Eight years in I knew I needed help for my eating disorder, but I was still trying to convince myself I’d get better on my own. I’d like to say I chose to go to the hospital because I had faith in recovery and made a healthy choice. But the truth is often different from surface appearance.

After coming home in constant fear that he’d find me dead, my husband finally told me if I didn’t get help he couldn’t be married to me anymore. A part of me had been watching.

I’d turned a happy-go-lucky songbird into one that was frazzled and fraught with the stress of me. Having killed his song, I watched his steady progression into depression, anger, and apathy. He was detaching from me to save himself, but it was my fault he’d become this in the first place. I’d forced him to keep my secret and promised I’d get better.

The eating disorder lies. It runs a circle where it allows a glimpse of momentary freedom before pulling you back in. No matter how hard you try — and I tried and tried — I always failed. With each failure I stepped into the gaping hole of shame and self-loathing, burrowing myself like a chinchilla in a dust bath, dirtying all parts of me.

After a few sessions of seeing the therapist my husband found for me, and after she realized I was throwing up too many times a day, (too many should be one), she arranged for me to go to an inpatient program.

I was simultaneously terrified and elated. For the first time I would be somewhere where people knew my dark secret.

Twenty-eight days of having people watch me. I felt like an animal threatened with attack. I sat in the plastic chair as the nurse who checked me in took my vitals. My tiny blue suitcase sat next to me on the floor. I made sure my foot touched it, my one tie to the outside world.

Even though I was here voluntarily, I knew I couldn’t leave. I knew that I was sick even though my mind kept trying to convince me otherwise. There was a part of me that wanted to believe that I could be free.

Here’s the important thing. The hospital didn’t magically cure me, but it did give me an enduring sliver of hope — that maybe, just maybe, freedom was possible and I could have it. When my fellow patients bid me farewell on my exit into the world, the group facilitator said, “No matter what happens, no one can take away what you’ve accomplished here.”

Almost a decade later, these same women are still devoting their lives to helping people recover from the eating disorders that steal our vitality.

Most people easily complain about the health care systems, about all the ways it fails us, and there is truth in that. There are things that can be changed to make it easier for people with eating disorders to get the help they need.

But what the hospital, and the women there, showed me is that it’s impossible to design a program suitable for everybody. Everyone shows up to the hospital at a different point in their recovery. For some, they are too sick or malnourished to have the healthy parts of their brain fight for themselves. Everyone comes with a different story, with different metaphorical bruises. Recovery is not a one-stop shop, and I think that gets lost sometimes.

What the hospital showed me, despite the holes I saw or my aggravation at being there, is that everyone is doing their best. I was bulimic in a room with someone who needed to gain enough weight to be sent home, with someone who wore a backpack as an IV, with someone who had scars up arms and legs, with someone who threw up during her pregnancy. There is no one-stop shop for all of us. We are all different.

We could judge these facilities. We could judge the people working there or brush them aside. But the truth is that the women who were there for me then are still there today because they believe in a place of health. Despite the failings of an imperfect system, they cannot sit by and watch lives be destroyed.

I don’t have the answers for how to make a more perfect system. But when I look back at my time in the hospital, at my therapists, at the coloring of mandalas, I see that recovery often is what we make it. Recovery is moving forward despite alleged holes in the system. People are there to help. People care. Both health care workers and patients are doing the best they can with what they have at that point in time.

One of the most important things recovery from my eating disorder taught me was that I always have a choice. I may not like the choices presented to me, but I have the power to choose between them. That internal power cannot be taken away.

Everyone’s road to recovery is different and often an imperfect system creates barricades. But we have the choice to keep moving forward. All of us. Together.

Woman with suitcase photo available from Shutterstock