Category Archives: events

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. 

Update 2: Sweet Maycation

Today is May 10th, which means it’s been 10 days – TEN DAYS – since I have had desserts, candy, basically: sugar.

I’m 1/3 of the way through this crazy experiment of mine already, which is hard to believe. So far? So good! You’ll remember from my first daily update type post that it was energy city and then headache-ville for those first three days. The seven to follow those have been better and yet blander.

The past 7 days haven’t had noticeable physical effects. I actually have to sit and think about my behaviors to point out what this self-induced lack of sweets has resulted in. As I reflect, I remember thinking I’d be shoveling fruit down my gullet in a meager attempt to appease my sugar-craving belly. As it turns out, I probably am not eating as much fruit as I should. I did crave frozen grapes as my go-to for the first few days, but the last handful remain untouched in my freezer. I also had anticipated a greater sense of carbo-craving in general. Another prediction that is so far unfulfilled. My daily eating has actually not changed at all (outside of the exclusion of sweets), and if anything I find myself feeling less hungry than pre-May. How crazy is that? Being insanely busy and rarely home may be a factor here, too. It’s hard to graze when you’re not out to pasture.

Overall, it is safe to say that I feel much better than when I’m overly sugared. I’m falling asleep more easily (right before bed was a favorite sweet-eating time for me.) It’s easier to identify the signals my body is sending me, too. When I’m feeling hungry, I know it’s real and not just a “remember that chocolate in the cupboard?” psycho-somatic type hunger. When I’m feeling energized, I know where it’s coming from. I’m really grateful I decided to take this challenge on, and even more grateful for all of the support my friends have shown me.


Sweet Maycation: It has Begun.

Day One. I definitely binged last night, intentionally. I made coconut buttercream frosting and ate what probably equals out to ½ a stick of butter and a cup of powdered sugar. Honestly, if it weren’t for my determination to not eat sweets, that wouldn’t stop normal-me from having more sweet stuff today. I subbed today, so opportunities to eat are few and hurried. Tonight was also Tacopocalypse. I usually eat something between school and arriving at the Cumming Tap, just to make the 13 mile bike ride there more bearable. Plus they ran out of tacos once. That sucked. Anyway, it struck me tonight that I usually grab something less than healthy as tonight I chose a simple fruit-protein combo. That’s dumb. Why would I want to sugar crash in the middle of a bike ride? Maybe it’s the placebo effect, as I’m sure the frosting from last night is still in my system, but the level of clear-headedness and energy I had was better than ever. Woo hoo!

Day Two – So far, still easier than I expected. This is confirming my theory that my eat-sweets-whenever-available is a mental addiction, not an actual physical need. We went to a late dinner at a friend’s house. She made frosting just for me (unaware of my hiatus, it was super sweet.) It was hard – I’m only a couple of days in, and she did this for me, but really I just plain didn’t want it. I had no desire to eat it. WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

Day Three – Subbing again, so daytime avoidance is easy. I have plans for tonight with a friend – we’re meeting for drinks and an appetizer. The goal will be to balance whatever likely-unhealthy food we get with not eating-for-the-sake-of-eating before bed.

I’m super grateful at how this is going. It’s only been a couple of days, and today I’m rocking a weird headache even though I had an amazing night’s sleep and enough caffeine. Sugar withdrawals? Is that a thing?

Thanks for following this journey with me! Stay tuned to see how I survive the weekend. I’m confident I won’t cheat. I’m also fairly confident I’ll have some crazy withdrawal freak-out that will be hilarious to read about.

Why am I doing this? 

Sweet Maycation

If my name wasn’t emily sparkles, it would be emily sprinkles. Sprinkles as in those bullets of sugary goodness that adorn the best of baked goods. Why? One word: sugar. I love sugar. I love it straight. I love it in candy form. I love it in dessert-of-any-kind form. In cocktails and coffee drinks. I even love how the consumer giants of today sneak it into my salads and trail mixes and other things touted as healthful. Bottom line, sugar is delicious and I enjoy it.

Even though I love it, even because I love it, me and sugar are taking a break. For the month of May? No sweet stuff. I’ll get into the bare bones of what this will look like in a moment, but first, a history of my relationship with dessert.

For a brief period of my life I took a hiatus from sugar. And all other foods, really. After that bout, it was a struggle for me to learn how to eat in a healthy and balanced fashion. Around my junior year of college, things took a turn for the sweet. Instead of occasionally enjoying sugar, it became my BFF. I was in a post-eating-disorder limbo where physically I was underweight, but a good 20 pounds heavier than I had been at my worst. That wasn’t a terrible place to be. Mentally, however, I was tortured. I tossed between counting calories by habit and having nightmares about being put back into inpatient treatment. This bipolar thought life presented itself in my eating only a few hundred calories a day and then freaking out as I tried to fall asleep because while I didn’t want to gain weight, I knew I couldn’t afford to lose any. I’d already took my body into the 85 pound range twice, and I didn’t think I’d survive a third round.

The problem was, I wasn’t hungry enough at night, nor were there really many options on a smallish college campus. I had faced this same dilemma the summer between freshman and sophomore year of school, after a relapse. My parents gave me a choice: get back into gear, or go back to treatment. I didn’t get a job in order to focus on my health, but I still couldn’t bring myself to eat enough during the long days home alone with my dog. It took mom and me some time to figure out a compromise (between her idea and mine of what was enough daily food intake.) Somehow we arrived at the conclusion that a DQ blizzard a day was the answer. (Wait a second – aren’t I lactose intolerant? Why yes, I am! But the funny thing about being in starvation mode is, your body will accept anything with equal love/hate. It’ll hold onto it to survive, and everything kind of is hard to digest for a long unused system, so it was a wash. Plus those things are DELICIOUS. So we went with it!)

Anyway, we ate Dairy Queen blizzards almost every night for an entire summer. I gained about 10 pounds from it, which was enough for my parents to trust me out of treatment and let me go back to college. Remembering this former solution as a junior facing a similar probelm, I decided to hit the sweet stuff again. This time in a less lactard way – in the form of candy. Just like that, I started eating candy every day.

I took this habit home with me from school, unfortunately. It’s a bittersweet thing. For a girl who had for years lived in avoidance of 80% of food available to Americans, it was extremely liberating to indulge in chocolate candy every day with zero guilt. I didn’t sense any adverse health effects; I didn’t even gain weight. I just enjoyed it. What I couldn’t see was that I was still living with disordered eating. I was getting my daily caloric intake of 1500 or so calories. Maybe even more. But only about five to seven hundred of those came from non-candy food. That’s a terrible idea. I was still skinny, I was even happy, but I shudder to think what my poor teeth and endocrinological system were going through.

Finally, in 2010, I knew something needed to change. It had become completely ordinary for me to down a medium size bag of peanut butter m&ms in two days or less, sometimes in one sitting. It wasn’t even like I carried candy around and grazed on it throughout the day. Nope. I ate rabbit food all day, came home from work, worked out, turned on the TV and ate pretzels and candy until going to bed. That spring I felt the conviction that this was wrong. It wasn’t good for me. In fact, it was disordered – I idolized this habit. I needed it. And to some extent, I hid it. My mom knew, as she was my roommate. But I would’ve been pretty embarassed if anyone else knew. Ash Wednesday arrived and I fully felt that for the first time in my life I should give something up for Lent. And so I did – I gave up candy. It made a difference. I’m glad I did it.

Since that Lenten season, I’ve found much more balance in my diet and in my life in general. I’ve definitely broken past the underweight BMI, due in large part to large muscular gains my fond-of-fitness self has experienced. Maybe it’s also due to better nutrition. I’ve been feeding my body things it can actually do something with, rather than empty carbs composed of iceberg lettuce, pretzels, and (obviously) candy. I’m also getting older, although I don’t allow that as a reason. There are ferociously fit people at all ages.

Although I’ve broken the binge-on-sweets-nightly habit, I still have a lot of trouble with self control when I’m around sugar. I imagine I’d panic if we didn’t have candy, chocolate chips, or the means to whip up some frosting in our house – but I don’t actually know because I’ve never allowed that situation to happen. (Until now!) Although I struggle with setting goals in a proper fashion, I do know that when I’m convicted about something I act. So, after a few months of being doubly convicted over lack of self control and over-indulgence in sugary goods, I decided to do something about it. I decided to give up sweets for the month of May.

And now, for the nitty gritty of this whole Sweet Maycation (now do you get the title? Clever.):

Why May? Because I decided to do this in April, but my one year wedding anniversary is in April, as was Easter. Those are sugar-riffic holidays.

What will it look like? No candy. No baked goods. No questionable treats like fruit snacks. There is one built-in “cheat day,” however. May 27th – the happy wedding day of one of my best friends! I’m going to partake on that day. Hopefully I won’t over partake. Another facet of this challenge will be to not use my dessert vacation as a free pass to over indulge in another area. While I’d love to think I’m capable of “clean eating” or “whole foods only,” I’m just not. I don’t feel convicted of that. I very much see the importance in health, but I also don’t want to go back a life wherein my way of eating dictates where and what I do. If friends invite me over to break bread, I’m going to eat it, even if it’s processed. The final piece to this puzzle is preparedness. I know that our bodies need sugar. I also know that (as referenced just now) things like sliced bread have sugar. So does nature’s candy – fruit! I’ve stocked up on that good stuff, so when the very likely sugar craving induced meltdown occurs, I can throw some strawberries and almond milk into the blender and call it good all around.

This post is long. LOOOONG. It’s a pretty typical example of my outward processing and over-sharing, but I’m keeping it here for enquiring minds. I’ll be posting checkpoint updates about what this journey feels like along the way, in case any of you relate to sweets dependency and are wondering what a “sweet vacation” may feel like.

Thanks for reading. And if you did – have you ever done anything like this? Got any tips if you have?