By On April 19th, 2018

How inpatient treatment addresses the biggest challenge of eating disorder recovery

Megan Higgins (left) talks with Laura McLain during a recent visit to the Renfrew Center in Sandy Springs, where the college senior was treated for an eating disorder. Source: Gracie Bonds Staples/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Judging by people’s stories online, you would probably think recovering from an eating disorder is as simple as deciding to be healthier. There are so many stories out there of people proclaiming they beat their eating disorder with sheer will-power that it almost seems like conditions such as anorexia and bulimia are less mental illnesses than a bad habit like smoking.

However, the truth is that most people who live with an eating disorder don’t find recovery so simple or easy. The path to getting better is typically rocky and setbacks in the form of relapses are common. Without strong support or professional care, “recovery” can seem nearly impossible for many.

This is what Megan Higgins discovered on her own journey to recovering from anorexia and bulimia.

From the age of 12, Higgins began restricting her food intake and eventually started purging as she struggled to cope with her parents’ divorce and moving from private to public high school.

“I couldn’t control what was going on around me, but I could control what I was eating,” she explained recently.

Eventually, she couldn’t hide her terrible secret from her family any longer. Her father confronted her about her sparse eating habits, purging, and excessive exercising. From there, it all came spilling out.

Thankfully for Higgins, her parents were supportive. They immediately sought professional help from the Renfrew Center. While the Renfrew Center is most notable for being the first residential treatment facility for eating disorders established in the U.S., they initially sought outpatient treatment from an ancillary location closer to their home.

About two weeks after beginning outpatient treatment, it was obvious it would not be enough for Megan. While she followed her treatment plan while at the Renfrew Center, she was continuing to avoid eating and purging regularly at home.

“At that point, it was how I coped with everything,” Megan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I wasn’t ready to give it up.”

It wasn’t until she began residential treatment at Renfrew’s primary center in Florida that she realized she could find other, healthier ways to cope.

“Once I was forced to stop and could see I was surviving without it, I finally realized I could live without my illness and develop new coping skills,” she said.

After five weeks of constant supervision and therapy, she was finally well enough to return home to complete her treatment. She learned new coping skills and found the bravery to speak up about her needs.

By the time she graduated, she was even able to open up about her struggles with her disorder. During the graduation ceremony, she spoke at length about her illness.

“A big part of what feeds eating disorders is secrecy,” she said. “Don’t make it everything you talk about, but don’t ignore the elephant in the room. The sooner you get comfortable talking about it, the better.”

With those three sentences, Higgins summed up perhaps the biggest challenge of recovering without inpatient treatment. Even with all the will-power in the world, it can be extremely difficult to let go of your main way of coping with the stresses of the world, especially in the privacy of your home.

For Megan personally, openly talking about her disorder was a huge milestone. She had gone from hiding her disorder from even her closest family to sharing her story with hundreds of people in attendance at her graduation. But, she wished someone had said those words to her when she was at her lowest. When she spoke at her graduation, she was hoping it would help another person find the strength to face their own eating disorder.

It took years for her to know whether her speech had an impact, but three years later she learned she had changed someone’s life for the better.

“A woman came up to me later to say, ‘Thank you for saying what you did, I really needed to hear it,'” Megan recalled.

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