The doctors told Naomi that she could not leave the hospital. She was lying in a narrow bed at Denver Health Medical Center. Someone said something about a judge and a court order. Someone used the phrase “gravely disabled.” Naomi did not think she was gravely disabled. Still, she decided not to fight it. She could deny that she was mentally incompetent — but this would probably just be taken as proof of her mental incompetence. Of her lack of insight. She would, instead, “succumb to it.”
It was early 2018. She had come to the hospital voluntarily, because she was getting so thin. In the days before, she had felt her electrolyte levels dip toward the danger zone — and she had decided that, even after everything, she did not want to be dead. By then, Naomi was 37 and had been starving herself for 26 years, and she was exquisitely attuned to her body’s corrupted chemistry. At the hospital, she was admitted to the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition for medical stabilization. There, doctors began what was once called refeeding but is now more commonly called nutritional rehabilitation, using an intravenous line that fed into her neck. Reintroducing food to an emaciated body can be dangerous and even lethal if done too quickly. Physicians identified this phenomenon in the aftermath of World War II, when they observed skeletal concentration-camp survivors and longtime prisoners of war eat high-caloric foods and then drop dead of cardiac failure.
“Well, here I am,” Naomi said in a video message that she recorded for her parents. “I am alive, but am I happy? I don’t know. … It’s pretty pathetic. I don’t know how I feel about the fact that I would have died had I not come.” In the video, she was wearing a hot pink tank top, even though it was cool in the hospital room, because she wanted to shiver, because shivering burned calories.
A few days later, when she was not imminently dying anymore, Naomi announced that she was going home — and the hospital responded by placing her on a 72-hour mental-health hold. Clinicians then obtained what Colorado calls a short-term certification, which required, by judicial order, that Naomi be detained and treated, in her case until she reached what physicians determined to be 80 percent of her “ideal body weight.” In Colorado, as in most states, a patient can be treated against her will if she is mentally ill and found incapable of making informed decisions. That day, Naomi was transferred to a residential program at Denver’s Eating Recovery Center (E.R.C.).
“I’m so mad, I’m so mad,” Naomi said in another video message, her voice dull and impassive. “I was completely disrespected. I was tricked.” Naomi could feel that her mind was diminished — it was too slow, too slack — but she found that she could think in a straight line. She could reason. So why did the doctors claim otherwise? By then, she had been in and out of hospitals and psychiatric wards and eating-disorder programs, including the E.R.C., more times than she could recall. Was it really so irrational for her to assume that trying the same treatment for the hundredth time would be futile?