You guys might remember a few months ago, I wrote about a friend of mine who had died as a result of a long battle with anorexia. Well, maybe about a year before she died, this friend mentioned in an email to me that she had once been at a long-term Christian treatment program where the other patients attempted to exorcise her. I became interested in researching this place, and, thinking I might write about it, interviewed my friend about her experience there. I eventually abandoned the project because I heard another journalist was quite far along in writing an expose of this treatment program (which will go unnamed but probably wouldn’t be difficult for the intrepid Googler to find) although to my knowledge that journalist’s piece has never been released. I guess the motivation now is because in the wake of my friend’s death, I want people to know about her and her life and what she went through, not for any “awareness” or “stigma” reasons, just because she was a goodhearted person and the ordinary folk of the world don’t get New York Times obits (although sometimes I fantasize about a column that highlights the stories of the non-famous, which can be just as moving).
Describe your religious background, and your personal beliefs, as of then and now.
I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grammar school as well as high school. My family and I went to church every Sunday and my faith was part of my up bringing. Everything from holidays to school gatherings to CYO (Catholic youth organization) basketball and Girl Scouts was centered around my Catholic faith.
Did you ever feel personally doubtful of your faith? Or did you just always accept it?
I used to always accept it but since being sick I have become doubtful and angry. “Why do I have to have this?” “Why can’t I seem to get better like everyone else” “why can’t I be normal and function” etc…. I still struggle with that. But as I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser) and have had new experiences and met more people, I realize God didn’t do this to me!! I just have to use what I have today and do the best I can. And even though these past 12 years have been hell, I would’ve never met some great people, traveled to God knows how many states for treatment, and have had some interesting experiences that other people my age and from my background would have ever had or will ever have!
How old were you when you first developed anorexia?
I developed anorexia when I was 12 years old. My parents split when I was very young but we all remained in the same house for financial reasons. Although I don’t think I caused my eating disorder, it definitely contributed to my needing to feel in control in my chaotic head! So my eating disorder started at the beginning of 8th grade while lots of change was taking place. My mom had gone back to work full time. It would be my last year at the grammar school I had grown up in as I would soon be graduating and going into high school. I had hit puberty, got my period, and was starting to develop. I was never overweight but I always felt bigger than my friends who literally had the figures of 8-year-old boys and who didn’t get their periods until high school. I was never teased but was always overly conscientious and uncomfortable in my body. My mom was a big exercise fanatic (tae bo, aerobic, and step classes 4 -5 times a week) and I always felt like if she was exercising, I should, too. Enmeshment much?! It started as a diet (no soda, fruit instead of baked goods and desserts, more exercise) and spiraled from there.
What kind of treatment did you go through before [this place]?
I had a great deal of treatment prior to the Christian facility (6-7 hospitalizations, and various out patients therapists/nutritionists) but all of which were hospital based inpatient eating disorder programs in the tri-state area. Basically I would spend 30 days inpatient, gain what felt like an exorbitant amount of weight, then sent on my merry way with very little support set up! And as soon as I returned home, not knowing how to cope with weight gain and life outside the hospital bubble, I would spiral downwards again, each times lower and lower.
Who made the decision to send you to this place?
My mom found out about the Christian facility from a family member. At this point my family was desperate and at the end of their rope . They had exhausted their finances on treatment for me and fancy shmancy big name doctors who, while they had their heart in the right place, just enabled me to preserve my eating disorder.
How do you figure “enable?”
At that time I was seeing Dr. Ira Sacker, author of Dying to be Thin. He would promise me that if I gained weight I could join him on TV appearances like Entertainment Tonight and Oprah. He never addressed the issues. I was eventually admitted to Princeton University Hospital, where the doctor demanded to know who was following me as I was in imminent danger of having a heart attack or dropping dead. Well we found out the Christian facility was long term, free!!!! treatment program in [Southern city], that [it] was Christian based. They say that the girls who come there have to come on their own accord.
Let me tell you the admission process was ridiculous!!! It took about six to eight months of filling out papers and interviews to finally get a “date” to go. All of these interviews were basically them trying to get me to say I was so desperate and needed the Christian facility and would do whatever it took. There were many over the phone and there was also about a twenty-page application. I remember crying several times on the phone with them saying, “I’ll do whatever it takes.” But now that I think about it my tears were out of shear frustration!! I was waiting months and months to get help and they had me begging them!!! I was sick and needed help and yet they made me wait and beg.
Did they claim they had no beds?
[No.] They said this was the process. Once I was accepted into the program I still had to wait about 1.5 months for a bed.
[But] I needed help and fast! They did have me go to my GP to get his okay that he felt I was safe in a program with no medical monitoring. He knew I had no insurance benefits left and was like, ” What’s the alternative?”
Can you tell me, in as much detail as possible, what happened during your stay?
I was there in 2007 for a few days. Early October.
My dad took me down to the city. The house is gorgeous and clean. Nothing that would indicate it was a treatment facility. Meals were cooked by the girls and were all healthy and organic. I was able to pick what I wanted to eat but had to have a counselor look it over to make sure I took what looked like enough. And at the end of a meal I was to show them I had finished.
Girls there have a whole variety of issues (depression, teen moms, drug abuse, cutting, etc… ) . I was one of 3 other girls with an eating disorder. Although I hate pass judgment, the other two girls were severely emaciated as well and looked like they belonged in a hospital bed…but again who was I to judge. From the first day I was cast aside from the rest of the girls. Although I have no history of purging I was forced to sit in a common area after meals. I couldn’t participate in 95% of the groups because of my low weight.
Meaning, participating in groups was a privilege based on your progress, or they figured you were too mentally compromised?
Both. But also things like outdoor time I was too medically compromised. I basically sat on the couch with “readings” they gave me. I felt like I had done something wrong and that is the way they treated those with eating disorders. On more that one occasion I was told the “devil had its grips on me” and I needed to release it. That basically I was choosing the devil over Christ and would never obtain salvation having anorexia. At one point they “prayed” over me (I use that term loosely because I had never seen praying like that in my years of Catholic school!) They were trying to get the devil out and were repeating prayers in a language unknown to me. More like chanting.
Can you remember how this began?
First they started talking and praying. And as I got more certain and adamant that I was leaving they started with the tongues. At this point I was bawling. They thought I was crying because their exorcism was working; meanwhile, I was crying because I was so scared and freaked out and vulnerable and confused.
I would also like to note that we were not allowed to discuss our issues with the other girls. This I found to be just as upsetting as the whole exorcism technique. Here I am in an unfamiliar place, not allowed to see or call my family for months, no television or media, basically stripped of all my comforts, AND I’m not allowed to talk to the other girls about my struggles? I understand they didn’t want us to commiserate with each other and feed each others illnesses but I couldn’t even express my fear of being away from home or ask how they dealt with the initial introductory period. Instead, the girls who had been there for a few month talked a little too happily about Bible passages. I complied for a few days but when I started to question things
What did you question? Do you remember any of their verbal responses?
Why I wasn’t allowed to talk to other girls, why there was no real therapy, why was I sitting on a couch all day, alone and homesick and anxious as hell. Why the other emaciated girls were shoving rolls down their pants but yet were able to do yoga and go out on outings (I was told it was because they had been there longer). Like why I couldn’t go on outings meanwhile I had gotten the ok to come here and I was never told I wouldn’t be able to participate in certain things. They were very indignant with me. They always knew better. I was anorexic and therefore untruthful and conniving.
The no communication with family was by far the hardest thing for me. With nothing to do but read bible verses and being isolated I was going out of my mind. This was not what I had signed up for.
I was shut down right away. I was “tainted” by outside influences.
How was the decision made to leave? Did anyone––your parents, fellow patients, staff members––try to dissuade you?
I demanded I wanted to speak to my parents after the “exorcism” event They said that I was not allowed to make phone calls until the third month I was there and had signed the paper saying I agreed. They tried for the entire day to dissuade me by telling me about the contract I had singed. [But] by this time I was ready to bolt. And it wasn’t “they are feeding me I’m going to gain weight” fear. This was a kind of “this is some kind of cult” get me out of here” type of fear. Long story short I said I was leaving the program and that was that and I needed I make flight arrangements and legally they could not hold me there. They reluctantly gave me a five-minute call to my dad. In that time I not only had to explain what this place was like and that I wasn’t just crying to come home because I was scared of eating and homesick, I also needed make arrangements for a flight home ASAP.
How did your dad react?
He was the only one who listened. He was also the one who dropped me off and had met the staff so I don’t think he got a good feeling to begin with. It took time for my mom to get that I hadn’t come home just because I wanted to remain sick.
I came home for about a week. My mom didn’t believe me when I told her about [what had happened] and cut me out of her life and went to my Grandma’s house for the time being.
I don’t blame her. After almost 8 months of hyping this up and preparing and packing and talking about how this was going to be “it!” And I was finally going to get better, I had come home after three days. She was devastated that this last option was gone. She had lost hope and was so angry. She said she unless I called them to go back I was not going to be a part of her life. I had no idea what to do. For a quick second, out of pure desperation, I called them back up telling them what was going on. They said, “This door is closed.” I had gotten my chance and wasted it. [I was told] there are so many other girls who were dying to come and willing to do whatever it took. Goodbye. Don’t contact us again.
I basically threw the phone yelled some profanities and thought, “How Christian of them.” I still get email and mailings in the mail from them monthly asking for donations.