The only time I have ever been happy with how much I weighed was when I was shooting heroin. I was 125 pounds and thought I looked great. I had that junkie chic thing going—that oh so appealingly attractive gaunt look that accented my cheekbones as well as my protruding ribcage. Never mind that I’m 5’ 10’ and resembled a walking skeleton, or that I had no muscle tone or that I was slowly dying.
In my mind, this is still my ideal weight, and what I continue to measure my present self against. Of course, being that thin is such an unrealistic goal that I can only fail trying to achieve it—unless I am willing to engage in some really unhealthy old behaviors.
I have been bulimic ever since I was 12. I started binge eating to suppress my feelings of abandonment while my parents divorced and I became invisible to them. When I discovered that drugs worked a lot better than food not only to subdue my fears and anxieties but also to keep me thin, I started using on a daily basis and didn’t stop until over 20 years later when I walked into my first treatment facility.
Because most addicts don’t bother to eat, and when they do it isn’t exactly what’s generally considered a balanced healthy diet, a majority of the clients there were as emaciated as I was. In an effort to get us all “healthy again.” the program encouraged us to eat. They served three meals a day that were high in calories and heavy on carbs to fatten us up. And in between they put out a ton of snacks so everyone was doing the rehab 20 in 20—20 pounds in 20 days. I was freaking out.
I hadn’t even thought about my eating disorder the years it lay dormant while I shot heroin. But as soon as I gained weight I started purging like I had never stopped and it wasn’t long before the counselors took notice. “We think you should go to OA,” said Nancy, my primary counselor, who had no experience working with eating disorders.
“What the hell’s OA?” I asked.
“Overeaters Anonymous,” she answered. I didn’t know what the hell they’d do there. And apparently neither did Nancy because when I asked about it, she said it was just like AA except you did it with food. Only as far as I knew, AA preached abstinence from alcohol. How was I supposed to completely abstain from eating?
“Honey, I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m not the one hugging the toilet in the bathroom every day. Just go to the goddamn meetings.”
My first OA meeting was in a church, but not the usual large basement room that AA meetings tend to be held in. This was a small sitting room off to the side of the chapel and there were very few chairs. I was nervous about going, and when I showed up a few minutes late, the meeting had already started. I quickly scoped out the room from the doorway. There were five people in attendance as well as a secretary who was running the meeting, and when I walked in everyone fell silent. After I took a seat the secretary resumed reading: “Whatever problem you may have with food, you are welcome at this meeting, regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other trait. Are there any compulsive eaters here besides myself?”
Everyone raised their hand, and as I looked around, I noticed they were all women, quite overweight, and well dressed. And there I was, weighing considerably less, dressed in torn jeans and a leather jacket, and I was a man. I suddenly felt even more out of place then usual. When the secretary asked if there were any newcomers I said, “My name is Patrick and I’m an addict.” And the room fell silent again. When another woman started reading the 12 steps, I stared at the floor.
As uncomfortable as I was at my first AA meeting, this was 10 times more awkward. I totally understood that I was powerless over drugs, and my life was unmanageable, but this was food we were talking about here. And unlike being in a room full of addicts and drunks, I just couldn’t relate to anyone that said they couldn’t stop eating, even when I had the same problem. I felt completely different from these women, and kept thinking that because I threw up and was skinnier, I was somehow better off then they were. After a few minutes of fidgeting, I got up and left.
When Nancy asked me how the meeting was, “Fuck that shit” was my response.
At that point, I hadn’t even started working the steps for my drug addiction, and trying to wrap my head around thinking that the same ideas could help me with my eating disorder wasn’t working. So instead of continuing to seek help I decided it would be better if I were just less obvious when I purged. And because I had so much self-loathing and shame around it, I continued to keep it a secret, and over the next few years I stayed clean off drugs, but I relapsed on food about a million times.
There were periods where I didn’t eat compulsively or purge my food. But as soon as my life got the least bit stressful, bulimia would reappear. And it was after one really bad episode that I began to consciously consider what I was eating. My diet had slightly evolved from when I was a junkie, when I’d existed on cigarettes, candy and the occasional cheeseburger, but I really wasn’t eating that much healthier now. So I made some drastic changes. I became the worst pain-in-ass food person around: a gluten-free vegetarian. Only with a gluten-free diet there were a lot of “alternative” carbs and starchy legumes and sweets were no problem as long as they were organic and made with the right ingredients. Which didn’t really help my eating disorder. I’m an addict, I over indulge, and there was nothing stopping me from power munching an entire pack of gluten-free cookies in one sitting every day. So even though I was eating healthier, I wasn’t losing weight or even staying the same but slowly gaining. And as I once again started feeling fat, I returned to throwing up, and that’s when I fell into the deepest depression around food that I’ve ever experienced.
That was about a year ago, and it’s taken me a very long time to work myself out of it. I had to return to the gym and start running again just to get the endorphins going. And although there are some folks at meetings that consider eating disorders an outside issue, thankfully my sponsor isn’t one of them, and I was able to talk with him about it as well.
When I started to feel the slightest bit better about myself, I began to approach eating in a totally different manner. I stopped looking at food as the enemy, or another substance to abuse. Now I only eat whole foods, nothing processed, and I stop eating well before I feel full. I’m still a vegetarian so meat and dairy are out as well.
While this regime may seem strict to some, I haven’t felt the need to throw up once since I started. But people are always going to share their opinions; one of my friends actually said that I was practicing another form of anorexia while others continue to probe me about all the “wonderful foods” I’m “missing out” on.
My feeling is this: I’ve eaten all kinds of wonderful foods and enjoyed them all—some a little too much. What I don’t enjoy is engaging in unhealthy behaviors that produce a shitload of shame. If what I’m doing is some form of anorexia, then it’s the healthiest eating disorder I’ve ever had.
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Originally published as “Call This An Eating Disorder If You Need To” by After Party Chat November 19, 2014
Just in time for the holidays…
Writing my first essay about bulimia wasn’t easy—not because I was new to writing about recovery but because I was new to publicly confessing to a secret I’ve kept for most of my life. Oddly it’s been tougher to deal with than my addiction to heroin. Which is saying a lot, as kicking dope and then staying clean has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And the reality is that without the support of my fellowship I wouldn’t have made it.
For the past 13 years I’ve attended meetings, held commitments, supported my fellow addicts and even sponsored a few. It’s always been a safe environment to talk about whatever I’m going through, and sharing at a group level usually results in other addicts confiding in me about their experiences of how they’ve learned to cope. So I was surprised recently when this tattooed and pierced ex-tweaker I barely knew came up to me at a meeting and said, “Hey fat boy! What you gonna write about next, getting your period?”
I’m almost ashamed to say that his words hurt. Amazingly I didn’t react by throwing a punch or kicking the shit out of him; that’s what my old self would’ve done. Honestly, I was kind of impressed that this person could actually read. But over the years I’ve learned to be a little more understanding of those around me. Some of us are just sicker than others. While I find it depressing that the majority of people still think anorexia and bulimia affect only women, wholly dismissing the men that suffer from the same disorder, it is this exact same thinking that has kept me quiet for many years. I was afraid I’d get this type of reaction. Afraid my masculinity would be questioned and that I wouldn’t measure up to what society’s ideal of being a man meant—even though it’s an ideal I don’t even buy into. And really, what the hell do I care what some judgmental ex-drug addict thinks? Only apparently I do care. I worry that his opinion somehow reconfirms what I already think of myself—that I’m fat and because of that, nobody loves me.
Never mind that a stranger emailed to say how brave she thought I was for writing that essay. Or that after I linked it to my Facebook page, I received numerous positive messages—one from a former actress that made a point of telling me of her son’s plight and eventual enrollment in treatment and some even from other men that said they too were dealing with their own bulimic/anorexic issues. All of them were very supportive and just hearing their words gave me hope. Yet all it takes in one macho yahoo to send me back into wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.
Only I just can’t do that anymore. Now that I’m in my 50s and still dealing with bulimia, it’s become painfully obvious that keeping it a secret and not talking about it isn’t working. I’ve learned about the relief that comes from working the steps for my drug addiction—from admitting to myself and another human being the exact nature of all my wrongs in order to rid myself of the secrets that were keeping me sick. Now I have to do the same thing with my bulimia.
Part of the reason I wrote about my eating disorder in the first place was to put it out there and confront my fear of how I thought people would react if they found out. Because really, that’s a huge part of it: what I think people think of me and how I believe they see me. When I’m in my worst mental state, I’m constantly visualizing how I look to others and wondering if they see me as fat and unattractive—the way I do. Unfortunately no matter how I actually look—even if I were to suddenly drop 20 pounds—I still feel grossly overweight. And one of the main reasons for this is that at the end of my career as a drug addict, I weighed 125 pounds. To everyone else I looked emaciated. To me, I looked good, and now and forever that is the standard I hold myself to, despite the fact that when I was standing on that scale getting weighed, I was being processed into county jail and my life was about as destroyed as it could get.
Logically I know that this is irrational, but logic doesn’t enter the argument here. In fact the argument is rather simple: I’m fat. That’s it. End of story. Doesn’t matter what “evidence” there is to the contrary. When I’m at the doctor’s office and the nurse weighs me, I won’t look at the scale. That height-to-weight ratio chart on the wall always scares the shit out of me, since I’m worried that I’ll forever be in that precariously ambiguous gray middle ground between the normal weight column and the grossly obese “stop eating Cinnabons you fat cow” column. And usually after a weigh-in like that, I go off into a strangely anorexic-like controlled eating phase where I consume a carrot a day.
Yet right before I wrote that first essay, I’d been totally out of control and engaging in some really unhealthy behaviors. Gradually I’d been eating junk food with the excuse that it was just a bag of chips, what could it hurt? But it was a bag of chips every day, and then it was also some cookies, then a candy bar, an ice cream—eating more and more as I had crossed that line until it was okay to eat whatever shitty crap I felt that I deserved.
And much like it is with drug abuse, one is never enough. When I tried to stop, I’d have to fight the urge to not eat badly. Failing miserably, I’d succumb to whatever crappy food I was craving, and then, feeling guilty that I ate it, puke it up. Not only was I gaining weight and feeling shame about my behavior, but after years of this, it was also taking a toll on my health. How unattractive is it that my teeth have turned grey from continually being doused with stomach acid? And my throat is so damaged that I have to take acid-reflux medications or experience heartburn so painful it can almost feel like a heart attack. Oddly, my stomach muscles are incredibly strong—not flat-washboard-abs-from-crunches strong but strong from forcing food up and out my throat. Though none of it kept me skinny, I kept at it on a nightly basis. Still, the worst part is how it makes me feel mentally. When I’m doing it, I’m so ashamed and depressed.
Yet when I finally got up the courage to write that essay I came to realize that I was definitely in the problem, not the solution. So I called my sponsor and talked with him about it. Then I reevaluated my commitment to healthy eating habits and returned to a diet that worked. I got back into an exercise regime; I added working out at the gym every other day to my regular running regime. Gradually I pulled myself out of it. But then someone I didn’t even really know came up with a negative comment that hurt, and I just wanted to give up.
Still, I realize now that this is my eating disorder talking to me. Keeping it a secret doesn’t work so instead I’m continuing to put it out there for all to see as I keep doing what I’m doing. No matter what I feel in the given moment, what people say ultimately doesn’t matter; facing this and being honest about it is the only thing I know that works.
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Originally published as “I’m That Rocker Dude in His 50s That Wrote About Having An Eating Disorder” by
After Party Chat June 25, 2014