We Slept in the Psych Ward

I thought that after being hit by a car I had survived the worst of it.

I was wrong.

I resisted the notion of in-patient treatment from the beginning, but when I attempted to begin eating normally, I became a miserable lump of lethargy overnight.   Part of this was physical, as I explained in an earlier post.  But perhaps more importantly, I was leaving behind a life I had loved and worked hard to build.  I had fallen in love, swam in the Mediterranean, climbed mountains, and seen amazing art.  I was going home with nothing to look forward to but weight gain.

When I arrived in the States, my family greeted me with a mixture of relief and disgust.  Every encounter with food set me off.  They had their own anger and grief to work through.  Friends brought meals to the house, like they do when someone dies.  They started eating some things secretly to avoid upsetting me.  My mother felt she couldn’t care for me and also care for my younger siblings adequately, and there was talk of sending them to stay with relatives so she could focus on me.  But I knew I was the one that didn’t belong.   So I gave in and was admitted to an in-patient eating disorder unit.

At this point something interesting happened.  All my life I had felt that something was wrong with me, but I had no name for it.  Now I had a diagnosis.  A word that explained everything that was wrong with me:

Anorexia.

This was amazing because I had always been exceptional.  But I had all the classic traits associated with the disease.  I was a normal anorectic.  And that leads me to the fact that when someone is diagnosed with influenza, heart disease or cancer, they are said to have that disease.  When someone is diagnosed with anorexia, they are said to be anorectic.  Because that identity explained so much about me, it would have been very tempting to embrace it.

A lot of people assume that young women become anorectic because they want to look like supermodels.  In my experience this is not the case.  Everyone there had their own reasons that bore little resemblance to the stereotypes. I was on a quest for my self in it’s purest, most basic form.  I thought of it in terms of archeology.  I was excavating my own skeleton one day at a time.

Just as criminals go to prison and become better criminals, anorectics and bulimics went to the hospital and became better anorectics and bulimics.   As you heard other people’s stories, you inevitably learned new ways to destroy your body.  I met many career patients during my time in the hospital.  They would gain just enough weight to teeter on the edge of functional, get discharged, and come back months or years later as walking corpses.  It was a preview of a possible future.  I wanted to leave and never come back.   I decided that anorectic was not who I wanted to be.

In the hospital everything was monitored.  Not just your weight, but your vital signs, what, when, and how much you ate, your bathroom and exercise habits.  Aside from a pretty rigorous eating schedule, we had various group and individual therapy sessions throughout the day.  I sat in my room and cut apart magazines to make collages.  In spite of the regimented schedule, and the fact that it was always on lock-down, the unit felt more like a dormitory atmosphere.  But we slept in the psych ward.

We could wear our own clothes during the day, but every night, a staff person would walk us down the hall to the psychiatric ward in our hospital pajamas.  The staff was good natured and respectful, but I saw and heard things that no one should see and hear.   Most of us have ideas about those people that end up in a psychiatric hospital.  I realized that I was those people. 

This was an opportunity to get over myself.  For example: a friend of my mom’s was trying to explain to her daughter why she was praying for me.  She told her little girl that I was in the hospital because I didn’t know how to eat.  This little girl thought I was really stupid, because everybody knows how to eat, right?  It was really humiliating.  The good news is humiliation can be transformed into humility.

A lot happened that I’m not proud of.  While I was in the hospital, I hid food that I was afraid to eat. When it was found later, the whole unit was in an uproar, trying to discover the culprit.  But I never owned up to it.   During the subsequent months and years of healing,  my sense of worthlessness was so acute at times that I survived for several months largely on what I could scavenge, often out of the garbage.  I didn’t feel I deserved any other food.  I would get so hungry that I even stole food from housemates a few times, but only if I was convinced it was going bad.

I did do one thing right when I was in the hospital and afterward.  After years of calling myself a Christian, I realized that I was really and truly incapable of living a life that would impress God or earn his love.  All my perfectionism, all my effort, and all my determination had yielded pitiful fruit.  I told God he could have my life if he wanted it, and that while he was at it, he would have to teach me how to eat (more on that later).  So why am I telling you all this?  I’m not trying to impress you with my depravity.  I want to demonstrate that the “happy ending” I live every day is miraculous and undeserved.  Even though I’m not proud of what I did, I will boast in what He has done.  In case anything I ever do ever amounts to anything, I want to go on record: I am not naturally a good person, a wise person, or a trustworthy person.  If any Christian in your life has deceived you, don’t be fooled.  They aren’t either.

I hope you don’t need to be hit by a car to be struck by how precious life is, or by your need for redemption.  But if you do, there is a Fiat somewhere with your name on it.

one of several xrays of my skull taken after the car accident

A friend drew this portrait of me a few days before I left Italy

one of the collages I did with all of my magazine clippings

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6 comments

  1. Sandra Faye Hohnstadt

    Thank you, Emily. Your posts have been very candid and heart wrenching. Thanks for opening my eyes I bit so I can see better. Keep following God’s path. He is clearly using you for His glory. God bless you real good (as my Grandma would always say!)

    • towardabundantlife

      Thanks for your encouraging feedback, Sandra. Writing a blog is like speaking to an invisible crowd, so it’s good to know that real people are out there listening. I look forward to sharing more about how God has “blessed me real good”.

  2. Thankful for God's Grace

    Thank You for sharing your testimony! It takes courage and a willing heart to be used by GOD to share the good news that He is healing you and that He can do that same for others. Each of us has issues in our past that God has used to point us to our need of His transforming love and mercy. Each day He gives us is an opportunity to be thankful that He has redeemed us and that He is making us into His “precious Bride.” That song is my favorite, by the way!! May God continue to use you and bless you as you give Him all the glory.

  3. Christy Daigle

    Oh, Em, I love reading more of the story God has written into your life. I am grateful to know you, grateful to see God’s handprint on your life. Keep writing, please!

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