History Lesson

As I wrote recently in Humble Pie, I need to give more attention to my food issues again. I need to remember that, although practicing such behavior isn’t illegal, it can kill me as thoroughly as drugs can. Death, after all, is a very clearly delineated state–if I find myself there before the time is right, does it really matter whether it was a drug overdose or a heart attack? I’m still there, and I’ve still ended my life early.

So I’ve been thinking, and talking with my therapist, in an effort to reconnect with and remember some of my harshest times with my eating disorder. Many of these were before I discovered drugs, when all of my compulsions were channeled into just one addiction. I need to remember the pain I caused myself, and how I used food as a tool for both reward and punishment. Somehow, without ever losing sight of my recovery from drug abuse, I need to get back to identifying myself naturally and unashamedly as a compulsive eater.

I’m thirteen. I’m walking to the drugstore on a summer day, and when I get there I buy candy bars, sweet rolls, and ice cream. With my bag of goodies, I return to the studio apartment where my mom and I keep all our stuff. We don’t actually live there; but we need to keep most of our things there so my mom’s boyfriend’s wife won’t know we are living with him. All my books are there, so I go there often. It’s a tiny, grungy place, but once I am locked in with my books and my food it’s all right.

I’m fourteen. I’ve been fasting for days to try to lose weight. Dehydrated in the Los Angeles summer, I look longingly at the Slurpee machine but resist. I’m not very overweight, but I have enough adolescent chubbiness to get teased at school, and I hope that if I lose weight I’ll have some friends. I lose a little, but nothing changes.

I’m seventeen. I’ve grown a lot taller, and have been dieting for months, and I’m finally almost satisfied with my weight. At 5’7” I weigh 127 pounds, and I’m trying to get down to 120. I lie in my bed, tracing my fingers proudly over my jutting ribs. Often, on my way to the school bus, I vomit up the vile herbal supplement I’m living on.

I’m twenty, and the pendulum has swung the other direction. In my first two years of college, I’ve gained 70 pounds and started binge eating regularly again. I miss classes because I’ve made myself sick with food. One day I go shopping for clothes and realize to my shock that I can’t shop in regular stores any more. The men I date and I have an unwritten agreement: they overlook my weight in exchange for me letting them control the relationship.

I’m twenty-two. After graduation, I seek help and wind up in a treatment program. I get back down to 160 for a while, but my expectations for my weight are still unrealistic. Then I get engaged and gain 90 pounds in one year because I can’t admit I’ve made a mistake. After the relationship ends, I carry on with graduate school in between making the rounds of the local restaurants. Carrying books to read, I eat a meal in one place, then move to a nearby one and order another so that nobody sees how much I am eating. As the pain in my stomach grows, I wonder if I can make it home before my digestive system rebels. 

I’m twenty-six and weigh 295. I do the medical fast thing for the first time, get down to 142 and stay there for approximately 10 minutes. I begin a desperate search for a way of eating that will satisfy me and allow me to keep the weight off while still letting me use food for comfort and pleasure. As the weight creeps on again, my fear chokes me and I stop weighing myself. A family crisis obligingly distracts me, and by the time I’ve moved and gotten through it all I’ve regained more than half of what I lost.

I’m thirty-two and in chronic pain. The pills soothe me and I don’t need the food as much. In fact, I’m often not hungry. But any time I try to quit taking the painkillers, the weight piles on. Eating is never comfortable or natural. I’m always determinedly abstaining or frantically trying to act out without consequences. Once the consequences start happening, I have to eat more to dull the awareness of them. Over the next years, I reach my high weight of 320 and then lose some as my drug use increases.

Charting my weight over all of these years would show that maintenance is a foreign concept to me. Of course I am finding it challenging now! I’m battling a lifetime of beliefs that say I’m supposed to be either going up (and blaming my problems on my weight) or going down (and happily looking forward to the weight loss making my life better). I have no idea how to live in a body that stays the same; a body that’s just my body.

Looking at my eating and weight history is useful for getting in touch with Step One and getting away from the idea that my food problems are just a puzzle to solve. It helps me remember that I really am a compulsive eater: the food-related version of that mysterious being we call an addict.

The “Big Book” of AA states:
“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death. We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.” 

All I need to do is mentally substitute “eating” and “compulsive eater” and this passage fits me just as perfectly as it does when I put in the words about drugs. I think I’ll go read some more.


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