Until I entered Alsana, I lived a double life. I couldn’t be myself, and no one really knew me. Healing from an eating disorder is a complex task. I wish it could be as simple as popular culture and media make it out to be. I wish you could eat, read some work sheets about skills, replace your “maladaptive coping mechanisms” – i.e., eating disorder behaviors – with “healthy” ones (“Instead of skipping lunch, I ate and then wrote in my journal. Now I feel better), and call it a day. It’s safer for treatment centers to err on the side of behavioral change. And behavioral change is entirely necessary. But no amount of coping strategies and affirmations was going to cut it for me. Those of us with eating disorders are human beings. We are multilayered, we are dynamic and ever-changing, we enter treatment carrying a lifetime of baggage, or “burdens,” and Alsana is unique in that the staff respect our complexity and don’t treat us like walking eating disorders, like that’s all we are. They approach our treatment with open minds and hearts, they recognize that everything we do we do for a reason, and they help us relate to ourselves in ways we’ve never considered.

Working with the people at Alsana infused me with a sort of faith in humanity and the world that I hadn’t yet experienced in life. Although they worked hard to convince me that their kindness was not an anomaly, that experiencing goodness there was only the beginning of a life filled with healthy relationships, I believe they are a bit modest about the unique nature of their kindness. But that is okay. Perhaps not every relationship I engage in the world will live up to the gracious, giving, gentle, respectful, and balanced character of the relationships Alsana modeled. But they taught me what to strive toward in my relationships and interactions. They taught me what I deserved. I never thought I’d say or write that I “deserve” something. The people I worked with at Alsana helped me to believe I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness and not to accept mistreatment.

I’ve done some work as a journalist and studied media in depth. So I read media depictions with interest as well as a critical eye. But it doesn’t take a scholar of media studies to recognize the reductionist, sensationalized, and blatantly biased reporting on Alsana. I would laugh at it if I didn’t find it so degrading to people I care about, people who devote their lives to saving lives. I spent a good chunk of time at Alsana. Whoever’s assigned to the beat on local mental health at some St. Louis newspapers was not trained as a skilled journalist and clearly has never set foot at Alsana. The reports are pure imaginative pieces. There’s nothing magical or super-human happening there. There’s pure humanity and compassion, which I suppose in a cynical world is a rare commodity. Sensationalistic pieces sell papers, but they don’t promote accuracy or contribute to a cause of healing or justice from people suffering from eating disorders or other psychological illnesses. Which is sad. I wish more people in this world cared about the well-being of their fellow humans more than opportunistic propaganda. But I’ll get off my soap box now and get back to my point.

At Alsana they are willing to take risks, to push us beyond momentary change, to engender a thorough transformation so that we can carry a new-found strength, sense of self, and courage into the world. So that we will keep eating. So that we will keep fighting our self-destructive behaviors. I remember the first time I realized that at my core I was an okay person, that there wasn’t something horribly wrong with me. Pretty simple, you would think, but it took me thirty years to make it there, and it happened at Alsana. I remember when I first understood that all of dust of fear and hurt and pain and obsession and shame and confusion swirling around me were protective functions, there to help me survive. It wasn’t until I was in a safe place for the first time in my life, surrounded by people who wouldn’t hurt me and actually cared about me, that I could get a smidgeon of distance from the layer of dust, and I could glimpse something worth saving, something I thought maybe I wanted to fight for. In short, I discovered my “true self.” They say over and over, they insist, at everyone’s core is compassion, curiosity, courage, clarity, and other good things. I remember thinking, when I first arrived, “bullshit.” Not me. I am none of the above. I don’t have anything good inside me; there is nothing worth saving here. I don’t believe that any longer. Alsana offered me a different reflection of myself, and they gave me a safe space where I didn’t need all the self-loathing behaviors, thoughts, and emotions associated with my eating disorder. Those stripped away, I could see what I really am, and I decided that I didn’t want to lose what I saw. Alsana taught me and empowered me to care enough to fight for my life.

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