The Inside Scoop: Perspectives on Residential Life

Yesterday afternoon a friend of mine messaged me on Facebook to wish me well and to send her support. She had seen my eating disorder unfold during my freshman year and the pain that I began to feel daily. She saw me withdraw and she saw me cry. She told me that she was proud of me for sharing my experiences, as she witnessed firsthand the suffering that I endured.

My friend’s name is Stef. Stef runs a nonprofit organization called Project LETS, which works to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. She began this project after a friend of her’s committed suicide, but no one wanted to talk about the tragedy due to the negativity surrounding diseases of the mind. LETS is a support group for people struggling with mental illness, a safe place to share stories, and a resource with a crisis line. You can learn more about it at http://www.letserasethestigma.com/.

Stefanie reached out to me for a description of residential life, since there is somewhat of a black mark on these sorts of homes. This was something that I had not even considered. I definitely did not want to come to this place and I put it off for two years. Now that I am here, I am kicking myself for allowing myself to struggle for 24 whole months when in reality, res life is nothing like one might assume. I pictured a hospital with feeding tubes, white walls, and mean nurses. I thought this was going to be like a prison where I would be forced into a mind-numbing daily routine. I thought I was going to become more depressed.

Residential is NOTHING like that. Each morning, we sit together for breakfast and read our horoscopes to one another as encouragement for the day. Then we go to goal setting and share our highs and lows of the day before, how we overcame the lows, our goal for the day, and how we plan on making it a reality. We usually have some sort of prompt. Some are silly like “what kind of mystical creature do you feel like today and why?,” some are realistic like “what kind of coping strategies will you try today?,” and some are uplifting like today’s. Today’s prompt was “give some words of encouragement to the girl next to you.”

The rest of the day consists of meals, snacks, groups, free time, and visiting hours. We get to share our thoughts and feelings and give advice to others. Our groups range from psychotherapy and healthy anger to mindfulness and expressive therapy. We have an outing in Harvard Square every afternoon and we always wrap up the day with the group to share parts of our experience since morning check in. It is basically like a summer art camp with feelings.

I am not alone in thinking that this is a warm and supportive place. I thought a good way to illustrate what life inside of an eating disorder center is like was to offer some statements from the other girls that I am here with. I can only share my understanding of this process but my community has been extremely valuable for the past two weeks in sharing their own insights. Some girls have been here much longer than me and some have just arrived. I think a range of different observations would be the optimum way to illustrate treatment.

Here are some descriptions of residential life from members of the community:

Bethany:

Q: “You are known as the Mama Bear here because of your constant love and support to us babies. What is so special about the community and being in residential that makes it possible for you to give so much of yourself even through your own struggle and recovery process?”

A: “Even though each of our stories are different they all contain a common thread. We are in the unique position in residential to be able to communicate with and lean on other people for (judgment-free) support and understanding when dealing with our eating disorders. This disease, regardless of the “brand” you have been diagnosed with, has the ability to make you doubt your very worth as a human being. Most of us actually believe we don’t deserve to breathe the air that we do. That we are literally a waste of oxygen. Most of the girls here are in their late teens and early twenties. I am in my early thirties and I have two children at home. My daughter is 10 and my son is 1 ½. I can see what these girls are going through because I am in their shoes, and I can imagine what their parents are going through because I am a mother. If my daughter were suffering like we all are my heart would be breaking. If she had to go away somewhere and I didn’t have any control over this evil thing that was dictating her every thought and action I would feel so helpless. And on the flip-side, being someone who is ill myself….it hurts so badly to be hurting those that love you. It is terrible to know that this thing that you can’t “just stop doing” is causing all of these people so much pain. So, in the end my mom heart takes over and I try to keep everyone else on track with me. I try to lead by example. I try to stay motivated myself and hope that it rubs off on the other girls here. I need them to know that it is possible and that it will be worth it. We are all worth it.”

Kat:

Q: “What do you like about living in residential? What would you say to others to erase the stigma surrounding this place?”

A: “I never thought I could like residential, but the biggest comfort for me is that I feel safe here. Safe from myself, safe from dangerous behaviors, safe from the voices in my head. I have the RCs and the community to rely on when my ED voice spikes. Before I came to residential, I had no idea how to function on my own, how to feed myself, normally or how to pick myself up out of a bad relapse and finally start recovery. I’m still struggling here, but at least I can do it in a constructive way – when I fail, I have the resources to put things back together afterwards and learn from it.

I can’t deny there’s stigma surrounding residential. It isn’t the right place for everyone. The best way to fight that stigma in my own head, though, has been to look at the people sitting in the group room with me. They’re all perfectly normal, functional, wonderful, loving people. They just need more support to fight this disease. Much harder, though is reminding myself that I could be one of those normal, wonderful people too.”

Rachele:

Q: “What is the most challenging thing about treatment and how does being in residential help? What is the best part about living in a community for eating disorders?”

A: “The most challenging part of eating disorder treatment is learning how to be your true self. I was a disconnected shell of a person before entering treatment. I have learned what I actually care about and value in life. Being in the community with other girls who understand me has helped me be comfortable being my true self. It has given me a lot of practice to be the real me instead of the facade I used to put on. The community has been the best part of my treatment. They literally made me become myself.”

Jess:

Q: “You are stepping down to partial very soon but you are sad to go (And I’ll miss you). So what was so wonderful about being in residential? What will you miss the most and can you describe what it was like to be here?

A: “Hello to all of Allie’s readers! I’ve never posted on a blog in my entire life, but Allie’s blog has been so inspiring I just couldn’t say no when she asked me to lend my perspective. I’ve been in residential treatment for an eating disorder for 9 weeks now… much longer than the original 2 weeks I had planned on being here for. To my surprise though, I’m actually glad I ended up being here for longer than planned. The past 9 weeks have been some of the hardest, scariest, and exhausting weeks of my life… But they have also been some of the most fun, life changing, and meaningful weeks. The girls and the staff I’ve gotten to know here have truly changed my life. It’s like being in a world where everyone completely understands you and accepts you for who you are. You can express all of the irrational thoughts the eating disorder plants in your head, and everyone knows what you mean before you even finish your sentence. I spent years living as a shell of myself, not knowing who I was or what was going on around me. Since being a part of this community, I’ve begun to find myself again and actually be comfortable being myself. Residential is like a safe cocoon. Of course there are many times when it sucks and it’s extremely hard, but the girls here that I’ve formed bonds with have made it not only tolerable, but fun. I haven’t laughed (or cried) so hard with anyone in a very long time. I never thought I would be sad to leave residential, but here I am… crying over the fact that I’m leaving behind the amazing people that have become my family and the place that has become my home.”

I think these responses show that residential is not a terrible place to be. Each of the girls expressed gratitude and a sense of growing and changing into a better self. Residential is a useful tool. Being with a community of people who genuinely understand you is more powerful than one could ever imagine until experiencing it for themselves. I am excited to become myself again and I hope that I can do it soon. Allie is somewhere within me. Each day, all of this constant support from my case manager, nutritionist, psychiatrist, residential counselors, and diet technician help me to unfold the layers that I have covered myself in so that I can heal and live again.

You can learn more about eating disorder treatment and the mission of CEDC in Harvard Square at http://www.eatingdisordercenter.org/about-cedc/mission.html. If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, do not hesitate to ask for help. It is not as scary as it seems.