Why I Checked Myself Into A Psych Ward at 18
In 1988, after terminating my Elite modeling career in Chicago, I traveled around Canada and the East Coast by car. I ended up in Florida at the end of my travels. I mostly slept in my car or stayed at $8 per night youth hostels even though I had around $20,000 saved up in my bank account. During my trip, I began to discover who I was again.
After three months of travel and exploration, I decided to go back home to Missouri. To read about my months of travel in Canada, and the night I decided to tell the modeling industry to “Fuck off”, go here.
I didn’t exactly know what to do with myself after I had been traveling around for a few months. I had terminated my modeling career and knew something was wrong with me because I was still throwing up food. It wasn’t nearly as much as before, but I was still doing it. I felt guilty for wasting food when I knew a lot of people on earth were starving to death. I knew what I was doing was abnormal. The details of this time are quite sketchy because it was so traumatic. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital. I’m 99% sure I checked myself into it.
When I was admitted to the Eating Disorder Unit, I decided I didn’t want to take any medications.
I was scared of drugs in general and I didn’t want to mess up my brain more than it already was. The shrinks assigned to my case seemed unable to penetrate my fierce psychological defense mechanisms and their knowledge of the fashion industry and what I’d been through was entirely lacking. I had little respect for their ill-informed approach to curing me of my eating disorder. I remember being given the Rorschach test and I always saw the same images: fat men devouring things and wolves attacking objects. I was amused by the psychiatrists’ keen interest in using the Rorschach test to uncover my subconscious impulses. I liked the attention and enjoyed manipulating the doctors.
During my one-on-one therapy sessions I divulged my past history of childhood molestation and mild sexual abuse by teenagers in my community. When I was 4 years old, a teenage male babysitter licked my private parts and told me that I was “dirty” and needed to be cleaned. He lived next door to us and his last name was Winholtz. The other incident occurred when I was about 9 years old. A teenage girl who lived on the other side of our house forced me to suck on her breasts. I still remember how disgusting her flesh tasted. She also used to force us to clean her house and threatened to beat us up if we didn’t do these things.
The doctors came to the conclusion that my history of sexual abuse played a role in my eating disorder. But they were completely clueless about the modeling industry and lacked knowledge about the realities and pressures I endured. Their lack of knowledge made me not trust them.
The most healing part of being in the mental ward was meeting other girls who had similar experiences as me. We shared our stories and bonded easily. This was the first time I had heard directly from other people suffering in the same way I did. I thought I was alone with my bulimia. This was in 1988, way before the internet and I had no idea that there were others with the disease.
There were all kinds of women in the Eating Disorder Unit: anorexics, bulimics and overeaters. Meal times were full of hilarious antics. The anorexics would pass their food under the table to the bulimics and overeaters. The nurses and staff would rarely notice we were doing it. It was kind of exciting because we all were breaking the rules and “helping” each other.
The anorexics scared me the most. One anorexic had recently died on the ward. She died before I had arrived. Her death freaked out the other patients. And there was one anorexic who walked around with an IV tube in her arm. Even in the ward she refused to eat, so they had to put an IV in her to keep her alive. I’ll never be able to erase her sad, stick-frame from my mind. She wore a hospital gown and one time she bent over in front of me to pick up a straw. I saw her shriveled breasts and it really freaked me out. She also had a fine covering of hair over her body and told us her period stopped a long time ago. I discovered that the bodies of anorexics grow a thin coat of hair in order to maintain their body temperature. Fat usually is responsible for keeping a body warm but since they have lost almost all of it, hair grows in its place. Interacting with the anorexics was a game changer for me. I realized I didn’t want to die and they all looked like they were headed for the grave……….soon.
While I was in the psych ward, I don’t remember throwing up, but I’m sure I did it a few times. I do remember listening to music on my Walkman and thinking obsessively about wanting to be skinny. I was pretty terrible at being an anorexic. I couldn’t starve myself regularly. Instead, I went on fasts that lasted a day or two at the most. Then, I could no longer repress my hunger urges, so I’d overeat then vomit it. I thought if I was skinny, all my problems would go away. I felt like I could face anything and anyone as long as I was thin. Being even slightly overweight felt like failure to me. These kinds of thoughts are the ones coursing through most anorexic and bulimic minds. True happiness has been replaced with obsessive thoughts.
But my time in the psych ward wasn’t all horrible experiences. In fact, being there helped me recover from my bulimia. I discovered the beauty of sharing experiences and being authentic again. I stopped being ashamed of my vomiting. I met girls who were just as insane, or more insane than me. I could tell the truth there and no one judged me. My family would be horrified if they learned the truth about my life.
I could never tell my mother that I enjoyed stealing clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue and took myself on extended vomiting picnics in the woods. She wouldn’t know how to handle such information.
One of the patients, a black woman with short, curly hair and a gold tooth, told us a story of how she was arrested one day for stealing a package of chocolate chip cookies. She said she used to steal occasionally, but after being arrested, she felt so ashamed, she never did it again. She said the humiliation was pronounced. A box of cookies! Arrested for stealing cookies! She shook her head and started laughing. I was glad she told me about being arrested for stealing a box of cookies because I never stole again after hearing her story.
I wasn’t into stealing small stuff, though. I went for the jugular. I usually stole expensive clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. I had developed a particular mode of operation when stealing from these stores. First, I would dress up in expensive outfits, with big jewelry and heavy make up. Then, I would buy one item from Saks Fifth Avenue. Next, I’d head to a different store like, Nieman Marcus, carrying the Saks bag. I’d carry the Saks bag into the dressing room of NM, and then load it up. I’d continue this until it was full. I’d probably stolen a few thousand dollars worth of clothing during this time. The weird thing was that I didn’t really want the clothes. I was stealing them for the mental rush only. I can’t remember what I did with the clothes.
One of my most treasured experiences in the hospital was meeting the girlfriend of the lead singer of Gwar. She was a bulimic like me. She liked to draw quite a bit. At this time, I hadn’t discovered my ability to draw. I was under the illusion that I “couldn’t draw”. She gave me a drawing of a two-dimensional figure that was both a hand and a face. This kind of drawing is called a Rubin vase.
If you turned it one way, a face became visible and when you turned it upside down, a hand would appear. It was a magical drawing she had given me. It was alive. It was a novel idea. I became fixated on that drawing and tried to draw it endlessly while in the hospital. She taught me to draw and opened up my creativity.
My parents came to visit me once. When they entered my room, I screamed, “I hate you! Go away.” I think they did go away. I hated them because I wasn’t able to be honest with them. They had no idea about how damaging the modeling world was, and I don’t think they wanted to believe they were complicit in letting me be a part of it.
One evening we played a trick on the nurses. A group of us decided to have a bit of fun and it went like this: one girl put a pair of underwear on her head while two of us crouched down near the base of the water cooler. The nurse station was behind a counter so she couldn’t see the crouching girls when she was on duty. The girl wearing underwear on her head walked over to the cooler to get a cup of water and when she bent over, we made a bunch of fart noises. The nurse immediately looked up horrified and we all burst into hysterical laughter.
I think I was in the psych ward for 6 weeks. I was released when the doctors believed I had recovered significantly from my bulimia. I’m glad I got out of the modeling industry before it wreaked more long-lasting havoc on my mental health.
You might recall the anorexic model, Georgina Wilkin, whose organs were failing but whose agent continued booking her for jobs. She famously said, “At the end of the day, my modeling career lasted for three years and as a result, I’ve had anorexia for eight.”
I guess I’m lucky to be alive. 20% of anorexics die prematurely.
I don’t know how to end this.
Not much has changed in the fashion industry. There are few new regulations, but I wonder, how many young girls are out there starving themselves? I know that a huge percentage of fashion models have an eating disorder.
Starving yourself will never you give you power.
Telling the truth and finding your purpose will.
As James Altucher knows, “my mess is my message.”
If you liked this story, you might like The Modeling Industry Destroyed My Soul. And also The Night I Drunk Drove Myself To Canada which explores my adventures in Canada after I gave the middle finger to the fashion industry.
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Leah Stephens writes under the pseudonym, Stellabelle. She just published her first book, Un-Crap Your Life.