Send in the SWAT team and put me in witness protection
A mother’s plea to be Safe With Accessible Treatment for her eating disorder
The growing recognition of the need for support for caregivers of people with an eating disorder is welcome, but one group is falling through the cracks. Adults living with an eating disorder often need to be their own caregivers. They struggle daily, part functioning, living a part life dominated by their eating disorder bully. They are often mothers of young children, and they need more support in their home, to avoid the crises that otherwise occur. Forty years ago, I was one of these women. And things are not much better for women today. They need, in the words of Sarah, a SWAT team.
– June Alexander
I’m writing in my diary, trying to describe my struggle to access eating disorder treatment in the past two years. You see, I have battled a fairly severe relapse of anorexia nervosa and major depression disorder. One that I struggled with for most of my young life; and beat by myself in my early 20’s although I had some horrible experiences in eating disorder treatment along the way.
Right now though, I feel I’ve lost myself. I’ve lost touch with the things that I had been hanging onto. The things that for so long, had given me a meaningful and fulfilling life.
I’m lying in a hospital bed. I can’t get comfortable. I can’t seem to get a grip on my anxiety and agitation despite the highly developed skills in mindfulness, distraction, emotional regulation and soothing that I have cultivated over the years. This is because I am terrified.
The events that led to this admission have left me feeling broken. That’s right. I feel I’m bad. Unworthy. Unlovable. Good for nothing. A disgrace. I don’t deserve help. I’m getting help and it’s my fault I’m not doing what I need to do to get better. It’s my fault I still have an eating disorder because I should know how to fix that. I’m difficult, too difficult for everyone. I feel ashamed. And now I feel unsafe.
In recent weeks my world seemed to be crumbling around me. The stressors became too much. I ran out of reserves; the light had gone from a dimming to a slight flickering. What did I need?
I needed the SWAT team to come to my rescue. I needed them to whip in, with their special skills, save me from the demons in my mind and tactfully stand close to me and protect me from harm. I need their guns and their armoury because I feel stripped of my own capacities. I need the SWAT team to know how to operate together; to know how to take me to safety and how to protect me and ensure everyone on the team is operating well.
I need them to get me to witness protection. Not the kind where you’re left with your new identity and told to get on with it; but the kind where you’re kept in a safe house for a period, under safeguard; with a crew of mindful and watchful minders who know how to keep you safe; and know how to allay your fears. The minders are kind and remind you their role is to keep you safe; and they will make sure you are. Because you are in witness protection now. Witness protection means: “We are going to help you.”
I need a safehouse. I need witness protection. A safehouse isn’t where you lose all your choices. A safehouse is where you start the processes of feeling safely. I believe that this happens differently for everyone.
But this latest hospital experience does not feel like a safe house. This hospital experience feels like being taken hostage. When you are taken hostage; you panic. You build your own fence; your own safehouse with a fence of pillows and cave of a blanket, and within your mind. And when you panic, your sympathetic nervous system fires rapidly: fight, freeze, flight (and in my case, recite…everything I know…it’s hard to argue in the face of an informed educated patient).
My panic left me further encapsulated in my own private hell; trapped within the split realities within my mind. The hopelessness and helplessness I felt took me to a dark place where I finally realized I’d lost myself. I’d lost the light; and lost the observing self that was always there, ever present, myself looking after myself. My observing self had been sucked into this darkness like a dementor preys on fear.
When one reaches the depths of this darkness, one is not okay. One is unable to have courageous conversations with staff members who appear adversarial. So right now I feel defeated. I have failed another admission. Failed my doctor. Failed my family. Failed myself.
In all areas of my life, things aren’t going well. My family is struggling with the impact of growing up with a chronically unwell mother, among other health challenges in our family; my marriage; my friendships have all but faded away; my work life has been in a holding pattern for two years; and suddenly it wasn’t just my “now;” my future also was becoming bleak and uncertain.
I am grateful to be here, grateful to have survived. But when you have an eating disorder, and you become suicidal this is a lethal complication. Combine the increased risks of suicide in eating disorders to the general population and it’s 10 times more likely than in people the same age. Add to that a bunch of trauma, like for me; and you add the trauma statistics that you are 15 percent more likely than others your age to commit suicide. I’ve been sick for two years. I’ve been in hospital more than 20 times.
I’m reassured there is hope. I know this, because I have beaten this awful illness before. But eating disorder recovery doesn’t just happen because you wish it too. It doesn’t just happen because you can list off all the misery it’s causing you and you can miraculously start eating healthily, stop your compulsive behaviors, like running a long way each day, and start a journey towards being well.
At the moment, I’m a tight knot, and we can’t find the string. We can’t find the place to start. I know that when we do there will be much untangling along the way. I accept this. But right now, the knot is so tight, and the treatment options so minute; I’ve lost faith that anyone will stick in there with me. I don’t have my secure base, my safehouse. And I don’t have a SWAT team. But this is the reality of eating disorders.
Sarah is mother to three young children, aged three, five and seven. She is also a clinical psychologist, who has focused on developing her specialist skills in the treatment of patients with eating disorders.
Sarah’s strong drive to provide services for this group of patients stems from her own experience as a young teenager, when she underwent treatment for an eating disorder. At age 13, she spent four months in an adult psychiatric ward of a local public hospital, with no visitors, no access to a bathroom, and little to occupy herself with but a pack of cards, and eventually, in the last month, some school. She was accompanied and observed showering, and cleaning her teeth in a bathroom with a large orange piece of vinyl covering the mirror to her eye line. She felt a deep sense of shame and built up strong walls within to cope with this treatment.
This treatment profoundly impacted her life and left her with a fire in her belly to become a clinical psychologist herself and to do treatment better.
Unfortunately, more than two decades on, Sarah has experienced a relapse of her illness and has learned that treatment is not much better. The 13-year-old girl in Sarah is driving her to come out and say: “This is not good enough; this can’t go on any longer.”
Reach out for help
If you need help for your eating disorder, or for someone you care for, contact: