Ah, September. You are a month of arrogant hope and assumed possibilities. Somehow, you manage to support our annual amnesia around the hustle of new-school-year-madness and you supply us with all kinds of ideas about how “it will be better this year.” In some ways, our slates are more blank in September than they are in January. We get fresh new blank paper planners complete with stickers and sappy quotes that somehow trick us into believing that productivity is simply in the eye of the beholder–as long as we have the stickers. If we have kids, September has extra special meaning. Summer is over and we can return to our own selves as our kids return to school routines, morning crushes, and extracurriculars out the butt. September is fraught with newness, apple cider, flannel button-downs, Han Solo boots, pumpkin spice, and everyone’s denial that they long for those very things each year. Hell, I’m simply able to sit here and type this because my kids are off to school this morning. We endure an entire year of nutty schedules, school projects, volunteerism, conferences, dry erase calendars, crock-pot meals, anxiety over our enoughness, summer, then summer, and more summer, before we embark upon another series of months that we use to arbitrarily measure our worth by means of socially-defined productivity. I look around and it is so hard to not compare myself to everyone else’s autumn selves with regard to what I’m accomplishing in work, parenting, planning, scheduling, etc. Social media is poison in this realm. I’m not into the selfies, guys. I’m really not. I don’t care how much you lifted, when you worked out, that you’re embracing your cellulite, or what new park you’ve visited with your kids. I will write another post about this egocentric cultural phenomenon and how it affects not only our generation, but the upcoming ones as well. It is shamefully scary, especially when I think about my daughters. I’m certainly guilty of taking part in some of these “productivity posts” but as of late, I have become acutely aware of the harm they can do–even when, ESPECIALLY when, we get on the high horse to outwardly express and blatantly propose that we are posting things in protest of this phenomenon. In short, everyone loves couches and sweatpants.
September will be all of the aforementioned things each year, and more, to me. September is the month during which I moved down to south Florida for 5 weeks with it’s temperamental palm trees, daily three o’clock thunderstorms (which I secretly LOVED), and serious threat-level humidity. It was certainly no fucking vacation. September is when I (almost involuntarily) checked myself into a treatment center for my decades long struggle with anorexia and bulimia. I left a fed up, yet tirelessly supportive, husband and three pained child witnesses while I attempted to go get busy saving my life. In what I can only imagine can be measured against the sheer pain a baby feels as it is being pushed through the birth canal, I embarked upon the most difficult thing I have ever had to do to date. I, in effect, had to be reborn. I had to be broken enough to be rebuilt, and I was. I had to feel the pain of the breaking and decide when it was enough. And, the real truth is, I really had to want it.
I didn’t always want it. Recovery, that is. Bulimia had become a way of life for so long. It was as much something that made me up as the black hair on my head and the witty humor in my bones. I was seriously terrified of who I would be without it. I’ve caught a glimpse of that person; I like her. But I’m still scared of who she will become without Ed. Ed is shop talk for those of us who choose to personify our eating disorders in order to recover from something that is no less than a seriously abusive relationship. In therapy I’ve been tasked with writing a break-up letter to Ed and, since then, I’ve had some serious writer’s block. This post was an attempt at that, until I recently read an article about addict transformations complete with before and after photos that depicted meth related skin sores morphing into recovered smiles. That article inspired something in me that I want to share. I need to share it. For me, for you, for her, for him, for all of the silent strugglers out there who grapple with the stress of living with and fighting the biggest killer of all mental illnesses combined. In the article, one can see addiction in the addict. The before photos are wrought with the skin sores, the weight loss, the thinning hair, the blank eyes. The after photos illustrated healthy bodies, returned personalities, vibrant shens. Any outsider reading such an article would read it with that subtle side head nod that seems to say “Good. Wow, he/she looks so great now. That’s amazing. Good for them. I’m so happy they found recovery,” dot dot dot. They equate, because we all do, outward appearance of health with recovery from addiction. That may be true to a small extent for drugs and alcohol. In the world of eating disorders, this notion is simply antiquated.
I can’t speak for all Ed sufferers or survivors. I really can’t. But I can speak as a true expert about how Ed works. I was in a relationship with him for 28 long painful years so I really do know. And what I will say is that the sick and twisted world into which Ed morphs our very minds is in exact parallel to the mechanisms of addiction. What I have learned from my many years in the rooms with Bill and his friends is that addiction is addiction. Period. The substances are just the ways we choose to appease the disease. Usually, when anorexia or binge eating disorders get bad enough, the outsiders can see their effects on the sufferers. Unbeknownst to these outsiders, however, they adopt some sort of societal disgust for people who “can’t control themselves.” At best, eating disorders are downplayed into some sort of crass judgement by society which situates itself around statements like, “can’t she just EAT already? Why doesn’t she just STOP eating already?” Sadly, anorexia in this culture gets praised like some sort of lady luck that has fallen upon its victim. I can’t tell you how many people (including people in 12 step recovery groups) I’ve heard wax sentimental about how they wish they “had the willpower to be anorexic.” In our culture, thinness is such a celebrated feat that no one has bothered to notice or take heed to the dangers of what “too thin” might look like. And, further, no one has bothered to notice the signs in a person who is silently struggling with such a disease behind the scenes. That is the problem. And that is why Ed prevails. He loves flying just under the radar. In fact, he thrives on it. Secrecy becomes an addictive substance to the sufferers. Getting away with something gives the addict a rush that only amplifies his or her behavior. It’s dopamine in its finest form. Dopamine, really, is the substance of all addictions. In our culture, we have become consumed with how we look, how we are doing, which selfies we are taking, which workouts we are doing, what is on our plates, what is in our bodies, how we are raising our babies, which political parties we support, and all the other things of the things that we barely have time to notice a bird chirping in the neighborhood, let alone the inner workings of someone who is in the throes of living with and hiding among an eating disorder. So, before I write Ed that letter, I have found it apropos to digress this post into a field of the inner dialogue that occurs inside the mind of the sick. In essence, it will read like a narrative for the sake of poetic justice. So, be it. Take it in. Try to imagine it. And, above all else, read it over and over so that you’ll REMEMBER.
A day in the life of anorexia (my middle and high school life):
5:00 am: Wake up. Body check. Ribs, upper arms, wrists, hips, belly, thighs, in that order. Twice. Look in mirror naked. 200 sit-ups. If I ate dinner the night before, 400.
5:15 am: Body check. Ribs, upper arms, wrists, hips, belly, thighs, in that order. Escape the sleeping household and go run for an hour, in the dark, in winter, alone. Do not come back until lungs burn.
6:30 am: Body check. Ribs, upper arms, wrists, hips, belly, thighs, in that order. Swim practice for an hour. Ed makes his entrance as I wash my hair during my school readiness routine in the locker room. I didn’t do enough activity to keep him quiet or happy, or quietly happy, or content, or contained, or calm, or collected. I didn’t make him proud. I fucking failed. Damn it. That means I’m going to have to do all of this again.
“You didn’t do enough today. I didn’t like the body check results. Too much fat. Too may rolls. I couldn’t feel the 12th rib, just the first 11, and your skin folds over too much when you sit down. Fail. You’ll have to run after your second swim practice tonight. Do it. Oh, and by the way, no breakfast. Only pickles for lunch because of, you know, the fucking skin folding over when you sit down. No water; that makes you bloat. Did you SEE yourself today? You’re a fat pig. I can’t stand you. I don’t even know why I’m still with you. You are a disgrace. You didn’t get an A on that paper, I bet. Of course you didn’t. Idiot. If you eat, you’re a failure. A fucking fail–“
Lunch: Body check. Ribs, upper arms, wrists, hips, belly, thighs, in that order. Ebru is waxing sentimental about how I have so much willpower about not eating. She vows to only eat a peach herself in some sort of solidarity ‘cool kids’ protest against food. I secretly stab her in the shoulder in my mind. I throw my brown paper bag lunch away. Ed laughs. I hate myself.
“Nice work, fatso. Throw that lunch away because you don’t deserve a morsel of it. You’ll never be as thin as Jill. She does cross-country AND field hockey and that is why. She is better than you are. She is smart and funny and cool. All you are is fat. Can you believe you are on the swim team? I don’t know how you possibly feel comfortable wearing a suit in front of everyone. I don’t know how everyone ELSE feels comfortable seeing you in a suit. You’re a fucking disgrace.”
Swim practice: Body check. Ribs, upper arms, wrists, hips, belly, thighs, in that order. 7,000 yards. Done. I hope I burned enough calories. I hope I made Ed happy. Maybe this time he will be–
“7,000 measly yards? It wasn’t 8. I’m so damn mad at you right now. Why didn’t you sprint that last 200? Don’t drink the gatorade. Sooo many calories. You don’t even deserve a stick of gum. I can’t believe you walk around with any smiles. Show me your bones. Do. Not. Eat.
Bed: Body check. Ribs, upper arms, wrists, hips, belly, thighs, in that order. Didn’t burn enough calories. 1,000 situps. 500 thighmasters. No water. No dinner. Alone in room. Collapse into bed. Rise, rinse, lather, repeat.
I adopted bulimia by the age of 13. The two existed together for a while until I realized how much I just wanted food, how much I enjoyed food, and how fucking scared of it I was. I also realized that I had seemingly found a loophole between self control and self will. It was perfect. I had beaten the system. The following 14 years would serve as a harrowing train wreck around which I thrust myself into the world of the walking dead, the world of the addict, the world of someone who had lived more of her life in the throes of eating disordered addiction than not. I could not stay awake in class, I swam away my very bones, I coughed up blood, my stomach remained in tightly gripped knots that no amount of self help could untangle. Despite my years of therapy and myriad professionals, Ed stood fast. I had no idea the strength of his grip; my denial was thick as lava, as dense as iron. It did not budge. Ed did not budge. Even when I thought I had stopped during the pregnancies and births of my children, Ed’s voice was strong, and it grew. His noises never faltered, never wavered against any threat of defeat. It was like he was sure he could kill me. And he tried. (He still tries. That is what addiction DOES.) Fast forward another 10 years and there I was, an academically decorated woman, a mother of three, a writer, a scientist, a bulimic in the helpless dire straits of relapse.
The thing about addiction that most people who aren’t addicts do not understand is that the thoughts, while they can be arrested a day at a time with recovery related tools, never end. They don’t stop. They live with only one goal–to convince you that they are right, to in fact kill you. Every God-damn minute of the day is filled with the energy the addict in recovery must find, must re-reveal, in order to fight the compulsion to follow the thoughts. Use and abuse is compulsion. It really is that fucking simple. When one is compulsed to do something, their power is taken away. They become the robot. They are dead. These sick thinkings are indeed a different entity than the normal unfettered thoughts of the human mind and spirit which ravel themselves together in an erotic sequined dance of harmony right up there atop the hippocampus. Addiction is a disease as much as cancer is a disease. But it is fierce. There is no tumor, but there is wiring up there in the dead attic of the brain parts that have given up. They have given up because of one thing or another and they have tasked the addiction with the new job of muting feelings until they blend into the background of Big Life, of Expectations unmet, of Post Trauma. There is no fucking chemo to treat that, I’m afraid. I may not know what it is like to be addicted to actual drugs but I can say, with 100% certainty, that I KNOW addiction. Interestingly, bulimia became such a part of me that I didn’t even recognize that what I was doing wasn’t normal until about a year ago when this relapse hit. Somehow, I was able to step outside of it and see it for what it really was. And, so it goes.
Present day, give or take: 2018
Wake up: Body check: neck, ears, shoulders, upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, fingers, ribs, stomach, hips, thighs, calves, feet, toes, in that order. Yes, you’re correct. It has gotten worse.
“You’re going to the gas station after drop off today, right? I can’t wait. It’s gonna be so good. What are you gonna get? How about two cake mixes, one frosting, two half gallons of ice cream plus two more pints, 3 or 4 whoopie pies, two boxes of cereal, extra milk of course, and 4 or 5 diet cokes to, you know, get the shit done. I don’t got all day, you know. Give me that hit.”
Breakfast: Have a decent meal of yogurt and oats and fruit while I stand at the stove cooking a different meal for the three kids that will be awake any minute during the listening to the constant Ed rant in my brain about setting up the fix. Never enough coffee, although I also start to use even caffeine to get high. Feed kids. Drive them to school. Head to the gas station.
Gather all of the above items plus many more into my arms, because I always go in thinking I’ll get less than I do, and then spill it all like a giant volcano of shame onto the counter while the cashier (who I can never look in the eye) rings it up. This is the 4th time I’ve done this today. And that is light. Go home, crying while driving, and tearing into one of the whoopie pies.
“You better make sure you keep eating the entire way home because if you stop, you will lose your hiccup, you will lose your ability to get this up and if you don’t get this up I’ll put 50 pounds on you by the end of the day. Do you hear me? You HAVE to get rid of this. You want this. Think of the relaxation. Think of the hit. I am here for you. I am the only one who will ever be here for you. Everyone else, EVERYONE else is lying to you. Trust me. Stay with me.”
The couch is soft beneath my sweaty flesh which rests in an exhausted ensemble of varying consciousness levels peppered with heart palpitations, foaming at the mouth, and sheer and utter muscular atrophy. This is the high. I lie there, mouth propped open by gravity, as I stare at the ceiling which could be as interesting to me as a movie. It lasts for 10 minutes. And then I have to do it again. I have to. I am possessed. My once self is no longer there. I am a shell.
“Go back out. The gas station is more expensive, but closer. Just do it. Dollar store is too far away. You have to do this for the rest of the day or else you will feel miserable. You will hate yourself. I will hate you even more than I do now. What the hell are you waiting for? You’ll have to get the kids soon, have to go to work soon. Go NOW.”
Back out. Lather, rinse, rise, repeat. It’s not even lunch time yet.
Fast forward to bedtime, the uselessness of my excuse for mothering, the final collapse into bed sheets that are sick and tired of covering up my secrets. And then, the next day, as if my tepid amnesia returns convincing me that yesterday wasn’t all that bad, I do it again. Slightly believing that I didn’t use the day before, the memories flood. The shame rises like a giant gargoyle slowly crawling from behind my shoulder as it stares ahead at the day. I can’t take it. It’s too painful.
“It hurts, right. So much pain. I can’t bear to look at you. Such a disgrace. I can’t believe you did that yesterday. You’re such a loser. You HAVE to do it again today to kill all this pain. It’s the only way.” – – this paragraph is the simple evil definition of addiciton in a nutshell. Pun?
I write this post, these posts, this blog, for a number of different reasons, not the least of which is to finally educate the public about one of the most widespread yet taboo diseases on the planet. No one wants to step on toes or crack eggshells, lest we “say the wrong thing.” But not knowing, not being educated, and not saying anything all equates to saying the wrong thing. I write this stuff to shock the eyes wide open, right into the damn sauce. I want them to burn a little as epiphanies ensue and real honest knowledge starts to fill inquiring minds up. Because we aren’t going to get this shit done in health class. We aren’t going to read this graphic noise in between our murder novels. It is nowhere to be found. There is this big fat white elephant in every room of the world that sits next to wars and shootings and graphic murder mystery shows as though competing with them via the use of eating disordered expletives would be futile. But this is a farce. As a society, we simply don’t know where to go with it, what to do, how to help. While I write, I end up randomly thinking of certain people who might read it. I get a little scared of the judgement. But I also remind myself that I write from a place of recovery. I write from a place of no longer walking with the dead. I do not engage these behaviors anymore. That said, I have a deep respect for the recovery process and I have a deep respect for the disease itself. I know each avenue is a choice that I must make daily and that, even while at bay for now, my disease is doing push-ups in the parking lot. I must make the choice to live in recovery over and over again each day, within the day. I am grateful that most of the time I choose to walk with the living.
As humans, we are simply a collection of our decisions. Nothing more, nothing less. Everything we decide to do makes up our story. Somewhere along the way, my decision became a compulsion which fueled an addiction to which I may or may not have been genetically predisposed. Without repeating my childhood story of abuse, I will leave you with this. How can you help someone with something that you can’t see? You really CAN’T see bulimia. You can see anorexia, most of the time, but I bet you don’t say anything about it. I also bet, in our society at least, you don’t even notice. I do. We do. But the laity is caught up in the linguistic particulars of political correctness and social constructs that is devoid of deep emotional interest as we trudge through our egocentric lives looking at screens. Some of these particulars arise in question form such as, “Are you ok? How is it going? Do you need anything? Why don’t you eat? Can’t you just eat with me? You look so great! Have you lost weight? Wow you really lost weight! Good job!” These can be countered with other things that, in my opinion, render situations much more fruitful and divinely led. They are as follows:
“I’d like to spend some time with you. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll just keep asking.”
“Tell me about your day today. What scared you? What made you happy?”
“Let’s go to dinner. You don’t have to eat. But I expect you to talk.”
“I’ll call you when I get home. I won’t text. I will call.”
“When are you free?”
“I found this cool place I’d like to check out with you.”
“Tell me about your dreams.”
Kill the isolation. Notice when we are doing it and then stomp it dead. Stop commenting on bodies, Jesus Christ, just stop. Theirs, hers, his, yours. Good, bad, and ugly comments are all fuel for Ed. All of them. Nothing is ever good enough for Ed so don’t pretend you can say anything that can make it so. Stop commenting on our food. What we are eating, how we are eating, where we are eating. I can GUARANTEE you that our minds are commenting plenty on that. Just let us be and really inquire about what makes us up. We need time and space to learn to trust you. And then, we still might not open up for years. Be patient. Be kind. Be hopeful. You might not get to us all in time before the reaper, but you’ll definitely make some dents in some of us. Remember that we are addicts. While we can eventually learn to stop the behavior after some months of treatment, the thoughts that took a lifetime to build up, will take the rest of our lifetimes to quiet. It is important to know that and to also know that the act of quieting these thought to the point where we AREN’T compulsed to pick up is pretty fucking exhausting. We won’t get it right every day, we will piss you off, we will hurt your feelings, we will seemingly ignore you. I assure you, we are simply taming the beast and some days we only bring one sword instead of the whole arsenal. Support our recovery. Let us bring our food everywhere if that is what we must do to stay sober. For the love of GOD do not EVER take it personally if we do not eat the food you made. It may be rude in some cultures, but at this point I don’t care. You know what else is rude? Letting someone die in order to stroke your own ego for a second. Would you force an alcoholic to drink your wine?
I wouldn’t be so crass if all of these things hadn’t already happened to me on my journey both in disease and recovery. I’m rightfully angry about it because, I believe, as a society we can do better. I want exposure. I want understanding and education and eradicated fear that if we get graphic with our young girls that they might wither and die from sheer embarrassment like some 5th grade menstruation health class. I want transparency. I want you to really LOOK at people. Really KNOW if they are ok. Because there are giant brick buildings of shame you have to hammer through before you can get past the “I’m fine” garbage and see what is really going on. Get pesky. Get in our face. Get nosy. Get busy living so we stop being busy dying. We need your help. The future of young people, of addicts, of Ed survivors and sufferers need your help, your beauty, your love, your arrogant insistence that this Earth deserves more than the walking dead.
Thank you, from the beautiful gorgeous depths of my real and present soul, for reading this. Seriously. Thank you.