I had no idea what I might be walking into. To prep, I watched YouTube videos, read blog posts, and searched every corner of the internet to get eating disorder rehab intel.
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Sophomore year of college was supposed to be my year. I had my first summer internship under my belt, decent grades, and a solid group of friends.
But, I was also starting the year with something else: a debilitating eating disorder.
Instead of sitting in my intro level accounting class, I was sitting across from the “Dream Team” — my parents, therapist, dietitian, and university Dean — being told I was going to die if I didn’t go to inpatient treatment immediately.
After repeatedly pleading with my team to let me stay on campus, I finally accepted the fact that I was incredibly sick and needed acute treatment for anorexia.
The Dream Team immediately began arranging logistics for me to officially start my inpatient treatment experience at the Eating Recovery Center (ERC) in Denver, Colorado.
I was scared. The movies made it seem like I would be locked in a room with white, padded walls and served slop for meals. (Spoiler alert: I actually had a dorm-like bedroom to myself — and the food was delicious.)
Though the internet was somewhat helpful, it was a family friend who had graduated from the program at ERC who gave me insight into the experience.
Because of her, I had the ounce of confidence I needed as I walked through the center’s front doors on October 12, 2017.
Having this reassuring figure in my life made me fortunate. I realize this isn’t the case for many people beginning their inpatient treatment journey.
I moved through the program, starting at the inpatient (IP) level, then moving to residential IP, and eventually their partial hospitalization program (PHP).
My experience at ERC is one that I look back on with admiration, gratitude, and pride. I truly cherish the lessons learned, friendships made, recovery milestones, and personal growth resulting from my 2 months in Denver, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Not everyone has the same experience, but regardless of which treatment option you choose, take your recovery one step at a time and have compassion for yourself along the way.
With that being said, here are a few things I think might help as you prepare to embark on your first inpatient or residential treatment journey.
I like to compare my inpatient treatment experience to being at summer camp, except I cried a little more and had much worse gas pains.
Like summer camp, there are counselors, a dining hall, meticulously crafted daily schedules, and people from all walks of life. Plus, stamps are still the most valuable form of currency.
The detailed daily schedule you’ll likely be given will outline all your activities starting early in the morning and ending late in the evening.
During breaks for free time, you’ll have more privacy and autonomy, but you’ll still likely be monitored to help you stay recovery-focused and avoid using disordered behaviors.
Depending on the facility and level of care being provided, your days may include some variation of the following activities:
- Morning/evening routine: Showering, grooming, bathroom break
- Mealtime: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks
- Therapy: individual, group, and family therapy
- Meeting with your dietitian
- Free time: Typically on the weekends
- “Fresh air” time
- Bathroom breaks
- Excursions and challenges
A note on taking vitals
When taking vitals, nurses are assessing and tracking your health in a variety of ways. Blind weigh-ins, urine tests, blood pressure checks, and running blood work are the most typical ways of monitoring patient vitals.
Depending on your level of care and your health stability, the labs done may vary in frequency or type.
For example, I checked in with dangerously low blood sugar, iron, and calcium counts and subsequently had blood drawn each day for 2 weeks. This isn’t a rigid timeline, however.
It’s typically dictated by your medical stability and when your health is no longer considered an immediate, high-level threat.
If quarantine has made your sweatpants and shirts your new best friends, treatment will be no different. The name of the game is comfort — not fashion.
You’ll likely only be able to bring one suitcase with you, so only include what’s necessary or practical. (Side note: You may be allowed to order clothes or supplies off Amazon once you arrive if you forget or need anything.)
When I was at ERC, we almost exclusively wore “comfy” clothes throughout the day unless we were going on excursions, like trips to the park or eating at a local restaurant.
I promise, you won’t need six different pairs of shoes or a flashy outfit at any point (unless that’s what makes you feel good, of course!).
Along with the basics like underwear and socks, here are a few clothing items I recommend packing for treatment:
- sweatpants and sweatshirts
- athletic bottoms and loungewear
- fuzzy socks
- slippers, sneakers, and flats
- shirts… lots of them
- a pair of jeans
- a couple of casual tops for outings
- jackets for the season
You’ll also need to pack your basic hygiene products, but don’t be shocked if they restrict certain supplies like razors, mouthwash, or nail polish.
Many facilities place restrictions on sharp or alcohol-based products that can be misused.
(Some facilities allow electric razors instead of standard razors if you would prefer to use one. Many of us gave up on shaving when we were there but do whatever makes you feel your best.)
The remaining space in your suitcase should include items to keep yourself grounded and entertained. For example:
- colored pens and pencils
- stationery and stamps
- photos to tape up (without frames!)
- a deck of cards
- a leather-bound journal (FYI, spiral notebooks are typically prohibited)
- coloring pages
- your favorite book
- anxiety toys (like thinking putty or fidget spinners)
You don’t have to pack all — or any — of these, but patients like me found these things helpful for curbing mealtime anxiety.
When you first enter eating disorder treatment, you and your dietitian will create a personalized meal plan to best suit your needs.
You may feel increased anxiety knowing your routine is going to be switched up, but this is a good thing. It means you’re challenging the eating disorder and taking another step toward mental freedom.
It can feel frustrating and confusing seeing how other patients’ plates differ from yours, or when your dietitian decides to alter your meal plan — but you have to trust your team’s methods.
Your nutrition team is the expert for a reason
Your dietitian is specifically trained to understand how to properly fuel your body, and (more importantly) they understand that living a healthy life can coexist with your eating disorder.
Their extensive education also helps them to understand the food facts instead of what myths society continues to reinforce. (Spoiler alert: carbs are not evil… I promise.)
You’ll learn the science of how your body needs carbs and fats to thrive.
I still have to remind myself occasionally that no food is inherently bad, but it helps to know that an expert is the one that taught me this.
Today, there are meals that can be challenging, but I know the fear and shame surrounding those challenge foods stems from my eating disorder — not reality or fact.
What it means to have a seat at the table
Your recovery journey is unique to you, and your meal plan progression will reflect this as well.
Some patients will have meal plans geared toward maintenance, while others may have a meal plan focused on weight restoration.
This can be daunting during mealtime. Our meals took place at dining hall tables, had time restrictions, and were monitored by counselors. They were there for encouragement, support, and to help make sure no disordered behaviors were occurring.
During meals, counselors may ask you to take bigger bites, keep your hands above the table, or remove your napkin from your lap — this is normal. These rules
Some treatment facilities will let you select your meals from a limited menu in advance, while others will expect you to eat whatever they decide to serve that day. This is entirely dependent on the treatment center.
Meals can be triggering for most patients, so it’s OK (and completely normal) to have a breakdown at the table once in a while — I certainly did. Lean on your peers and counselors during this time for support, and remember to do the same for someone else who might be having a bad day.
Remember: Every bite you take is another small battle won against your eating disorder.
My close friends know I don’t sugarcoat things, and I won’t start doing that now. Transitioning into treatment for the first time can be hard, especially if you’re more reserved or introverted.
While sharing your emotional state is certainly something you’ll become accustomed to, it’s sharing your bodily functions that might take some getting used to.
For example, it may seem strange to enthusiastically applaud another adult for a successful bowel movement, but treatment is a completely different ball game.
Many patients experience physical changes like constipation during the first few weeks as they adjust to their new meal plans. This means that gas and stomach pains are constantly a topic of conversation.
Additionally, nurses and counselors may request to examine your toilet bowl before flushing. This is to monitor your bowel movements as well as ensure there are no signs of disordered behavior.
You can also expect to have vitals taken by the facility nurse while wearing a very sheer, lightweight gown to be weighed and physically examined. This can take a little getting used to.
Though the lack of privacy can feel violating, it’s necessary for ensuring you’re on the healthiest path to recovery.
It’s been over 3 years since I was in a treatment facility for my eating disorder, but I’ve continued my recovery journey every day since.
And let me be VERY clear — my recovery journey is not linear. Nobody’s is.
There have been times I’ve slipped back into my eating disorder. There have been slips that lasted a day, a week, and even spanning a month or so.
Quarantine is a prime example of a triggering event — it disrupted my life, my schedule, my eating habits, my exercise routine, and my social life, which made it all too easy to find comfort in my restriction.
Luckily, I haven’t had a full relapse that would necessitate starting inpatient treatment again, but there have been close calls.
My therapist says these slips are normal (and honestly expected), but it can be frustrating when this happens even today.
Many people think recovery from an eating disorder ends when your weight is restored or you’re out of inpatient treatment — this couldn’t be further from the truth.
While I’ve been in recovery for more than 3 years and have developed a manageable coping plan with my team, I still have that disordered voice in the back of my mind trying so hard to be heard every time I eat.
My recovery journey is always evolving and my eating disorder is gradually taking up less of my life, but it’s something I’ll have to continue managing for years to come. Because it’s absolutely worth it to truly live.
Starting any level of treatment can feel like an uphill battle, but the journey can make you stronger, healthier, and finally in control of your life again.
During inpatient treatment for eating disorders, you’ll be pushed to your breaking point — and then you’ll likely be pushed a little further.
But like that old trust fall group exercise, you’ll be surrounded by a supportive team to lift you up.
You’ll manage your eating disorder consistently, despite its urges.
There will be days when you feel like giving up. Reach out to those helping hands and pull yourself up.
There will be victories — embrace them.
There will be setbacks — learn from them.
You will meet people from all walks of life — get to know them.
You will face struggles, challenges, and inner antagonists — conquer them.
Recovery is a journey that starts with your decision to take the first step. Your path may have twists, turns, hills, and valleys, but the most important thing is to continue moving forward.
While inpatient care might feel like a sudden halt in your life, it’s just a pit stop on your way to recovery.