My name is Bridgette, and I was a patient here in both the adolescent and the adult programs, beginning when I was fifteen years old. I worked with Dr. Stone on an outpatient basis even when I wasn’t in treatment here, so to say I’m familiar with this building, and the protocols and procedures the St Vincent’s program entails would be an understatement. I don’t want to go through the list of the places of and number of times I’ve been in treatment, because I know that can sometimes bring up a competitive mentality between disorders, which I don’t think is healthy at all. What I will tell you, is that for seven years of my life, I was completely entrenched in my eating disorder, and my family and I tried everything we knew to try, in order to “fix me.” Anorexia, in conjunction with exercise addiction, consumed my life, and I can get pretty sad thinking about the number of years I missed out on because of where I was mentally, and the place that I took my body to, physically. From the end of my freshman year of high school to my senior year of college, I struggled. Some periods were better than others, allowing me to see providers on an outpatient basis, and during some of those periods I experienced glimpses of freedom, but after being in the place I’ve been in for the last year and a half, I would say that I didn’t ever fully enter recovery until October of 2017.
I thought that that stage, which I now hear referred to as “quasi-recovery” was as good as it was going to get. And to be honest, I’d come to terms with accepting that. After seven years of being in and out of the hospital or various forms of treatment, this place seemed pretty dang good. I went to more appointments than the average person, but I was able to live a mostly normal life. I’d become pretty accustomed to tracking my meals (and let’s be honest — I didn’t really want to give up the security that provided me with, anyway), and everyone in my life knew about my disorder, so I wasn’t too frequently pushed to do things that I wasn’t comfortable with. In addition, if I was, I had an “out” when things got to be too much. I just said that it was too hard for me, and I got out of it. I learned pretty quickly that people were scared of triggering me, so they just wouldn’t ask me to do things that might be hard. Meeting up with friends was limited to “grabbing coffee” instead of meals, and conversation was pretty strictly directed away from things that could make me uncomfortable. Thinking back on this time, I am so fascinated by the way things have changed. That person seems like a shell of myself compared to now.
A few months into my senior year of college, I started to realize that things were different. I can actually identify the moment — I had just had wrist surgery two days prior, I was sitting on my couch in significant pain, I hadn’t moved since I’d come home from the operation, and my boyfriend (at the time) brought over a box of donuts. Without thinking about it, I ate two of them. And when my roommates came home later than evening, they brought me dinner. I ate that, too. I hadn’t worked out that day, or the day before. In fact, I hadn’t even gotten off the couch. Yet somehow, I wasn’t freaking out. I didn’t even have a note open on my phone tracking my consumption for the day, something I’d done for years. In that moment, I realized that maybe there was a place I could progress to, a place of really, truly, fully being in recovery. Things only went upward from there.
So naturally, I bet you’re all wondering. What changed? Though none of it was done intentionally, over the last week I thought a lot about what transpired over the past year and a half to get me to the place that I am today.
I discharged from St. Vincent’s adult program in April of what would have been my sophomore year of college. For the next eight months, I re-enrolled at OSU and commuted from Portland to Corvallis on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It was a lot of driving. But I was so happy just to be back, to be living a semi-normal life, that I was okay with it. In the middle of fall term, the following year, I moved into a house with a couple of my best friends, who knew almost everything about my eating disorder. My treatment team had come to an agreement that I could move to Corvallis, IF and only if, I came home to Portland Friday afternoon through Sunday evenings. The idea was that this would give me a greater deal of accountability, I’d have seven meals with my mom — again, the whole “accountability” thing, and allow me to see my therapist, who was in Portland, on Saturdays. This idea was great, and I do think it was necessary at the time. But I certainly missed out on a lot of those “college experiences” by being gone from campus every single weekend.
Fast forward to the end of that year. I certainly don’t think I’d regressed at all, but I don’t think I’d progressed, either. I’d simply gotten comfortable. My life no longer revolved around meal plans and scheduled therapy sessions, weigh-ins, and planned exercise, but it definitely caused significant anxiety when they didn’t happen, and I didn’t really have a desire to change that. A lot of you have probably heard that once you have an eating disorder, you’ll always have an eating disorder, to some extent. Even if you learn not to act on the thoughts, you’ll still have them. I had totally bought into that; I thought this was as good as it was going to get. I think a better way of putting it is that I’d simply become complacent about my recovery. I didn’t have a mom, or a dietitian, or a psychiatrist, or a therapist nipping at my heels anymore, threatening to put me back in treatment, so I thought that the way I was living was fine, even though I was still living in a place of restrictions.
After that year, all of the gals I’d lived with graduated. A girl I was working with at the time, who was on the OSU volleyball team, mentioned one day that some of her teammates were trying to fill a spot in their house for the following year. Not even thinking, I told her that my roommates were graduating and I was trying to figure out who I’d be living with. She sent one of the girls my phone number, and before you know it, I had an appointment to meet up with them at Dutch Bros and see if it’d be a good fit.
Well, Dutch Bros turned into a house tour, and a house tour turned into dinner, and soon enough, I was full-on friends with these girls and had committed to living with them the following year. These girls who knew nothing about my background or my history, and who I actually really liked and wanted to be friends with. I don’t want to say that telling someone you’ve been struggling with an eating disorder for seven years is a turn-off, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a turn-on…. So I decided that for the time being, I would just let it go. Making the decision to move into that house with those girls ended up being one of the most impactful decisions I would make in my recovery.
Throughout my time living in that house, I was able to experience normalcy — something that I hadn’t in a very, very long time, if ever. Certainly for the first time in college. And this was my senior year! I experienced my roommates breaking up with their boyfriends and us all staying up and eating popcorn and ice cream while watching chick flicks until we were laughing so hard we were crying, four of my roommates going on the whole 30 diet, going to Oregon State football games together and getting drinks at a bar afterward, weekend getaways full of wine and restaurant adventures…the list goes on, and on, and on. These experiences that were SO far out of my comfort zone at the time I moved into the house soon became fun bonding times that I eventually found myself looking forward to. I know for certain that that wouldn’t have been the case had I not begun forcing myself into them at the very beginning (because remember, they didn’t know about my eating disorder), because for the seven years prior, I had turned almost every single opportunity like that down. I never gave myself the chance to even get comfortable.
Come the end of October, a boy asked me out on a date. Ironically enough, he’s a boy I met my freshman year at OSU, right before I left for residential. According to his later statements, he’d been interested in me back then, but I kept “disappearing” — aka, going into treatment — so he could never ask me out. Well, now I was fully back at school, and the opportunity was prime. He asked me out, and we went out, to coffee. Here’s where things changed, though — I normally ended my dates there. Because where does a date progress to after coffee? Dinner. And dinner was a pretty hard no go for me, at least for old me. Unfortunately, however, I really liked this boy. And I really did want to go out with him again, so I said yes to dinner. And to the pumpkin patch. And to coming over to make dinner. And then for drinks. And so on and so forth until before I knew it, I had a boyfriend. All of the rules I’d had about food, drinks, structure, etc. slowly began to go out the window. I just wanted to spend time with this boy.
Another major change in my life senior year was taking a new job. I became the manager of OSU’s Women’s Gymnastics team. I remember when I was offered this job, at the beginning of the summer that year prior, I proposed it to both my mom and my therapist. And they both laughed. Not only was this job going to require intense hours (50 hours/week most weeks, plus being a full time student), create incredible instability in my schedule and require me to go on travel trips every other weekend during the four month season, but gymnastics is known for being a sport ridden with eating disorders, and we knew nothing about the culture of this team. Who knew what kind of atmosphere I’d be exposing myself to, day in and day out, for the next year?
I’m not advocating for going against your treatment team at all — I know for certain I would not have made it to this place were it not for their support. I am, however, advocating for listening to your gut and making your own decisions. I thought about it, hard, and I knew what kind of an opportunity this was going to be for me, a once in a lifetime kind of one. When else would I have the chance to be a part of a college team, travel with them to their away meets, and experience all that there is to experience within a Division I NCAA team? It was still a very scary decision, because I knew good and well the kind of difficulty it could propose for me. But I also knew I wanted to do it. So, I called up the coach and told him I wanted the job. The next twelve months entailed long hours with practices that went late, laughs and tears over good and bad meets, delayed flights that resulted in sleeping in the airport, eating airport food because that’s all we had available, and a crazy ton of other things I couldn’t have predicted. There was an incredible lack of stability or certainty to my schedule, and for someone who had relied on structure for so long, this experience challenged me in so many ways. It was an amazing year that I will never forget.
All three of those decisions: moving into a house with six girls that I didn’t know at all, allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to enter into a serious relationship, and being the gymnastics manager, are largely what I credit to kicking myself out of my comfort zone. I know that everyone always wants to be so careful around eating disorders, for fear of hitting “triggers”, or pushing someone too far the wrong way that they relapse, or of creating so much anxiety that one could enter a panic attack — but after seven years of being treated “carefully,” I think that what I finally needed was to literally be pushed out of my comfort zone. Like ALL THE WAY OUT.
My life now looks a lot different than it did. That boy who brought me the donuts after surgery? We got married a little over a month ago. The girl who was terrified to eat anything not on her meal plan? She can’t remember the last time she tracked her intake, loves trying new recipes and new restaurants, and doesn’t really have many “fear foods.” Exercise is something that I love to do, but in a variety of different forms — many of them not including cardio. I don’t restrict my food on days when I don’t do it, nor do I intentionally eat more on days when I do. I eat when I’m hungry, or when I otherwise want to — like in appropriate social situations, and I don’t get anxiety when it’s not what I had planned for that day.
It’s fun being in a place where I’m able to play around with my diet, and where I’m able to be okay if my weight fluctuates a few pounds. I trust my body, and I think it’s finally back to trusting me. I want to stress that this wouldn’t have been an appropriate way for me to go about weight restoration, or even maintenance, during the earlier stages of recovery, or had I not been still being monitored by my outpatient dietitian, who took my weight regularly. But because of all the hard work that I did, I got myself to the place I’m in now — where I really and truly, feel like I’m experiencing the full definition of freedom.
Overall though, I think the most drastic difference between my life during those seven years, and my life now, is just how little I think about things e.d.-related. I kept a blog that served as a journal during the time I was going through treatment, which is a topic for a different conversation, but one of the major upsides is that I can look back at it and see how far I’ve come. I don’t think I’d ever gone back and re-read old entries until this past week, and wow — I actually did not recognize the girl writing those words. I can vividly remember the moments I was documenting: the painful family therapy sessions, the deeply depressed thoughts I was having, the genuine fear over the things I was being asked to do — but it doesn’t feel like it’s me who experienced them; rather that it’s me watching someone else’s life.
Okay…so for all of that, I mostly talked about the big differences between me getting to a place of not recovered to semi-recovered, and then from semi-recovered to actually recovered, because that’s been the most drastic shift that I personally have realized within myself (and because it’s more recent, so it’s easier for me to remember!). There are a couple more things I want to share though, that got me through the entire treatment process, that I couldn’t have done without.
The first one is my faith. You may or may not believe in Jesus if you’re sitting here today, but I do, and I can’t imagine having gone through this experience without him. While I will take some of the credit for doing hard things, I know that the fact I’m here right now, speaking to all of you, is a testament to his goodness and proof that he is still performing miracles today.
The second one is my family. My mom and younger brother were absolutely pivotal in my recovery, from being present at family therapy, meals, and meal planning sessions, to continually being by my side (even when I really didn’t want them to be!), to pretty much anything else you can imagine. I know that not everyone is as blessed as I was to have such supportive family, but I know that a lot of people do, and take them for granted while they’re going through treatment, like I did. So if you are fortunate enough to have at least one person, who is sticking by you through all this — keep them close. Be vulnerable with them, let them into the hard stuff, and appreciate them. No one can fight this battle alone.
The last one has to be trusting your providers. They know this field, and they know it well. They’ve worked with other people struggling with the same things you are too, and though I know it doesn’t always feel like it (as I was reminded when I was reading through old journal entries in my blog, such as days when I had to consume multiple gatorades, or Donna upped my exchanges), they undoubtedly are rooting for you and only want what’s best. I developed a nickname pretty early on during my time in the adolescent program by Dr. Stone, he called me, “Rockstar.” I wasn’t a rockstar because of anything special I did, but because I ate 100 percent. Every time. It wasn’t any easier for me than it was for the other patients, and I ate through tears during some of those meals and snacks, but it was a commitment that I had made, and that I intended to follow through on.
You guys, what you are doing is hard work. Like hard, hard work. When I was reading through one of my old blog entries this past week, I was reminded of just how brutally challenging treatment was. Looking back now though, I am so incredibly grateful for all of the work that we did.
What I want to leave you guys with — that I wish someone would have said to me while I was in treatment, is that there is hope, and there is hope WAY beyond an eating disorder. Don’t listen to the people that tell you you’ll always battle this illness to some extent, don’t listen to your own head when it tells you that your life isn’t worth living, and don’t even consider giving up on this fight. There is a life so much greater than you can even imagine right now that YOU are going to be able to live some day soon, and I firmly believe that with all of my heart. It will take work, it will take being uncomfortable, and it will not happen overnight. But it CAN happen.