i binged on fun at remuda ranch, part two;

…for part one, click here.

…for part three, click here.

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{ me, mackenzie, katie, katherine. reppin’ sagebrush house.}

The next week I was in a cold stupor, swaddled in another one of my signature men’s sweatshirts, being driven by my resolute mother to Renfrew, an eating disorder treatment center right outside of the high-class, glorified retirement community of Boca Raton, Florida. I thought of Rachel and whether or not she would have agreed to the fun ride I was about to embark on.  The girls I met at Renfrew had invented so many ways in order to not derive pleasure from their food, that it was almost monk-like. The first time I set eyes on the three girls that greeted me at the antiseptically clean entrance of Renfrew, feeding tubes in their noses, I knew I had found my new best friends. Within the week I had a handy feeding tube of my own, decoratively taped to the side of my nose for me to feed on what is essentially baby formula in small enough doses while I slept, so my body wouldn’t go into shock by being nourished for the first time in months.

We all matched, which is important when you’re fourteen in any context. Nicki, Bri, and Katie shaped my entire short stay at Renfrew. We were like a chain gang in a prison, teaching each other tricks on how to get through the place, all its strictly regulated meals, and the fact that you were monitored whenever you had a bowel movement to make sure you didn’t barf up your tofu pomodoro. What most people don’t know is that there is a skill to eating and there is a skill to starving. When you have anorexia specifically, enjoying your food is a no-no. Starving is your higher power, and to derive selfish pleasure from eating is to sin in the religion. You pray five times in the direction of hope, hope that you will transcend your own mediocrity. You’re never quite good enough of a person to eat. “There are starving, poor kids in Bangladesh that don’t eat so why should you, bitch? Put down your fork,” is the usual, soothing little Hitler voice that whispers in the back of your head if you’re even close to eating anything other than a bag of garden salad mix as a snack. So you put sugar on your spaghetti with tomato sauce. You mix mustard surreptitiously into your chocolate milk, when the food monitors aren’t looking. You live every day like you’re about to eat the most disgusting body part of an animal from the show “Fear Factor”. If you couldn’t starve yourself in a treatment center, you sure as hell weren’t going to enjoy any of that eggplant parmesan.

These girls taught me so much; how to steal the butter packets for your toast in the morning so you could throw them out and  save 100 calories (you stack those bad boys and slip them up your sleeve), how to steal salt packets so you could make your body retain water so they would think you were gaining weight and lower the calories in your meal plan, and I’m pretty sure they would have taught me how to carve my own personal shank if my insurance hadn’t cut out. We were diabolical. We were dumb. And they quickly became my best friends and my biggest saboteurs.

Twenty pounds gained and twenty seven days later, my mother’s insurance company thought I had made enough progress so they discharged me on account that I was now in my weight range. Such is the heartbreaking aspect of eating disorder treatment. You are simply a number on the insurance’s radar, and once your BMI pleases them they kick you out and there you are again at home, hiding tofu pomodoro in your trash can and rubbing your belly over how delicious it was, a faint gurgle of acid sloshing in your stomach in the background.

It only took me four weeks of butter-hiding and fainting on the tile to land myself back into the local hospital, this time twenty five pounds lighter. I made friendly with the nurses. I crocheted them all scarves for Christmas as they tried to placate me with chalky pink, strawberry ice cream-like drinks that were loaded with thigh-expanding calories. “Because, yes, I’d LOVE to drink a drink that mimics another highly caloric drink. Load me up,” I thought to myself each time my loving nurse would enter my room with a fresh batch of future fat cells.  Needless to say, these drinks ended up in the sink and I spent my days crocheting and sobbing silently to myself as I watched Christmas cartoons and botoxed QVC saleswomen try to sell me electric blankets. I fell asleep to the faint purr of my feeding tube apparatus once again, and two weeks passed as slowly as the watered down nutritional powder went through my digestive system.

My eyes, habitually blurred by tears and poor eyesight due to malnutrition, could finally see how low I was; I was almost fourteen years old, it was two weeks until Christmas, and I still didn’t know how to regulate my own body temperature. No one was there to braid my brittle hair or to gossip with me about how hot my doctor was. I became chummy with the hospital chaplain who came to visit and bond with me over a QVC series or three, rather than the sassy high school freshman girl friends I had grown up with. He didn’t know much about painting nails, but he was all I had and he never asked me how to catch an eating disorder. Which is really all you need, after all.

Fifteen pounds gained in fifteen days, the nightmare of most people on Jenny Craig, and out I was from the hospital. The scarf-clad nurses, my hot doctor, and my hospital chaplain waved to me from the entrance of the hospital, and I think we were all in solidarity of just how screwed I was.
——

A month later I saw my mother cry for the first time one afternoon before I was admitted to lucky treatment center # 3, and she wasn’t watching “The Notebook” or any movie with Richard Gere in it. She was crying because of me. She was watching her only daughter waste away. And I didn’t know how to stop myself from letting this rapid deterioration take its hold over me. I was fourteen years old and I was just becoming another anorexic casualty. I was just becoming another statistic for Pat O’Brien to announce in his ever-so-nasally voice on “Access Hollywood” whenever a petite, hungry starlet fainted on set of her newest film.

But we’re not all hungry prospective starlets, us disordered eating girls. No, we’re far more than that. If I learned that anywhere, I learned that at Remuda Ranch, where I binged on fun. Oh, how I binged on fun.

My mother woke me at 5:30 am in order to catch our flight to Arizona from Florida, and I grumbled as I put on one of my many sweatshirts to cover my bony frame. We flew into Phoenix, the smog greeting us as we exited the airport. A plump woman with a mullet greeted us with a sign that read “Mackenzie- Remuda”, and for an instant I felt like a celebrity. She ushered us to a nondescript, white van and off we were on a two hour drive to Wickenburg, Arizona, home to one of the highest concentrations of treatment centers for meth addicts, alcoholics, and girls like me, with garden-variety eating disorders.

We drove up to a series of faux- southwestern houses, each housing what would be home to a combined total of sixty girls from 14-18 years old. After a few minutes spent checking myself into the center with my mother, they kindly asked her to leave, and I was left like a puppy who wasn’t done weaning in a cardboard box on the side of the road. “Well, Mackenzie. I never could afford to send you to summer camp and look,  it’s like you’re at summer camp!” My mom joked as she went back to board the van to catch her flight back to Orlando. They then asked me sit down in a hard, wooden chair that only hurt my bony ass even more and engaged me in a staring contest as they told me that I would need to eat some broth, steamed vegetables, a roll, and a innocuous-seeming glass of orange juice. I won the staring contest and used my one “Get Out of Lunch” pass and off I was to meet the thirty girls I would  bond with over taking glorious craps, and getting our periods for the next two months of my eventful life.

I hated everything for the first two weeks. I hated the cacti. I hated the fact that the nurses were too smart for my butter-hiding tricks and I got caught all the time. I hated craft-times. And I hated the fucking donkey of a horse they made me ride as “therapy”. I fell back into my old habit of shoving my face into the closest collection of cushions and feigning sleep. I didn’t speak to anyone who wasn’t capable of getting me anti-depressants. I got so close with my therapist, Mike, that we had a secret handshake, but no hair-braiding fun was to be had. I had delusions of grandeur that we’d all be the best of friends like my feeding-tubed friends at Renfrew. My roommate, Virginia, ended up running away my first night, was caught, and subsequently given a tranquilizer in the right butt cheek. I spent my first night falling asleep to her half-delusional mumblings. The girls came off as clique-y to me and I decided I’d rather read depressing memoirs from the Holocaust in “school” than interact with the girls. At one point in time, an innocent girl asked me what my favorite music was at snack time, in attempts to get to know me. I answered with a stoic “I don’t really listen to music.” In short, I was the worst. I wouldn’t even be my friend.

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{me, courtney, katie}

Two weeks and thousands of calories pumped through my nose later, a girl named Katie walked through the door and I claimed her as my own. She made a dirty joke, whispered softly because this was a Christian-based treatment center, and I practically got down on one knee and asked her to be my bulimic BFF. Because of her, craft-times became bearable. She was the Abbott to my Costello and we finished each others jokes like we had been practicing them in between our monitored bowel movements in the bathroom, the nurses as our audience. We pinched each other whenever the other was close to falling asleep in one of the six, count ‘em six, church services we had to attend each week. None of which were on Sunday. Go figure.

We hit on the guy who delivered the snacks to our house (“So, Frank, what you got for me tonight? [insert wink face here].”) We speculated possible romances between the therapists and the nurses (“Did you see Dr. Hegybeli undress nurse Candy with his eyes? Totally raunchy”). A week later and we added Courtney to our clan, a free-spirited, curly-haired former coke-addict from Los Angeles and bam, we were the Charlie’s Angels of Remuda Ranch.   Humor was all we had. When a list of rules is presented to you on your first day (“No running. No fast-walking. No shaking your legs”) you have to make your fun any way you can, especially when you start to notice that none of your clothes fit you anymore and the cutest guy you’ve seen in a month is Frank the Snack Guy. It got to be contagious and soon all of the girls in our house began to find the humor in everything. You’d see them slowly but surely lip-dub over multiple viewings of the only G-rated movies we were allowed to watch. And I can tell you honestly, that to this day I have never heard a lip-dub- commentary of “Veggie Tales” and “Gone With the Wind”  done any better than a group of thirty malnourished teenage girls.

———

One day in craft hour, we were advised to choose a wear-able craft that we could all don in solidarity. Since I had never been to summer camp, I was excited at the prospect of having something wearable to note that I had gone through this with others. This treatment center was our Vietnam, it gave us war stories, but instead of mangled limbs we decided upon bedazzled t-shirts and puff paints. A good trade off, I thought.

A lull fell over the craft-room all of a sudden. Not a pair of snipping scissors or googly eye was heard in the hush. We had no idea what to put on the t-shirts. And really, what do you put on a t-shirt as a souvenir for going to a treatment center? Surely, not a smiling hypodermic needle, nor would it be politically correct to put any sorts of smiling pills, beer bottles, or feeding tube apparatuses. “How about ‘I Binged on Fun at Remuda Ranch?’,” I suggested meekly, not sure if the counselors would approve of my joke. I had grown up on the outskirts of Orlando, home of at least six theme parks. I was used to tourist kiosks with t-shirts sporting similar phrasing, telling how they “survived” Splash Mountain or some other easy feat. But us girls, we had survived shit. Despite our jovial natures, we were hyped up on a grocery list of anti-depressants. Most of us had lost parents, gone through traumatic divorces, rapes, or natural disasters. We put all of those “survivors” of Splash Mountain to shame. We deserved our t-shirts. It was a visible battle scar that we were all going to wear proudly.

A week later, we each had our own “I Binged on Fun at Remuda Ranch” t-shirt, puff-painted to our individual tastes. Some people had simple “I Starved Myself of Sadness” or “I Barfed Up My Depression at Remuda Ranch” phrases on their own t-shirts, but for the most part we matched. Not with our feeding tubes, nor with our plummeting weights. We matched with our resolute solidarity of getting better. We realized through our own lack of inhibition, the fact that we were stripped of our privacy (full-body searches were common), our choice of what we wanted to eat, and our crazy teenage girl hormones, that we were gloriously flawed.

Remuda Ranch was everything I had never seen in Lifetime movies. Eating disorder recovery is seen as sad, arduous, and not a worthwhile endeavor. “You’ll never fully recover,” says every eating disorder specialist ever. “You’ll always hear that little Hitler of self-doubt in your head,” they’d remind me. And they were true in a way, recovery is an every day goal. Everyday you have to decide to eat that bran muffin. To remember you’re worth each morsel of food you approach with your mouth. It begins as a check list of things to do; an unnatural set of goals like eating all of your breakfast, making sure you actually leave your house and talk to other human beings, and breathing. We were not all fainting ballerinas and as I realized the moments they realized their lives were worth living, I realized that I wanted to as well.

I finally realized this eating disorder was not at all what I had wanted for myself. I didn’t want to live a children’s-size-twelve existence full of measuring cups, “Biggest Loser” reruns and living my life vicariously through my “The Sims” characters. I might not have been a starving child living in Bangladesh, but I was worthy of a pizza slice, or two. I had found my worth in humor, my worth in making Frank the Snack guy feel awkward, and my inability to see the last eight months of my life as anything other than life-changing.

I stayed at Remuda Ranch for a total of three months.  I turned fifteen there, a candle in a perfectly-portioned cupcake that I didn’t even freak out about eating. I began to listen to music again, like a normal human being. I began daydreaming about things in my future, something I hadn’t done in months. I gained forty pounds, thirty new friends, and way, way too many dirty jokes about “Veggie Tales” for a fifteen year old girl to be trusted with.

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{a good ol’ fashion eating disordered dance party. not too much movement, of course.}

11 thoughts on “i binged on fun at remuda ranch, part two;

  1. Beyond how moving and real and full of Mackenzie humor this is, it is also powerfully educative. This is not something that people often hear about through such an honest voice.

    I hope part 3 is full of happy beginnings.

  2. I left the ranch before you really came out of your shell, but I remember getting the low down when girls came to RLP about the happenings at the Ranch and we kept hearing how funny you were.
    It is awesome that you fearlessly wrote this! So glad you were a sage girl with me… and I am glad you put the part about Virginias escape in there… just too funny in retrospect.

  3. I must admit, and I am truly surprised that this is so: I am eating humble pie (only figuratively, of course, for fear of calories). This has been added to my weaponry: “Everyday you have to decide to eat that bran muffin. To remember you’re worth each morsel of food you approach with your mouth.” Thank you.

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