I’m reading Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story” on my Kindle and I can’t get past a page without highlighting something. She so precisely puts into words what I feel…what it is to be an alcoholic, an addict, and have an eating disorder. The constant internal restlessness, sense of unease, and battle between deprivation and excess, wanting and needing more than our “fair share” of food, drink, relationships, life…the craving to be filled with anything and everything…To finally, once and for all, feel whole and full and satisfied, no longer in need, so desperate and empty…And some of us may know where this emptiness originated, but many will never discover its source.
For me, I only know it was a part of my core since I was young. The pull toward something that would ground me, plant my feet a little more firmly on this earth and enable me to take assured, necessary steps toward a life I wanted, was just THERE. I had an inherent desire for a panacea to soothe me and stop my agonizing perseveration about what was past or yet to come, what may never come…An elixir that would permanently annihilate my nagging fear of floating away. This inexplicable sense of fragility drove me to grasp at and cling to whatever/whomever I could because I JUST KNEW I couldn’t make it on my own. Life was too scary, too overwhelming, too much. I felt like I didn’t belong (it should be noted that this ‘differentness’ is also a common feeling of people who are LGBT before they become aware of their sexuality…so I had that going for me too…and I won’t even try to parse out the what if’s – if I hadn’t struggled so much with accepting my homosexuality, would I have developed my eating and substance use disorders?…Because I have no idea and never will and it doesn’t really matter anyway). I sensed I was ‘different’ and didn’t quite fit. It was as though everyone else was familiar with and following the directions from a book I didn’t even know existed.
So I was predisposed by composition and shaped by perception and experience to be vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors. To become one of those who JUST COULDN’T COPE without external armor for protection. I don’t know why I needed a shield to feel comfortable, normal, less apprehensive, I just did. Looking back, there is very little rational basis for my heightened sensitivity and anxiety. Nothing particularly traumatic (e.g. death of a loved one, physical/sexual abuse, seeing the atrocities of war, etc.) happened to me. But regardless, I was highly sensitive, anxious, obsessive/compulsive, with a low frustration tolerance. It was my temperament. My parents did the best they could, but they didn’t know any more than I did about what I needed. The stage was set for me to become an addict.
I found my comfort first in food, or rather self-deprivation of food. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true…I experimented a bit with alcohol and other substances here-and-there before I became anorexic. It was teenage experimentation. Except it wasn’t. Because I was the only one sneaking alcohol from my parents’ liquor cabinet at a sleepover party I hosted when someone who wasn’t invited (because as far as I could tell, she didn’t like me) showed up. Why my first impulse was to get obliterated instead of face the situation and just deal with unpleasant feelings that arose, I can’t say. But it’s what felt necessary and it’s what I did. Only my best friend at the time knew. The secrecy started from the beginning. That’s why I know it wasn’t normal ‘kids being kids’ behavior. I wasn’t at a party drinking with friends. I drank vodka from the bottle because I didn’t want to think or feel emotional pain. It is one of my first memories of self-medicating. There were many more that followed, where I was the only one drinking or using, and most of the time, the only one who knew. As I’m writing this, memories of other incidents are flooding me and it would take too much time to share them all, so I’ll spare the details for now.
So back to food. It was something I could control in the face of so many things I couldn’t (inherent loneliness, being attracted to the same sex, never separating and individuating in a healthy way, the list goes on). I was a Freshman in college, on my own for the first time, anxious/obsessive, a high-achieving perfectionist with low self-esteem. I didn’t stand a chance. The tipping point was Thanksgiving break that first year. After a few months of college and no longer playing every sport known to man, I went home and got on the scale and saw ‘129’ or maybe ‘128’ but that’s not as important as the decision I made that day, which shaped the rest of my life right up until now. I thought, ‘I am NEVER going to be 130 pounds.’
People who develop eating disorders aren’t dumb. Statistically we’re actually usually fairly intelligent and high-achieving, but from an outsider’s viewpoint, we sure can appear to be pretty idiotic, as we time and time again make completely irrational decisions based on cognitive distortions instead of objective reality. And you can’t convince us of anything rational when we’re in our disease, which makes treating eating disorders so challenging and frustrating because we are incredibly treatment-resistant. We also think we know more about our eating disorder than any professional (and a lot of times, at least for people who are like me, we have read so much about it that we often do). Hence, I dropped to 105 pounds, stopped getting my period, felt exhausted, ate EXACTLY the same thing every day, and still needed to obsessively count and recount the caloric content, fat, sugar, carbohydrates, salt, etc., of everything ALL DAY LONG. And because I was pretty sure I was underestimating how many calories were ACTUALLY in what I was eating (cognitive distortion), I added a few hundred (or a thousand) calories to my daily count, just to be on the safe side and reach my goal of staying under the magic number I arbitrarily chose.
Oh and I went to the gym every day for 3-4 hours. I have no idea how this was physically possible, but it’s true. Then enter some medical complications, mix in a few episodes of binge drinking, a couple of trips to the ER and several ‘morning after’s’ wondering how I was still alive. Normally I wouldn’t drink because I considered alcohol ’empty calories’ but every few months when I did, I would drink until I passed out and vomit until I was dry-heaving for the entire next day. One time I remember trying to tally how many shots of tequila I had so I could keep track and try to ‘find my limit’ and when I looked at my tally sheet the next day, I saw 5 lines followed by 5 or 6 more that were crooked and haphazardly placed somewhere further down the page.
I was sick. Cold all the time-nauseous-losing my balance-joints aching-sick. Fast forward a bit, moving past some of my denial, I was offered professional help. I saw a psychiatrist who put me on meds, entered therapy, met with a nutritionist, started eating according to a recommended plan and gradually put weight back on and started getting better. Physically anyway. Changing your thinking is always the hardest part and I believe the mental component will challenge me for the rest of my life.
So anyway, I arrived at a healthy weight (though still obsessing/restricting/over-exercising) just in time to be faced with new stressors, which compounded with my same old underlying sense of feeling alone and out of control and proceeded to freak the fuck out. I had introduced new ‘unsafe’ foods to my diet to eat ‘in moderation’ and because I had never done anything in moderation EVER, I quickly began binging on them. Then came the terror – I’M GOING TO GET FAT – I’M COMPLETELY OUT OF CONTROL – I WILL NEVER BE FULL – and subsequent panic which ultimately led to my transition into bulimia. It is the same switch that was flipped as when I took any mood-altering drug. The need for MORE MORE MORE. And the sinking desperate awareness that no matter how much I took in, it was never going to be enough. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Consequently, for the next several years of my life, I binged on an objectively absurd amount of food and purged by vomiting and compulsive exercising on a daily basis. Good times.
Because I was a perfectionist, terrified of failure, and this was the phase of my life where I was still ‘keeping up appearances’ and needing to excel to prove my self-worth, I somehow managed to graduate summa cum laude with a 3.96, 7, or 8 (I can’t even remember, that’s how important it turned out to be…whoopdeefuckingdoo…and at what expense?) from the University of Rochester with a double major and then go on to become a Fulbright scholar. It’s amazing I’m even sharing this because I have a very difficult time saying anything positive about myself because to me, it always feels obnoxious. Since I was young, I have always elected modesty, to the point of self-depreciation.
…This is getting longer than anticipated and my legs are cramping up and Samson is eating Kristen’s plants again, so I am getting distracted by having to scold him….
Where was I? Right, a bulimic mess. So that continued and then eventually the vomiting stopped (I was back home at the time and it became too difficult to hide, I got tired of it, too depressed to put the energy into it? Not sure..) but the binge eating didn’t. So I gained more weight than I felt comfortable with, though still not outside of my healthy BMI-range. Then the vomiting started again, but only sometimes and then at some point drugs and alcohol (re)joined the game, with more players, and catapulted me from being an introvert to the extrovert I always wanted to be, or at least more of a ‘gregarious introvert’ (who am I kidding?) When using, I feel the need/want to be social and go out and engage with others.
Substances have been paramount to shifting my natural inclination to be a loner to what (I think) is a preferred level of sociability that fills my desire for connectedness. This is one component that has been a barrier to getting and staying clean and sober…when I’m sober, I often have no motivation, drive, etc. to socialize. This leaves me with that same sense of alienation and spiritual aloneness that caused me to seek refuge in warming, numbing substances in the first place. It is what makes going to meetings difficult, despite knowing that meetings are where I am likely to find the connection I am seeking to fill my spiritual void. I am ashamed to admit it, but I would love going to meetings if I could go under the influence, but that completely defeats the purpose…Ok, more on my downward spiral into substance use will have to come in Part 2 because I’ve been sitting here at the computer for hours now and I need a break.
Thanks for listening…