A Story of Recovery:
By Christine McFarlane
The shout out
“It’s dinner time”
Used to be the three words I dreaded the most. I remember sitting on my bed, hunched over my night table furiously coloring in the book I had bought at the hospital gift store on one of my trips off of the 8th floor hospital ward.
I want to ignore the call out, but knew that if I did, my doctor would be told that I was being difficult. I put my markers away in their plastic wrap, and put them down on my table where my poster lay. I swing my legs over the edge of my bed, and stand up. I feel a wave of dizziness; I stop, grab the table beside me and close my eyes until it passes.
I walk slowly out of the room, pulling my sweater around me closely, as I feel the cold from the hospital’s a/c system, and shiver. I try not to pay attention to the scurrying of the other patients around me, as they head into the dining room.
I hear the attendant start to call out the patient’s name and their room numbers.
“801A, 801B, 801C”
I don’t have to sit with everyone. My doctor has decided that I need to be kept an eye on. He wants me behind the nurse’s desk, so that they can see whether I am eating or not. I try to tell myself that I don’t like this arrangement, but secretly I do because it means that I don’t have to be near anyone else. I like being alone, separated from everyone else, because then I won’t have to hear the comments from the other patients
“Christine, why aren’t you eating?” or
“I’ll take your food, if you’re not going to eat it.”
I didn’t want people taking my food. It was my food, I always thought to myself, even if it did mean I wasn’t going to touch it.
I pull out the cold plastic chair that’s in front of me and prepare to sit down. I look at the tray in front of me and subconsciously go over what I’ll try to eat and what I won’t touch. Food occupies my mind ninety per cent of my waking hours. The other ten percent that occupies my mind is how I can fool others around me into believing that I’m trying to get better and that I’m going to start eating. Food is my enemy.
I have been in the hospital this time for over a month. I remember when I got admitted; the nurses shook their heads and said
“Christine, you have to stop this, you have to start eating.” And they would ask
“You want to get better don’t you?”
I couldn’t explain to anyone why I was so afraid to eat. I just knew that this disease-anorexia nervosa had all begun with a passing comment from a classmate in grade 8 and had escalated from there.
“Look at you! You’re so fat; you can’t fit into your desk.”
The desks were small, and I fit into them fine, but she was the type of girl everyone was envious of. She was pretty, popular, thin and a straight A student. I was the new kid who came into the class halfway through the school year. I stood out from everyone else, not only was I the new kid, but also I was so painfully shy that I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone. I was also brown, in a sea of white faces, the only First Nations student in a small town called Kingsville.
My eating disorder began a few months after that comment was made. At the time I was just about to turn 13 years old, and I had been placed in my third foster home. I was going to be starting grade nine and I felt lost. I couldn’t tell anyone about this feeling because even I was unsure of why it was there and what it had begun to stir inside me.
My mind couldn’t grasp that the transition of moving to a new place and getting used to new people a mere few months before and essentially starting all over again could be playing a role in the turmoil I was feeling.
The feelings of confusion and feeling lost perpetuated my eating disorder. I didn’t know how to deal with the feelings I was experiencing, so it turned to something that I later came to understand as being something I knew I could control-my intake of food. It began with cutting back foods that I normally enjoyed- no more peanut butter and bread, no more chips or ice cream, and definitely no more fried foods. I said good-bye to a lot of foods, without really understanding why.
My foster parents were perplexed at what I was doing. I remember when my foster parents nonchalantly asked me during a conversation we were having on the deck in their backyard
“What is wrong Christine?” and
“Why aren’t you having breakfast anymore?” and my response was
“I really don’t like having that meal anymore.”
“Not even peanut butter and toast?” my foster mom asked.
“That’s your favourite food, Christine”
I sat there and without so much of a reaction to this question, I said
“I really have to watch everything I take in, and peanut butter and toast is one of those things to watch.”
When they asked me
I could not give them a clear explanation. All rationale was lost. The list of foods I couldn’t touch grew bigger and bigger, until it became a list that I had to absolutely live by. This meant not eating any foods that were mixed together, eating anything with sauces on them, no butter or margarine, only having diet pop if I was going to drink any pop at all, no milk, or desserts. To go off this regimented list meant setting myself off into an anxious frenzy of worry, and actions that I still feel a lot of shame about.
Mealtimes became fraught with anxiety as I tried to figure out and keep to the list that I had acquired in my head, and had also secretly hidden in my journal. My foster parents at the time, didn’t know what to make of what I was doing, but they tried to accommodate me with things they knew I would eat- while everyone else would have a heaping plate of spaghetti or potatoes and meat, I would sit at the table with a bowl of plain rice, and twirl my fork around the bowl and take bits at a time. Rice quickly became a staple at every meal; it was what I called a ‘safe food’ in my early days of anorexia nervosa, I didn’t have the desire to get rid of it as soon as it hit my mouth.
Anorexia nervosa consumed me for the remainder of my stay in my foster home. I went from a quiet yet healthy looking kid, to someone who became more withdrawn, moody and a shadow of her former self. I no longer laughed or smiled with ease. My foster parents had to take measures that they had not had to take before with me - locking their freezer with a big lock so that their freezie pops wouldn’t just disappear because for some reason I believed that if I just ate a freezie that would sustain me. They had to hide their milk of magnesia and their occasional boxes of laxatives because they never knew when I would reach into the medicine cabinet and take them, and with my emotions all over the place, and the tantrums I threw, they occasionally had to hold me down just so that I wouldn’t hurt myself or anyone else around me.
Back at the hospital, as I am sitting in the cold plastic chair behind the nurse’s desk, I look at the food on my tray. I wrinkle my nose when I see that my tray consists of a salad, soup and goop they call macaroni and cheese. One of the nurses comes up and stands beside my chair. I feel her hand come down upon my shoulder and I look up at her as she says
“Christine, at least eat the salad.”
I nod my head at her; I can feel the tears threatening to spill. I grab the closest utensil, and as the nurse turns to walk away, I eat one piece of lettuce, and grimace. To me, this is torture.
Long hospital stays were the norm for me in the throes of my eating disorder. The doctors were often treating me for more than just my eating disorder because I also suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, and depression. The hospital served as my refuge from the chaos I felt on the inside and on the outside. Today I am free from that confined refuge, after much hard work.
Treatment was often difficult no matter where I was because I often fought to comply with what my doctors and therapists were trying to teach me. Over the course of being in and out of inpatient and outpatient treatment, I came across a catalogue called Gurze Books, and though the place was based in California, I gave one of the co-founders a call.
The two people that entered my life after that initial call have become my greatest friends and allies. Over many years, through phone calls, letters, and email, Lindsey Hall-Cohn and Leigh Cohn offered me the love I had always yearned for, and the support to help guide me to the recovery point I am at today.
Though I believe that food will always be an issue for me, and it’s something that I will always have to be conscious about, I am no longer in the throes of an eating disorder that could very well have killed me. Instead I am here today, smiling and saying
I have my life back.
Author: Christine McFarlane, published in Yellow Medicine Review, and various other publications.
The above story is an example of how powerful healing through writing can be. Christine McFarlane was diagnosed with anorexia complicated by PTSD, anxiety and depression. She is on her way to recovery in no small part due to her continuous use of writing [poetry and story] to express the traumatic life experiences and cultural reclamation. Hard work, healing through story, creative expression, reconciling with food in a traditional way, culture and consistent support were the major elements of her recovery. (Lee Maracle)