Sometimes you get towed in with an ignition problem only to be told you need a whole new engine. Or something like that. I really shouldn’t use car analogies. I’m not even sure I know how to put air in the tires for the one I’m driving these days.
Last fall, I was admitted to hospital for acute depression. I went in voluntarily but they immediately certified me as involuntary. An unnecessary and highly unappreciated step, as you might imagine. I was already there and I wasn’t going anywhere. But that maneuver by some presumably well-intentioned doctor after a five-minute conversation with me made my eighteen-day stay so much more complicated. To say I was being admitted involuntarily when I’d gone to see my psychiatrist, discussed the decision to admit myself, waited for him to type a supporting letter, then stopped back home to pack for my stay and walked into ER,…well, that was rubbish.
I already knew this wasn’t going to be anything like those sojourns in lovely white mansions with grand porches surrounded by fields of green grass where patients dance about waving butterfly nets. I’d seen that in old movies. That kind of place would’ve made me feel better (as long as I didn’t get tangled in the butterfly nets too often).
No, this would be unpleasant. This would be an ongoing battle to regain my rights…and a writing pad…and my clothes. I could go into extreme detail about everything wrong with the experience. I journaled what I could, first with crayon because it was all I could find, then with one of those stubby mini golf pencils because it’s all they’d offer when I begged, all on scraps of paper—the backs of the menu sheet that accompanied each food tray meal, a torn out magazine page with an abnormally large amount of white space. It’ll make a memoir one day. Or maybe not.
Feeling like I had no control over my environment, I did what I always do when I am overwhelmed. I began to starve myself. I ate and drank nothing during my first day in a holding pen of sorts, the Acute Behavioural Stabilization Unit, where patients are expected to calm down as the heavy locked doors constantly slam while hospital employees use the room as a shortcut corridor from one place in the hospital to another. Zero food, zero sleep.
Once transferred to a “regular” psychiatric unit, I first refused food because it wasn’t vegan. Then, I refused what I deemed as being too high in sugar and fat. Then, what was too discolored to actually be an edible version of the food they said it was. (That’s why the tray came with a coveted sheet of paper listing of what was on it: to clue you in that a mini tray of sliced something was actually zucchini.) The expectation was that all of us had to report to the “dining room”, a sad open area with bright florescent lights, to eat at the same time. That didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to socialize. I didn’t want people seeing what I ate or didn’t eat. As I took my tray to my room, a nurse stopped me and said it was against the rule. My shoulders tensed. Rules. Fine. I left the tray and headed back to my room, stomach empty, the growing gurgles strangely satisfying as a sound of defiance.
As I had a different psychiatrist each day, I had to constantly rehash my cycle downward and explain my food issues. A doctor overrode nurses’ objections to me eating in my room and I faced icy looks from Food Traffic Nurse for the rest of my stay. There was a mouse problem in the unit. Indeed, I saw several during my stay. Cute critters. And smart. Based on my observations, many psychiatric patients are too highly medicated to really care about keeping food on the tray. The dining room surfaces areas were regularly a sticky, crumb-strewn mess.
I still refused to eat most of what was served. A dietician became a daily visitor. Nurses were instructed to do daily calorie counts regarding my intake. Once I was allowed to wear my own clothes and I got passes to leave the hospital, I was permitted to buy my own food—nonfat cottage cheese, nonfat yogurt—and keep it in a locked fridge that I could only access when my assigned nurse was available.
I was a problem patient. Depressed with too many extras. I rapidly lost significant muscle mass just as I did during my previous hospitalization. But this time something different happened. As part of my discharge, they referred me to an eating disorders program. I cried when the dietician asked if I’d be amenable to that. I’d struggled with disordered eating for at least thirty-five years, mentioned it to doctors and, being as I was a guy, nothing ever happened. Finally, an opening!
After an ECG, bloodwork and a two-hour assessment and my diagnosis as being anorexic was official. Add it to my résumé. I cried again. Relief. Even triumph. I’d lived with this for so long on my own, its intensity varying during various periods in my life but it’s presence always there, always taking up so much thought and time each and every day.
Help maybe. A new motor perhaps.
I’ve been going to weekly courses and meetings for five months now. No change in my behaviour. I still restrict food and occasionally binge. I still over-exercise. I still spend an inordinate amount of my time thinking about what will and won’t be my next snack or meal. I wonder if, after all this time, thoughts and habits are too entrenched. I’ve created a warped version of a safe, controlled environment for myself.
For now, it’s a victory that medical professionals have identified another male as having an eating disorder. I’m convinced this is still woefully underreported amongst men and, particularly, with gay men. Eating disorders can look different for men, with the obsessions over protein and muscle gain. I witness the same guys at the gym going to extremes with their bodies and talking to strangers ad nauseam about tuna and oatmeal consumption as they log hours doing dumbbell curls and stealing glances of themselves in the mirrors. Is it healthy? Can they stop?
For now the focus is more confined: Can I?