My first love was not alcohol. It was food. Starting around age 8, in response to a myriad of stressors, I started bingeing. So I did what far too many ten-year-olds do. I started a diet.
Which led to an eating disorder.
Then I fell in love for the first time and felt better about my body and was able to slowly learn to eat again.
It’s purely a coincidence that I started drinking around then.
Then I quit smoking.
And stopped eating food, saving my calories for drinking instead.
I tried to beat back the eating disorder and get sober at the same time.
But was asking too much of myself at once. I couldn’t keep it up and started drinking again.
Three and a half years ago I got sober.
And stopped eating again.
And started exercising 2-3 hours a day.
Then I got pregnant and had to seriously knock that shit off.
My arms are exhausted. I don’t want to play this game anymore.
First Things First?
Around the rooms, this is known as “Whack-a-Mole”. You take care of one problem, and another pops up. I have often heard the advice – work on what’s killing you fastest. But food and alcohol are tangled up together for me, in that they both try to solve the same problem –anxiety.
The first time I went into a recovery group and was reading the Big Book, I kept saying to my sponsor, “Oh, I totally relate to that. Only about food…” It happened so many times, she eventually said to me, “You know, I don’t know that alcohol is your real problem. I think it’s food.”
My reaction was twofold:
- No shit, Sherlock.
- Yippee! That means I can go DRINK!
And that’s exactly what I did. For the next five years. It didn’t occur to me that I was using alcohol in the same way I had used dieting in the past – as a numbing device. But because I tended to bounce back and forth between the two, it didn’t make sense to me that BOTH could be a problem until much later.
I don’t know why I seem to ping-pong between the two. I can’t seem to find a point of total balance. There is something in me that is overwhelmed by the daily minor messes of life. I feel too much and it’s embarrassing. I realize this sounds either terribly angsty or depressed. If it’s angst, I should just get over it, grow up, slap a smile on my face and get on with it. And that’s generally what I do every day.
If it’s depression, I ought to take meds for that. And that’s also what I do every day. In addition, I am active, take vitamins, meditate, and do the things I am supposed to do. But somehow there is something in me that wants to check. The fuck. Out. It’s not that I want to die. Not at all. I just want a break, to not feel. That is probably the thing I miss the most that my addictions gave me – the numbness.
It also has something to do with reinvention. I have this image in my head of someone poised and cool, who doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Who doesn’t talk too much or too loudly, and isn’t weird. I thought I could starve the loudness out of myself. If I made myself small enough, and sharp enough, then all my excess would be gone. I wouldn’t have these squishy emotions that can’t be contained. And with alcohol, I could feel like the confident easygoing girl in public. And make her disappear alone at night.
The problem with these coping mechanisms is that they eventually stop working. I kept drinking more or eating less to try to get that old feeling back, long past the point where it stopped working.
I remember talking to a friend one of the times I was trying to get better. I asked him what he did when things in life were bad, to cope. He said, “I don’t DO anything. I just live through it, do what I can, and eventually, it sucks less.” I stared at him thinking, “We are a different species.”
In early sobriety, I remember trying to put this sort of thing into action after someone at work had pulled a particularly obnoxious move. I handled it perfectly well in the moment, making sure I didn’t show any anger or point any fingers. But inside I was furious. I am not comfortable with anger. Not then, not now. I want it gone, immediately. I have some better tools now, but at the time I had no idea what to do with this when I couldn’t stun it senseless with alcohol. My sponsor told me to take a bath. I complied. 20 minutes later I texted her, “Okay, so now I’m wet and I’m mad. I don’t see how this is better.”
I have made a good amount of progress in the three years between then and now. I’ve gotten better at doing things the way my alien friend does, trying to go the acceptance route, and for the most part, I’m successful. But I am also aware that nothing particularly bad has happened to me in those three years. (Coincidence?) I did go through a period of being unemployed that was no treat, but I knew there would be an end to it. I don’t know how I’ll deal though when I lose anyone important to me or if there’s a natural disaster. But the program gives me tools, for which I am thankful – meetings, fellowship, prayer…It has a general direction which is helpful.
The food issues have been harder to part ways with than alcohol. I am an all-or-nothing person. With alcohol, it is a great relief to know it’s off the table completely. I don’t have to think about it. But it doesn’t work that way with food. I am uneasy with having to find a middle ground and I still struggle with it. Another big difference is that I never miss my alcoholism. I don’t miss being drunk or hungover. But I miss my eating disorder. I don’t know why. I hated it. But it made me feel powerful. The mental obsession has never been lifted for me. I don’t go a day without getting on the scale. I record everything I eat. I constantly wish I ate less and weighed less. I hate that I want food. I know I need it, but I hate that it is more than a necessity. These thoughts float through my head in the same way I remember, “Oh, I should pick up the dry cleaning.” They have become mundane. My body has been cured. My brain has not.
While this might not make sense to anyone who hasn’t struggled with eating disorders, this thought is far from unusual. I had to stop going to message boards for eating disorder recovery because too much of it was women talking about how they “wanted their self-control (aka the eating disorder) back”.
Alcoholism recovery is a chummy experience. People drink coffee together and eat doughnuts and laugh about their shared history of disaster. There is just a sense that we are all in it together — relying on and helping each other.
Eating disorder recovery meetings always have a thread of competition running through them. There is always the very immediate yardstick of who is the thinnest in the room. If it’s you, you have to stay that way. If it’s not you, you aren’t working hard enough. This is not really helpful in changing your thinking.
Why I am afraid to fully recover
The thing I don’t want to admit is that I know I probably could be better, but I’m terrified that if I don’t think this way, then I will gain weight. A lot of it. I’ve been overweight, and I’ve been underweight and it’s ridiculous how different I was treated. Not by everyone, but by a lot of people. When I was underweight I was treated better than I ever have been by both men and women. When overweight, I frequently either invisible or a punchline. I couldn’t bear to live that way. I don’t have thick skin. There are those who are body positive and healthy at a higher weight, but I don’t have that kind of self-confidence. I want to be admired, but if I can’t be admired, I want to blend in.
Everything about my recovery from alcoholism tells me this is bullshit. But it has been my brain since I was eight years old. It’s how I understand the world. That’s hard to rewire.
Nearly every woman I know who is in recovery from an eating disorder has also had a problem with alcohol. Not exactly the scientific method, though there have been numerous studies that seem to suggest this. It makes sense to me. There is an unspoken battle between many women for who can eat the least at a given meal. When I go out to lunch, I can’t help but notice all the women with tiny salads and large glasses of white wine. I remember how the alcohol killed the hunger pangs and the lack of food made the buzz stronger. It’s a very powerful combination. In my early days of recovery, I confided to a friend that I had stopped eating again, “It feels like being drunk. I can’t feel anything else.”
It’s also socially sanctioned. No one ever asked me for tips on how to become a drunk. But I have lost count of the people who pulled me aside and whispered conspiratorially, “What EXACTLY do you eat?” As if they could make a meal plan out of a mental illness. Though I get it. I often miss being that thin because of how oddly revered it is in our culture. I have to remind myself daily that it’s better to be happy and normal than skinny and miserable.
There are so many more women suffering with these issues than the numbers tell us. It is incredibly common to have an eating disorder and be a “normal” weight. The scariest thing about writing this is doing so at a normal weight. I worry that people will sneer or roll their eyes and think I’m pretending to be something I’m not. Even at my worst, I never felt like I was a good enough anorexic.
Pregnancy and Eating Disorders
There is one time in life where many of us feel free from these shackles and that time is pregnancy. For once we are EXPECTED to eat! We are praised for it! “Oh don’t mind if I do have that Twix bar… It’s for the baby!”
Though circumstance dictated that I quit beforehand, I always figured I’d get a handle on the drinking when I got pregnant and had to stop for nine months. I just needed a hard reset, I thought. Now that I have spoken with so many women who have quit through pregnancy, only to ramp right back up to their prior consumption once the baby is born, I’m so grateful that I was lucky enough to get sober beforehand. But I did sort of do that with my eating.
While some women struggle to gain enough weight due to their eating disorders, I found it to be an oasis. Beyond being culturally “allowed” to eat, my body no longer seemed like an unwanted appendage that I had to drag around everywhere. It was actually doing something. It was making a person. That was amazing to me.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that women gain 25-35 pounds during pregnancy, but most women I know with a history of eating disorders tended to gain closer to 50 or 60. Sometimes more. This is not because we “pig out” but because we are never really sure what an appropriate amount of food is supposed to be. And even if we are getting the correct amount of calories for pregnancy, our bodies aren’t used to processing a normal amount of food.
Becoming a mother can be a double-edged sword. I have friends who have started drinking again in order to feel like they belong in today’s wine-soaked mommy culture. But I have a lot more friends who have gone back to their eating disorder soon after the baby is born.
I narrowly avoided it but definitely felt the temptation. Aside from the insanity of postpartum hormones, and the panic to lose the weight, there was an intense pull to have something of myself that wasn’t “mommy”. I felt consumed by motherhood and wished for some part of myself that was just mine. With all its secrecy and manipulation, my eating disorder seemed to fit the bill. But I resisted.
I have learned enough over time to know that it has nothing to do with me. Like alcohol, it slowly takes away who I really am. Something had already taken over my life, and it was a more positive force. I’m not saying in any way that motherhood has cured me, or that I am cured in general.
True, whenever I’m tempted to go back to my old ways, I look at my son and think about how he needs me to be here for him. I can’t give him the focus he deserves when I am sick. But isn’t that a little unfair? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a two-year-old.
There are questions though that hold promise. Like why am I only willing to treat my body kindly when it affects another body? What if I treated my body with the same respect I gave my growing baby? When I was pregnant I certainly didn’t get five hours sleep a night, drink a pot of coffee a day and live on crackers and Swedish fish (aka my average weekday). Of course not! I wanted this kid to be as healthy and happy as possible. I wanted to give him a chance. But don’t I deserve one too?
My ultimate goal is to have that same attitude towards myself all the time, not just when I’m pregnant. To insist on my own wellbeing, and to nourish myself. Because even though I’m not a growing child, I’m also not dead yet. My body isn’t a hopeless wreck that I am barely keeping going on caffeine, though it feels like it some days. It deserves a chance too. I sometimes wonder what my body could do if I let it.