I have no shame in sharing with others that I battled anorexia as a teenager. A simple diet to rid myself of baby fat ignited the genetically predisposed genes in my DNA and furiously bloomed into a severe illness that almost cost me my life and my loved ones their sanity. In 1993 when I became sick, anorexia was not on the tip of everyone's tongue as it is now. It was treated with a more somber attitude because it had yet to become the "celebrity affliction" it is today. People are so quick to label someone anorexic now, when there truly are some people who are naturally very thin and others who actually have taken a diet too far. Anorexia is not a term to use so loosely. It is somewhat insulting to those of us who have been through the dark trenches of this disease -- namely me.
What really upsets me about the modern day treatment of this life-threatening, very serious disease is the way it is glamorized in the tabloids and on television. I, for one, can tell you that this is no red carpet-worthy experience. Day after day I see photos of jutting collarbones and reed thin arms on every magazine cover with "diet tips" on how to get such an envious figure. But this is no diet. Despite the naïve thinking that anorexia is a "choice" or simply a way of losing weight, it is a diagnosable disease that has been shown to be not only genetically predisposed but also bears the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. 20% of anorexics die prematurely from complications of the disease.
There have been celebrities that have admitted that they have or had eating disorders and sought treatment. I commend them for doing so and in not hiding behind the pressure of the Hollywood casting machine, which probably thinks a size 4 is "big." However, seeing them being shipped off to some ranch or spa in the middle of the mountains is so disappointing to me. It conveys to the public a message that this devilish affliction is simply an inconvenience that can be cured with facials, fresh air and a lot of yoga. I was sent to both what has been deemed a "celebrity facility," as well as a far less glamorous mental hospital, for treatment and thankfully lived to share the surprising experience of both.
After spiraling down to 96 pounds on my 5' 9" frame, I was sent to, what was deemed one of "the best of the best" eating disorder treatment centers. It was part of a country-club looking facility in a ritzy town, which at one time treated Mariah Carey, Billy Joel and Nick Nolte (after that whole "mug shot-seen-round-the-world" incident). My parents just wanted me to get the best possible treatment, and "luckily" they could afford the $1,000 a day price tag. After a night in the intake building where I was woken up every few hours for cardiac monitoring and blood work, I was given my own bedroom suite complete with fancy antique-styled upholstered furniture and a private locked bathroom that I could not use on my own. I had to have a nurse in there with me every time I went in, for ANY reason. Shy bladders, beware. All eating disorder patients are deemed suicide risks due to the fact that the disease is a slow form of just that. All sharp objects, mirrors and the like are confiscated and handed out on an "as needed" and heavily supervised basis. Anorexics are amazingly deceitful human beings -- I became a very skilled liar during those years. I, of course, lied about my eating habits, but also would hide ankle weights under my jeans to tip the scales and do psychotic repetitions of sit ups, squats and push ups to burn the force-fed calories, even after being banned from exercising by doctors. I even did these fanatical calisthenics while locked up in my pretty little suite at the hospital.
We were force-fed meals in an elegantly appointed dining room on china place settings by waiters dressed in tuxedos. It was a bizarre and horrifying experience to be filled with pure terror about having to eat while in what appeared to be a five-star restaurant. The other tables of recovering alcoholics, drug-addicts and whatnot would always stare at us like WE were the craziest of the lot. It's hard for people, even other sick people, to imagine how someone could be actually petrified to eat. Our table was always lively; I'll give you that. Some would cry, some would scream, others would sit simply indignant about it all. But just like others couldn't give up booze or drugs, we were fighting tooth and nail not to give this up. This was our way of getting high.
If you did not eat your required calorie allotment (mine was a whopping 4,000 calories) you would be asked to drink the equivalent amount of calories in meal replacement shakes. If you also refused that, you were force fed through a tube shoved down into your stomach. This consequence scared me far too much to ever let it happen to me, but many of the patients had it done. One woman had it done at almost every meal. She died from massive organ failure later in my stay. I believe she weighed less than 70 pounds.
The most heartbreaking part of my time at this "celebrity facility" was the horrendously poor psychiatric care. I had therapists tell me repeatedly why I was doing this to myself but never truly listening to what I had to say about it. They called it "psychiatric care", but there was nothing caring about these people. The last straw came when while in a family session one doctor slyly accused my parents of abusing me, the most evil and far-fetched claim I have ever heard with absolutely NO justification from anything I had shared with him. I wanted to reach over and strangle those incompetent doctors for even forming the words with their mouths. My parents were the most unbelievably loving and caring parents any child could ever ask for, and my illness had absolutely nothing to do with them. If he had only listened to me, he would have known that -- but he was too intent on making a dramatic, vicious claim. I couldn't simply be sick for no reason, right? This accusation set me back in my recovery by making me feel guilty and heartbroken for my parents and only wanting to disappear even more. If this was "celebrity" treatment, I wanted nothing of it. I was removed from the facility a few days later. They may have saved me from physically dying, but they harmed me in so many other ways.
Seeing as I was still very ill and was already losing some of the weight I had actually put on, we needed to find another facility to help me. This time, we went the nitty-gritty mental hospital route. No tuxedos and china here -- just nurses in uniforms serving food on plastic trays. This was the real deal. Unlike my previous stay, this place was not teeming with bratty, spoiled girls. I saw everyday people who had to battle this disease alone after being abandoned by loved ones, people who had been sick for 40 years and some who actually had been abused. I almost felt embarrassed by the simplicity of my illness. Sure, I'd never been the popular or pretty girl and I felt a bit lost going into high school, but I did live a charmed life until that point with all the love and support any human could ever want. But there was no aesthetic charm to be found in this downtown hospital -- except for that of my caring, wonderful psychiatrist. He is the person who I credit for helping me save myself. An eating disorder specialist with an easy, conversational approach, he taught me to trust him as a caregiver and a friend and convinced me I could beat this. And so, in this gray, clinical hospital full of nurses who wouldn't take my bullshit and doctors who listened and cared but were tough, I began on the long journey to health. I missed a full year of high school while in recovery, and did have a few brief relapses afterwards, but I was equipped with the appropriate knowledge, tools and support at this facility to fight back and eventually make a full recovery.
Treatment for a psychological diseases or addictions is a high personalized, individual experience that varies from person to person, facility to facility. Some may have benefited from their time at my so-called "celebrity rehab" and some may have failed where I succeeded. The price tag, name or exclusivity of a hospital has nothing to do with getting better. That has to do with the perfect recipe of doctors, support systems, finances and the ailing person's desire to actually heal. And sadly, that is a rare combination. With managed care not providing adequate coverage for mental health (anorexia treatment is not covered on most plans), many cannot even attempt to get the treatment they so desperately need.
So the next time you see some celebrity with her oh-so-chic skeletal frame gracing the silver screen or the cover of a newsstand rag, think of this story and the reality of eating disorders and the brutal path back to wellness. Find smart, healthy people to admire and emulate and shun the glitter-coated falsities that Hollywood feeds us all. I pray that those in need of good help find it, celebrity or not.