Suffering in Silence – Until…

To the Silent Suffering,

I woke up thinking about you today, wondering what it will take for you to Mend Your Life.  Mary Oliver eloquently describes it best in her poem, The Journey, "determined to save the only life you could save.”  The statistics are grim:  Eating disorders having the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses, yet we suffer in silence. Alone.  Until…
Everyone I know that’s in recovery has moments where they share their ‘Until Story.’ For some they were suffering in silence, until their parents caught them purging.  Parents then dragged them, kicking and screaming to their primary care doctor where they said, “We don’t know what to do for our child.  Help us!”  For others, maybe their college roommate said, “I’m worried about you.  I’ve noticed that…”  (And if it’s a really good friend, when you dismiss and deny their concern, hopefully they will pick up the phone and call your parents.  This might wreck your friendship in the moment, but it means they love you, and are literally trying to save your life.  You will express your deep gratitude later.)

I can tell you what untils DO NOT look like – Shame and Blame.  This tactic doesn’t work.  I will never forget walking into my grandmother’s home after driving back from college, excited to see my family, and my mom saying (in the middle of the living room, no less), in a very disgusted voice, “My God, what have you done to yourself?  You look like a greyhound!”  At the time I didn’t know what a greyhound was, but I knew it wasn’t good. 

Concern in my family is routinely conveyed in worry or anger.  Neither seems very helpful and that comment, wrapped me around my eating disorder even tighter.  Honestly, I don’t blame my mom for what she said.  I know it truly came from the terror and shock of seeing me so sick and having zero clue of what an eating disorder was or what to do.  But that is where the conversation began and ended.  Period.  I wasn’t approached with love that day, even though I am very loved by her.  I was swimming in deep waters of denial so it might not have mattered.

My ‘until’ came in fits and spurts.  I mostly would suffer in silence until I got sick and tired of being sick and tired.  My first attempt to get help was when I impulsively showed up to the campus health clinic for a walk-in appointment.  I hadn’t left my apartment in almost a week - too weak, depressed and consumed by ED to go to class or see friends; imprisoned by my eating disorder.  I was 1,000% terrified, but knew I was sinking deeper and deeper into my eating disorder and when it started affecting me academically, I knew I was in trouble. 

The female doctor I met with, probably my mom’s age, listened and took notes.  I told her, muffled and inaudibly, that I thought I had an eating disorder. Never having uttered those words out loud, I felt extremely ashamed and embarrassed.   She asked questions about my behaviors and with one of my responses she looked at me and said (very non-doctorly), “Oh my dear, you need help.”  Her words were loving and kind.  Her concern validated how sick I was and my need for help.  I couldn’t climb out of this on my own.

I felt some hope after that appointment.  She set me up with a therapist and psychiatrist in the mental health center on campus.  I walked into the therapist’s office, again terrified, but open and was met with a woman, also around my mom’s age, who I later referred to as Dr. Icicle.  Expecting the warmth and empathy that I received from the primary care physician, I was shocked to find the opposite.  The chill in the room was immediately evident.  She sat behind her desk and very formally took notes.  When she looked at me, I remember feeling so judged by her icy eyes.  Her words were sharp and cutting.  I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.  I rushed back into the arms of my ever-loyal eating disorder.

I bravely called and asked the front desk if I could see another therapist.  They set me up with a doctoral intern who I saw a couple of times.  I have always been extremely intuitive about people and situations.  I knew this wasn’t where I needed to be, so I stopped going.  This guy, although very smart and warm-hearted didn’t have a clue what he was doing in the eating disorder realm.  I could sense it. 

It doesn’t serve us well to get caught up in what if scenarios, however, I can’t help but wonder if I might have been spared a few years of living with an eating disorder if even ONE of those three providers would have referred me to an eating disorders specialist.  Years later, by the way, I was invited to return to that university medical practice and offer a talk to a room full of white coats (yikes, scary!) where I emphasized the need to refer to eating disorders specialists like myself – early and always, no exceptions.

I felt a little like Goldilocks at that time – this was too hot and that was too cold.  It wasn’t until many, many years later that I sat down in a therapist’s office for the first time and knew, deep in my heart, that I had found my therapy home.  When you’ve found this, after much searching and longing for such a sacred place, you want to bury your head in your hands and weep.  This woman took me back to the broken eight year old girl who had her whole life torn apart and held her; she helped put her Humpty Dumpty self back together with love, compassion and a deep interior wisdom of exactly what she needed.  She is my earthly angel.  I have grieved in the four walls of her office in ways I never knew I needed.  She contained me as I became whole again. 

When I decided to become a therapist specialized in this work, I promised myself that I would always remember how scary it is to take that first step, and that being greeted with sincerity and concern is enough.  What I wish I could have told my younger self was to keep at it, to keep trying to find that ‘just right,’ spot.  (Notice I didn’t say, perfect, because that does not exist).  Maybe I was only one more therapist away, but I got scared.  Until…

What I want you to know, if you’ve had false starts and stops in this journey, is that it’s just part of the process.  And one day, that next start will be the one that sticks.  Please hear me when I say that this will require you to let go of silently suffering – you will need to let people in.  Not all at once, but little by little.  I make a promise to my client’s that I will not strip them of the eating disorder that has served them.  I know it’s strange to think of the value of an eating disorder, but it’s adaptive, it serves a purpose, until…
Love + Light