Surviving On An Eating Disorders Unit

So where did I leave you after my last post? It was quite some time ago now that I concluded my hospital visits (touch wood) and was admitted to an Eating Disorders Unit.

I received a call telling me I had been given a place on the unit the same afternoon I sat at the side of my boyfriend’s hospital bed.

I wasn’t really able to take in the news properly that day, being the combination of frightened and angry that I was at the time. But soon I felt somewhat elated, having fought for so long for this. It took a team of GP’s, consultants and psychiatrists to get me that far, and finally I felt like I was being listened to and taken seriously. I have been anorexic- on and off- since I was a child, but I had never received proper treatment for it, nor seen a specialist. It is pretty diabolical, when I think of it like that; I had to almost die in order to get anyone to really listen to me. I had been and asked for help time and time again and sometimes literally sent away with nothing.

I went into the unit on a Thursday. I was told to arrive by 10am but we didn’t have access to a car. First of all we got on the slow train instead of the fast one, which took forever, and then it didn’t even stop at our station so we had to get a second train. We then had to walk with a lot of stuff,, quite some way, and bearing in mind how unwell I was at the time, a walk that would have taken any normal person ten minutes ended up taking us almost two hours, and- of course- we got lost trying to find the place, repeatedly. In the end they had to send a nurse on her bike to find us and take us there (‘us’ being myself and Jules).

I was so nervous on arrival; I had been since I was told I would be going in there. I had been debating the night before how much stuff to take, as a friend had told me she was once in a similar place for just a couple of days. I really wanted to avoid turning up with a lot of things and looking stupid, like I wanted to move in or something. In the end I still took a large suitcase but filled it only with jumpers. Being underweight  and not in good physical shape at all, I was freezing cold almost all of the time, so it made sense to take only thick clothing.

I was surprised when we finally arrived that we ended up sitting in the foyer for several hours.

Eventually, late in the afternoon Jules was asked to leave and I started off having some routine blood tests (which they do every single day I might add), followed by my initial assessment.

I was pretty annoyed and let down by the nature of the assessment. The psychiatrist used an A5 piece of paper to write down just a few things, using the excuse that she was then in a rush because I had turned up late. I wanted to tell her everything- I felt like this was finally my chance to go back to Day 1 and figure out what on earth triggered the anorexia in the first place. But no, she was rushing away and missing many of the things I was attempting to tell her, missing out huge chunks of my life and what I consider to be important and relevant events.

She wrote up my medication chart, too. By this point I had begun to realise it was going to be a lot more than a couple of days for me, but I was glad of this at that time. I thought they were going to fix me, for good and I felt willing to put in all the effort that might require.

I could not believe how many different drugs she was writing up for me. I hate my current combination of heavy chemicals enough. She was putting down my regular medication but adding things like peppermint oil capsules, anti-sickness tablets, Gaviscon, you name it- it went on and on. That wasn’t what I wanted; not yet more drugs in my poor body which struggled to cope as it was with all of that crap and no food or liquid.

Finally I was shown to my room. It was a lovely room- huge- I was lucky but then I was barely allowed to spend any time there. I guessed that they would search my things, but I was not overly impressed when they went through the entire contents of every bag and took several things away. One of the worst things they do there is confiscate your electrical items. You do eventually get them back (after whatever it is they feel they need to do with them), but sometimes you go days without them, meaning for people like me you end up having no battery. I had managed to leave my laptop cable behind anyway, which I’m completely sure added to my boredom and claustrophobia.

Straight after that I was told to go for dinner. I didn’t meet the other patients then, I was told I would have mine in another room with a member of staff. I have to say that I was surprised by what and how they chose to feed me. I tried to make a point one time about how anorexics (or at least this one) only ever eat for the sake of the taste and enjoying the food while it lasts. Otherwise why bother? No one wants the calories from food or to face the consequences post-eating. Rarely was anything put in front of me that was appetizing. The portions were smaller than that you’d give to a baby. This was in order to avoid health risks of course.

That evening I was told I would not be allowed in my room until 7pm, I had no choice other than to sit in the lounge area in virtual silence with the other girls, who were not at all friendly.  I’d been under the impression that I could use my phone at my own disposal and smoke whenever I wanted to. That was a lie.

We were locked in and had to give up our lighters to be put in the safe (along with things like razors and all of our medication, for obvious reasons). If I wanted to go for a cigarette- for the majority of the time, depending who was on shift- I not only had to get permission but also I had to be escorted by a member of staff. I couldn’t ever have more than one, even though I was forced to cut down from over twenty a day to around five, as they often would not let me go out.

I discovered on my first night that- after every meal and snack, making it six times a day- I could not use my phone, I could not go and smoke and I was not even permitted to use the toilet, for thirty minutes. I get it, ok, they want you to sit there with the voice in your head and just deal with it, that was the idea, that’s what they figured would work. But not being allowed to pee? Seriously? I am pretty sure that is taking away one of my top human rights. They called this ‘rest time.’

As if it’s not bad enough going from eating once every fortnight to six sodding times a day, without being punished further by sitting in silence for an entire half an hour, thinking about what you’ve just done; the crime you have committed against anorexia.

By the time bedtime arrived I already detested it there.

My body dysmorphia spoke volumes when it told me every other girl there was a twentieth of my size. They may have been, but you learn not always to trust the nasty, irrational voices in your head that want nothing less than to destroy you and kill you.

That night, and every night I spent in that hell-hole, I was given no choice but to take my medication at a set time- after the 9.15pm snack. That is fair enough for the other residents, who happened not to be on sedating drugs, but for me that marked a very early bedtime. I would rush out for my final cigarette of the day, and maybe have a few minutes to talk to someone on the phone before I passed out.

In the middle of the night- and which would have been the case for weeks if I had stayed as long as I was told I should- at 2am someone would come into my room and prick my finger with a needle. Can you imagine what that’s like when you’re fast asleep? She didn’t turn on the light, in hope that she wouldn’t wake me up (as if!) and so I referred to that nurse as a creepy Father Christmas. They did this due to the possibility that your blood sugar would plummet dangerously at this time, due to our strict feeding times each day.

And then came the morning. I would set my alarm for 7am, in hope of grabbing a shower in the shared bathroom, but I was far too tired. Alas, the 7.30am call would come and I would be forced from my bed to have breakfast with everyone at 8am.

What made this so much worse for a person like me, who simply does not do mornings before 10am on quetiapine, was that caffeine in there was completely banned. I mean even the tea was decaffeinated. Not a drop of energy in sight and for me that was total hell. I am a big coffee drinker, I have to be, everything about my life and personality is exhausting. With this in mind, all of my addictions were stolen from me at once: Starvation, nicotine and caffeine. I could not help but pity my inner addict, so long as I am clean and sober I will always have to indulge in some type of replacement-addiction or I think my mind will implode.

And so I had my first experience of sharing a table with multiple, Grade A, acute anorexics. This is not an experience I ever want to repeat. I do not know what these girls’ eating habits were before they came in, everyone is different: Some may consume 300 calories a day in rice cakes whereas I chose not to eat at all, bar a ‘normal’ sized meal every now and again. I just lived on black coffee and cigarettes, for weeks at a time. I thought I was a slow eater until I met them. Every time we had food we were given a time limit of thirty minutes for a meal, fifteen minutes for dessert and fifteen minutes for a snack. The consequence of not finishing every morsel or drop in that time was a highly calorific drink, and no one wanted that. It still baffles me now that we were punished like that; treated like naughty school children, or treated like we were in prison even though we were all informal patients (as in we were technically free to do as we pleased). But they pushed these rules onto us and treated us with such an attitude that it felt like we had no choice about any of it. And I think that is wrong.

Anyhow; despite the strict time limit, and despite what my definition of ‘slow eating’ used to be, I had to put up with watching every patient bar one push their food around their plates, have staring competitions with their food and play with it, for almost the entirety of the allocated time- right up until the last minute when they would eat all of it. This quickly led to me mirroring their bad habits as I did not want to look greedy and fat, eating at a faster speed than everyone else. Shockingly, I was the only one ever to reject anything. This was one afternoon, during snack time when I was not only sick to death of mugs of cold soya milk and dry biscuits, but also feeling incredibly pissed off with the entire situation. I can remember our time being up and so I asked a member of staff to go out and smoke (I felt so upset I just wanted to sit outside alone and cry while I induced the much needed nicotine). But, of course, she said no as it was ‘rest time’ and directed me to the lounge. But I couldn’t hold the tears back any longer and ended up crying so hard I couldn’t breathe and had a partial panic attack.

It was like that every second of every hour of every day from practically the moment I arrived, I cried constantly. I ended up feeling suicidal. I tried to sit my raw emotions out for as long as I could, trying to convince myself that it was all just because I was facing my demons head-on and that it was the illness trying to stop me getting better. I contemplated rebelling and walking to the nearest coffee shop, if I could even get out without being caught. I was in there for just a few days, but on day two I was already planning on breaking the rules and leaving the site.

I really thought that our time in there, between the six meal times, would be filled with different types of therapy, counselling and activity groups. How wrong could I be? There was nothing to do all day, we were just instructed to sit in the lounge and read or watch the television. Almost my whole purpose of going in there was to talk about my issues and get to the root cause. Had I stayed I think I saw on the wall chart that there was maybe one activity a week where you got together as a group and spoke about and shared your problems, but that was it. It is my personal opinion that you can’t just feed patients in hope this will get them better: This only helps with the physical side, whereas the psychological side is far more important, prominent and damaging.

On day three the thought of just leaving altogether played on my mind continuously. Half of my brain instinctively knew this was the wrong place for me, but the other half wanted me to stick out the treatment and see if it helped. I had discovered prior to these thoughts that the initial ‘refeeding program’ alone lasted for sixteen days, let alone the time spent after that getting back into a normal eating pattern. They said I should have been in there for months.

It was on day four that I ran away, as I describe it to people. My friend came from Canterbury to visit me, by car, and it was just too tempting an opportunity to miss, to go back with her. I had not made a solid decision yet when she arrived at 2pm that afternoon, and so we created a memory I will always laugh about: She managed to sneak in some coffee. While she waited in the foyer with a pot of it in her handbag,  I managed to get into the dining area and take some mugs of plain boiling water, and so we secretly added the coffee to it, and hell, coffee never tasted so good!

And so, as my friend had told me she needed to leave by 4pm, right at the last minute I said ‘right, fuck it, I’m out of here.’ I spoke with a member of staff who tried to convince to stay and that I would be leaving ‘against medical advice’ and so I had to sign something, but I just saw no point in torturing myself any further by being there.

As we drove away I had this feeling of liberation and giddiness that I had escaped. I wasn’t there long, but it felt like a life-sentence.

When I left I made a vow to myself that- if I were to get as ill as that again- I will readmit myself and stick it out ‘til the end. That is another incentive to get better if it means never going back to hell! I do sometimes think to myself that I may have made a mistake, giving up that rare opportunity. One of the nurses in there told me that some people wait up to a year for a bed there, whereas my placement happened within one week of my first assessment, virtually immediately. He had told me this because I was saying that I was not ‘as bad’ as the other girls. I feel like I fought so hard to get myself that place, but it was just nothing at all like I was expecting.

I had come to the stark realisation some time ago that living where I was then was a part of the reason I went to such extremes with my starvation. The atmosphere there was completely toxic and Jules and I were not getting along, in fact he was not treating me well at all. I found that the more he emotionally attacked and criticized me, the more I came to believe that I was this terrible person who needed punishing and did not deserve to be happy. All of the arguments and negativity hugely fed into my disorder. Therefore, I decided I would stay there just the one night and then go to my parents’ until I could find somewhere else to live.

I had the feeling things would not be great in the house and between Jules and I on my return but I was genuinely shocked at quite how bad things were the next day.

I had not long been awake, made a coffee and sat up in bed with it when Jules’ father burst into the room exclaiming that he had crapped himself. His trousers were round his ankles and he wouldn’t go away when I told him to fuck off, he just kept saying he had no pants and that Jules must give him some. Now my reaction may sound harsh to you but remember that you’ve never met this man and you don’t know how insufferable he is.

So that was just the start of my day.

Even to this day I am unsure of what happened or went wrong, or what, if anything, I did to turn Jules into a total monster that same morning. At one moment everything was normal and calm and I was lying down with my laptop, and then the next Jules completely lost it. He was shouting and screaming at me, kicking things around the bedroom and then did this clean sweep of the desk (which had a hell of a lot of things on it), like they do for sex scenes in films. The dog was petrified and leapt onto my lap and started shaking violently and panting. It was so bad that I went into shock along with her: I stopped retaliating and went totally silent and wrapped my arms and legs around Subi (Jules’ dog) and just stayed like that for over an hour, before leaving the house for the rest of the day.

I had a very surprising moment that afternoon. What could have happened was that I scrapped my progress and meal plan and punished myself by starving for the day and probably many more days after that, in keeping with my record. What happened instead was that I said ‘screw you!’ to my illness and to Jules and I stuck with my meal plan and ate my lunch. After I’d eaten I walked down the high street with my music on. I had this spring in my step and smile on my face I had not experienced in many, many months; simply because I made that snap decision to rebel against the disease and- for once- take care of ‘me.’

I did as planned the following day and I have been here, at my parents’ house, for several weeks now. I completely lost control of my structured meals pretty quickly, without the help of a professional. One day I started to think I had the flu- I felt so unwell I had to get back into bed during the day. I then feared I’d given myself refeeding syndrome instead but nothing ever really came of it and I was fine within 24 hours. The heart breaking fact was that I started overeating. Not binging but certainly eating more than my body needed. This was a clear case of my body still being totally confused and in starvation mode still for a while, thinking every time I ate it would be the last time and it just wanted to stock up on as many nutrients as possible.

My eating pattern has been a real mess since then. I’m still having plans to starve myself severely and sometimes acting on it. I was on hypnotics (sleeping tablets) for a little while lately which often made me eat junk during the night without me even remembering doing so the following day. I have gained weight but no doubt I will lose it again, one way or another.

A post will follow which will go into more detail about how things have been since I got here.


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