Health

Group Therapy for Anorexia Taught Me the Power of Women Supporting Women

There was a time in my life when I never could have imagined that the prospect of eating a single cracker would reduce me to an anxious, sobbing bundle of emotions. But that was before I got sick with anorexia nervosa. After I’d spent a lifetime dabbling with various eating disorders, anorexia latched onto me in my senior year of high school, and I wilted to a soberingly fragile physical and mental state. My one-sided competition to be my thinnest self left me feeling exhausted. I isolated myself from loved ones, I lost my period, and although I was skinny, I wasn’t happy. One day, after over a year of suffering in silence, I looked in the mirror and was terrified by what I saw. I knew that my disease would kill me if I let it. I reached out for help.

I was lucky enough to live near and check into one of the leading eating disorder treatment facilities in the country, which is a privilege that the vast majority of people with eating disorders don’t have. I checked into treatment for anorexia two days before my 19th birthday. The community members and staff consisted solely of women, and the program relied heavily on group therapy.

This brings me back to the cracker.

In one group therapy session, I was trying—really trying—to eat a cracker, but I couldn’t. I burst into tears. When I gathered myself enough to peer around the room, I was met with empathetic, knowing eyes. One of the women, a mother-figure who had been in treatment for longer than I had, said, “That’s how I reacted the first time I did this too. It’s hard, but it gets easier. I promise.” The other community members in the room nodded encouragingly. They also knew it was hard but gets easier because they had been where I was before. In their faces, I saw unwavering support and unflappable bravery. At that moment, I knew that they would become my lifeline if I wanted them to—and I did.

That summer I spent all day, every day with a group of 15 to 20 women, secluded from the outside world at what we facetiously called “eating disorder summer camp.” It was my first encounter with an exclusively women’s environment. We spent most of our time identifying emotions, their functions, and how we respond to them. At least once a day, we had “open process,” a facilitated discussion in which someone shares their anxieties and other community members respond. We saw each other terrified, hopeless, and broken-hearted. We saw each other triggered, sobbing, and vulnerable. We saw each other, we accepted each other, and we loved each other. Fighting for our lives together, we were each other’s safe space.

Our symptoms differed, our backgrounds varied dramatically, and we might not have appeared to share anything in common, but we related to each other. When we couldn’t understand exactly how someone felt, we made sure they knew that they were cherished and safe.

As I settled into the community, I became invested in each person’s recovery. Eventually, inspired by the women I loved and admired, I became invested in my own recovery. I began to look forward to treatment when I realized that it was starting to dispel the darkness anorexia cast inside of me. The other women in the program played an indispensable role in that. As I grappled with the struggles that recovery saddled onto me, I sought their counsel. They gave advice freely, always saturated with love, wisdom, and a darkly ironic self-awareness that came from struggling to practice what they preached.

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