Choosing Hope: An Eating Disorder Recovery Story

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By Erin Reiland, Guest Contributor

“When we heal our connection to our bodies and reestablish trust in ourselves, we realize our problems really have very little to do with food.” -Samantha Skelly

Given the opportunity to write about my journey and recovery from an eating disorder, I was so grateful to have the platform to speak to others. My goal for writing this blog post is to let others know who are struggling with disordered eating that they are not alone. There is help and you are not weak for seeking out support. I also want others to know that relapse does not mean you will always be sick, and that recovery and having a fulfilling and amazing life is 100% possible.

In my recovery I used to think it was basically crap when I read others' stories about how they got better and were so happy now. I believed “they” could do it, but not me. I had resigned myself to believe that the eating disorder would always be some part of my life. But that is far from what has happened. If you told me 5 years ago I would be writing this I would have laughed at you. It has not been easy. In fact, at times I wanted to give up. 

My eating disorder began when I was around 15. I was a competitive swimmer with college scholarships on the horizon. But I always carried the underlying feeling of not being good enough for anything. 

As a competitive swimmer, I needed to keep my body healthy and strong. I felt “big” or “bigger” than other swimmers because I was almost 6-feet tall, but in actuality,  looking at pictures of myself, I was thin, muscular and strong. I believed I lost races to other girls who were half my size in height becasue something was “wrong” with me. And so, I felt a need to become smaller.

I see now that I wanted to disappear. My depression and anxiety was a volcano waiting to erupt. I began to slowly cut food out of my life but continued to swim at the level I was at and my body could not keep up. My swim coach noticed the weight loss first and I denied that any problems were going on. But luckily, he went to my family out of concern. My family also had some inkling of problems, but I was a master of hiding and lying (I mean really good).  

My parents sent me to my pediatrician who sent me directly to the eating disorder clinic at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. I was admitted onto the unit directly from the clinic in a wheel chair to the hospital. I could not believe it. I wanted to run away, but since I was a minor I could not do anything. I hated my parents and I was beyond livid at the time. I was very lucky though that I was admitted when I was, because if not my heart and blood pressure were dangerously unstable and I could have died. I was on complete bed rest for 3 weeks due to my vital signs.

I was in a state of denial.

I spent almost 20 years of my life in my eating disorder and various treatment programs. I've lost count of how many times I was admitted into children’s hospital and the numerous ER visits for dehydration and inpatient hospital stays on psychiatric units to restore weight and stabilize my vital signs. Insurance companies are willing to pay for inpatient psychiatric unit stays in a hospital, but most of these programs are not eating disorder based and do not know how to treat someone with this disease. For me, these hospital stays were like a band aid, only for the downward spiral to repeat itself again and again.

I was very lucky in that my mom and stepdad had good insurance and I was able to also go to residential eating disorder treatment centers. Most insurances do not cover these facilities because they are very expensive. So many people are unable to receive the help they need and deserve.

Despite all my rounds of eating disorder treatment, my life continued to revolved around food and my weight. I used every means to control my weight, from diet pills, laxatives, to purging. My life was my eating disorder. There were years where I would be “ok” enough to function and even had an amazing job at a prestigious University for 10 years. I ended up having to leave that job three times for 6 to 8 weeks at a time to seek treatment. I didn’t understand nor did many of my friends and family why I was not getting better. Afer all, I had all the resources to do so. But we all thought I just wanted to hold on to the eating disorder - that I did not want to get better. In a way, I did. It felt safe. I knew it well. It was my best friend and worst enemy. But at least I had it. I felt I had lost so much and I would not lose my eating disorder as well.

After I had my son 9 years ago, I thought I would be better. I had to. He needed me. I was a single mom working full time, but within 2 years of his birth I was sicker than ever. The next 4 years were pure hell. I don’t remember a lot of it, as I was so malnourished. I am so grateful to my family who helped me with my son and continued to support me. I am not sure how I kept my job.

The good news is that over the past 4 years, things began to switch for me. It was not one thing that contributed to this change. Rather, it was many small things. I was finally ready to to work on the real reasons I was holding on so tight to the eating disorder. I worked for the first time on my childhood trauma that I numbed out in my mind for most of my life. The pain that was sucking anything left from my soul had to go.

Then the sudden death of my son's father and murder of my best friend within weeks of each other sent me into a spiral and I was not able to handle life. I wanted to die at times, but I went back into my last treatment and stayed. I couldn’t take the pain and energy it took to keep up with the eating disorder. Up until that point I would argue, deny and find any way to call "BS" on what everyone else had to say to me. I was not the patient anyone wanted to deal with. But really it was me trying to deflect and protect myself and my eating disorder.

I didn’t want to feel inside myself. I did not want to be present in my body. My body was the scariest thing to me. I wanted out of it by any means possible. My last treatment was 3 years ago, and when I was admitted I was near death. I don’t recall the first few weeks there. I chose to get a feeding tube to help with weight restoration. I literally was choosing to live at that moment.

I chose hope. 

Slowly, I began to feel into my body--the body that I had avoided for most of my life. It was terrifying. I stayed for 3 months in residential treatment. When I returned home I did step down, continued therapy, and went weekly to yoga. I found yoga to be such a healing part of my recovery, allowing me to connect with my body and emotions. 

The body and mind connection for me with yoga has been amazing. I allowed myself to feel instead of stuffing the feelings down when they came up. I hated it at times--feeling ashamed and scared what would surface while doing yoga. But I allowed myself to begin to accept myself at first and then begin to like myself and now love myself. I'm learning to accept myself for where I am at right now, not where I think I should be. 

I am currently working toward a certification to become an eating disorder life coach. I never would have thought I would go or be in the direction I am going. I know I will be able to help others coming from a place of having been there, yet understanding how others can stay stuck for so long and believe they are not ever going to recover. I know that feeling. I also know the feeling I have now. I know it is possible. I think I will always be learning and growing personally for the rest of my life.

I hope sharing my story here gives you a glimmer of hope and helps you see that you are worth it. Keep going!

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Erin Reiland lives in the Bay Area (California) with her 9-year-old son and is currently persuing a certification program to become an eating disorder life coach through the organization Hungry for Happiness, whose goal is to help 1 million people suffering and dealing with disordered eating by 2020. For inspiration and hope for recovery, connect with Erin on Instagram..