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I am what my grandmother calls “big-boned.” All of the women in my family fit this descriptor (personally I prefer “junoesque”). Unfortunately, we also have a genetic propensity to eat ourselves into unhealthy territory, a fact that hit home the year I turned 12. Suddenly, I went from thick to straight-up overweight.
My bra size jumped to a “DD” overnight and my thighs started to rub together when I walked. I began to get teased at school, which only added to the sudden sense of shame I felt about my weight. I began to eat in secret, comforting every emotional hurt or perceived slight with food. I would always feel bad later, but would do it again the next day.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Why couldn't I just not eat? My mom did everything she could to help me lose weight. I tried and discarded diets and exercise programs like cheap clothes. Then someone suggested that we try a teen weight loss program. We thought that sounded like a great idea.
My mom scoured the internet until she stumbled on a teen weight loss camp in Florida, a place I am going to call “Sunny Place.” She called the camp and spoke to the program director who assured her that the program was safe and that I would have a great time while losing weight and learning to manage my diet and exercise. Best of all? Our insurance would cover my two week stay. I jumped at the chance to go.
A few weeks later, I landed at the airport, nervous and excited about my new adventure. I was picked up by a driver from the center and while I don’t remember much about the car ride, I did think it was odd that we arrived at the center so quickly. I mean, wouldn't a weight loss program be out in the country where fat kids like myself could engage in exercises designed to burn off the pounds?
When we arrived, I was hustled through a set of double doors into the entrance of the main building. The first thing I saw was a nurses’ station -- like the kind you see in a hospital. After greeting me and asking me about my flight, a young woman dressed in bright pink scrubs, took my suitcase and with a practiced hand began to briskly go through my luggage. I stood there gaping at her before it hit me that she must be looking for any hidden junk food that I might have tried to sneak in. I knew she wouldn't find any (not because I wouldn't have done it, I just hadn't thought to do it). Instead, she took my curling iron.
Adult me would have asked what the heck she thought she was doing with my curling iron. But I was 12. I was also a polite child and raised to not question the actions of adults. I just asked her when I could have my curling iron back. She told me that I could come to the front desk and use the curling iron -- but only in front of a nurse.
I didn't understand why a weight loss camp would need to take my curling iron. What did she think? I was going to heat up stolen breakfast links on it? I was distracted from this line of thought when I realized that there were cameras at each end of the hall. Why would they need cameras at a fat camp?
Once again I rationalized that it must be food related, i.e, the cameras were there to catch fat kids sneaking out into the night for a McDonald’s run. But when we got to my assigned room and my roommate answered the door, the weirdness ratcheted up another notch.
My roommate, a pretty girl with blonde hair and bad acne, was maybe a size two. My first thought was “What the hell?” followed swiftly by “Man, this place must really work!”
I wince when I think about it now. As an adult I realize that my roommate was not only struggling with a drug habit, but snuck into the bathroom after every meal because she had an eating disorder. An eating disorder that, I later realized, was not being treated at Sunny Place.
In my defense, at the time I didn’t know that an eating disorder could manifest itself not as obesity, but emaciation. My roommate Natasha didn’t talk much that night, but she was very nice and helped me put away my clothes. I learned she’d been at Sunny Place for three weeks already. The entire time she helped me unpack, I kept sneaking looks at her body and getting more and more enthused about Sunny Place. She was so thin! I felt my anxieties melt away. I fell asleep knowing that coming to Sunny Place was the right thing to do.
My certainty lasted until about 5:30 a.m. the next morning. That is when I was awakened by a very nice man dressed in scrubs with a needle in his hand. The technical name for what followed is “random drug test." I call it “Oh my God, oh my God, why is there someone standing over my bed with a needle and a rubber cuff?”
When it was over, I turned to Natalie, who was rubbing her own arm with sleepy irritability and asked her, “Why do they need our blood?” Natalie, who was already snuggling back down into her bed, shrugged and said “drugs” before turning over.
I was so confused. Why would they need to check us for drugs? I eventually I fell asleep again too. But not before telling myself that despite the weirdness, Sunny Place was going to be the start of a brand new skinny me!
The next day was the strangest day of my life. Breakfast was nothing like I expected it to be. Instead of a long mess hall with dour faced servers doling out exact portions of plain yogurt and muesli, the dining room was filled with cozily arranged tables and a buffet. A buffet! There were heaping piles of scrambled eggs, pancakes, and other assorted decadent breakfast food. I was so gleeful about the food choices that it took me a second to realize that for a fat camp, there were a surprising amount of really skinny people in the room. It also took me a second to realize that there were an awful lot of adults too.
I had expected camp counselors, but the adults in the room didn’t look like counselors. Most of them just looked sort of depressed. After grabbing our plates (my confusion didn’t stop me from piling as much as I could on my plate) Natalie steered me toward a table in the back where eight or nine people were seated. Most of them looked to be in their mid to late teens. She introduced me to the group and I nodded shyly before quietly getting to work shoveling food into my mouth.
It was then that a perky blonde woman (I met more blondes in my two weeks at Sunny Place then I have before or since in total…and I’ve lived in Eastern Europe) came over to our table and introduced herself to me. She said her name was Jeanette, that she was the youth counselor and would be helping to oversee my treatment. Jeanette also asked if I had any questions.
I had lots of questions but the first one that popped out of my mouth was, “Can I call my mom?” This was the age before every child had a cell phone and I needed a landline. Jeanette solemnly informed me that I would not be able to talk to a family member or friend until I hit the one week mark of my two week stay at Sunny Place. Being the obedient child that I was, I didn’t question this dictate.
In fact, I didn’t question anything for most of the day, not when they shuffled my youth group into a small classroom decorated like a Montessori kindergarten, not when I was given basic math so easy that even I could do it (this is coming from someone who would later fail Geometry twice), not when a sturdy young man named Jonathan began to get increasingly agitated and tried to forcibly leave the room, not when two orderlies forcibly stopped him, wrestled him to the ground and gave him a shot of something in his arm. Not even when Jonathan was led away, his face slack and peaceful.
After class and lunch we were taken into a small room with chairs ringed together to form a circle. Jeanette had each of us take a seat and proceeded to seat herself in the middle of the circle. She then asked which of us would like to start. I sat in silence, wondering what was about to happen. Slowly, Natalie raised her hand. Jeanette gave her an encouraging nod and Natalie stood up and said, “My name is Natalie and I am addicted to...” Now, I don’t know if this was Narcotics Anonymous for teenagers or if this was Sunny Place’s own interpretation of NA’s process, but this was clearly not a sharing circle about food. I was floored. I know I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.
Looking back, I realize that all of the signs pointed to Sunny Place being a drug treatment program. But my reaction to this realization gives you some indication at how young I was. Do you know what I was panicked about? It wasn’t the fact that I was a thousand miles from my family at a place I clearly did not belong. No, I was worried that I would not be able to fulfill Jeanette’s expectations.
I didn’t know what to do. I would have nothing to present. I wasn’t addicted to drugs, in fact I had never even heard of some of the things kids were declaring as their drug of choice. What the hell was ecstasy?
I listened with increasing trepidation as, one by one, each person in my small youth group stood up, declared their name and their drug of choice. Finally, it was my turn. I slowly stood up and faced Jeanette’s encouraging smile. In a voice that I can only believe had to have been trembling, I said “My name is ________, and I am addicted to . . . food?”
Now here’s where you would think that chaos would ensue, right? I mean, a 12-year-old just stood up in a NA meeting and declared that she was addicted to food. You would think Jeanette would jump to her feet realizing that someone in the intake office had made a terrible mistake. Instead, Jeanette just paused for a long second, a look of mild confusion on her face. And then she nodded to me and asked the young man next to me to continue. That was it. Jeanette just kept moving along, she didn’t even confront me – I could have been lying, right? But nothing happened.
After it was over, Jeanette instructed us to go to our rooms for journal time. I didn’t know what that meant, so I hesitatingly asked her what I was supposed to journal about. Jeanette explained that I should journal about my feelings. The feelings I felt that made me feel good, the feeling that I felt that made me feel bad, whatever feelings I wanted -- just as long as I was honest about them. I asked her if we would have to share our journals. She said that we only had to share them if we wanted to do so. I think she used the word “cathartic.”
I didn’t know what to do. They wouldn’t let me talk to my mom and even though I clearly didn’t belong here -- I wasn’t sure how to get them to let me go home. So I went back to my room, sat down at my own desk and opened the brand new black and white notebook waiting for me atop it. I sat there for a long time, trying to figure out what to write.
Eventually, I wrote about how weird Sunny Place was, my anxiety about not being addicted to anything real, except food. And then I wrote “Is food an addiction?” Something that, in hindsight, was a pretty profound moment for me.
I know this is going to sound strange, but after the first day, I started to enjoy myself. I liked the people in my group. Most of them had been through drug treatment before and everyone had a jaded “been there, done that” attitude. They were so much cooler than me! And they liked me! Probably because I was so damn optimistic all the time, an outlier in our youth group.
I was the one who patted people on the back when they broke down in sobs during a group therapy session or checked in on Jonathan after yet another failed escape attempt and sedation. Of course, it was easy for me to be happy. Treatment for drug addiction is objectively not “fun.” But I had the luxury of enjoying the experience because I was, for all intents, an outsider.
I became close with a guy named Tavi, a 16-year-old kid with a seemingly unending wardrobe of UNC basketball jerseys and a raging addiction to weed and a few other drugs. I had a huge crush on him. I also discovered that I loved “journaling." I wrote about my family. I wrote about my friends. I wrote about Sunny Place and the other kids in my program and I wrote about food and eating and how I felt bad when I overate. I wrote a lot about that.
The rest of the week passed by in a blur of journal entries, classes, drug counseling meetings, and the occasional blood drawing. And I swear to God, no one ever questioned why the hell I was there.
On my seventh day at Sunny Place, I asked Jeanette if I could call my parents after breakfast. She looked at something written on her chart and then told me she’d be happy to take me to the office to make the call. My mom answered on the second ring. She sounded frantic. She asked me if I was okay over and over again.
Apparently, she’d called the night I arrived to speak with me but was told as part of the treatment, I would not be allowed to talk to for her for the first week.
This seemed really odd to her but she figured it was part of some radical weight loss technique Sunny Place employed. Nevertheless, my parents had been worried and I could tell my mom was relieved to hear my voice. In a hushed tone, I whispered to my mom everything that had happened since I arrived at Sunny Place. Finally, when I was done, I said, “I don’t think this is a fat camp.”
There was a long silence and then my mom said, “Are you ok?” I told her I was. I don’t remember exactly how her voice sounded, but I vaguely remember her assuring me over and over again that I would be home soon.
Honestly, I wasn’t that stressed about it but my mom acted like I was. Then she asked, “Is there anyone from Sunny Place near you?” I said yes, and she calmly asked if she could speak to them. I handed the phone to Jeanette. I don’t know what my mom said to her. I do know that I was on a plane back home the next morning. Before I left, everyone in my group hugged me and Tavi told me he would miss me. I never got my curling iron back.
A month after I returned home we received a letter from Sunny Place alleging that my parents owed them thousands of dollars for my “treatment.” Apparently, after my mother informed our insurance of Sunny Place’s loose interpretation of “teen weight loss program,” my insurance refused to pay for my stay there. My mother calmly had her attorney send a response stating that she would not pay Sunny Place a dime and that if they ever contacted her again she would sue them to ever loving hell and back. She never heard from them again.
Every few years or so, I look up Sunny Place online. They don’t have great reviews. In fact, a lot of their reviews are terrible, with former patients complaining about the lack of organization and poor leadership. Interestingly, Sunny Place now has an actual teen weight loss program. Something they did not have when I was there.
I realize now that what Sunny Place did, admitting me into an not-yet operational weight loss program and then plopping me into a drug rehabilitation program instead, was incredibly reckless and negligent. Sadly, this is not unheard of as there are shady weight loss programs running different variations of this scam. A lot of really bad shit could have happened to me. I could have been seriously traumatized. And I only met once with a person who was barely interested in helping me learn to lose weight.
It was a harried looking doctor who sat down with me for about five minutes before hastily telling me that he recommended that I start. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my stay at Sunny Place wasn’t in some ways very good for me. Not because of any proactive action on Sunny Place’s part, mind you. But Jeanette was right, journaling is cathartic. I have come to love my body – and I work to keep it healthy.
Learning to journal and to write down and work through my emotions, especially the feelings that are intertwined with my addictive relationship with food, has been a huge part of my success. Writing down my feelings helped me realize that food, or rather using food as a balm for emotional issues, is an addictive habit. Learning and accepting this truism has had a profoundly positive effect on my life and my health. And for that I am grateful.
*All names have been changed.