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What my eating disorder taught me about life

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Chalk reporter Gracen Gueldner recounts her time at an eating recovery center and how it changed her life for the better.

I stood in the mirror at 103 pounds. My eyes were red and watery from having held myself over the isolated toilet at the back of the bathroom, and my body was at its weakest. I had always admired myself getting thinner, but in that instant all I saw was darkness. I knew I could no longer live this way, or I would lose my life. I also knew I was the only one capable of turning my life around. I needed help, and I could no longer do it alone.

My perfectionism and anxiety started at a young age and quickly manifested itself into other behaviors. When I was 12, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Although he survived, my parents divorced shortly after he was in remission. In that vulnerable point in my life, I desperately grasped for any bit of control. My eating disorder was my safe place, and my appearance was the one thing I knew I could control. At 13 years old, I was counting calories in a piece of gum and limiting my calories to 700 or less a day.

My years of struggle sent me to an inpatient facility in Denver my sophomore year of college. I remember at that point my brain was in such a haze all I knew was that I was waving an invisible white flag. I gave my family a tearful goodbye and an, “I’m going to be better,” as my mom and I made our way to the airport. I just wanted to surrender. I wanted to be free from the seven years of turmoil, but what I didn’t know was the plane ticket in my frail hands was also my ticket to a brand new life. It was going to be far from easy, and I was scared.

I walked off the plane, and the following morning I stepped into a white van engraved with the words “Eating Recovery Center.” On our way to the inpatient unit, we stopped to pick up a little girl. I grasped my mom’s hand as the little girl's mother wept for her daughter at just seven years old going to the child unit close by. My mom touched her shoulder and cried with her, saying “it’s going to be ok.”

When we pulled up to the adult unit, I was petrified that not only was I going to gain weight, but I was also losing a coping mechanism, my best friend and worst enemy — my eating disorder. I was led into multiple rooms for evaluations, EKG machines, weigh-ins, vitals and blood draws. The final room was where you said goodbye to the family member who brought you into the treatment center. I sobbed into my mother’s arms. I pleaded with her to let me come home, to not leave me. I didn’t want to let go.

When she left, my eyes were red and swollen, and my heart was heavy. I just wanted to go home. Shortly after, I was led into the cafeteria where I was given my first meal  — a PB&J with carrots and milk. We gathered around the circle table as people began setting their intentions for the meal. “To finish,” the woman said. “To enjoy,” the man said. In that moment, I knew I would do everything it took to recover. I was completely numb throughout the course of the meal, but I finished it.

As the days went by, I got into a routine. Wake up call at 6 a.m., weigh-in, go to the bathroom only with a behavioral counselor, no cell phone, no exercise, blood draw every Monday, three meals, three snacks and repeat. The place was a mixture of summer school and prison. You weren’t given control — you earned it.  Although it was difficult being trapped inside the walls of a hospital, you also made the most amazing friends. These friends truly understood what you were going through. These were the people to laugh with, cry with, lean on, and let push you through the day when you could no longer push yourself.

In my therapy sessions we used “value cards.” These cards had words such as “connection,” “trust” and “loyalty.” The intent of the cards was to select the words that hold true in your life. I chose, “connection,” “family,” “love,” “health” and “service.” What I began to realize was my eating disorder was chipping away at my own values because all I prioritized was the number on the scale.

Every day of the two months I spent in Denver, I felt my clothing getting tighter. I remember seeing myself in a full length mirror for the first time in months, and I was completely shocked. My body felt different, like I was looking at a brand new person. I felt unrecognizable and as if I was stripped of my identity as the, “tall skinny blonde.” However, I also noticed my brain was clearer, my hands were warmer and my heart was the strongest it had ever been. It made seeing my new body worth it. I completed every meal and snack since I was admitted and was behavior free. I went to every therapy session, and I was unapologetically myself in every single session. I was committed to recovery.

When I left Denver, it was like I was seeing light again, but I was still scared. I was uncomfortable in my new body and what life would be like outside of the safe walls of a recovery center. I had to have faith, remember my values and remember why I chose recovery. I remind myself of these things every day.

Not every day is perfect, but it’s not supposed to be. In recovery, I focused on what my body can do rather than what it looks like. Today, when I look in the mirror, I see a strong, capable, beautiful person. A person whose eyes see the good in people, whose arms help me embrace the people I love, whose legs let me run toward my goals and whose hands can change the world.

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Person 1: This song slaps.

Person 2: Your mom slaps.

Person 1: Thank you, my mom is a kind and wonderful lady.

 Person 1: I’m so sick of alcohol.

Person 2: I don’t know, I’m getting stronger every day. I love it.

Person 1: Do you do the vegan wrap here?

Person 2: We can do the chicken wrap with no cheese?

Person 1: I’ll take the Beyond Burger please. 

Person 1: Oh my God! I feel like I know you somehow…

Person 2: Yeah, we went to high school together. 

Person 1: Oh! *walks off*

Guy 1: Is the black market even real? Has anyone ever been on it?

Guy 2: I tried once but I couldn’t figure out how to get on.

Guy 1: I stayed up until 2 am watching Disney plus

Guy 2: I told my girlfriend I fell asleep but I was actually watching the Mandalorian.

Girl 1: How long have you guys been dating?

Girl 2: Since the summer, well actually for like two years but it’s a long story.

Girl 1: Who are you looking for?

Girl 2: This guy, wait I found him. Fanny pack boy. He flipped off my professor after a test and ran out of the classroom.

Girl 1: How did you choose KU? 

Girl 2: Honestly, I flipped a coin. 

Boy 1: Did I tell you? I think I had a threesome this weekend.

Boy 2: Woah, hold up. You think?

Boy 1: I was born a Phi Delt.

Boy 2: Please don’t ever say that again.

Girl 1: How do you get your boobs to look like that?

Girl 2: I don’t ever wear a bra? I don’t know. 

Girl 1: I just really want a guy to bend me over you know?

Girl 2: How do you know? You’re a virgin!

Guy: Sometimes I wish I could just be a dog and sleep all day. 

Girl: You wake up at like three every day. 

Guy: I know.

Girl: So…

Guy: So does that make me a dog or something?

Girl 1: I wish I was a little bit taller.

Girl 2: I wish I was balder.

Girl 1: I wish I had a...wait, wait, wait balder?

Guy 1: Let’s slap dicks

Guy 2: You ever pee and it feels like throwing up?

Woman 1: *holding baby* He would have been safer at the Hawk

Woman 2: Oh absolutely.

Girl 1: I would never date that guy.

Girl 2: Well, it depends how much money he has.

Girl 1: I’m going to the doctor to see if I have bronchitis before I hook up with him again.

Girl 2: Yeah that’s smart so you don’t give it to anyone else. 

Girl 1: No I mean I want to make sure I infect him.

Guy 1: I'm cutting some of my unnecessary costs, starting with Juuling.

Guy 2: Ight man, good luck.

Guy 1: Actually I might just start chewing

Guy 1: How was work?

Guy 2: My manager was chastising me for not dressing up in a Halloween costume, she doesn’t understand I’m strictly here to get paid.

Guy 1: I am so tired of this week, man

Guy 2: Dude it’s Monday

Guy 1: I know

Person#1: I want to be on the first ship to mars

Person#2: Not me, I doubt they have Wi-Fi

Perons#1: Yeah but at least they’re evolving up there. We’re all just devolving.

Girl 1: Um, I don’t eat pig.

Girl 2: You eat bacon all the time, bitch.

Guy 1: You better get going. 

Guy 2: Yeah, see ya. I’m off to get some Adderall.

Girl 1: Are you home right now?

Girl 2: Yeah, why?

Girl 1: I bought a cat

Girl 1: I just don't understand what fishing is for.

Girl 2: I don't know. Food, maybe?

Guy: I’m just gonna have to like carry an entire box of spiders up the hill tomorrow.

Girl: What?

Guy: Yeah, just like a hundred spiders in a box.

Guy 1: Sometimes ya just gotta give yourself a haircut.

Guy 2: Dude, you shaved half your head. That’s not a haircut, that’s a mess.

Girl 1: Can you eat fruit raw?

Girl 2: How else are you supposed to eat it?

Girl: That class is killing us. ​But they say rest is for the dead.

Guy: Well, at least we'll be rested.

Girl: She's not in class this semester.

Guy: Maybe she's dead.

Girl: Or studying abroad.

Girl: They're like oil and water.

Guy: Wow, you're so good with analogies.