May 1, 1998. Not my last binge, but the beginning of the end. I had been white-knuckling a no-sugar diet for about a month, but that day I woke up with that restless, irritable and discontented feeling, a feeling that I knew meant a binge was fast approaching. On the way to a gig in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, opening for a famous Top Ten band, I made my husband stop at a convenience store. I bought three huge chocolate bars (think Cadbury) and the requisite diet soda. For the rest of the drive, I devoured them, slowly but methodically. The first bite tasted like heaven. I thought, How could I ever have believed I could live without you? You are my long-lost best friend! But soon I stopped being able to taste the chocolate. There was no pleasure left in the ritual; it was automatic, hand to mouth, chew, swallow. I didn’t want to eat, but I was powerless to stop. By the time we arrived at the gig, I was sick, full, and disgusted with myself. I still had a half a bar left, and I tossed it on the table in the green room, ostensibly sharing my “one” chocolate bar with my band mates. I then retired to the ladies’ room to stick my finger down my throat and purge the two and a half bars I’d consumed. I was getting good at making myself throw up–a dubious accomplishment but one I was grateful for. I simply could not let the excess calories show on my body. I’d rather die.
This is no exaggeration. Sometimes at night, after a binge, the sugar racing through my veins, faster and faster, causing my heart to beat as if I were running a marathon, I contemplated throwing myself out the window to make the insanity stop, to make me stop. More than anything, I wanted to stop. I wanted to follow the wisdom of my therapists and sit still, watch my breath, listen for the voice of the God I had grown up with. But I couldn’t sit still. To sit still meant the calories might catch up with me, and I was committed to out-racing them. This entailed a running program that had me banking up to six miles a day, even after I’d fallen off a stage and broken my left foot (I “crutched” my miles in at that point, even in the icy Massachusetts winter). As far as I was concerned, nothing would stop me from achieving my goal: to be 105 pounds, to be 15% body fat, to wear the 27-inch-waist jeans I’d worn when I was fourteen and prepubescent.
I’d lost my periods two years earlier. My gynecologist had diagnosed me as anorexic and sent me to a therapist. Though I loved therapy and made lots of excellent insights, my eating was getting more violent; the periods of control were getting more intense and the periods where I lost control–those days and weekends when I ate pints of ice cream, boxes of cookies, candy bars by the handful–were becoming more extreme. And I had started purging: making myself throw up by sticking a finger down my throat.
I was thin–not as thin as I wanted to be, but thinner than I’d ever been in my adult life, and I loved my thin body more than anything in the world. More than my family, more than my marriage, more than my career, more than my house or my pets. I saw myself as a master of weight and low-fat cooking, except when I binged. Then I saw myself as a complete failure, a pig, a monster. I loved the fact that I had finally succeeded in establishing a daily exercise routine, that I was running every day. I had always wanted to be a daily exerciser, but I was the kind of person who would go out jogging on the first nice day in spring, vow to continue and then hang up my shoes until the first nice day of autumn. Now I was out there every day, in the scorching heat and the subzero blizzards. The only problem was, I now had to run. On the rare day when I wasn’t able to, I felt such intense anxiety that nothing but a sugar binge could calm me down–and the binge always led to another binge, and it would take several days, sometimes weeks, for me to get “back on the horse,” back to my rigid diet and exercise regime.
And I realized, one day, about a year before I hit bottom, that in a life that looked rich and wonderful to outsiders–complete with a happy marriage, a successful career as a member of a rising folk-rock band, health and good looks–I only cared about two things: eating and exercising. Those were all I thought about: when I would exercise and what I would get to eat as a result of the calorie calculus. I had created a prison and I was living within its bars.
What was I eating? “Grass and twigs,” quipped my sister, who had witnessed my progression from a relatively healthy omnivore to the obsessive controlling person I was becoming. On “good” days I ate almost no fat and very few carbs. I ate fat-free, sugar-free frozen yogurt and copious amounts of diet soda, lean protein and vegetables, and quite a bit of fruit. It looked like an adequate diet in a way, but with nowhere nearly enough calories to sustain my reproductive hormones. And on “bad” days, it all went out the window and I subsisted on junk food–mainly sugary products like cupcakes, muffins, ice cream, granola. Oh, and red wine. Lots of red wine.
For a while I thought I’d found the solution to my dieting problems when I discovered how much I loved red wine. When I had a couple of glasses, I didn’t feel like I needed dessert. And wasn’t red wine good for the heart? Wasn’t it the beverage of choice for those healthy Mediterranean types? But something curious began to happen over the years: the older I got, the more the wine seemed to affect me; the more I wanted to drink and was able to drink. Soon I couldn’t stop at two glasses; soon it was half a bottle a night or more, and after a certain amount, I was too drunk to control my impulses, which would lead me to eat the desserts I was drinking the wine to avoid! Soon, drinking one glass of wine inevitably meant drinking half a bottle, which inevitably meant getting drunk, which inevitably meant binging, which inevitably meant purging. I was stuck in a cycle I couldn’t escape from.
My therapist gave me a book called Drinking: A Love Story because the author, Caroline Knapp included a chapter in which she described her struggle with anorexia. I devoured the book and related to the anorexia, but even more so, I related to her relationship with alcohol. I remember putting down the book and whispering to myself, “I am an alcoholic with food.”
Ten years earlier, two friends of mine from college had put an end to their own obsession with food, dieting and the ongoing battle with the scale by joining Overeaters Anonymous and surrendering to a program that suggested weighing and measuring all food and abstaining completely from sugar and flour. In the middle of what was, God willing, my last binge, in May 1998, I picked up the phone. With a shaky hand, I called one of these old friends and said, “I think I am a food addict. Can you help me?”
She told me I had a disease. She said I was powerless over that disease, that I was powerless over food, powerless over my obsession with the scale. She said it wasn’t my fault; I was probably born with it. Looking over my family history, I couldn’t really argue: my grandfather and his siblings were obvious alcoholics, my grandmother and one of my aunts was anorexic and my own mother had struggled with bulimia when I was two. Not only that, but one of my sisters had just joined OA herself and was a shining example to me of what abstinence could give a person. Within weeks, she had lost some weight, but more importantly, she had gained a new clarity in her eyes; her face glowed with some inner radiance and she spoke softly of a relationship with God–something she’d never had before.
I had a relationship with God. I had prayed to God since I was a very little girl, and I knew God could help me if I really surrendered and followed his direction. The problem for me was finding the willingness. I still thought I could do things my way. “What if, ” I said to my old friend, the one in OA, “I defined my abstinence to include a couple of glasses of wine a day?”
“That’s fine,” she said. “You can. I just don’t know anyone who’s been able to stay abstinent for long that way. Wine has a lot of sugar in it, and most of us food addicts are very sensitive to sugar.”
I did some more research and found that almost everyone I spoke to concurred. “We have a threefold illness,” people said to me. “Physical, mental and spiritual. The physical part is an allergy. We have an allergy to sugar, flour and quantities that sets up an uncontrollable craving. The craving can be arrested, a day at a time, by committing to a food plan and abstaining completely from troublesome foods.” With the help of my sister, old- and newfound friends, I found a branch of OA near me where the members followed the precepts of the Big Book of AA very closely, modeling their program on that of AA and treating their addiction to food the way alcoholics treat alcohol–absolute abstinence from foods that caused cravings, and carefully weighed and measured meals to keep from overeating, which is the food addict’s equivalent of taking the first drink.
I got abstinent on May 7, 1998. Immediately a power flew into my life unlike any I’d ever experienced. I felt God in a much more present way, and interestingly, the words of the Bible began to sing for me as they never had before. I saw the old familiar stories about Jesus healing people in a whole new light. For hadn’t I been healed? Hadn’t I been blind and now I could see?
I had been going to church my whole life. I had also begun to explore Buddhism and the ways in which it intersected with Western psychology. The Twelve Steps didn’t contradict anything I’d learned or believed: rather, they seemed to enhance it all. The slogan “One day at a time” brought to mind the story of the ancient Hebrews, traveling through the desert for forty years, having only enough manna for one day. It was helpful to me to think about my disease the way my Christian forebears had imagined Satan: that evil was a disease. While I was abstaining, it was doing push-ups, becoming stronger daily and waiting for me to pick up again. I am grateful that nine years later, I have not needed to pick up my drug.
And I am grateful to be grateful–to recognize that a life of sane and happy usefulness is the very best gift any of us can be given, and that any of us can choose to have this life if we but see how beautiful this kind of life is. If you had asked me before I came into the program what kind of a life I would like, the qualities “sane” and “useful” would not have made my top ten. “Beautiful,” “thin,” “successful,” “influential,” “talented,” “celebrated,” “wealthy,” yes. “Sane” and “useful”–who cared? But I would have asked for “happy.” What I didn’t know then was that “happy” is possible only when we are sane and feel useful.
Studying the Twelve Steps with others has given me all this. It was suggested early on that I do a complete and thorough moral inventory, exactly as the Big Book suggests. This task turned into a two-and-a-half year project of writing down resentments, turning them around, and writing my fears and my sex inventory, culminating with a reading of almost 800 index cards to my sponsor. I’m glad it took me so long to do, because the practice of seeing how each and every resentment could be turned around to teach me something about myself has become almost automatic in me today. When I feel that angry feeling, I have some objectivity today, and I am able to remove the log from my own eye before trying to take the mote out of my sister’s.
Today I lead Twelve Step study groups with a friend in the program. I write a tenth step every night, even if it’s only a gratitude list and a resentment list and a commitment to abstinence. I meditate and write and make phone calls; I attend three meetings a week and I sponsor three recovering food addicts. And I have a life second to none. I put the program first, and then my beautiful little family (I have a wonderful husband and an adorable one-year-old baby). They are miracles in my life. When I first came into program, I was married to a good man who was not interested in having a spiritual life. After ten years of marriage, I had a miscarriage and my husband confessed to having an affair; we divorced shortly thereafter. It was a dark time in my life, but not as dark as my years in the food. I was thirty-four when we broke up, and I wasn’t sure I would meet someone in time to be able to become a mother. The love I share with my current husband is grounded in the principles of our Twelve Step program. We pray together before our meals and we attend church as a family. I am richly blessed.
Today, I practice gratitude and acceptance. In two words, that’s my spiritual path. When I am grateful and accepting, I know that I have enough. When I am grateful and accepting, my whole life makes sense, even the difficult and unpleasant parts of it. Even when I relapse into judging or competing or self-pity, I get to learn. I get to try again. I see people who have more time in the program than I do and I want what they have. Today I try my best to live by the credo that “acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” When I see all that is occurring as part of God’s perfect plan, I am truly living in heaven on earth, and I hold the keys to the kingdom in my hand.