I thought battling an eating disorder during an election year was tough. I had

Sitting there in the dimly-lit, wood-paneled restaurant in Manchester, our Timberland boots crusted with ice, I reflected on everything that had happened up to that point. My grandma had died three weeks prior. I spent most of the week from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day under fluorescent lights at her hospital bedside.

The morning after her funeral, I got on a plane to Des Moines, Iowa, to get back to work on CNN’s caucus coverage. My team coordinates the logistics for getting election news on air, and 2020 was already shaping up to be an unpredictable year.

I remember looking in the hotel mirror the morning of the Iowa caucuses and not recognizing myself. My hair had fallen out in clumps in the shower that morning. My face was somehow both bloated and sunken. My makeup no longer matched the color of my skin because my face had turned slightly gray. I was so fatigued, the winter chill winded me after a few seconds.

So I waved my internal white flag, thinking I understood what that entailed. I knew that taking medical leave for residential eating disorder treatment would mean missing pivotal moments in this election cycle. I knew I’d be walking away, albeit temporarily, from a dream job at the moment I needed to prove myself. I knew CNN’s election coverage would be done brilliantly, but without me. I was devastated at the thought of it all. But there wasn’t another option. I knew I needed to do this so that I could do more of what I loved and continue to do it well.

A week before Super Tuesday, I packed my shame and my belongings, and boarded a plane to California.

In the first few days in treatment at the center in Santa Barbara, I learned that I had pretty severe vitamin deficiencies and other serious internal side effects from not nourishing my body properly for so long. Since then, I’ve been slowly working on repairing my body.

Let me be clear, eating disorders are not simply vanity projects. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. They are deadly. I came face to face with my own mortality this year and had to ask myself: Did I want to survive? I did. I do.

Julie Gallagher in California, the day before being discharged from residential treatment.

The center’s routines were strict, but I was with other residents and there were hints of normalcy, like Thursday evenings at the beach. But when Covid-19 came to the US, my already small world became even smaller.

The center banned visitors, and our beach trips were canceled. It all seemed extreme and unnecessary, but I slowly realized the magnitude of our new reality. People started dying. Hospitals became overwhelmed and didn’t have protective equipment for staff. Schools were closed and lessons went online. People lost their jobs. And I felt ridiculous in my situation.

It took me a while to understand that even though the world was experiencing a crisis, it didn’t mean I wasn’t also sick. It didn’t mean I didn’t deserve to get care.

Our only goal as humans during this pandemic should be to survive and help those around us survive, too. We are not obligated to read 100 books, knit blankets for all of our friends, bake banana bread, or learn a new language. Most of all, we are not required to lose weight, follow an intense at-home fitness routine, or fend off the “Covid 15.”

It’s hard for me to fathom what would have happened if I had not gone into treatment when I did. Eating disorders thrive in isolation. That phenomenon, coupled with the societal pressures to emerge from this pandemic no larger than when we entered, would have plunged me even deeper into the throes of it.

After being discharged, I knew that if I wanted to give recovery a fighting chance, I needed support. So I moved back in with my mom and brother in New Jersey, and enrolled in a virtual intensive outpatient treatment program. I packed my bags for my flight home from California with snacks, masks and disinfectant wipes.

Then my aunt called. My grandpa was sick with pneumonia. No one could visit him at the hospital because of coronavirus. He wasn’t getting better, so he had requested to stop care and go home. I couldn’t believe it; I had just said goodbye to my grandma. They were married for almost 60 years.

Gallagher with her grandparents, Eleanor and Donald Gallagher, at her graduation from the University of Maryland in 2017. They had been with her for many important occasions.

Two days after I returned home, my grandpa died. I said goodbye through their first-floor bedroom window with a mask and gloves on. Unable to get closer than six feet, my family had gathered on my grandparents’ front lawn to console each other in our grief. A few days later, with the pandemic curtailing services, we stood at the entrance of the military cemetery and watched his casket as it was driven inside.

Like so many people who have lost loved ones this year, I felt so robbed of a proper goodbye. I was furious. I couldn’t relive memories with friends and relatives at his wake. I couldn’t pray to God in our church. I couldn’t drink a few beers with my cousins and laugh about how he did algebra problems for fun at night.

But most of all, I knew that I couldn’t run away from this sadness by trying to starve or purge it out of me. I think there’s a small part of me…

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