Iowa City: A post for memory’s sake & for eating disorder awareness

I believe that memories are held within our bodies, in a way. Walking down the halls of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and I feel those memories stir. Here with my mom and step dad for her next round of tests, and it’s startling how memories trigger from that bend of the hallway or this elevator. Did you know that I lived here for 35 days? 10 years ago exactly, as a matter of fact. I think, selfishly, this is part of my reason for coming today on my last day of spring break. The ten year anniversary of life saving eating disorder treatment is a big deal.
It’s been on my mind a lot lately. Something about this ten year mark seems significant. The treatment, the disorder and the battle to recover, no longer seem like yesterday. They don’t haunt me anymore, and they don’t identify me anymore. This is good, I suppose; this is part of recovery. I think it means that I made it into the third of anorexics that fully recover (as opposed to the third that cycles through their whole lives or the third that, frankly, dies). But I don’t want to forget. I’m a little scared of forgetting. It was major. I nearly died. 87 pounds. Slow, slow heart. Numb. Despair. Darkness. Fear. The events leading up to treatment were hell. The first day of treatment wasn’t that different.

“I don’t belong here.” A security door like I’d never seen. Through the rectangular window, chicken wire in glass, bodies moving around. More like zombies than friendly souls. Sharon, a large woman prone to uttering loud moans, would become comical to me later. A wiry, crazy (a word I came to despise) haired man. Scary. More chicken wire glass separating the central nurses station from them/us. Lockers. They open my bags, pull out paraphernalia. Spiral bound notebooks are a no, they can be used for self harm. Self what? So much to learn. No razors, we’ll loan you one if you need it. A smoking room off a lounge area that looks much like any waiting room in any hospital. A cafeteria with a meeting room adjacent, in there for my evaluation. A round table. A group of white lab coats. Questions, questions, “My, your cognitive ability is surprising!” (You shouldn’t be alive). To my room. One to myself, but no refuge yet. Have to pee? All EDOs go at the same time, leave the door cracked, no trust. You haven’t earned it. My first meal, Melisa’s too, she’s also new. I was ready to heal and move on, but it was so small and bland; remember the soldiers and the concentration camp victims. No candy bars, the system can’t handle it. Wiped my mouth with a napkin, but that got me scolded. “Too much pasta sauce on the napkin, could be trying to eat less.” Don’t these people understand that I am here because I want to gain weight?

At least that was the easy part. I did gain weight, and relatively quickly, and it didn’t bother me. I would see girls with thick thighs and strong arms and be jealous. I wanted to look like that, to be normal, to be healthy. To be free of the beast that had held me in it’s grip of deception.
Calling mom on my first night, weeping. Grateful to have my own room, though they took that away the next day. Roommates varied. Switched up a lot. Some joyful, some, like Karen who had chrons disease, a colostomy bag, and little mental ability, were more trying. What was that girl’s name who worked at Whiteys in the quad cities? She was so happy. Stephanie and Sarah M. – just a little older than me, definitely cooler. They were the wise ones, who knew how to get through the program fast. I don’t know that they were the healthiest, but they respected my genuine desire to get well. Jason. So sad, so lonely. He’s dead now. His mom found him in his bed. Cardiac arrest. He’s of that third. Sarah J. Waspy. Desperate. Alive? Melisa will always be in my heart. We started the same day. She was stubborn in the opposite route, she was tubed for a while. I respected that, in a strange way.

Initially, I was too low weight to go do the recreational things. To leave the ward. Little things like drumming fingers or twiddling thumbs were taboo; burned calories. None to spare. Leg crossing was out, as bony knees pinch nerves & circulation. Bony bums are problematic, but the solution was inflatable donuts to sit on. We carried them everywhere. Sitting in the big, vinyl recliner in the tv room. Reading. I received composition notebooks to replace my spiral bounds. I wrote furiously, my life’s story, desperate to find clues to how I wound up here. I remember sharing this with one of the nurses. She was very encouraging.
The nurses. They were the brightest light in that dark place. The doctors were okay, but constantly rotating out and dealing with us much the same as the mood disorder and suicide watch patients we shared the ward with. The nurses were caring. Encouraging. Matter of fact in all the right places. There was a crew of younger ones. I can see them, but I don’t remember their names. The one girl would eat bacon off the trays of the MDO patients. It was cute. The bigger girl, who had read my notebooks, arranged a movie night for us. Dirty Dancing. We laid on yoga mats in the cafeteria floor and ate popcorn. They were good people.
The MDO patients. There was a tall, skinny, crazy haired guy who came in to get off heroin. He was a rock star, I assumed. Wasn’t there long. He gave me a pink plastic hair comb before he left. Though our interactions were minimal, he told me I was a light in that place. I know I smiled a lot. I know I cared about the MDO patients a lot. Funny, considering how terrifying and inhuman they were to me at first.

Did you know they still do electric shock therapy? They show those patients a video first, to explain in excruciating detail what it entails. Some still agree. How dark are your thoughts that you willingly subject yourself to this? There was one guy in particular who went. I think I saw him at the dmv when I was there last, actually. His face will always be with me. He wasn’t of many words. His face was tired. His eyes were deep. I was drawing pictures in my free time by this point. I’d draw animals on card stock with colored pencils and give them to my ward-mates. He requested one before he left for the treatment, and I drew it. He was wheeled back in, quite visibly fried. Disappeared into his room for a couple of days. Awful. He did return, if not fully. He recognized and appreciated the drawing, but I missed the pre-shock therapy him.

Group therapy sessions in the cafeteria. Different counselors. Kay, with her long red hair and gypsy skirts, was my favorite and least all at once. She took no bullshit, but she also wasn’t always correct in her assumptions. She was my aftercare psychologist for awhile, but her distrust of my motives disgusted me. I didn’t return after my first visit.

Trips to the library. We could stop at the coffee bar. Get a monster cookie, it has the most calories. “Food is medicine, and the faster you gain, the sooner you get freedom.” Steph and Sarah wisdom. Funnily enough, I never counted calories until then. Never even thought of it.

Bingo night! Always off the ward. Prizes, like beanie babies. We’d win them for one another. It was more fun than you can probably imagine or than I can explain.

Working out was part of the routine, too. Gentle aerobics at a gym. A girl I went to high school with was there once, her husband was our current doc, she was helping. It was strange. There was shyness yet confidence on both sides, I think. We are Facebook friends now. She loves Jesus. That helps.

Water aerobics were interesting. I liked them, and for once didn’t care aboutt being seen in a swimsuit. That environment, where our bodies were clinically objectified in many ways, made me love and appreciate every inch of my skin and all that lies beneath more than ever. We also walked across campus to a weight training barn type place once. That was fun.

The occupational therapist, Michelle, was the coolest person I’d met. Her office was like an apartment, complete with kitchen. A benchmark of inpatient treatment was getting to go meal plan, grocery shop, cook and eat in her office. Sarah M. took charge of planning the meal. I loved it there. We also went to the New Pioneer Co-op and then picnicked with Michelle. Went to a fancy dinner with Kay and Sarah J. to practice not being afraid of menus, I guess. Always happy and educational times. I questioned Michelle thoroughly about her work, learned she also worked with MDO patients, knew that was something I wanted to do. She may be the primary reason I went to undergrad, even though I changed majors.

Easter Sunday service in the hospital. My pastor came to visit, which encouraged me so, so much. I mattered. People wanted me well. Cards came often, and I have them still. A church camp friend whom I hadn’t heard from, got every girl in her dorm to sign a get well poster for me.

Entered inpatient in February but we had a warm March. The first time I went outside again, all of us, was on a patio of the hospital after dark. Fresh air, stars and birds.

By the time outpatient came, 35 days in, walks with Steph and Sarah. One long one into the ped mall. Ice cream to fit the prescription. Living in the Ronald McDonald house. A blessing. Cozy. Rows of kitchens, always fully stocked. Two other EDO patients, from the pediatric unit. A pretty blonde thing and a guy who was only a few months younger than me. I was so attracted to him, it was scary. I had not felt much for months, and suddenly all of the systems were working again, and hormones were working again. It was like being 13 and 30 all at once. I stayed up all night on his last night, and bawled the next morning after he left. We hugged, we sat too close on the couch watching TV, but that was it. I appreciate him, though. And how he made me see what we are supposed to feel.

Aunt Wendie stayed with me a lot during that time. So grateful. She loved me fiercely, and empathetically. She would not put up with BS, and it was nice to have that personality around. Mom stayed most of the time, commuting to work in Des Moines every day. I just learned this morning that her bosses paid her for 8-5, even though she was only there from 10-2. Her ferocious love for me during that time sustained me. She did whatever it took. She fought for her baby girl.

I don’t remember the daily rounds of outpatient as clearly. I can vaguely picture the room. A large one, with tile and cafeteria tables. I’m sure many of the field trips that I remember actually occurred during this phase. I remember the doctors being hell bent convinced that I was constipated due to an overnight weight gain of seven pounds during inpatient. By the time I was in partial we had reached the last straw. A milk and molasses enema. Which is exactly what it sounds like. It was comically disgusting. And ineffective. Either that blockage is still in me, or it never was. Given how much prayer I was throwing out to get through inpatient quickly, I think it was divine weight gain.

Frank was the program director or something similar. He decided to release me from care early. I remember sitting in his office with my parents. He gave me the anorexic thirds statistic. He told me, in his business man-ly way, that he believed I was in the recovery third. That the current docs were pushing people through the program too quickly. That I was a leader of the patients, but they were sucking too much of my energy. That they might pull me down. It was time for me to go. I was ready.

It was relieving to be going, but also scary. During inpatient, I had felt led to live with my grandparents that summer. I knew my home environment wasn’t healthy because of my parents separations and I needed a fresh start. I remember my brother, who was twenty and out of the house at that point, coming to a family therapy session. He cried. He doesn’t, often. It was very affecting. I hate how much hurt was caused by my selfish descent into anorexia. I still think about friendships that were ended that maybe should not have been. But I cannot take it back.

And the changes in me, however destructively begun, were constructively wrought into valuable characteristics. I became much more responsible. Maybe even responsible period. I learned how to advocate for myself, and to know when it really mattered. I became tidier and more appreciative and respectful of my loved ones. I lost a deep selfishness. I became consciously dependent on The Lord. I sought truth and found this creator god who understood flesh and blood. A spirit I could feel and find comfort and strength in. I became disciplined. I lost a wall of us and them and found a lifelong appreciation for those of us with mental issues. I realized without test scores that I was intelligent and capable. I discovered learning, and my love for it.
The treatment process was in many ways a necessary evil, but what I gained from it was so much more than 35 pounds. On this ten year anniversary, as I still find myself wishing for skinnier legs from time to time or a concave tummy, I rejoice in my freedom. My two college degrees, my husband, my community, my very life. Without those strange few months ten years ago, a very different, much less grown woman would be sitting here. 

9 thoughts on “Iowa City: A post for memory’s sake & for eating disorder awareness

  1. Dad

    So proud of you and how you are willing to openly and constructively share your thoughts and feelings. You inspire me so deeply. I love you!

    Reply
    1. Emily Sparkles Post author

      Da, I love you and don’t know what I have ever done to deserve such a loving and supportive dad. It’s a rare blessing, but then again – it shouldn’t be. Thank you for fighting for me.

      Reply
  2. kailanwing

    Wow, Emily! I never knew this was all going on. This is an incredible story. With all it’s pain and fear, but with all it’s redemption too. So blessed to have you as a friend. Truly. You are a wonderful woman.You were such a light to me also, in my darkest days a couple years ago. Your open arms meant the world to me. 🙂

    Reply
  3. sarah

    Wow! My heart goes out to you!you’re an amazing person Em. I’ve always looked up to and still do even though we’re the same age:) How did you over come the thinking about all the time? I’ve never been so skinny that it requires hospitalization (made sure I didn’t so no one would notice) but I am back to 120 and it’s driving me insane. I don’t like how I look and think about it all the time. I’ve never talked about with anyone but you cuz you know how it feels. I’m not saying I won’t lose some weight still but any pointers to help me accept it would be greatly appreciated. I love you!!

    Reply
  4. Marie Nolting

    My daughter, Emily was anorexic when she was 13. She weighed 86 lbs & was 5’3″. Emily got treatment by seeing a therapist & a nutritionist. This started in the Fall & her goal was to weigh 100 lbs by the New Year, which she achieved! Emily kept track of what she ate & drank daily. She’s 32 now & has a rambunctious 2 year old boy, Mason!

    Reply
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