Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

It was 5am. My boyfriend, Sam, was idling in the dark driveway while I wrestled my extra-large suitcase down the stairs to his car. It was my first day of eating disorder clinic and I had no idea what to pack — so I packed everything. I scanned my apartment to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything and remembered an old pack of cigarettes I had hidden from myself in an oven mitt during my many attempts to quit. The clinic website said if you came in as a smoker, you could smoke during your treatment. I grimaced as I stuffed the pack into my suitcase. NOT GREAT, Emily, but I guess conquering one thing at a time is better than nothing.

Two hours later, we arrived at a house with a large archway and red clay tile roof. Sam idled in the driveway while I slowly approached the wooden double doors and rang the doorbell. A sturdy woman with thick forearms and khaki shorts opened the door. “Good morning!” she bellowed. “Let’s get you checked in! Then I’ll go through your stuff!” I turned to watch Sam drive away and hesitated outside the door wondering what I had just signed myself up for.

The hearty woman held out a flimsy paper gown and told me to undress for weigh-in and vital signs. I stood in the gown that only covered half my bum and peered around the door frame as she unzipped my suitcase and began sifting through my clothes.

She held up my spaghetti strap tank tops and tossed them into a pile — “Too much skin!” She held up my yoga shorts and twisted her mouth into a confused frown — “No bathing suits allowed!” She held up my sundresses and tossed each one into the quickly mounting pile. I tried to speak, but my words evaporated into a heavy sigh. She zipped up my suitcase and handed me a stack of in-processing paperwork. “You’ll get those clothes back when you leave.”

In a daze, I sat down at the head of a long wooden kitchen table. At the other end sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen with naturally sun kissed long blonde hair. She was covered in tattoos, and I lost count of how many ear piercings she had. Her legs didn’t quite reach the floor as she swung them back and forth while munching her morning cereal.

“Hey, um… I’m sorry to bother you…can I ask you something? Would you happen to have any extra sweatpants? I don’t…I don’t have any clothes now.”

The beautiful girl smiled and let out a snorting laugh. “Oh my god the same thing happened to me!! Pam is such a hard ass, but she means well. I totally have pants you can borro. I’m Kate by the way. You’re in luck because tomorrow is Target Day! We can get whatever we want as long as it’s under 25 bucks.” She peered around kitchen to make sure Pam was out of earshot and lowered her voice. “We also get decaf Starbucks!”


“Yeah, caffeine isn’t allowed here, duh. It suppresses your appetite.”

“Fuck,” I whispered. “But we can smoke?”

Kate started cackling, “Right!? It makes NO sense. But I don’t question it. Everyone smokes here even if they’ve never smoked a day in their life. I literally count down the minutes until our smoke breaks.”

She swirled her spoon and stared into her empty bowl. “I know it’s bad for you, but it’s a little moment of peace, you know?”

I called Sam a couple days later to let him know I was ok, but I needed more clothes. The next morning, I sat at the breakfast table and Pam said she had a surprise for me. Sam had come very early that morning and a suitcase was waiting for me in the hall. She didn’t tell me he had come because I wasn’t allowed have visitors during this period of treatment.

Sam had been here. He had been close enough to touch and I had no idea.

I broke down for the first time right there while all the girls stared at me from across the table. Kate slid her chair up next to mine and put her tattooed arm around my shoulders. A quiet girl named Alice with a million freckles and a dozen homemade bracelets on each skinny wrist reached out and took my hand. No one told me to stop crying.

Over the next few weeks, I quickly learned that there is not much “recovery time” in recovery. Each day began at 6:30am with us girls lined up outside the exam room wearing our gowns. The nurse greeted us each morning with a hug and a clipboard to record our vital signs and make sure we kept our backs turned during weigh ins. She distracted us during our weekly blood work with pictures of her latest boyfriend. We followed a packed schedule of individual therapy, group therapy, writing sessions, art classes, and mindfulness practice. No phones, no tv, and no mirrors except for the one in the upstairs bathroom, which we were allowed to use morning and night. The food was surprisingly incredible, and I found myself looking forward to our 3 meals and 3 snacks a day.

The other girls and I were quickly exchanging inside jokes and found ways to make the work of each day feel a little lighter. Alice covered my therapy journal with sparkly “You got this!” stickers and made me one of her colorful string bracelets. She left a sticky note on my meal plan that read, “Trust the Triple T!” This was a reference to “Trust the Treatment Team,” our mantra for when your stomach felt like it was going to explode, you were sick of talking about your feelings and your childhood, and you wanted to give up and go home. It meant trust the healing process even though it’s scary, weird, and insanely uncomfortable.

Kate and I drew out tattoo ideas, and she promised to come with me for my first one once this was all over. We lit each other’s cigarettes and fantasized about how good that first jolt of a regular Starbucks latte would feel. I admitted to her I was too scared to go to the voluntary AA meetings at night, not because I was scared to talk about alcohol, but because I didn’t want anyone to see me like this, especially any guys. She said my fear meant that I should probably push myself to go and that she’d be right there with me. We sat together at the AA meeting that night in our oversized sweatshirts and crooked ponytails. We let our stretched and swollen stomachs stick out, which we had learned was a normal part of the recovery process. I still felt self-conscious and cumbersome and like I took up too much space, but at least I didn’t feel alone.

A couple weeks later, we walked into our nutrition class and immediately noticed something was different. Our regular nutritionist, who always gently reminded us that food was our medicine, was gone. In her place stood a spindly, tightly compact woman in the skinniest of skinny jeans. Even when sitting down I felt too big to be in the same room as her.

She began a lecture on complex carbohydrates and why they are “healthier” than simple carbohydrates. She explained she doesn’t typically eat pasta because it has too many carbs, but when she’s running a lot, she’ll allow herself whole wheat pasta.

My jaw dropped and my eyes widened as I stared at this stranger who had just violated every eating disorder recovery rule in a single breath.

I turned to catch the eyes of the girls, but they were all staring blankly, unblinking, up at this skinny jeaned intruder. Didn’t she know that we weren’t supposed to think of food in black and white terms, like healthy vs. unhealthy, good vs. bad? Didn’t she know that food wasn’t supposed to be “allowed” based on whether we had exercised? Didn’t she understand that recovery meant not being afraid of food?

I could hear my faint, yet clear eating disorder voice in my head. How come she got to have rules about food? How come she got to run and feel light and free and in control while I have to fucking sit here, not allowed to exercise or choose my own food or have ANY control at all!? How come I have to feel the full weight of my body that isn’t restricted and takes up space and is literally expanding from the inside out? How come I had to sit here and feel the full weight of recovery?

I felt enraged, I felt trapped, I felt jealous. This was my eating disorder standing right in front of me, and I missed it.

The woman finished her lecture and left, and we all sat silently around the table even though we knew we’d be late for our next class. I wondered if they could hear the same voice that I was hearing that called us back to our eating disorders.

I felt a familiar pang in my stomach and winced as I shifted around in my seat. I was surprised to hear my own words cut through the silence.

“Thank god she’s gone. I’ve been holding in a fart for a fucking hour. Guess I ate too much pasta!”

Kate let out a snort and the room was soon filled with her signature wicked cackling. Alice leaned over the table and rested her freckled face in her hands. “Ok so it’s not just me — that was super messed up, right? Can you even imagine saying you don’t eat pasta to the Triple T!?”

I grabbed some paper and began to doodle myself as a giant beached Zoloft ball in a hooded sweatshirt calling out for PASTAAAA, and we laughed until tears streamed down our faces. It was the first time I had heard Ria laugh, a soft-spoken skinny girl with jet black hair. Wait — scratch that. It was the first time I had seen her smile.

I had no idea of making fun of myself or what we had just been through was the right thing to do in that moment. I had no idea if I was being offensive or terrible or if I was making a mistake. All I knew is these girls and I had been fighting like hell to stay in recovery, and I wanted to somehow protect us as best I knew how. We had used humor to get through difficult moments up until that point. It just seemed to fit us.

We kept laughing until Pam came in to hurry us to our next class. We were still giggling about my pasta monster that night as we lay in bed, trying to ignore those sharp growing pains in our stomach.

I was eventually able to forgive that woman in my heart. She clearly had no idea how to work with eating disorder patients, and I knew she didn’t mean to trigger us. I told the Triple T what happened, and they promised to figure out what had gone so wrong. But that moment taught me that life outside treatment would be full of unpredictable triggers, and it was going to be up to us to protect ourselves however we could in those moments.

I don’t think I would have survived treatment without the ability to laugh with those girls — or rather, with those women. It was our collective acknowledgment that recovery is hard, painful, and weird, but it can also connect us. In that moment, our laughter was louder that our eating disorder voices. Food was indeed our medicine, but laughter was a close second.



I write about joyful moments and lessons learned from challenging life experiences.

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Emily Warren

I write about joyful moments and lessons learned from challenging life experiences.