By Alissa Bowers
When I arrived at my residential treatment program for eating disorders in Philadelphia I was nervous about many things. Missing the holidays with my family, spending New Year’s Eve in a place that enforced a nightly curfew, and mostly handing over many of my freedoms voluntarily in the hopes of getting better. What if I didn’t? “What if all this time and money and tears are wasted and I relapse the second I get out of here?” I thought to myself. I was also concerned about making friends. As silly as it seemed, knowing my priority should be recovery, in a lot of ways it felt like the first day of school. Would people want to spend time with me? How would I spend my nights when program ended for the day if I didn’t connect with anyone? Would people shun me because I’m fat? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times before; new jobs, social situations, just heading to the grocery store. Will people stare and judge me? Decide I’m stupid or lazy or slovenly because of how I look? Will I be the fattest person there? It was a question that naively I hoped would not be of concern when seeking treatment.
Body acceptance and positivity is championed within the eating disorders community, and everyone seeking treatment is there to get better and relate to one another, not to judge. I would like to assert that eating disorders have no size. You cannot determine whether someone has any type of eating disorder by body shape or weight. However, I have found in my time in treatment that there is a considerably smaller portion of people seeking treatment who are “obese.” I hate this term but use it only to distinguish how much I weigh without using numbers. I think the barometer for which being “a healthy weight” is measured upon is in fact broken, but there was no denying the lack of other patients seeking treatment with my body type.
I have struggled with binge eating disorder (BED) since I was 5. For years I didn’t know or understand that I had an eating disorder. I was 29 when I stepped foot into a treatment center for the first time. I had been all over the spectrum in terms of restricting, orthorexia, abusing diet pills and laxatives, and most recently I had been binging essentially every day for 8 years. I hoped and anticipated people would be open minded and accepting, but also realized that many of the people I would be entering treatment with would be struggling with body dysmorphia and a debilitating fear of fat. So although I didn’t believe anyone would be openly rude or hurtful intentionally, I assumed some people might decide we would have nothing to relate on or would be more comfortable avoiding me – as ending up with my body was their worst fear.
During orientation I looked around the halls of my new home, making eye contact with some of the fellow residents and smiling nervously. I noticed as I took in my surroundings that there was only one other person in treatment who was anywhere near my size. I instantly decided I wanted to be their friend. I knew logically just because this person was fat would not mean we would be friends. However, I thought we’d be able to relate on some things and that befriending them would make me feel less alone. We did eventually become friends and bonded over the fact that—being the only two fat residents, both with curls and glasses– the staff were constantly confusing the two of us and calling us by one another’s names. It felt ridiculous and hurtful because in reality this person and I look nothing alike aside from those few similarities. None of the other residents had any trouble distinguishing between the two of us and they, too, found it ridiculous that staff couldn’t tell us apart. Eventually, when that friend left treatment, although I had made many other good friends of all shapes and sizes who I trusted and deeply cared for, it occurred to me that I was the last fat person standing.
By this time in treatment, I had realized that eating disorders are on a spectrum. It doesn’t really matter how your eating disorder manifests, they are all extremely similar and come from the same place. In my time there I had come to befriend people 10 years younger than me and 40 years older, from all different walks of life. Ultimately, even though there was a part of me that felt somewhat alone, I knew being the last fat person standing did not matter.
I am sharing this experience because for years I was convinced I couldn’t have an eating disorder because I was fat. I thought, and had been told, I simply had no self-control and needed to learn moderation. There were times even within this generally loving and supportive eating disorders community when I faced ignorance—almost always from health care providers, not other patients. For years I told myself I wasn’t sick enough and had no place within this community. I was wrong; I do have a place.
Seeking treatment was the best thing I ever did for myself. Ever. I just turned 30 and a part of me will always regret waiting as long as I did to ask for help. I can’t go back and change those choices, so instead I choose to be grateful that I ultimately made the hardest, bravest, and smartest decision I had ever made for myself.
I am sharing this to assert that there is a place for everyone in a treatment setting. I can’t pretend you won’t sometimes feel isolated or different but there is a place for you and you do belong, no matter your age, weight, ethnicity, income, or gender. Eating disorders do not discriminate so please do not let a fear of others’ ignorance stop you from getting the help you need and deserve. Ultimately, despite any ignorance I faced, by seeking treatment I made some of the closest friends I have ever made in my life. They know me in a way no one else ever could. I have found more love and acceptance being unapologetically who I am in treatment than I ever knew possible. So don’t let your fear hold you back; treatment is a community in which everyone who needs it belongs.