This past Fall came quicker than ever after a summer full of therapy and appointments to try to get me into a more stable mindset. I was nervous for the start of school and softball, but I was also overly optimistic. The excitement of getting back into the swing of things blinded me from the obstacles that were going to face me in terms of making sure I stayed stable enough to stay active on the softball team.
The scary part about an eating disorder is that what makes you a great athlete can also make you incredibly sick. I am sure I could write an entire post on this issue, but I learned in my freshman year that in order to survive our run test and particularly hard workouts, I had to disconnect from my body and really tap into my mental strength. While this can be a huge asset in terms of athletics and pushing through pain, it also allowed me to be really good at ignoring any signs of hunger when I wasn’t eating, ignoring any type of physical pain from overexercising, and ignoring any signs of malnourishment.
It was other signs that had less to do with physical pain that made me realize how much my body was suffering. I have never napped even when I was a kindergartener, I always rebelled against any sort of nap time. When I reached July of this past year, I was unable to function after 3 pm without getting at least two hours of sleep. My body was exhausted and felt like it had been drained of everything it was worth. In addition to this, my hair also began falling out in chunks, and I began noticing bald spots on my head. I also started spotting bruises on my body that would pop up on my without me having any knowledge of where they came from.
My body was falling apart, and my ability to smile it off was dwindling. In eating disorder treatment, there is this unspoken rule for therapists and dietitians that you see if outpatient care is fitting for two weeks, and if there is no sign of improvement, then it is time to start looking into a higher level of care. After our team went on a team bonding trip that was designed to test mental and physical toughness, I came home knowing that what I was doing was not sustainable. My providers and I began looking into a higher level of care in The Triangle area.
The last week of September, I admitted myself into an intensive outpatient program at The Carolina House in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was five hours a day, seven days a week. However, I went into this level of care because I would still be able to go to class and attend a portion of practice while still playing in fall games. My coaches and teachers were incredibly understanding and accommodating, but the pressure of school and softball ultimately ended up being too much while I was also in treatment. Making the decision to step up, into an even higher level of care, was the most daunting decision I have ever had to make. I knew I would be entering an environment where all my control would be taken away and my life as I knew it would be put completely on hold. But I was slowly realizing that this life I was living was not sustainable or worth living unless I made my mental and physical health a priority.
On October 7th I withdrew from school, took a break from the softball team, and my coach drove me to Carolina House residential treatment program in Durham, North Carolina, only ten minutes from the UNC campus. The uncertainty of what my time here would look like had my heart in my stomach. Upon leaving, my coach looked at me and said, “If things here don’t go well and your health isn’t being made a priority, you call and we will get you out of here. But you can’t leave here just because it gets hard.” This proved to be some of the best advice as the next seven weeks were some of the most challenging weeks of my life and I watched numerous girls admit themselves only to sign an AMA form (Against Medical Advice) and leave a day later.
Sticking this out and dedicating all my time and energy to eating disorder recovery was one of the most difficult and empowering things I have ever done. It made me feel a level of investment in myself, my future, and my life that I had not felt in a very long time. Having been suicidal and doubting my own worth everyday for the last seven months, it took a lot of soul searching for me to choose to show up for myself and my future everyday even when I didn’t see how that future could ever play out.
Every ounce of privacy and independence was stripped upon entering Carolina House, and it was suffocating to be quite honest. We had weights and vitals in the morning, then breakfast, then therapy, then morning snack, then more therapy, then lunch, then more therapy, then afternoon snack, then more therapy, then dinner, then an hour of cell phone time, and then night snack and bed. Every day was the same and everything centered around food and therapy, two things that bring up a hell of a lot of anxiety for individuals with an eating disorder.
For those who don’t know much about eating disorders, eating disorder behaviors whether they be over-exercising, restricting, binging, or purging, they all help numb out the pain and serve as a coping mechanism. The goal of residential treatment is 24/7 monitoring but also the ability to be in a monitored setting while the eating disorder, something you have relied on to cope with anxiety and depression, is taken away completely. It takes 21 days to break a habit, so while you are breaking the eating disorder habits, you have the opportunity to find alternative, healthier coping skills.
My right to have privacy in the bathroom, to walk around, to stand up when I wanted to, to choose what and how much I was eating, all of it was taken away. I thought I had mastered self-control prior to going into treatment. Honestly, I felt pride having the “self-control” to not eat cookies, ice cream, and whatever else I deemed to be “unhealthy.” By only eating quinoa, chicken, fruit, and acái bowls, I believed I was becoming a self-disciplined athlete. For anyone who believes their self-control around food makes them morally superior, I can tell you that I have been there, and I hope that someday you figure out that it does not. I discovered true self-control and self-discipline while having to be sedentary for seven weeks, eating three meals and three snacks every day, and doing what society tells everyone to fear, gaining weight. At that time, gaining weight was one of my biggest fears, and having to just sit with the anxiety, depression, and discomfort felt unbearable at times.
I was able to visit with Matt, Poppy, my coaches, and my teammates on Sundays during visitation hours, and they were so incredibly supportive and always showed up. However, the one thing I learned was that this experience was my own and something that unless you were directly experiencing, could never be fully understood. I think this is where my relationships with the other fourteen girls in the house came into play. I met some of the most incredible people, one being a fellow athlete who I am grateful enough to still be close friends with today.
This connection to other women who “got it” was incredible and something that I didn’t know I was missing until I found it. I was able to be fully understood without having to explain myself, and there were so many shared experiences and emotions during my time at Carolina House. The opportunity to witness their courage and resiliency was inspiring and helped me to stick it out especially at the beginning of my time there.
When my discharge day came from residential treatment, I was definitely ready to get the heck out of there. I left fully dedicated to my recovery, blind to the face that this would be one of the easier parts, not knowing that my transition into PHP (partial hospitalization program) and IOP (intensive outpatient program) would prove to be even tougher as recovery went from being forced to something I had to choose. I left my residential treatment team not knowing if I would ever return to the softball field as a player. I had realized the addiction that I had to exercise and the commitment to my perfectionism would make a return to the sport challenging yet not impossible.
Throughout treatment I would continuously say, “I just cannot handle the big pressure moments. I am not sure if the anxiety I experience during softball is worth it.” I feared the numbness in my hands, the shaking of my legs, and the lump in my throat that I had felt on game days. I knew that UNC Softball was a huge blessing and something I wanted to be a part of but being back in the spotlight with the fear of that anxiety creeping back in scared the hell out of me. However, I also worried that I was avoiding my anxiety by not returning to softball, and that someday I would be disappointed that I didn’t fight for what I wanted. While many didn’t know the debate about my return to softball and just assumed I would come back, there were many hours and days spent weighing the pros and cons and digging into my values to find out what I truly wanted.
Spoiler Alert, I ended up returning to play but the highs and lows that have occurred and the navigation and support it required is something that deserves and warrants its own post.