight victory was that, since the hospital admission ended in May 2019, I’d stuck to a slightly reduced exercise schedule—much more than allowed in the hospital or the group home, but a bit less than my prior standards. All that slipped away a few weeks ago. I’m relishing exercise, even as some injuries have popped up recently. Just do it, my brain says. (Thanks for that, Nike.)
All ties to the professionals at the hospital ended the day I withdrew from the group home. I attended one more course as part of the provincial out-patient program but, per protocol—largely due to funding, I presume—I was exited from all supports connected to that program last December. After a three-month “stepping out”, I was allowed to refer myself back into the program, but I didn’t do so because I’d planned to move out of province...until COVID-19 came along and sidelined all that.
With more than six months passing, I now require a completely new referral for any kind of support. I’ve decided to wait on that. I could still move so it doesn’t seem the right time to re-invest. Moreover, the services would like be through Zoom and, while convenient, I know I need to physically show up if I’m really going to commit.
And that’s the biggest issue. I’m not ready to commit again. I know I still need help but I’m not ready to change. Another program would only mean another failure and that would only be a win for the pesky eating disorder. More entrenchment. You can’t beat me!
As I write this, my stomach is calling for food. It’s not even a growl as my body has gotten used to prolonged periods of fasting. A meal is still hours away. A big run comes first. (Weirdly, when I exercise, all feelings of hunger disappear.)
One year later. No better, no worse. I could say I’m learning to live with this, but the truth is, I accomplished that ages ago. I hold out hope that the time will come when I am tired of all this—thought I’d reached that point by the beginning of 2019, but I was wrong.
Change is possible. Someday.