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Residential Treatment Started My Healing Journey From Eating Disorders & Negative Body Image

“In my experience, I don’t think I could’ve recovered without residential treatment. Residential treatment is long-term (minimum 28 days) where you stay overnight at a facility and spend the day in individual and group therapy. In treatment, I was able to get out of my environment, focus solely on getting better, and not have to worry about school, friends, family, or work.”

Hello! Who are you?

Hi there! My name is Sarah Rollins and I am a survivor. 

If you want the “resume” version of me, read below:

My name is Sarah Rollins and I am a clinical social worker and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. I own a group psychotherapy practice in Michigan, Embodied Wellness, PLLC that specializes in trauma, anxiety, and depression for adolescents and adults.

I was born and raised in metro Detroit, Michigan, and earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees from University of Michigan (Go Blue!). I am 33, single, and bought my first home about a year and a half ago. I have two cats, Bella and Ziggy, and love spending time with my nieces, traveling, and being with family and friends.

At this stage of my life, I experience happiness but would more accurately describe myself as content (most of the time). I see happiness as an emotion and all emotions are fleeting. Contentment is a state of being and therefore can stay steady despite how I feel.

My goal is to be content rather than to be happy. Am I content with every moment of every day? Absolutely not. I am grateful to say that I am content more often than not and more than I ever have been in my life. 

For a more authentic, inclusive version of myself, start here

Resilient. Cat mom. Auntie. Introverted. Outgoing. Loud. Loving. Sweet tooth. Animated. Driven. Couch potato. Yogi. Nap enthusiast. Sister. Daughter. White. Jewish. Homeowner. Business owner. Social worker. Messy. Organized. Friend. Niece. Survivor. Heterosexual. She/Her/Hers. Anxious. Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. 33. Traveler. Type A. Giving. Single. Vegetarian. Woman. Stubborn. Millennial. Self-conscious. Animal lover. All of these. None of these. 

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

For as long as I can remember, my inner world was chaotic. I always felt like my emotions were so big and my thoughts were turned up too loud. Around middle school, as a way to cope with both an external and internal world that felt so out of control, I unconsciously began to control what I could: what I ate and how my body looked.

My dad had been diagnosed with cancer and life felt very unpredictable, scary, and like a ticking time bomb. At first, my eating disorder looked very benign. I would eat a little bit less for lunch or not eat certain foods that I deemed “bad” once in a while. It wasn’t all the time and it didn’t consume me. 

In an effort to not body shame or make this about getting tricks about how to “body check,” I will spare certain details about my eating disorder. An aspect that propelled my disorder forward was body checking. There were specific parts of my body that I despised- or more accurately disgusted me.

I also learned “rules” (that at the time I thought were true) about what makes a woman beautiful. I became obsessed with certain parts of my body to ensure that they fit a very narrow standard of beauty. 

Looking back over 2 decades later, I remember seeing countless professionals but don’t know if anyone ever told me what my formal diagnosis was. Maybe they told my parents, maybe they weren’t sure, maybe they were confused or in denial? What I do remember is my parents being worried.

I don’t know if I ever said to my parents or anyone else “I have an eating disorder” until I sought out residential treatment when I was 18. But, I do know that after my initial stages of denial, I diagnosed myself with “anorexia”.

I was below what society deems as a normal body weight for my height and age and the fear of gaining weight plagued my every thought. My self-worth wasn’t just influenced by my body, it was the only factor contributing to it. I could not remember the last time I menstruated. My nails were brittle and consistently blue. My face was more than hollow, it was lifeless. I had become a shell of myself. 

When I entered treatment, I was formally diagnosed with Eating Disorder, not otherwise specified. I was appalled. I felt like a failure. I was one thing- anorexic- and I couldn’t even be good at that, I thought.

This diagnosis, at the time, was meant for people who didn’t meet the full criteria for anorexia nervosa or another eating disorder but still exhibited eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors. If I wasn’t thin enough…would I ever be good enough for anything?

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

I wish there were a combination of words that I could put together to convey the impact my eating disorder had on me. From about 10th grade through my freshman year of college, the majority of my thoughts were consumed by food, body image, or weight. I couldn’t go to a movie without thinking about the amount of calories I had eaten throughout the day and if I had any left to spare.

Every time I walked by a mirror I would simultaneously divert my eyes with disgust and feel the urge to “body check.” I would wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach growling counting down the hours until I would allow myself to eat again. A coping skill that was supposed to quiet my mind soon prevented me from feeling any joy, connection, or love. 

I wish I could say that I hid my eating disorder well, but that would be a lie. At the time I thought I did and tried all the tricks of the trade to keep things a secret. My parents would buy me protein drinks and I’d pour them down the drain when they weren’t looking. I pretended I was allergic to oil so I didn’t have to explain why I didn’t want to eat it.

I thought that people didn’t notice the weird things I did with food or how thin I got but that was just a way that my eating disorder kept me under its spell. Besides my parents, no one directly approached me with their concerns.

In high school, there were some students who anonymously went to the guidance counselor about my weight. Naturally, my 15-year-old self was defensive and angry, “how dare they not bring this to me and go behind my back?” Now I have endless compassion for whoever those students were. How brave they were to stand up for me. How lucky I was that people cared. 

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

There were multiple moments throughout my adolescence when I told myself I wasn’t going to “do that” anymore. “That” sometimes meant body checking, or not restricting dessert, or going to bed hungry. The list goes on.

I would be successful for a few hours, days, or even weeks but it wouldn’t last. True and lasting change only came when I realized that I was no longer in control of my eating disorder, rather it was in control of me. 

When I started my freshman year of college, I told myself I didn’t need a therapist anymore and that I could “do it all myself.” Doing it all myself resulted in me almost passing out at the first football game due to fatigue, nearly scaring my parents to death when I participated in the 24-hour dance marathon, and feeling empty, alone, and lost.

People around me were having fun, making friends, and actually living while I was obsessing about food and too tired to leave my bed. Even worse (in my mind), my hunger cues come back and I started to feel so hungry that I worried I would not be able to control myself and gain the dreaded “freshman 15” 

The summer after my freshman year, after approximately 6 years of struggling, I was privileged to go to a residential treatment center for 7 weeks.

During treatment, I learned how to stop engaging in disordered eating and most importantly, cope with my inner world and underlying mental health disorder. Even though my healing journey did not end in treatment, I wholeheartedly believe that without it I would not be where I am today, 15 years in recovery.

I believe having the familial resources to find the treatment center, finances to participate and the ability to leave for 7 weeks was the result of my circumstances and for that, I am so grateful. I also had to be the one to choose life and every single day make the decision to do something different. No one else could do that for me.  

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

The first step was admitting to myself what I was really doing. I am a pretty good b*llshitter and can convince myself of things that are not true.

  • “I shouldn’t eat after this time because it’s not good for me.”
  • “It’s okay to eat a little bit less.”
  • “Vegetables make up a healthy and well-rounded meal.”

The list goes on and on. At the end of the day, these were all ways for me to justify my eating-disordered behavior. 

One of the things I heard a lot while I was struggling was “You can’t trust yourself” and I thought this was true. What I thought was a healthy amount of calories was equivalent to a serving size of carrots. A major milestone in my recovery was learning to differentiate between what was my intuition/wise mind/Self versus what was my eating disorder.

In the past, I labeled my eating disorder voice, “ED” to help me know which voices belonged to who. I wrote a list of common thoughts I had and if they belong to “Self” or “ED.”

For example, a common thought I would have was “When I see myself in the mirror I need to body check to make sure I haven’t gained weight.” This is an “ED” thought not a “Self” thought and I know that because I don’t “need” to do anything when I see myself in the mirror and I wouldn’t tell a friend to do that. 

Prior to residential treatment, I would weigh myself in the morning, after school, and before bed; before I went to the bathroom, after I went to the bathroom; before I drank water, while drinking water, and after drinking water. Pretty much all the time.

The problem was, the number was never good enough. No matter how low it was, I was never satisfied and if the number went up, I felt like a failure. It was a lose-lose.

In treatment, our nutritionist would blind-weigh us to ensure that we were properly being nourished. For a while after treatment, I would continue blind weigh-ins with my doctor so I was accountable but I never saw that number.

I have not seen my weight in over 15 years. I don’t even own a scale! When I go to the doctor’s for a check-up, I turn around on the scale and ask them to not tell me my weight. How I feel in my body, how my clothes fit, my behaviors around food, and my thinking are more accurate indicators of my health than any number could ever be.

In my experience, I don’t think I could’ve recovered without residential treatment. Residential treatment is long-term (minimum 28 days) where you stay overnight at a facility and spend the day in individual and group therapy. In treatment, I was able to get out of my environment, focus solely on getting better, and not have to worry about school, friends, family, or work.

Did I still worry about these things? Of course! But the longer I was there, the easier it was to truly put my needs first. The people who I was in treatment with became my family. For the first time, I felt understood and not so alone. I was allowed to be my authentic self without judgment, criticism, or shame. We had each other’s backs. We laughed, cried, and learned to be vulnerable together. 

Residential treatment introduced me to twelve-step programs for eating disorders such as Eating Disorders Anonymous, Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous. When I first heard about these programs, I thought, “Oh, h*ll no am I going to believe in God.” God gave my dad cancer and has caused all of these problems.

The admissions coordinator of the program told me I didn’t have to believe in God, I just had to have the desire to stop engaging in eating-disordered behavior. So with trepidation, I said “Fine” and trusted him.

Although I currently do not participate in any twelve-step program, I believe it is a foundation for my recovery. I spent three years attending meetings, working with a sponsor, sponsoring others, and doing the steps. 

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

When I was struggling with my eating disorder, I did not talk to anyone about it. At first, it was because I hadn’t admitted to myself I had an eating disorder, and then later because I was too ashamed to talk about it. I worried that no one else would understand. I feared that people would just judge me rather than listen or say “Just go eat a big steak” (and yes people would say that to me).

Once I got into recovery, I opened up to my close friends about it and went to twelve-step recovery meetings. Meetings were a space where I felt heard by others who had the same experience. It was game-changing to be able to call someone else in recovery any day, anytime if I felt triggered and not feel like a bother. 

As someone who identifies as a “talker,” I pretty much share most things about myself with others. I like talking so much I even talk in my sleep. Talking is one of the main ways I connect. For the most part, I don’t find it hard to share my struggles with someone else.

I also know that it feels very different to share something when I feel I’m in solid recovery versus when I’m actively in a battle with it. With 15 years of recovery, I don’t feel the shame that I once felt about myself and my actions which prevented me from opening up

Despite being in recovery for over a decade and feeling proud of myself for what I’ve overcome, there is still a small part of me that is scared for this article to be published. Will people judge me? Will people think differently of me? Will I be less credible as a therapist? What will family and friends say?

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

What I wish I realized earlier was that my body was never the enemy. I always thought that my body was against me. I was always fighting it- to be thinner, prettier, better. My body felt like the problem. In reality, my body was trying to protect me.

This may seem very counterintuitive, especially because anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. By restricting my food intake my body was protecting me from feeling. The less I ate, the less I felt. What I was feeling at the time felt too painful to endure so my body came up with a coping strategy to help me when I didn’t know what else to do.

Just because my body was trying to protect me doesn’t mean that it was okay or healthy for me to continue with my eating disorder. The reason this is important and I wish I would’ve understood this sooner was that I was fighting the wrong “battle.” The “battle” was never against my body.

My body was actually on my side but just went to extreme lengths to get its point across. My body was trying to help me cope with an underlying mental illness that was undiagnosed, untreated, and dramatically impacting my life.

Research shows that up to 97% of individuals with anorexia also have a mental health disorder. Only once my eating disorder was treated could I even begin to address the anxiety and depression fueling it. 

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

Utilizing resources does not mean you are weak, rather it proves how strong and resilient you are. You don’t have to recover in isolation. I hope you can benefit from these resources or a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

You can read more about me by visiting my website, or on Instagram, LinkedIn or Facebook.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.