Running on Empty

The fall of 1981 was one of isolation, hopelessness, and being totally overwhelmed.  I was supposed to be having a wonderful time as a freshman at the University of Illinois- Urbana-Champaign campus.  I was 17 years old when I got there, and had become seriously anorexic the summer before when working as a nature counselor at a summer church camp I loved.  I wasn’t super skinny, but my mind was a total eating disorder trap.  Every thought included how to avoid eating, how to ‘get rid’ of food (I used laxatives- 10 of them 4 times a day), and how to avoid being noticed.  I bombed that last one pretty quickly.

My roommate and I didn’t last long. She thought I was too quiet, and requested to move out (which she did).  Looking back, I can’t blame her; watching someone self-destruct and be so consumed by the eating disorder had to be miserable for her.  We both had double rooms to ourselves- which just meant more isolation for me.  Outside of classes, I spent a lot of time walking around campus, or taking the bus to various parts of town, and just walking.  When I was in the dorm, I’d look out of my 12th floor window, and follow the lights of cars as they drove through the countryside at night.  I played a Christian radio station for comfort, and just wondered if I’d get better.  Then I’d get scared that ‘getting better’ meant eating, and I’d fall back into the ‘starvation’ mode with even more determination.  Other than the background music, and the fighting in my head, most nights were eerily quiet.  Those who know the insulating effect of heavy snow, and how it mutes most sound, will understand what my head ‘sounded like’ for the many months I was there.

I’m not sure how I lasted as long as I did.  My weight was relatively stable, but the starving/bingeing/purging patterns were also how I was ‘living’.  I’d take 10 laxatives at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime with a 16 ounce glass bottle of Diet Rite cola.  If I ‘had’ to be seen eating at dinner (only meal where I’d be noticed- missing, eating, or acting weird), I’d have an apple or half of a baked potato. That would trigger intense guilt, and I’d run up the 12 flights of stairs to my room.  Then I’d get homework done, and go back to watching the lights of the cars in the night.

When I did try to get to sleep, it was another battle.  There were many nights when I’d watch one specific star as it moved across the sky out of my window.  Many times, I’d get up to go to the bathroom (spent a lot of time in there with 40 laxatives per day), and pass out before I could get back to my room.  I’d be sent out by ambulance, rehydrated, and sent back to the dorm.  They’d lecture me about how unhealthy eating disorders were, and I’d nod, then go back to my crazy routine.

What stands out the most from that semester, besides being so sick, were those nights of such ‘silence’ as I watched those car lights (and occasional police car’s red flashes ) move across the view I had from that 12th floor dorm room.  I’d wonder what those people were doing, and if they were in their own living hell.  I’d wonder if I’d ever get out of the mess in my head.  I’d wonder why I couldn’t just snap out of it and eat, without the blinding feeling of guilt for having fed myself.  It was like I was punishing myself for existing and having human requirements to survive.  But I had no good reason why.  I’d been born there (and placed for adoption), but the starvation (and diet contests) had been brewing for a few years- so the whole adoption/birthplace thing didn’t really pan out.  My mom had been constantly on me about my weight (when I wasn’t fat).  Maybe I just picked up where she left off.  I don’t know.  I eventually did ‘click’ with the explanation given by Peggy Claude Pierre- that the ‘negative mind’ was the one in control during eating disorders, and refused to allow the anorexic/bulimic to tolerate self-care and survival.

But those nights were so muffled and eerie.  I won’t ever forget those.  Or how scared I was.  And alone.  I had several people looking after me from their assigned ‘roles’ (therapist, resident director, resident advisor, and several dorm-mates), but nobody understood.  They each tried to help in some way, but I was on my own, with something I couldn’t handle. I refused to tell my parents (I saw that as failure, which wasn’t allowed).  So I tried to just keep going… but how long could I go on fumes?  Many days I had fewer than 300 calories.  When I binged, it was a disgusting amount of food, but it possibly gave me enough of a ‘boost’ to keep going. Laxatives don’t remove food; they remove water- so some nutrients got in… but I was running on empty, and running OUT of time.

And it was so, so quiet when I looked out at the world from that 12th floor dorm room window.

University of IllinoisOctober 1981

University of Illinois
October 1981

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.