The Designated Nut At Age Eighteen

As a result of anorexia and the depression I only experienced during periods of starvation, the university I was attending decided I wasn’t safe staying on campus. I was to be sent to a psychiatric hospital near Chicago.  It no longer exists, but my memories sure do.

It was February 1982, and I was falling apart.  The eating disorder and coinciding mood swings were making university life and class attendance nearly impossible.  I was horrified that I couldn’t just make it work.  I had some suicidal thoughts, and the means to carry them out , as I’d discussed with the therapist I’d been seeing as a condition of staying at the University of Illinois (they found out about the anorexia very early in the first semester in the fall of 1981). She didn’t want to take any chances.  I’m sure that the fact that I was talking more had to be somewhat alarming, since I’d said little besides “I don’t know” to anything she’d asked since first meeting me in September of 1981.  I didn’t have much choice- either voluntarily admit myself to a psychiatric hospital, or be committed.  I was horrified and ashamed, which wasn’t helping anything.   I agreed to go to the hospital near Chicago, but only if my parents were NOT the ones who drove me there.  Arrangements were to be made, but in the meantime, I was taken to the university health center and kept for observation.  Nifty way of saying they didn’t trust me, and weren’t sure I wasn’t going to kill myself.  The therapist had the university fire department drive me over there.  Subtle.

I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted the pain to stop and I hadn’t found any way to make that happen.  I was 18 years old, and didn’t have the life skills to know that the bad times don’t last forever, and the eating disorder that made most anything ‘logical’ impossible was driving a lot of my thinking.  So I was to stay at the inpatient clinic until the plans were arranged.  I’d asked for a specific family friend to drive the 200 miles to come and get me, and then take  me the 170 miles or so to the hospital.  That’s a lot to ask, but she agreed.  Then it got complicated.

In February 1982, central Illinois got hit with a blizzard, and the arrangements to pick me up had to be postponed until the roads were cleared, and it was safe to travel.  If I remember right, it took about 3-4 days.  During that time, my dorm friends came to say goodbye.  It was sort of surreal.  My brain was so starved that not much really sank in.  I knew what was happening, but at the same time,  I had no idea about what  type of place I was going to be admitted .   The only type of psych hospitals I’d seen were those on TV, and the accuracy of those was questionable.  Finally, the weather cleared enough for me to be picked up by my friend and her daughter (who I also know and like- I still know them), and I was taken to the hospital.

I was mortified to see my parents in the lobby. I was so ashamed that I’d failed to just pull it together. They had to be there to sign the insurance forms and admissions papers for billing, but I also had to sign myself in since I was ‘of age’.  I was the youngest person on the adult unit.  And in for a real education.

My psychiatrist (assigned at random) ‘banned’ my parents from contacting me for at least a month. He let them know if I was doing OK.  He wanted to get to know me, and find out why I didn’t want them to pick me up in Urbana (shame). He also wanted me to learn to let loose a little bit; I was too restrained and worried about what other people thought.  He asked my folks to send $100 (worth a lot more in 1982 than it is now- though still a nice chunk of change) so I could go to K-Mart and get some overalls (something my mom refused to let me wear) and have some fun shopping with one of the psych techs who monitored us nuts on the unit.  My mom never let me go to K-Mart (it hadn’t spiffed itself up at that point; afterwards, she didn’t mind it).  I was to be dressed in name brand clothing (preferably stuff that made The Preppy Handbook… I’m not kidding). Marshall Field’s & Co. was HER preferred place to get my clothes. I hated that store when I was growing up.  Too much foo foo.

I was the designated ‘nut’ in the family, but no member of any family gets to the point of needing psychiatric hospitalization for eating disorders (or anything else) in a vacuum. In the early 80s, eating disorder treatment was in its infancy.  Nearly all ED patients were put on general psych wards, and the stigma went with that.  I didn’t find out how bad that stigma was until much later when I found out that my folks never told anybody where I was.  I just ‘wasn’t’ at the U of I.  Enter a void in time and place regarding my existence. My mom’s ‘baby’ brother came to see me, so he’d found out.  I’m still not sure how.  It doesn’t mean that my immediate family was some raging psycho farm, but something wasn’t OK.  Sometimes it’s perceived, and sometimes it’s actual dysfunction- but the end result is actual dysfunction for somebody. When I got older and worked as an RN in a psych hospital with adolescents, I saw it all the time.  The family needed someone to direct their troubles at.  The kids are easy targets- and often are acting out in some way because of the dysfunction.

My mom was not a warm type of mom.  Even the social worker caught on to that during the one  interview with my folks.  My mom wasn’t ‘evil’ or ‘bad’-she just had her own stuff.  She and my dad had both lost newborn sons about two years apart from the same disease, before they were 25 and 29 years old (roughly).  That’s pretty young to deal with such loss. Dad turned to work, and mom just shut down.  Now, they’d be offered counseling without that being seen as ‘weak’ or ‘defective’ (as therapy often was up until, and through, my treatment for anorexia).  It just wasn’t done by ‘normal’ families.  So a lot of hurting people were stuck in their pain, alone.  My mom wasn’t in a place to be nurturing a baby when she was terrified something would happen to me, and she stayed at a distance to protect herself. It wasn’t about me.  She was in pain.

Anyway, I was at the hospital for about 3 1/2 months that first admission.  I did better, but eating disorder treatment didn’t address the core issues of self-worthlessness and overall loathing of taking up space on the planet.  That wasn’t about dying either.  It was about feeling like  I just shouldn’t ‘be’.  It took many years to get to the core reasons I was so self-destructive via the eating disorders.  It made me the designated family crackpot.  That seemed handy, and it was a big secret to anybody outside of our home and very close family; I’m still not sure most of them ‘know’.  I’m not proud of it, but keeping things secret just perpetuates disorder.   NO family gets through this life without something dysfunctional going on.   Everybody has stuff.  It hurts less when it doesn’t seem to be so shameful.

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2 thoughts on “The Designated Nut At Age Eighteen

  1. I like what you said about no individual in a family reaching that point without there being some family dysfunction.
    My family is “perfect.”
    Honestly. That’s what I thought until 3-4 years ago. :-/ Then my life was unraveling, I saw a counselor at my school thinking she’d “fix me real quick” and I’d move on… but she said after the first appointment that she couldn’t help me and I needed clinical help. She referred me off-campus. I was shocked. A year and change later, my sister was severely anorexic.
    Clearly, something isn’t right. I’m still struggling… a lot. And my sister is AWOL.
    But how do you find out what it is?
    We probably need family counseling. But I’m not sure anyone other than my oldest brother would agree…

    • I’m sorry I”m seeing this SO late !
      Yeah, until I was raped in 1987 (about 5 years after the nut farm), and someone showed me LISTS of dysfunctional/abusive behaviors. Until then, I didn’t get it.

      Check out Charles Winfield’s book about the Inner Child (I don’t remember the full title). Might have the last name a little off (it’s late tonight ! ). That’s a great book for identifying what isn’t right.

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