By Caitlin C.
“All my life, I always wanted to fly. I always wanted to live like a hawk. I know you’re not supposed to be jealous of anything, but…to take flight, to soar above everything and everyone–now that’s living. But a hawk is no good around normal birds. It can’t fit in. Even though all the other birds probably wanna be hawks, they hate him for what they can’t be. Proud. Powerful. Determined. Dark. Odin is a hawk. He soars above us. He can fly. One of these days, everyone’s gonna pay attention to me. Because I’m gonna fly, too.” – Hugo, O
I vividly remember the day I started abusing my body. My family relocated from Las Vegas to Bellevue, Washington when I was 12 years old. I started attending a small private school in Bellevue. There was a clique of girls that I so desperately tried for weeks to be friends with. I don’t know why but none of the girls gave me the time of day. I looked different, acted different and just didn’t fit in. I was so depressed and unhappy with not having any friends. Each day, I fell deeper and deeper into depression. I remember something switched in my brain one day: I will not eat. I am not worthy enough for food. I will starve myself.
And so began, my eating disorder.
I avoided meals, I exercised obsessively and spent lunch time at school in the bathroom, avoiding the cafeteria. Each day that you are warped in your own dysfunctional thoughts about your eating, it changes you. It molds you. Telling yourself you are worthless, ugly and fat everyday eventually does something to your psyche. My train of thought was no longer normal. I started to hate myself and the reflection in the mirror. Not eating was my way of dealing with the rejection I experienced from that mean group of girls. My weight dropped rapidly. My overbearing parents took notice. I was placed in an outpatient eating disorder facility in Bellevue, The Moore Center. Three days a week I visited the center, meeting with Dr. Moore (the psychotherapist), a nutritionist and partook in group therapy. This was the start of 12 years of therapy.
Part of an eating disorder is rooted in the need and desire for attention. Many of my therapists never understood this aspect of my eating disorder because of the family I came from. I didn’t have divorced parents. I didn’t have an abusive or neglectful childhood. My parents have always given me the attention and love that a child dreams of. I cannot think of a time when my parents were not there for me. My dad worked long hours to give my sister and I everything we could want growing up. I was a very privileged child. To see the anguish and hurt on their faces day after day, watching me slowly fade away, is something I can never forgive myself for. They didn’t deserve the living hell I put them through.
I graduated 8th grade and continued on to a private Jesuit high school in Seattle. High school only brought out more issues. It was the first time I made myself throw up. I was not only labeled an anorexic, I was now branded a bulimic. In treatment, anorexia and bulimia are quite big classifications, especially when you are in a group therapy setting. If you were bulimic, you were weak, not strong enough, didn’t show enough restraint. If you were anorexic you were labeled as tough and strong. I hated being classified as a bulimic, as it was the “weaker” of the two eating disorders. That is another aspect of having an eating disorder: the desire and constant strive for perfection. If you were to look up anorexic traits and behaviors, my personality resembles most of them. Traits such as: over sensitive, low self esteem, obsessive compulsive, body dysmorphia, highly anxious, always striving for perfection…all traits I have had for many years that play into my disorder.
I was never a binge eater. I never ate to the point where I emptied a pantry. I just would eat a meal, a restricted meal, and then throw it all up. The bulimia was a sure way of my mother always knowing the status of my condition. She would constantly clean my bathroom. She was fixated on coming to my bathroom at least twice a week to clean. I left my vomit on the toilet seat for her to find, maybe in a way for her to know that I was sick. She would always question me, “Have you been purging?” She would look deeply into my eyes, my tired, red, strained eyes from constant purging and see my sunken cheekbones, and know. I was slowly destroying my mother.
I wish high school was the worst of my story. I wish I had stopped there. Somehow, through it all, I managed to be a star tennis player. I don’t know how I had the energy to play competitive tennis. I was ranked in the Pacific Northwest and won three state championship titles consecutively. And I didn’t eat. Or rather, when I had an important match I would eat and then throw up my meal, work out before school, after school and tennis somewhere in between. I would work out for hours, never stopping to think about the degradation of my body. I lived on caffeine. Matches became a victory if I survived. I would silently pray to God and ask Him to not let me faint during a match. I was running on fumes–sometimes I don’t know how I lasted. Mentally, I was tough as nails. I would fight and fight until the end of a point, even if my body was gasping for some sort of strength to do it. I finished off my competitive tennis experience by winning my third and consecutive state finals doubles match. When a reporter interviewed me, asking how I had done it, I just smiled, laughed a little and shook my head. “Pure adrenaline.”
High school ended, college was looming and my worst experience with my eating disorder began. I joined a sorority. If there is ever a way to make your eating disorder worse, it is surrounding yourself with 90 other beautiful (superior) women. It brought out my most insecure side and from the very first day in the house, I remember thinking: this is going to kill me. The sorority was a haven for eating disorders. It is where my eating disorder grew to be out of control and unmanageable. I was unmonitored by my parents for the first time in my life and it was really a time when I could do anything I wanted without consequence.
At first–I ate. I ate like I wasn’t going to eat tomorrow. I would indulge in delicious, greasy, late night pizza nights with my sorority sisters and then wake up to greasy breakfasts made by our chef. It was eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, lots of grease. I would throw it up afterwards. Except, I didn’t always have complete privacy. There was a third floor bathroom in our sleeping porch and I would use that to complete my cycle. Except after a while, people started to catch on. One time, I came out to a circle of girls listening to my purging. It was quite possibly the most embarrassing moment I’ve ever experienced. No one asked me if I was ok. It was like entertainment. They knew what I was doing and they got caught listening.
Gradually, over a year and a half period, my illness intensified. I began missing classes and sleeping whenever I could. I became tired–actually quite exhausted–from my vicious cycle of not eating and purging. I was attempting to have two lives. On the outside, I was confident, seemed to have it all together. I juggled being the vice-president of my sorority, maintained high grades in my classes and ran for “Miss Greek”–a philanthropic beauty pageant for the sororities. On the inside, I was falling apart. I grew very unhappy and depressed and tired. I started to become very skinny. I lost 20 pounds in a 4-month period. I survived on candy and coffee. I avoided going home so my parents could not see the rapid progression of my eating disorder.
This entire time, I should mention, I was actively involved in therapy. Or rather: bull-shitting in therapy. Every week, I saw a nutritionist who gave me meal plans and told me what I should be eating. I also saw a nurse practitioner who regulated my medications and a therapist so I could discuss my feelings and how not eating was ruining my life. I spent years with these three therapists and the routine of seeing them on a weekly basis. I had spent so many hours of my life in therapy and was at the point of fooling everyone.
It all came crashing down after Miss Greek, the competition in April. My parents and sister could see how bad my condition was and they staged an intervention. Five days later, my life drastically changed. I took a temporary medical leave from UW and withdrew from my classes. I was on a flight to Tucson to start my healing and recovery at Mirasol, an inpatient eating disorder facility.
My time at Mirasol was an intensive, 2-month, mentally exhausting process. Walking into those doors was the most terrifying moment of my life. It was a 24-hour a day treatment facility. I was being monitored at all times. I was searched when I arrived–I took off my clothes and emptied my suitcase. Two of their staff tried to make the situation as light as possible, but I remember feeling so violated. I felt like I was entering prison. I had no rights. My cell phone was taken away, my razor and tweezers were “unsafe and potentially dangerous objects,” and I could not go to the bathroom after meals without being accompanied.
I cried myself to sleep the first few nights and thought, “How did I ever get here? How did it ever get so bad?” I thought of fleeing every chance I got. After the first few days, I gradually adjusted to the program. Mirasol is a more intimate therapy experience, versus being in a hospital-like setting where you are just a number. It is in Arizona on a beautiful ranch. I shared a bedroom with a roommate and lived in a house with nine other girls. There was always someone with us. And we were watched constantly. We had strict eating hours and were not given a choice not to eat. We ate everyday at 7am, 10am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm and 9pm. Having someone tell you that you are forced to eat at these hours–no matter what–after coming from severe, restricted eating habits and behaviors is quite shocking. Some girls could not force themselves to eat at these times–and there were punishments for refusing a meal. You had to drink a protein shake called “Ensure,” similar to what they make old people eat. I never refused a meal, as I did not want to ever be forced to eat Ensure.
Whether or not you chose to purge after a meal was completely your decision. I respect Mirasol for giving women the opportunity to choose. For the Bulimics in the group, it was torture. I purged twice while I was there, with a therapist standing outside listening to me both times. After I purged, I had to come clean to the group in my next therapy session. It was enough shame to never do it again while I was in treatment.
My schedule at Mirasol was structured for every part of the day so that we were only allotted an hour of free time. There was intensive therapy for the entire day and we were restricted from exercising, outside of our 6am yoga classes. There was art therapy, equestrian therapy, acupuncture, massage therapy (my favorite), mandatory yoga or hikes every morning at 6am, cooking classes, nutrition therapy, spiritual therapy, family therapy and individual therapy (to name a few). I have never been so exhausted than from being in round-the-clock therapy. They were slowly changing my method of thought and teaching me why I acted the way I did, and what I could do to change it. Calls to my family were once a week for 15 minutes on Sundays, although I had talked my therapist into granting me more phone time. I missed my family terribly, and being in therapy uncovered so many unresolved issues that I desperately wanted clarity on.
I have some wonderful moments from my time at Mirasol. Though I began with the mindset that it was a prison (which in some respects an in-treatment facility is), by the end I knew that if I had not entered Mirasol when I did, I would not be here today. I was disgusted and repulsed by myself when I entered Mirasol. I had lied to so many people, hated how I looked, let myself down, failed at everything I did and did not have any respect for myself. The therapists at Mirasol began my healing process and taught me to love myself again. I am so thankful for what they did, for giving me my life back. I am truly thankful for my parents support–financially and emotionally–for allowing me the opportunity to be at Mirasol. Their unconditional love and faith–that one day I would recover and become the old Caitlin they knew and loved–saved my life.
Today, I think back to my time at Mirasol with a full heart. I will always associate Arizona as my place of healing. The journey I went on with Mirasol is forever ingrained in my mind, heart and soul. It is a journey that has molded me into the person I am today and shaped my mode of thinking for the rest of my life.
By the time I was ready to go, I did not want to leave. It was my safe house, and I knew the real world and its many harsh realities could not get to me while I was there. I dreaded my release. I did not want to exist in the real world and try to make it without the constant nurturing and love from this incredible community. I left Mirasol in early June, just in time for my 20th birthday.
The after-life of Mirasol was much harder than anything I’ve done. It is harder to go back into the real world and make it. To avoid the temptations of purging or restricting and to be really honest with myself when I screwed up. My parents did not know how to handle me once I returned. I was like a delicate flower and they (along with my sister) walked on eggshells around me. That summer was a time of self discovery. I allowed myself to make mistakes and owned up to them. I confronted people when they did something that hurt me. I allowed myself to slowly integrate back into society, even though I was a deer in headlights. Coming back from treatment and trying to co-exist is the scariest thing in the world. I remember sitting in a park two days after I returned just crying hysterically. I had started crying in my car driving home from work and immediately pulled over and sat in the middle of this park, crying, not knowing if I was ever going to feel like myself again. I wanted to be the old Caitlin. I wanted to be happy and enjoy life again.
Fast forward to eight years later. So much has happened and I am happy to say that I have been in recovery from my eating disorder–at least the activity of purging and severely restricting. Most people do not realize that it is a disease that never goes away. It is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life. It is a part of my mind that will never change and I will always wake up in the morning, look at myself and think I am inadequate. I will never think I’m perfect enough, I will never think I am skinny enough. I have come to terms with that. It is about fighting those thoughts in my mind and doing things to counteract it.
I haven’t been to therapy in about a year, but I work with a nutrition team constantly. To be honest, I got burned out with the weekly therapy sessions. I just needed a break from talking to someone about my problems every week. It’s an exhausting process. I know when to realize if my eating has gotten too irregular. I know when my mind starts playing games with me. I can honestly say I have not purged in a year. It is a really big accomplishment to admit that. I never want to go back to that deep dark place again. It was too lonely, too volatile, too unhappy, too unfulfilling.
I have lived a full life since returning from Mirasol. I see friends often, have a wonderful relationship with my parents and sister, am in a healthy, committed relationship and am succeeding at my job and advancing my career path. I live on my own and support myself. Food is not the enemy anymore. I look at it as something that gives me fuel and something that can be truly enjoyable. I have started cooking and learning more about food–and what I should be eating to nourish my body. It is a daily battle. Taking a step back and looking at all I have accomplished in the past few years, it is a true miracle.
For me, the rest of my life is one step at a time. I try to live in the moment, be present and be true to myself. It is the ever-challenging journey of learning to love myself and accept myself for what I am. One day, I know I will get there.