I appear to be in an upstairs living room, decorated for the holidays, a Christmas tree lit up. There’s a comfy couch in the corner, some games and drawings left on the table and a TV. I look out the window at the fluffy white snow on the ground.
I walk around the cozy room to take it all in, and then I realize where I am: my safe place.
My therapist once asked me to think of a room or place I found to be safe whenever I begin to dissociate.
Around that time, my safe place that I chose with my therapist was the upstairs living room of the Pink House at the residential eating disorder treatment center that I stayed at for about 3 months starting in December 6, 2010 – The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia. In this very room, 6 years ago, I shared struggles and triumphs with a group of girls my age who were struggling with eating disorders.
I smile at the memory of decorating the tree with the other patients my first day in the center as I sit down on the couch in this cozy upstairs living room of the Pink House.
I hear footsteps down the hallway, and soon a familiar face appears in the doorway, and I greet her with a smile, “Hi Lexie.”
She meekly responds with a “hi” and joins me on the couch. She’s dressed in a big comfy white sweater with buttons lining the front and the sleeves and a pair of black leggings, an outfit bed her mom bought her for her stay at Renfrew that winter.
I frown for a moment, looking at my younger self sitting next to me on the couch.
My first thought is: she looks so unhappy. And she’s so tiny. How could I ever let her do this to herself? How could I let her be so mean to herself? How could I let her purge nearly every meal and hate herself so much?
I take a deep breathe in and out, looking at her with eyes full of worry, “Lexie, you’re beautiful.”
She squirms a bit in her seat on the couch, but let’s me continue, “You pass on that message to strangers and everyone around you, as you are someone who see beauty in everyone around you, but for right now, I want you to take those words in for yourself: you are beautiful.”
I move closer to her on the couch and put my hands in her hands, “Now I want you to think about who you are. Not who your parents expect you to be, not who your friends expect you to be, not what society expects you to be – just you. Who are you, Lexie? Who were you before you were taught to hate yourself and your body? Who were you before you developed bulimia, PTSD, depression and anxiety?”
I watch younger me shrug and say, “Well I guess I am a bit shy, kinda quiet. I don’t quite have a strong voice so I express myself through art and writing. I try to be a good friend and daughter.”
“Yes, but keep going. There has to be more,” I press.
“Well I don’t know,” she thinks to herself, “There’s not much about me that’s important or that any one would care about so I don’t know,” she tells me, filling the empty space with self doubt.
After a moment, she quietly says, “I guess I don’t want to remember.”
“Well why don’t you want to remember?” I respond.
“I don’t know,” she says blankly.
“How come you don’t want to remember?”, I press again.
I watch as tears well up in her eyes.
She quietly starts spilling out all that she has tried to contain for so many years, “I don’t want to remember when I was harmed as a child. I don’t want to remember the bullying at school. I don’t want to remember my dad getting angry at the drop of a hat. I don’t want to remember his drinking or the bottles of alcohol hidden around the house. I don’t want to remember my parents fighting. I don’t want to remember feeling like I tore my family apart with my eating disorder. I don’t want to remember feeling so hurt and alone. So I push it down. And I numb all the emotions with the eating disorder”
I give her a moment to sit with all the emotions.
Then I say, “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay. Just take deep breathes – you’ve got to slow down and breathe for a moment.”
I watch her begin to do some deep breathing, a skill she will find useful through DBT therapy in the future.
I wrap her in a warm embrace and begin to tell her what she always needed to hear, “Lexie, let me tell you something: You are not the bad things that happened to you. You are not the mistakes you have made. You are not the mean things people told you that you are. You are not the emotional or physical harm that was inflicted upon you at a young age. You are not your illness. You are not the pain you feel.”
I watch her continue to do deep breathing, while she looks away from my soft gaze, and I gently tell her, “Look me in the eyes now.”
She looks up, feeling a bit more comforted and safe, and remains eye contact with me as I continue, “Now let me tell you what you are: you may have lost who you are along the way, but will one day begin to find yourself again. You are the strong girl who keeps pushing through the bad stuff. You are brave. You have a lot more to offer this world than you think. You deserve happiness and peace and comfort and love. You are kind and giving. You find beauty in everyone and everything around you. You are going to be okay. And you may not see it now because you have a negative body image that is going to take time to improve upon, but just know that you’re beautiful – inside and out.”
She then says to me, in awe, “No one has ever told me that before.”
I give her a reassuring smile, wrap my arm around her shoulder and say, “You may not have heard this before, but you’re hearing it from me. I’m telling you the truth, and you are going to be okay.”
She wipes the tears from her face, sits up a bit straighter, takes one more deep breath, looks me in the eyes and says, “I believe you.”