Welcome to Renfrew

October 18, 2018

Monday, December 3rd I arrived back in Oxford after spending almost seven weeks at Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Florida. It felt very surreal to be outside of the safe little bubble I’ve inhabited without phone or internet. It sort of felt like I had only been gone a couple days, the entire experience just a dream.

I wish I could sum up the entirety of Renfrew in one single post. But every moment was filled with challenges, blessings, pain, panic, insight, community, craziness, and empowerment. It is going to take many posts to describe the way that it has changed my life. It is a good thing my therapist there enjoyed reading because she would have pages of my writing waiting in her mailbox most mornings.

But until my memoire hits the shelves, I’ll recount my experiences here. I’ll share the insight and wisdom I’ve gained along the way and the things that I will continue to gain as I work towards recovery and a full life.

I flew into Ft. Lauderdale around 12:15 on Thursday, October 18th. A friend knew I was landing at this time and she called me to say a few last words of encouragement. I immediately hit “ignore” on the screen and text her, “Can’t answer the phone or I’ll cry.” A driver was waiting to pick me up and deliver me to the Renfrew Center. I was exhausted even though I had an entire pot of coffee before I even boarded the plane. A man on a golf cart took my luggage to the resident building while I walked up the sidewalk to admissions. An iguana the size of a squirrel crossed my path. Where the heck am I?

It was hot and muggy and I was starting to feel very warm, especially wearing my sweatshirt and leggings. There was an enormous banyan tree out in front of the admissions building blanketed in green and yellow leaves and vines. I wondered how many hundreds of years old it must be. I walked into the front door and saw a sign that said, “Welcome to Renfrew Center Olivia!” I thought back to my first day of work in Mississippi and a sign reading similar words of welcome at the front desk. This felt a little different than that day. I was escorted to a room to sign paperwork and receive my binder full of manuals.

We proceeded to the residential building and I met with the medical staff. They took all of my vitals and asked me so many questions. This included meeting with a nurse practitioner and going over all of my labs, my medical history, and my family’s medical history. It was very thorough. She even began to ask about sexual health and after answering two questions she looked at me and said, “Sweetie, you have trauma written all over your face.”

After all of this was completed, I met with my primary therapist. I don’t really remember this conversation too much. I am pretty sure I kept asking her questions about herself the few times I did talk. We talked about both being cycle instructors. Little lizards skirted by the table. I was starting to feel very very warm. I didn’t know this person at all. How am I supposed to sit here, after knowing her for 38 seconds and spill my entire life story when I really haven’t shared it with anyone? But I do remember she made me laugh that first overwhelmingly stressful day, so I immediately liked her.

After I had my first session with my therapist, I went into my room and lay on the bed. I stared up at the ceiling for probably thirty minutes just trying to calm my brain down a bit. It was racing and anxious. I was so tired after weeks with little to no sleep. I felt physically exhausted, but mentally wide awake on high alert. I got up to unpack after the staff checked all of my luggage. Dinner started at 6pm and I didn’t leave my room until 5:59pm. I wrote in my journal that I considered not going to dinner at all, hoping that they wouldn’t notice since it’s my first meal (This makes me laugh now because they definitely would have noticed).

All the girls were waiting outside the dining hall when I walked up. A girl named Kelsey was the first to introduce herself to me. We walked inside and all of the trays of food were set out for us with our names on them. There were maybe ten other girls at my table with me. I ended up sitting across from Kelsey and met the two girls on either side of me. I tried to listen in to their conversations, but I was shaking. And tears were building up behind my eyes. And it felt like the room was closing in around me. I felt powerless, out of control. Feelings that were oh, so familiar to me. The staff were watching us and I wanted to run and hide or melt into the floor. But I couldn’t. It looked like so much food in front of me. The entire day was overwhelming and catching up to me. I felt so panicked.

I finished my meal slowly and then the girls told me I was allowed to save my dessert until we got coffee. So I dumped my tray and left the cookies in front of me with my coffee. All the guilt was building and building. I had to eat these cookies, I had no choice. I couldn’t run or workout after. I couldn’t skip breakfast the next morning. I couldn’t force them back up. I couldn’t look up their calories and make sure they fit into the day’s plan. I had to eat them in front of all of these strangers. And I have to do this for 4-6 weeks, and maybe forever. I’m going to be huge. I can’t do this. I should not have cookies. I should not have food at all.

One of the girls looked at me and said something. I don’t even remember her words. But then everyone at the table looked at me and the room continued to grow smaller. The pressure of their eyes on me felt heavy. The tears spilled over. It felt as if all the guilt and shame and disgust for myself was sitting on top of my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I wished everyone wouldn’t look at me. I started hyperventilating and I turned away from the table in my chair. Black dots were covering my vision and my shaking hands and feet felt numb, like pins and needles. I felt like I was about to faint. One of the girls grabbed the cookies from in front of me and dumped them with the trays and said, “You don’t have to finish these.” The girl on my left said, “Olivia, look at me.” and I looked up at her. My breathing slowed a little bit and brought me to the present. She had extremely blue eyes. She said, “Talk to me. What’s happening for you?” And I thought about saying it, about saying how much I hated myself in that moment. I don’t know this girl, how could I make her understand? The guilt and fear about these thoughts sent me right back into panic and I begged a staff member, “Can I go outside? Please? I can’t breathe. Please.”

A counselor, Jennifer, walked me outside and we sat in a garden covered in artwork from past patients. We sat there and she talked to me while I calmed down and breathed the warm, fresh air. I sat in silence, unable to find words to make sense of this insane experience. I didn’t want to go back inside. I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to change. I wanted freedom. I wanted control. But I didn’t want to feel like this. I couldn’t.

Jennifer escorted me to the community room where all the girls were lounging around. Some were knitting, making bracelets, coloring, and braiding each other’s hair. In the few days before I left Oxford, my roommate kept saying I was going off to “camp.” I laughed because she was kind of right.

I took a seat on one of the couches. Kelsey was playing music on the tv. A live performance of Landslide by Stevie Nicks started playing on youtube. This is one of my absolute favorite songs, something I play when I’m feeling sad. I asked Kelsey, “Are you playing this? I love this song.” And she replied, “Yup. Me too.” This little sign of connection made me feel better. Maybe this will be okay. Maybe I’m in the right place.

We had a group to go around and talk about our days. Before it was my turn, I was called out with the other three girls who were admitted with me. We had a brief tour and learned some of the policies. Then I escaped to my room to write some letters and hide for the rest of the night. My roommate came in and introduced herself to me. She seemed really sweet. She told me the rooms get really cold at night and offered me her extra blanket since I didn’t bring one. I thanked her and she lay it on my bed for me.

I was overwhelmed and anxious. This environment seemed crazy and odd and frustrating. It was strange and controlling and overbearing. But I reminded myself that if I went home, things wouldn’t be better. I would still be stuck, scared, and in my same rut. I was desperate for this to help. So I decided to just trust that this would work and that I would be okay.

Read about day two here.

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