Going AWOL

I went AWOL AF outta there.

Courage. It is taking me loads and loads of courage to write this one. I have finally reached the crossroads of my life experience where two roads converge: One states that if I remain quiet about this someone may actually die, and the other states that if I’m loud about this, well, I may save more lives than just my own.

I believe in the collective living of humans on this planet. Somehow, our biology tends to encourage us to form social constructs in the name of survival. And yet, on the other side, we are too smart for our own damn good. Everyone on earth has struggles. Everyone on earth has strife. It is how we know we are imperfect, alive, human, breathing. Hopefully, the struggles become patches in our bulletproof vests we present to the future world in strong ways that keep us and those we love safe. Sometimes the struggles get us, though. They eat us whole. And no one knows when or if they are going to get eaten. I guess you could call that metaphor a pun with regard to this particular post.

Today, I am writing about eating disorders, childhood abuse, and recovery. (Isn’t that what you ALWAYS write about, Steph?). Yep. My vest. Your education.

Avid hope for lives saved.

My childhood was filled with abuse. I was manipulated, deceived, gaslighted, psychologically tortured, and filled with all kinds of fuel that would later become the generator of my self doubt, self hatred, and overall feeling that somehow my sweet self made a fucked up mistake by being born. My parents were, and are, the two most amazing humans I have ever known. They will always be my people. They will always lift me up. They will always be my first phone call. My abuse was inflicted by someone else who shall forever remain nameless. It doesn’t matter WHO did it. What matters is that it happened, it was real, and it lasted for decades. I was forced to create an entire new life outside of my abuse. New town, new friends, new scenery, new everything. I had to, in effect, be reborn. But before that happened, I was a kid looking for a way to cope with the daily life that mimicked a prison of sorts from which I could not escape. I was terrified to share the evidence for fear that it would backfire on me. My small attempts at this actually proved my fears to be true. So, with nowhere else to turn and deeply lacking those who would listen to me, I caved in on myself.

When I was 11, I began to starve. Within weeks of this decision (which seems fleeting when I look back on it, but it really was a very strict and definite choice of mine) I was only allowing myself 300 calories a day, no fat, no meat, and no water. I would not even let myself chew sugar free gum as the 3 calories in trident were “empty” and they would make me fat. I exercised 4 to 6 hours every day using programs on the tv while holed up in the home office. My parents were at work. They did their best. I was home, often alone. Sometimes with a sibling. I lost 80 pounds…at age 11. I think I probably should have died and am unsure of why or how I possibly didn’t. I’m not going to expand into details too much as they can be found in all of my previous posts. But I will review the information here that I became bulimic by the age of 13 in a response to treatment for my anorexia for which I was completely unprepared. My bulimia served a purpose. It was the only thing that I could trust that was real in my life. By thirteen, I had been so harshly abused that I could not trust anything in my outside reality. I could trust what went into my mouth and what came back out of it because I saw it, therefore it had to be true. I could measure (sort of) all of the tangible things that can be measured when a person decides to revolve his or her life completely around food. What happened was a phenomenon of sorts, something that happens to most people with eating disorders that go on long enough. I became addicted to the behavior. I was not addicted to the food. In fact, it really didn’t matter WHAT I ate. I simply could not go a day without purging. I did not binge. I just threw up every single thing I ate. Every damn day. I was usually hanging over the toilet vomiting up to 20 times a day. I was an accomplished swimmer who could have really gone places in the sport. But bulimia quickly stole that from me as it left me tired, weak, and weary. I could not possibly train at the level that was needed for marked improvement. I fell asleep in school. I dropped all of my honors classes so I could sleep through the easier ones. I was nervous, anxious, angry, tired, and just unpleasant to be around. And I didn’t care. Bulimia was my drug. Nothing and no one mattered to me more than getting that next hit. I hurt a lot of people in the process.

People think that anorexia and bulimia are about being thin. Perhaps they start that way and stay that way for like a week. Very quickly, they become an obsession. An obsession with food, body, being liked, being disliked, being alone, being not alone, saying the right thing, saying the wrong thing, being enough, being not enough, being not enough, being not enough. Bulimia was the drug I used in order to function throughout the day. Some people use weed, or cocaine, or adderol, or crack. I used bulimia. This went on, vehemently, until I was 27 when I became pregnant with my first child. I stopped purging. For nine years. And then I found FA.

During those nine years, I managed to finish graduate school, get my masters degree in medicine, pass the most difficult state board licensing exam in the country, give birth to two more kids, move from the west coast to the east coast, start three private medical practices from scratch, and make a name for myself in my new town of Amherst, MA. I was accomplished, but I was addicted. I simply couldn’t stop DOING. I filled my days, based on the amount of “not-enoughness” I felt, with busying myself sick. I became obsessed with different things….being a good mother, a good wife, less of a burden to the world, the right size, a good volunteer, a good church-goer, a good school finder, a good food maker, a good party thrower, a good friend. Everything had to be good, er, good ENOUGH. But addicts don’t really know the definition of enough. Because we push the envelope. It was in this busyness, during which I was NOT purging, where I began to use food as my drug. I ate and ate and ate. I gained weight. A lot of it. It was horrifying. I couldn’t keep up with life. My husband worked long hours, and I was mothering 3 young kids completely by myself. I think that’s enough to break anyone. But, for some reason, I equated a bad day with complete failure. Some of the self-inflicted adages in my head have been put there by my abuser. They are as follows:

Why were you born? You are such a burden. Why do you NEED people so much? No one is going to believe you. See, I told you you couldn’t do that. You really should think before you speak. You’ll never be wanted. No one is going to miss you. You should be able to handle every single thing in life by yourself. Why in the world do you need any help? You need help because you are a failure. You can’t do this. I won’t help you. You don’t deserve my help. I won’t answer your questions. You are tainting my life.

My abuser went AWOL from my life without explanation or even answers to my inquiries when I was 14. To this day, I have no idea why this person completely cut off all communication with me. It took me until I was 37 and in ultra intensive therapy to learn that this behavior was not normal, was not okay, and that I was not at fault. My whole life has been spent wondering (and asking) what the hell I did to piss this person off enough to completely cut me off without explanation. Talk about a mind fuck. Enter FA.

FA is a 12 step program that is based off of the original 12 step program of AA. FA stands for “Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous,” not to be confused with FAA which stands for Food Addicts Anonymous. FA is for what they call “food addicts” or, those individuals who seem to be addicted to food (for myriad reasons) the main culprits being flour, sugar, and quantities. I don’t doubt that there are people out there who are addicted to these things. I thought I was one of them. And, perhaps, at one point in my life I was. But to lump anorexics and bulimics into the space under the wide umbrella of defined food addiction is shortsighted, dangerous, and irresponsible at best. This post, while slightly about my bulimic life, is about FA, its tenets, and my experience in the program that ultimately led me to fall face first into the most horrifying relapse I’ve had to date. I can only speak for my own observations and in no way expect to use these observations as blanket statements to represent the entire program. I will, however, share the rules and rituals by which all members are expected to abide in order to illustrate the sheer insane depravity of it all and, hopefully, to save a life or two in the process.

I had a brief stint in OA90 (google it, but don’t dabble) and I left that program full of shame as somehow I could not maintain my abstinence (the food addict’s word for sobriety). I spent 2 years wandering alone, hoping that one day I could learn to eat normally. I could not. Weeping, sobbing, and shaking at my desk at work I googled “food addiction programs in Amherst, MA.” Sure enough, FA popped up. I made a call and found Blythe (I will be using this fake name in order to protect identities here. I doubt any of you know that many people named Blythe.) who was all too happy to talk the talk with me. Quite quickly I realized that she also walked the walk. My disease loved it. Here she was, in the flesh. My hero. I wanted to be her. Everything she talked about made total sense. I truly felt like she was heaven sent.

I asked Blythe to be my sponsor. She said yes. And so ensued 10 months of induced starvation. You see, in FA, there are rules. Many rules. And I, a former anorexic, was extremely good at following rules. After all, that is what eating disorders are: subset after subset of senseless rules and rituals that are to be followed to a T, lest sudden death pounce on our lovely bones. I will list any and all of the FA rules and rituals in the following paragraph to the best of my ability so you can get a basic gist of what life was like for me during a harrowing 2 year period of trying to “find my footing” in recovery.

Wake each day early enough to begin with 30 minutes of “quiet time” or meditation with your Higher Power in whom you must put your trust because you are told to never trust yourself and that every single thought in your addict brain is disease induced.

Call your sponsor every fucking morning at 5:45. If you are late, you’ve overslept, your alarm clock fails, or you simply forget, you are deemed unwilling and said sponsor has a right to drop you and find another sponsee. After all, she is a recovering addict too. She needs to look out for herself.

Tell your sponsor in said phone call everything you are going to eat that day. It must have been written down in a book the night before, or else you are deemed unwilling and said sponsor may drop you and find a new sponsee.

Ask said sponsor for help with your day, but mostly (in my case) listen to a berating song and dance of all the shit you fucked up yesterday.

Weigh every single ounce of food you eat to the point zero and don’t deviate from exactly what you said you were going to eat that day. Even an extra carrot will make you have to start your coveted “day count” over again.

Weigh your body every week, on a Friday, and report the weight to your sponsor (another recovering addict) who will decide what is an appropriate weight for you with zero basis on muscle mass or body type and simply using math. 100 pounds for the first 5 feet of height and 5 pounds for every inch on top of that. To question this could deem you unwilling and said sponsor may drop you and find another sponsee. After all, you are an addict. Put your weight in someone else’s hands.

Commit to the same schedule of 3 meetings a week which are each 90 minutes long. 99% of members do not have small children. If one of your children is sick during a meeting time, you must ask your sponsor if it is ok to skip the meeting. She may say it is not ok. If you don’t go to your committed meetings, sponsor may drop you and find another sponsee.

You may not speak at these meetings, nor vote during business meetings, until you achieve and maintain a minimum of 90 days of continuous abstinence.

Make 3 phone calls a day that result in actual conversations with other members and not just voicemails. Failure to do so could result in sponsor dropping you.

Question nothing.

Question nothing.

Question nothing.

You may not sponsor anyone else until you have had 6 months of continuous abstinence.

If you break your abstinence, you must not stand up to share at meetings, you must drop any volunteer jobs you had to support the program, and you lose any and all privileges you may have gained as the result of achieved abstinence, such as not having to commit your food or call your sponsor 7 days of the week.

Breaks in abstinence include the following: failure to eat meals at strict times, taking a bite of your pre weighed meal during the trip from countertop to table, eating anything off plan even if it is a vegetable, not finishing your entire meal, not finishing your entire meal in one sitting, standing up in the middle of the meal even to go to the bathroom, purging, binging, starving, eating something different than what you’ve committed that morning even if it is a “safe food,” eating a piece of food that fell onto your pants from your fork on the way to your mouth.

I had to question whether or not I could take communion at church because the wafers are made with flour.

Read that last sentence again.

No mixing any foods. No sauces. No mixed veggies. No different types of fat in one meal. No mixed fruits. No grapes. No nut butters. No beans. Only 3 types of grains allowed, EVER. For the rest of your life.

You may not eat any grains, except at breakfast, until you have reached the goal weight which has arbitrarily been set by your sponsor who is a recovering addict and not a professional.

When you get nervous because you’ve stopped menstruating, you are literally laughed at and told “I haven’t had my period for 20 years! What are you missing?”

No more than 3 30 minute exercise sessions each week, lest you become deemed “exercise bulimic” by said sponsor who is a recovering addict and not a professional.

No supplements.

No caffeine or caffeine containing medicines.

No alcohol or alcohol containing medicines.

No artificial sweeteners.

No milk in coffee.

Only peppermint tea. No other flavor.

No psychiatric prescription medication.

Attendance at the annual business and fellowship conventions around the country is encouraged and expected.

The only way to work the 12 steps is through a support group called AWOL which, ironic to its original military meaning, stands for ‘A Way Of Living.’ By the way, you must maintain abstinence to be granted entrance into this AWOL which takes a full two years to work the steps.

I think I could go on and on and on as these are just a FEW of the horrid rules that FA imposes on its members with the constant threat of losing your sponsor, your ability to share your experience, and (gasp!) getting fat. The last one is what kept me hooked. I just didn’t want to be fat anymore. And I wasn’t. I lost 100 pounds. In six months. I became a waif. I had people asking me left and right if I was ok. One person actually asked if I had cancer. Blythe told me not to worry, that she had fielded comments like that and that they were just saying these things because they had not seen me this thin before. “They’ll get used to the new you,” she’d say. I was tired, weak, and a mess. But I was thin. Blythe said she “liked the way ‘just underweight’ looked” and that she requires all of her sponsees to achieve that look and I liked that she liked that because I was secretly using her as my new eating disorder voice that told me I was worthless unless I was a size zero which, by the way, I had achieved. My husband would fold laundry and mix up my clothes with my nine-year-old’s clothes and I thought this was the greatest thing. I had arrived. But I couldn’t get through a day without multiple naps, lots and LOTS of coffee, and exercise. I was competing in a strength sport and felt like a badass because my muscles were showing and I made the paper for losing 100 pounds and, blah blah blah.

And then, after 10 months, I wanted some chili.

I had made some for my family and, even though it did not contain flour or sugar of any kind, it was indeed a forbidden mixture of sorts that would never fly in FA. I took a spoonful. Then another. Then a bowl. Then another. It was so incredibly good and so different from the boiled meats and steamed veggies I had been eating. I kept eating. I couldn’t stop. And then I freaked out. Inside, my thoughts all came to the surface: “You’ll never get the weight off that you gain from that bowl of chili! You have to get rid of it now!” So I purged. I purged for the first time in 9 years. And wide open the flood gates became. For the next year and a half, I fought to “get my abstinence back,” as they say.  

By now, I had a new sponsor. She was a recovering bulimic in North Carolina. We had (and still have) never met. She was wonderful and lovely and encouraging and loving and everything that I learned a good sponsor SHOULD be. I stuck with her because she gave me hope that bulimics could actually use this program too. But, since I had gained about 20 pounds since my relapse, I was put on the food plan that didn’t allow grains or carbs of any kind. And that starvation kept triggering me and triggering me to binge. These weren’t just binges. I’m talking 30,000 calories. In.one.sitting. Vomiting at LEAST 50 times a day. At least. Middle-of-the-night trips to the gas station found me spending hundreds of dollars I didn’t have on “the next hit.” It was torture. I couldn’t stop. I simply could.not.stop.

I checked myself into treatment last August. It was the bravest thing I have ever done for myself. I attended a fabulous treatment center called Milestones in Recovery in Hollywood Florida. Everything suddenly became less scary and more fascinating while I was there. I learned about my disease and what transpired to help me develop it. I learned what my real thoughts sound like versus my eating disordered thoughts. I learned how to speak, I mean really SPEAK, my truth. I learned how to be okay with being alive. I learned that my abuse was real and it was severe. I learned that I am good enough. I learned to breathe.

In late September, I returned to Massachusetts with a lot of awesome recovery under my belt. The nutritionist there warned that I should not lose any more weight and I agreed with her. So she stabilized my food plan and it worked. Then, I had to weigh myself for my FA sponsor when I got home. I was 10 pounds over what FA deemed an appropriate weight for me. So I had my food plan readjusted and, yet again, I was set into starvation mode. Again the binges began and, shortly after, the purging. I could not believe that all that recovery I had gained in treatment just got thrown out the window. Or down the toilet. I was devastated. Still, my sponsor assured me that FA was the right way. I begged for more food. She wouldn’t give it to me. I just did not have the mental strength to stay starved for another minute. This cycle kept going on and on until I realized that I had to step out of FA. The day I completely stopped FA was the day I stopped purging. I couldn’t believe it. I was floored. But I didn’t go cold turkey. You see, anorexics and bulimics are sneaky people. We sneak around all the time in order to get our ‘fix’ of starving or purging. It is the exact same behavior drug addicts use. Luckily, I knew this by now. And I really did want to be well. So I hired two different therapists, both of whom I see once a week, and a Reiki master who gives me a treatment every week too. I work closely with my own nutritionist who simply talks with me about food, gives me a plan, and doesn’t weigh me. She doesn’t give a fuck what I weigh. I had to build my own program and, while not fool proof or without error, it is saving my life. I have never had such intensive therapy before and luckily treatment showed me that I need it. It may be this way for many years. It may only be a few months. But it is intense and exhausting and messy and difficult and scary and…just beautiful.

Look, I know that my FA experience differs from many others. And for many, the program works. But I’d definitely ask those people to give me their definition of “work.” For me, it was a complete danger zone and could have really killed me. People like Blythe have no business guiding anyone with a history of anorexia or bulimia through the FA program. People like Blythe should stick to the fact that the reason FA works for them is because the very functioning of the program works in the exact same manner as an eating disorder works. Therefore, I am calling FA “induced anorexia.” Let’s call it what it fucking is. It is not recovery to me when people stand at the front of the room compelled to “tell you their numbers,” like how much weight they lost and what they weigh this week and whether or not they are happy about that. It is not recovery to me when someone says (out loud!) that she wouldn’t listen to someone’s advice because that person “wasn’t even thin.” It is not recovery to me when people are not allowed to use huge parts of the program that would better their situation just because they broke their abstinence (which could be as little as eating an extra stalk of celery or putting milk in one’s tea).

Please pray for me as I pray for you. Pray that my decision to leave FA has been just and that recovery is out there for me. I still have bad days. I still have hard ones. But nothing like before. I’ll pray that you open your eyes and look around at your fellow humans to maybe catch a sense of struggle in the air. Notice who is most put together. Notice who is falling apart. And notice all of the ones in between. Notice yourself. Get honest. And figure out your own path. Recovery is a gift for all of us addicts, and non addicts alike. I’d like to spread it around like a nice rich nut butter on a slice of thick toast (which I now eat!). Thank you always for reading this little blog. It isn’t much, but it is indeed a look into the inside of my soul that houses all the mess. Together, let’s be messy.

And let’s really live.

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