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'It was worst 6 weeks of my life': What happens when you live in an eating disorder ward.

Trigger warning: This story deals with eating disorders and eating disorder treatment.

I was back.

Back in Westmead only months after I’d escaped and the hospital threatened to ‘take action’ against my parents for discharging me.

I’d escaped because I was treated horribly in just a few hours in the adolescent eating disorder ward, and after spending six weeks at another hospital I had no choice but to go back to Westmead Hospital in Sydney.

It was tube time again. So I lay there in emergency with the nurse shoving a nasogastric tube up my nose, wondering desperately where the vital step of numbing spray had gone. You had one job, spray then tube. I was at the hospital, all tubed up for a full 12 hours before they actually turned my Ensure feed on. I realise now how dangerous that was, I was literally on the brink of death.

Mum was panicking that I wasn’t getting any food and it must’ve been terrifying for her and Dad. I got placed in the cardiac ward because of problems with my heart and stayed there for five days. Most nights I played elite levels of Trivial Pursuit on my iPod while I watched the ever-emptying of the weight gain bottle/tube feed.

Those days were probably the sickest I ever was. I couldn’t even get out of bed to brush my teeth or go for a shower. My only option for cleanliness was to strip naked in my bed and have a nurse not much older than me rub my sorry self with a sponge. Not my proudest moment.

I was losing control of my bladder and I realised my body was shutting down. But all I could think about was the bloating caused by the NG tube and how I needed to get out to lose the weight. By the Sunday, after just one day on the tube, my weight had gone up over a kilo. Shit, shit, shit. I was already so out of control; weight gain was being pumped into me and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Alex Rose. (Image supplied.)
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What my head couldn’t fathom was the reality that the gain was actually just fluids from the feed and the IV drip. The numbers were going up and that was not okay. But what was going to be okay was me just staying there for a week to be tube fed, not going anywhere near the adolescent ward and then taking myself home because I was the one in control and calling the shots. No. Not at all. The doctor cunningly agreed with me when I told her my plan, but that wasn’t how things were going to happen, and she knew it.

I was completely in denial of how sick I really was, and my starved body was filled to capacity with fear (and Ensure) about being in the ‘program’. I was quite satisfied in the cardiac ward making sure CPU1 knew that he was never going to beat me in the pursuit of all trivial pursuits.

At least this time I knew what to expect, but knowing that was also, how do I put this… horrifically awful. I thought that when I got to the unit I’d be the only one with a tube in and that I’d be treated really badly. One of those things was correct, and it wasn’t the tube situation. When I got down there I was greeted by a room full of teenage girls with tubes in, straightening their hair, giggling and bitching like we weren’t all in there for life saving treatment.

I felt so out of place and was worried it would be just like the Bachelor mansion, or worse, school. Mum pulled the curtain closed around my bed and I cried my heart out. Begging to be let out was no use at all but that didn’t stop me.

Rudely interrupting my meltdown, the bitter, probably ex-con, unit manager arrived to take me on a tour of the ward and drum the rules into me. It was everything I’d been told on my first little visit before The Escape. Here’s a little taste:

  • After one month if everything's going okay you can go home for one night
  • No mobile phones
  • Have to eat in the dining room and socialise with the other girls
  • A nurse will be watching you eat and you must finish EVERYTHING on the tray. If you leave the tiniest crumb you have to have a whole Ensure drink. No matter how much you've eaten.
  • Monday, Wednesday and Friday we will wake you up really early and weigh you, don't try and drink a lot of water before because we will just test your urine and we will know (yes, we had to actually wee into a bedpan every weigh day)
  • Physio and schoolwork during the day
  • Sometimes if you’re lucky we will take you out to a movie with the other girls
  • No going to the bathroom for an hour after meals
  • No walking around AT ALL, and if you try we will find out and you will be punished

Punishment. That was the aim of the game there. We were all naughty, deceitful kids trying to wrought the system and lose weight at every opportunity. Not seriously ill girls with life threatening mental illnesses that needed to be treated with care and compassion.

We all had to eat in the dining room/ TV room/ group room/ meeting room (low budget I’m thinking) with a nurse staring at us like we were hanging around a presidential motorcade with a gun shaped bag. Some of the nurses admitted to us that they hated working with our unit and some were even thick enough to ask us for weight loss tips. So yeah, really nice dinner table chat.

I had decided I just had to eat to get out of there and was ready to stuff my face. That was until dinner was served. It was like a scene from Man vs Food (put that on your to-watch list). Little me, staring down this huge plate of prawn curry. I had a panicky moment and reconsidered my entire existence and my ability to even function, let alone demolish the plate in front of me. I couldn’t do this. Not this every single day. It helped to have eight other girls staring down at the same doom, but they seemed to be coping so much better, and in my unreliable view, had less on their plate.

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So that began the worst six weeks of my life. Six full weeks of being treated as a criminal and having debilitating anxiety, lightly seasoned with regular meltdowns. I met some nice girls in there but unfortunately we were in the same boat. The boat that was at risk of sinking due to the amount of food we were forced to ingest.

Some of them would do anything they could to lose weight/ get away with not eating, and I found myself picking up more sneaky skills and learning how to get away with eating disorder behaviour.

Lily Collins played Ellen in To The Bone - a film about a home-based eating disorder treatment centre. (Image via Netflix.)

We all knew what each of us were doing; we saw each other squeezing little bits of juice out of the carton and into our bowl of fruit where it would conveniently pretend to be remnants of the melon juice. We were all in it together; no one was going to dob anyone in, because the less the nurses cottoned on to our behaviour the better. And like prison, you snitch; you die. But I have to stress that I wasn’t trying to deceive anyone, I was just so terrified of the huge amounts of food I was consuming that any little bit I could not eat made me feel better. It was a terrible environment for recovery and set me back even more.

And to make things worse there was a feed hierarchy amongst the girls; based on the disgusting liquids pumped through our tubes at night. Yep, night-long feeds on top of six large meals a day. Jevity was the best you could get, lowest calories, then went Ensure, and then there was 2Cal… the darkest, thickest feed that pretty much came with a this will make you fat so fast you might even die label.

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As I was hooked up to my feed at night I’d glance to the bed next to me at the happy green Jevity label, dreaming of such a luxury. Then the nurse would hook me up to my Ensure, and as I deteriorated, 2Cal, whilst I lay there in all my failings for everyone to see. Being the only patient on 2Cal wasn’t the achievement I was hoping for in life. I’d lie in bed feeling disgusting from all the food and gradually get sicker and sicker as the feed reached my stomach. The feeding machine would click every few seconds as it pumped it into my tube, a noise no amount of therapy can make me forget.

Every single day in that place was traumatic and every day I would beg Mum and Dad to let me come home, but they were powerless to do so, this was literally life or death.

Listen: An upset listener is worried about her vegan daughter, who is binge eating lots of non-vegan foods in secret.

On one special day, I was yelled at for showering in the ‘wrong’ bathroom on the ward. My punishment? Food. The unit manager forced an Ensure drink in front of me, her face signifying that I’d just murdered her entire family.

Here’s the prime example of how wrong that hospital got it. Number one, I didn’t refuse to eat any food which was the usual reason to have an Ensure; secondly, they were totally exploiting my fear of food to use it to their advantage; and thirdly, how can they think that using food as a punishment is going to help my recovery from an eating disorder?! It was so wrong to play on my fears to give the bastards a bit of satisfaction. I was supposed to be learning to eat normally and how food is a good thing that fuels my body, not being punished unfairly, and then associating food with being yelled at and in trouble.

That’s just a taste of how they got it so, so wrong there.

I later found a brilliant psychologist who did know how to treat eating disorders, and gently helped me gain control of my life again. At least as far as the eating disorder went. Five years later I’ve been left with severe depression, anxiety and psychotic symptoms, some of which relate to the trauma I went through at that hospital.

Even though my eating disorder is stabilised now, I live my life in constant fear that I’m doing something wrong and am about to be punished, and, as was drummed into me from my admissions, that’s what I deserve.

If you or a loved one is suffering with an eating disorder, Mamamia urges you to contact The Butterfly Foundation. You can also receive crisis support by phoning Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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