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Copyright © 2017 Nicole Al-Shafie


From Eating Disorder Treatment to Pasta in Italy: My personal "Eat, Pray, Love" Journey

Four years ago I sat in a passenger seat and was driven up to a building with bars covering the windows.


“There are bars on the window.


There are bars on the window.




There are bars on the windows,” I repeated.


My throat was closing, my hands clutched the door, and my eyes widened to the reality that was washing over me. I was about to sign myself into treatment and this did not look like the place that I wanted to be.


My fears were soon calmed as I made my way to the eating disorder unit of the hospital and was greeted by the calming decor and a kind man. I was about to spend the next 8 months in this program and deal with many issues I did not come prepared to tackle, but as I left I couldn’t help but parallel my length of time with how long it takes to create a human being. I was being reborn into a new life that I hoped with all my might would stay.


I think many of us who have gone through treatment go into the experience expecting it to go a certain way, only to have that explode in your face and feel like the universe is laughing at you for thinking it could be so simple as just “eating again.” I had been in treatment for years leading up to this particular stay, but I never had the opportunity to receive extended intensive treatment. I obviously knew I had issues with food, but it wasn’t until I was exposed at every single meal and snack did I realize I had a list of food rules that I didn’t even know existed for me.


This was when the battle to fight against my irrational fear of carbs began. My anxiety around carbs came up constantly and surprisingly. There was one day I cried after a meal when I refused to eat mashed potatoes and rice together. Tears rolled down my face because I didn’t want to do it, and because I was so annoyed that this was even an issue. Something the hospital was never short of challenging me with was the endless “Italian” meal choices.  What else could symbolize a fear of carbs more than Italian food? I was pissed and avoided those meals as much as possible.


Things came full circle last month when I drove up to those barred windows almost four years to the week since I admitted myself; but instead of checking in this time, I was walking in as an alumni to talk to the current patients. I spent the first part of the morning speaking with the patients and recounting my recovery journey and answering any questions. After that, I walked into the familiar cafeteria I ate two meals a day in for practically 8 months, and where I also shed a tear here or there. A smile broke out on my face and I silently chuckled at the irony when I saw that they were serving garlic bread with spaghetti and meatballs, old friends of mine. What surprised me even more was thinking that what they served me wasn’t enough. If I had served myself, I definitely would have given myself a bigger portion. Even when I look back at my time in treatment, there’s still this fear in me that if for some crazy reason I would have to go back, I would still have a hard time eating the amount that was expected for me to eat. But this experience showed me that maybe I can start letting go of that fear a little bit. Maybe I really am becoming a “normal” eater.


It’s been four years since I broke myself open and tenderly began to create a life I thought could never happen. Life took crazy, unexpected turns and I found myself working at an American school in Ticino, the Italian Canton of Switzerland, my first summer outside of treatment. My summer there have come to signify life for me. I’ve learned that I can enjoy wine and cheese AFTER dinner LATE at night, something my eating disorder would never even think about letting me do. I began eating a whole personal-sized pizza like everybody else was doing because after a full day of adventures I was hungry and it was delicious. Some of my favorite parts of the day are when I get to walk to our dining hall, De Nobili, and sit down and share a meal with my co-workers. I could never imagine that mealtime could bring me the joy and connection I yearned so much for. I’ve always thought full recovery was possible, but I’ve learned there are some things you just can’t imagine. When I sat in the dining room at Reasons, I never thought in a million years I would be vying to try the desserts the Cucina Italiana students had made that day, or voluntarily work on a farm in Italy picking vegetables from the garden and making homemade ravioli from scratch.

Now instead of feeling myself blind sighted by food rules I didn’t know existed, I get blind sighted by moments of overwhelming gratitude for the freedom I’ve gained around food. Just this past week I was flying back to LA after an East Coast trip and found myself crying on the airplane while sipping a Coke because I was so grateful that I could just simply drink a Coke and enjoy it.

My journey also isn’t over yet. I’ve come so incredibly far, but I also know that there are some things I still want to change. Instead of feeling helpless that they won’t, I’m hopeful and much more patient that in time they will. In the meantime, I will go back to Switzerland for one last summer and say the first sentence I learned in Italian and the one that is still most important to me, “Posso avere un nutella gelato in un cono per favore.”

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From Eating Disorder Treatment to Pasta in Italy: My personal "Eat, Pray, Love" Journey

April 27, 2018

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