Top 5 Worst Things About Being an Inpatient In An Eating Disorder Unit

In my last blog (Top 5 things I missed most about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit) I discussed the things I missed about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit. It was really important for me to share those things because it is something that is generally never discussed or even “allowed.” But in thinking about the things that I missed from being an inpatient, it also reminded me of the worst things about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit.

There were some things I found really hard about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit. There were certain things that I absolutely hated. And although there were things that I missed from being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit, the negative things far outweighed that. At the times of living in ED inpatient units, I found it so incredibly hard. Some admissions I absolutely hated every second of every day. So I have written a top 5 worst things about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit.

This list is not in relation to what I hated because of my eating disorder. Obviously, the worst things about being an inpatient for me at the time were having to gain weight, eat food, not exercise etc. But they were things I found horrendous because of my eating disorder, but which were necessary for treatment. This blog is not about those things. It is about my experience, as a person, in an eating disorder unit. And these are just MY experiences. Not everyone will share these. So this is my blog: The worst things about life as an inpatient in an eating disorder unit.

  1. Powerlessness & Restrictions

Possibly the thing I found most difficult more than anything else was the feeling of being completely powerless over my treatment. In several of my stays in an eating disorder inpatient unit, I felt at complete mercy of the staff. This feeling was often made worse because I was sectioned, so the staff could literally do whatever they wanted and I had no say about it. Not all my admissions were like this. The Priory had a much different approach and involved patients and worked with them (regardless of whether they were under the Mental Health Act or not).

Life in an eating disorder unit is full of restrictions and rules. I hated many of these restrictions and I hated being powerless to what my treatment would involve. I found this one of the hardest things about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit.

From what day and time I could wash my clothes and have a shower, to whether I could go home for the weekend, I felt totally powerless. I had to eat and drink what I was instructed to, I had to gain whatever weight they wanted me to. The staff could decide if I was allowed to sit outside, if I could walk to the bathroom, what medication I had to take, whether I had to have someone supervise me in the bathroom, when I was allowed my TV on, what time I had to go bed. I was completely powerless and I find this incredibly difficult.

The staff could, and would, use some aspects of my treatment as a form of punishment. For example, in one admission I was told I had to earn the right to have a shower by behaving well and complying. In another admission, if I didn’t comply with all the rules I would be force fed extra calories through a nasogastric tube as punishment. There was often an abuse of power. It felt as if they could do whatever they wanted to me and there was nothing I could do about it. I was denied drinking water for 3 weeks and was instead hydrated through a tube. Compete and utter powerlessness. Definitely one of my top 5 worst things about being in an ED unit.

2. Competitiveness

If there is one thing that you can guarantee occurs in all eating disorder units, it’s competitiveness. Eating disorders are naturally competitive illnesses but as an inpatient in an eating disorder unit, this is magnified ten times over. When I went into my first admission, I went in there very naively. I had never experienced anything like it before, I had never knowingly met another person with anorexia before, and I’d never felt a sense of competition in my life before except when I was competing as an athlete. But the eating disorder unit changed all of that.

Competitiveness feeds into every single part of life in an eating disorder unit. And I hated it. It starts from the very moment that you step inside the unit. Every time a new patient arrives, the other patients will look and stare to determine how thin the new patient is. Everyone wants to be the thinnest. So when a new patient arrives and you think they look thinner than you, that sense of competition surges through.

There is also the competition at the dining table. Competitiveness with what other patient’s are eating (you don’t want to eat more than them), and if other patients are “getting away” with tricks (there is nothing worse than seeing another patient hide food unnoticed).

There is the competition regarding weight and weight gain. Not only is there the competition to be the thinnest, there is also the competition to gain the least weight. If another patient had a lower target BMI than I did, I was full of rage that they could have a lower target than me.

The competitiveness comes from a drive from the eating disorder wanting you to be the most ill. But anorexia you will always convince you that you are not ill enough. That there is a “better anorexic” out there than you. So that competitiveness sticks. Someone in an eating disorder unit will always do something, or say something, or look a certain way that will make you feel you haven’t done enough. You will always believe that there is someone better at anorexia than you. You judge others and you know that others are judging you.

It is impossible to escape the competitiveness. Even if you are doing your best to recover and beat anorexia, there will always be some patients who won’t. And it sits in the air like a bad stench that will never go away. You may not/no longer have the desire to compete with the other patients, but there will still be patients who do. And they will still include you in that competition. You can’t escape it. You may not be competing anymore, but they are. And you know that they are. The competitiveness that comes with anorexia engulfs the unit, regardless of whether you want to get better or not.

I hated the competitiveness that came with being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit. I hated it when I was in the stage of wanting to be the most ill because everything felt so unjust and left me feeling others were better at it than me. It was just as bad and I hated it just as much when I didn’t want to take part in that competition anymore and wanted to focus on building myself towards recovery. Because I knew that as long as I was a patient in an eating disorder unit, I was part of someone else’s competition.

3. Loss of dignity

The loss of dignity I experienced as a patient in eating disorder units was two fold. One was that caused by the rules and practice of the unit and staff. The other was that caused by myself. The first of those I found very difficult to adapt to initially. But overtime, what had initially felt so incredibly embarrassing and like I had lost all dignity, simply became normal and I didn’t bat an eyelid. But this in itself shows how degrading it is. Rules and behaviours that ordinally leave you feeling without dignity are just accepted as normal.

Let me share some examples of situations which I found very embarrassing to start with.

Firstly, having a shower and going to toilet with a member of staff in the bathroom watching you. I could not believe this at first. I had always been someone who would cover up their “private parts” from anybody’s eyes at all times. Getting changed into a swimming costume, getting dressed/undressed in public spaces was just horrendous to me. I was always that person who would fumble about desperately trying to not accidentally display my “private areas.”

So when I was told I had to shower and go to the toilet with someone standing in the bathroom with me, I was horror struck! To start with, I did my best to keep my body from show. But really, it is impossible to have a shower, get dressed, go to the toilet etc without that person seeing your body. So I became used to it. I got used to having someone come with me to the toilet and shower. I didn’t even think about it anymore. It became normal to me. But regardless of the fact that I had become used to it, having to wash and go to the toilet with a member of staff really is so degrading and does make you lose all dignity.

Another loss of dignity comes when you have to get weighed. In the eating disorder inpatient units that I was admitted to, you had to be weighed twice a week at 5.30am. You would get taken into the medical room, made to strip down to your underwear, and stand on the scales. There is no dignity in that.

Then there is the loss of dignity that comes with room searches. If staff think that you have something in your bedroom that is not allowed, they search your room. They go through all of your belongings and turn the room upside down. And you just have to stand there and watch. Without a scrap of dignity as they go through every single thing you own. But room searches only happened every now and again, and only if staff were suspicious. So not everyone would have their room searched.

But something everyone was subject to was a bag search. When you return to the hospital after spending the weekend at home, or after spending a few hours out in the afternoon, staff go through your bags. You have to stand there every single time you come back into the hospital for them to check that you are not bringing anything prohibited back into the unit. Again, there is no dignity in that.

But there is a different way that I also lost dignity in hospital. That is the loss of dignity that I brought to myself. I would spill drinks and wipe food all over my clothes. To quote my book, “I was like a walking dustbin.” At the time, I didn’t care that I had lost all my sense of dignity, all that mattered was that I tried to stop myself gaining weight. In my first admission, I would literally do anything I could to stop weight gain. The things I did often resulted in me wetting the bed, climbing in my sink to go to the toilet, being dirty, looking dirty. There was just so much that I did (because of anorexia) that lost me my dignity.

4. Missing out

In my last blog about what I missed about being an inpatient, one of the things I listed was that being in hospital was an escape from reality. But as much as I liked escaping the reality of the real world, I also hated missing out. I hated missing out on things that all my family and friends were doing. Friends who were graduating, going on holiday, having fun. Family who were seeing each other, having days out, spending time at home and with each other. I wasn’t a part of it. I was missing out. And it was sad. It was sad, and incredibly hard, to see life moving on and that I was missing out on it all. This was definitely one of the hardest, and worst things about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit.

5. Lack of trust

In some of my eating disorder inpatient admissions (not all), one of the hardest and most frustrating things I found was the lack of trust. Every thing I did or said was questioned as having an ulterior anorexic motive. Don’t get me wrong, in some of my admissions, my behaviour would often warrant a lack of trust. But not for every single thing I said or did. It was hugely difficult to deal with when I could not even lie on my bed without it being questioned.

It wasn’t just me either. A lack of trust comes with the territory of being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit. There will be things that every patient says or does that are not trusted. It can often lead to you wanting to scream in frustration because staff don’t believe you. I have a few specific examples that really stick out in my memory.

The first one was during my first admission. I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom before bed and the member of staff with me did not trust what I was doing.

“I know what you are doing.” She said.

I genuinely had no idea what she meant. “What am I doing?” I replied.

“Stop it!” She shouted at me. “I know exactly what you are trying to do. Stop it!”

“I’m just cleaning my teeth.” I replied, starting to feel quite upset.

“Don’t treat me like I’m stupid,” she said. “You are brushing your teeth really hard so that you make yourself sick.”

I was now nearly crying. I protested my innocence but she did not believe me and it ended with me having to stop brushing my teeth and going to bed. Now, one of the behaviours I have NEVER engaged in, is making myself be sick. I actually have a fear of being sick and have not thrown up since I was 4 years old. So for her to not be trusting that I was simply cleaning my teeth was really hard to deal with. I also had no idea that trying to brush your teeth hard was something that some people with an eating disorder did to make themselves sick. But, like I say, every single thing I did was questioned.

Another example from my first admission. It was my day to do my laundry but when I got to the washing machine, I realised I had forgotten my fabric softner. So, I had to go back to my bedroom to get it. The member of staff with me started shouting at me and told me I could not go back to my room and get it. She told me that I had deliberalty left it there so that I could exercise more.

I told her this wasn’t the case, I had genuinely forgotten it. She would not believe me and she would not let me go back and get it. I was someone who exercised a lot whilst I was in this unit but that is not to say that simple mistakes that require slightly more walking HAVE to be distrusted. Every. Single. Time. As I explained to her, I exercise all the time in my bedroom anyway, I don’t need to set up a situation to forget my fabric softener to get exercise.

During a different admission, I was in bed asleep and was woken up by the noise of someone in my bedroom. A member of staff had come into my room and was turning my radiator on. I told her that I did not want it on because I was not cold. She told me that I was cold and I was wanting to keep my room cold to burn more calories. No matter what I said, she would not believe me.

I hate being cold. I have never deliberately made myself cold to try and burn more calories. It’s just not something I have done, or ever would do, because I hate being cold so much. Also, I have always been someone who gets hot in bed. When I was in year 7, I even wrote in one of my French lessons that I get hot in bed (although I translated the word hot wrongly and accidentally wrote “randy” instead!)

These are just three examples. But there are many, many more. The frustration that comes with such lack of trust is, quite frankly, indescribable. Everything you say and do is questioned. It is definitely one of the things I found hardest about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit.

So those are the five things that I found most hard about being in an eating disorder unit. Do leave a comment with your own experiences and what you found the to be the worst things as an inpatient. And if you would like to read more about experiences, I have written about them in detail in my book Running Free: My Battle with Anorexia. Rebecca Quinlan Book and available on Amazon



top 5 worst things about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit.
Top 5 worst things about being an inpatient in an eating disorder unit – Bex Quinlan

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