the cliche of the rock bottom

Unlike the throes of addiction and many other mental illnesses, we will rarely find a definitive answer for what constitutes rock bottom in eating disorders. There are the extreme cases, of course, with hospitalization and medical emergencies, but these do not account for the millions of sufferers silently mutilating their lives.

I don’t have a definitive rock bottom, but I wish I did. It sure would make for a beautiful, neat little story for my cliched memoir one day, wouldn’t it? I can jut picture it now. Chapter 6: THE MOMENT I REALIZED I NEEDED TO CHANGE. A moment of total clarity, a sudden, black-and-white realization that said, OH I NEED TO CHANGE! It probably has to do with getting some kind of scary news from a doctor or someone telling me that they were worried. I mean, that’s what we read about, right? That’s what we hear from so many people. My story isn’t quite so neat, and there is no definitive beginning, middle, or end. In fact, I don’t even know if I have the “climax” (rock bottom) and a resolution. My story is all over the place. I would bet MOST of yours are, too.

I’ve had lows, yes, but they’ve been scattered, and none of them have felt particularly worse than the others. The lying and deceitful ones stand out. Denying that I had stolen food. Lying that I had already eaten. Telling people I felt “great” and had “no triggers” and was “coping well” when it was entirely untrue. The physical pain ones stand out, too. A two-day, free-for-all binge spree which led to severe food poisoning, and (in hindsight) probably dangerous levels of dehydration due to such bad diarrhea and vomiting. The sugar-induced headaches. Pain in the back of my throat. Terrible stomach cramps. Feelings of heaviness. Feeling like I was going to pass out.

But my rock bottoms weren’t illegal nor were they necessarily destructive to society. And nobody really even had to know. Unlike most addictions, I will never be treated as a criminal. Because I don’t have to resort to theft, violence, or prostitution to get my drug of choice. Food is fucking everywhere. Simple as that. And it’s pretty fucking cheap, accessible, and rampant. And best of all: it’s perfectly legal and absolutely essential to live. Talk about a fun thing to abuse, right?

I didn’t have to be scared of jail or hitting someone with my car. I didn’t have to be scared to be stamped with fines or a criminal record. I didn’t have to worry about my physical safety. I just had to worry about my goddamn body and the nonstop chatter in my head.

The cold truth is that if we keep waiting for rock bottom, we keep flirting with death. We can always go deeper. We can always surprise ourselves. As humans, we are incredibly adaptive creatures, sometimes to a fault. Eventually, the “bad feeling,” no matter how terrible it was, wears off…and we will try again. We test boundaries. We push. We think nah, it won’t be so bad this time…I got this…I know my limits. We feed ourselves line after line of bullshit because our diseases will say and do anything to keep us committed to their school of thought.

There is a reason eating disorders are progressive. There is a reason you can’t stop no matter how thin you get, you can’t stop eating no matter how full you feel, you can’t stop obsessing no matter how many times you convince yourself you have control. The science of the disorder may have been built on logic, but the mechanisms of its wiring is entirely irrational and entirely destructive.

I have suffered with an eating disorder on-and-off for about ten years. I have flirted with recovery about half that time. Sometimes, I doubt I ever had a problem. Other times, it feels like nobody has ever had it worse than me. This is not unusual thinking: this is the etiology of any mental illness. It’s conniving and tricky. It’s entirely crazy and entirely reasonable at the very same time.

And yet, there may not be some milestone rock bottom. There may not be a lightbulb moment for change. God may not smite you, in the middle of the road, telling you that you have to pick recovery. In fact, forget God. Nobody may ever tell you to pick recovery. You may never feel like it’s reached that point of life-or-death. You may never be homeless or abandoned by everyone who loved you…you may not even reach that state of pure emaciation you so desperately hoped. You will never be as skinny as you want to be, and your life will never be as perfect as it should. And yet, the disorder will keep promising you the easy ticket to avoiding feelings, shortcutting pain, and mimicking control. You will keep going, numbly and bluntly, because it may never reach that point where you realize that you are choosing the chase of losing weight at the expense of losing everything else.

Emotionally, you are dying. You are avoiding life. You are numbing yourself, self-sabatgoing, self-medicating, doing whatever it takes to avoid the real feelings around you. You may slip through the cracks for months, years, decades without anyone really knowing. You may fool them all. Good for you! Then WHAT?

I was fooling everyone, EVERYONE, but what did that lead me with? A destroyed self-esteem, relationships full of toxicity, insurmountable shame, utter anxiety and depression, and a race on the never-ending hamster wheel towards perfectionism. I may have been fooling the world with my academic success and circle of friends and planted smile, but the more important question remains: why was I taking care of THE FUCKING WORLD instead of myself? 

The WORLD won’t be there when you are driving from restaurant to restaurant at night HOPING that none of the employees will recognize you from a few nights before. The WORLD won’t be there when you don’t get the perfect job, boyfriend, or happiness even if the supposedly perfect body arrives. The WORLD won’t be there when you’re crouched over your toilet seat, finger in your throat, tears stinging your eyes, in that fog of fear, guilt, and total humiliation. The WORLD won’t be there because you’ve probably done such a damn good job at shutting the world out.

You are screaming for help and you are pushing help away.

You are dying because you think it will give you a greater chance at living.

You are sure you have reached your limit, that this is your last time, that you will never do this again because it will never be worse than it feels right now, and then you will fucking turn around and do it again…three times worse.

You’re already on the tightrope. You’re already standing on the quicksand. There will always be more opportunities to fall. Stop glamorizing the rock bottom…because if and when you finally achieve it, the WORLD will finally know thanks to the tombstone with your name.

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The day my alcoholic best friend sobered up.

This post

Has consistently ranked as one of my top-read posts in my entire blog history. The day I broke up with my alcoholic best friend. 

She hit bottom recently. Real bottom. The reasons why don’t matter and I will avoid specifics to protect anonymity.

The miracle happened.

We hadn’t spoken in almost a year. Last November, we had a brief dinner and caught up on our lives. It was civil, but strained. A few months ago, we saw each other again. Even more strained. She was deep in her addiction.

Last week, she reached out. I received lengthy, lengthy apologies for her behavior, for her addiction, for how she treated me, for how she treated herself, for how grateful she was for our friendship, for how grateful she was that I was willing to call her out on her bullshit and willing to put our relationship aside for her well-being.  

I didn’t expect these apologies for years…if ever. This is a stubborn girl, defiant to all modes of conventional treatment.

And now…she’s sobering up. Attending therapy. Taking medication for depression. Ended a stagnant romantic relationship. Revamping her lifestyle.

My alcoholic best friend, my alcoholic best friend who has been drinking since she was 12, who fell in love with drugs and sex and rock and roll, to escape the pain that was her childhood trauma, ill-equipped parents, and near-poverty adolescence. My alcoholic best friend, who, from high school, has been on her own financially and mentally. My alcoholic best friend who literally has the IQ of a genius (she’s had the test). My alcoholic best friend can be my best friend again.

What a blessing. 

Miracles happen. 

When the only way out is by escaping.

The curious paradox about abusing vices to escape is that you don’t actually go anywhere. In fact, you stay stuck. You remain stagnant. I tried emphasizing that to one of my clients earlier today, a lovely girl, not much older than myself, struggling with the progressive throes of alcoholism. I know why she wants to escape. Her life hurts. She has had a traumatic upbringing. I cannot blame her for wanting to numb herself- hell, we all want to numb ourselves.

The other day I wrote that I recently came to revelation that happiness and meaning came from embracing life rather than escaping it. Escaping is done through the bottle, through the food, the sex, the drugs, the intoxication, the altered state of consciousness. Escape is the shortcut, the predictable, foolproof method of avoiding pain. Nobody is a bad person for wanting to escape. It has been said that humans have four basic drives: eating, sleeping, mating, and the desire to alter consciousness.

The fourth one is not essential for the survival of humanity. But many of us have made it essential to make the journey of humanity bearable. Anyone with an eating disorder or mental illness or addictive issue will probably resonate with this. We all alter consciousness. The degree to which we do it, however, lies on a spectrum. Some are satisfied with receiving a boost of energy from their daily cup of coffee. Others need a pack of cigarettes. Even on a healthier end of things, we use meditation to alter consciousness, to increase clarity, to feel more level. 

We may live to eat and sleep and mate, but we also live to chase happiness. We maximize pleasure and minimize pain. These are the common denominators behind every single basic drive. And when this becomes distorted in some way, we continue spiraling down the negative pathways of escape. We turn to our vices, we turn to the very substances that can harm and kill us, we turn our backs on ourselves. Because the pain of “sobriety” in whatever way, shape, or form that looks like hurts more than the pain of “sickness.”

Imagine. The sickness of being oneself is so potent that the individual MUST escape his or her own being to bear existence. That is the essence of addiction. That is why it is so hard to quit. That is why these battles are so complex. It is not about giving up the vice. It is about healing the sickness, the deep wounds inside of us, the ones that make life so unbearable and miserable. 

The school of thought in comparing eating disorders to addictions is controversial, but I do believe they share many degrees. Obviously, one cannot quit the substance he or she may be abusing (food), but behavioral compulsions (food, sex, gambling, shopping) can be just as detrimental and devastating as substance compulsions (drugs, alcohol). They may not kill you right away, but what’s worse? A slow suicide, such as an eating disorder, that is often laden with denial and minimization? Or a fast-acting one, like hard drugs, with the risk of overdose looming above everyday? 

Neither is better and neither is worse. All compulsions and addictions carry their own badges of terrible honor, of petrifying shame. All of them share the common denominator: An inability to be oneself. An inability to manage life. An inability to tolerate the weather of emotions, the ups-and-downs of life, the stressors of existence.

Addictions are not the problem; they are the pathological cries indicating a much deeper, scarier problem beneath. 

When the only way out of life is by means of escaping, you aren’t reaching hell. You’re already probably there. 

it didn’t have to be an eating disorder

Dear Bee,

In all honesty, you could have been anything. And you would have been. I was primed for mental illness, in some way. I had all the traits: the perfectionism, the low self-esteem, the excessive anxiety, the inability to stay present. You could have manifested into an alcohol or drug addiction, but I was afraid of those and stayed far away. You could have warped into some kind of promiscuous, man-hunting fetish, but I was relatively terrified of dating, and for a long time, didn’t have much of a sexual bone in me. You could have been any mental disorder, really. It just happened to be an eating disorder. Food was easy, and it was everywhere, and it wasn’t something that made me too different or too deviant from the norm.

Oftentimes, I hear that eating disorders symbolize a stubborn protest to grow up, a refusal to accept a changing and maturing body, and thus, a changing and maturing mindset. I don’t see it that way. For a long time, I remember wanting to be an adult. Many times, I felt like an adult trapped into a child’s body. I had complex ideas. In fifth grade, I wrote poetry about heartbreak and loss. In sixth grade, I was reading high school novels. In seventh grade, I was figuring out what college I wanted to attend. I was always ten years ahead. That’s not to say my childhood wasn’t fulfilling. It absolutely was. But I was jut wise beyond my years, and in some ways, that was both a blessing and a curse. 

The reason why I developed my eating disorder initially didn’t matter to me. Who cared why I had one? I had a problem, and I needed to figure out how to get rid of it. In working recovery, I have begun to understood that the why means something. The why tells me what went haywire, what became too difficult to manage, what drove me to want to cope in a way that harmed myself. Resolving the why is the answer to successful recovery. Eating disorders are not random. It’s important to look into the past and realize where things may have gone somewhat amiss. For me, I just remember feeling painfully insecure. I remember feeling like an outsider, even though nobody bullied me or actually said so. I remember feeling intense, as if my mind was always reeling and spinning. I remember feeling anxious and paranoid and worried about things much beyond my control. I remember wanting to be perfect, especially with school, and I beat myself up if I didn’t meet my expectations. Oh, and I remember feeling ugly. No matter what. My hair was weird, my clothes weren’t cool enough, my makeup never looked good…I don’t remember honing in on my body much, as I was a relatively short and scrawny thing, but I remember thinking everything about me needed to be improved.

Food was easy to target. Food was something that was part of my everyday routine. Food was also a big deal in my house. We used food to celebrate. Mom was always on some kind of diet. Dad was a snacking grazer. Brother was picky and ate about five foods. Nobody really cooked. I remember making my own meals by junior high. Oh, and junk food was a big deal, because it was a rare delicacy, so I put it on a pedestal. And then from seventh to eighth grade, my entire body changed. Overnight, it seemed, I grew two inches, three cup sizes, hips, and an ass. I was becoming, as they say, a woman. 

And that was when the behaviors began. Slowly, of course. A simple diet, of course. Just watching what I ate. Convincing myself I would look better if I lost about five pounds. Starting to believe that I was fat, that I needed to “control.” 

But, like I said, it could have been anything. Had I picked up weed in junior high, I could have just as easily turned into a stoner. Had I picked up the bottle, I could have become an alcoholic. I don’t know if I believe in the addictive mindset, but I do believe those who need to escape the pain of their own existence will use whatever they can to make that happen. Food just happened to be around.

Let the fear work for you

Dear Bee,

I had a really good therapy session this morning. I didn’t think I would, because I had a session just last week, but it was extremely useful. We are still processing recovery and what that looks like, especially now that I’m working in the field, containing the emotions of my clients who face similar triggers in their own journeys. I admitted my fear that this whole recovery thing still seems so fragile–like it could just slip through my fingers at any given time. She said, yep, you’re always one step away from relapse. It’s good to be scared. We’re all one step away. 

That’s addiction logic. The idea that you are always just one “something” away from sickness. It doesn’t matter how many years of recovery you have behind you; you’re not immune to relapse. 

I’m not used to fear. Rather, I’m used to minimizing, avoiding, or stuffing it down. Fear itself scares me. It makes me feel incompetent, out of control, and anxious. I liked her reframe. Use the fear to work for you. 

This is the first time in my life I truly feel like I have so much at stake. I’m in the healthiest and happiest relationship of my life. I’m working at an amazing agency with a truly wonderful group of clientele. I’m finishing up graduate school. I’m healthy, I’m relatively happy, and I’m experiencing more tastes of freedom than ever before. I don’t want to lose any of it. Ever. I don’t want to push anyone I love away. I don’t want to isolate myself. I don’t want to be manipulative. I don’t want to lie.

I’ve worked hard to get to where I’m at. I refuse to let my eating disorder stand in the way of that.

I don’t want my eating disorder, because I don’t NEED it as a crutch anymore. Is life harder without it? Sometimes. Is life better without it? Absolutely. I’ve made tremendous, indescribable strides in the past year, taken risks I didn’t believe were in me, and have emerged into a more resilient, autonomous, and empowered soul. I am not the same person I was when my eating disorder was my best friend. I am not the same person I was even when my eating disorder was my sworn enemy. Recovery isn’t about the conflict or the resolution; recovery is about the willingness to fight when needed and, ultimately, surrender when needed. 

My therapist is doing guest lectures at local high schools about eating disorder awareness around the area. She’s going to be sharing her story and asked if I wanted to come with her and share my own. I might. I don’t know how that will impact our therapeutic relationship- it’s something I need to process with her- but I’m also flattered that she even considered bringing up to me in the first place. Do I feel ready to expose my vulnerabilities and obstacles in front of a room of strangers? Unsure. Will I do it? Probably. Why? Because, on the other side of fear lies freedom. 

 

Food and Mortality

Dear Bee,

I want to sit here and complain how much yesterday sucked food-wise. How in my head I felt. How I just wanted to eat all the foods and how annoyed I felt that I didn’t have that opportunity. How I ate candy by the handful, joked about my persistent sweet tooth to cover up my urges, and centered my entire afternoon by the prospective food I could eat. How I went to the grocery store with my boyfriend and imagined all the foods I could binge on. Not just eat, but complete. I fantasized about desserts the way a lover fantasizes about a rendezvous. I could complain that I weighed myself multiple times yesterday and this morning and never felt satisfied with the number I saw. I could complain that I looked in the mirror and only saw a fat, lazy mess reflecting back at me. I could complain how yesterday, food meant more to me than love and spending quality time with the person who means the world to me. I hate to admit that to the world, but it’s the truth. Rather than stay the night at his place, I almost went home. Just because I felt so triggered. Just because I wanted to keep eating. Be alone. Be isolated. If I already fucked up, I wanted to keep fucking up. 

This is a beautiful Geneen Roth quote that I read the other day: Compulsive eating is a way we distance ourselves from the way things are when they are not how we want them to be. I tell them that ending the obsession with food is all about the capacity to stay in the present moment. TO not leave themselves  I tell them that they don’t have to make a choice between losing weight and doing this. Weight loss is the easy part; anytime you truly listen to your hunger and fullness, you lose weight. But I also tell them compulsive eating is basically a refusal to be fully alive. No matter what we weigh, those of us who are compulsive eaters have anorexia of the soul. We refuse to take in what sustains us. We live lives of deprivation. And when we can’t stand it any longer, we binge. The way we are able to accomplish of of this is by the simple act of bolting, of leaving ourselves hundreds of times a day.

I always recommend her books. She is a truly inspirational writer and public speaker on eating disorders. 

I guess the idea of being fully alive is a scary one. My boyfriend and I were talking about this yesterday. There is just so much pressure to carpe diem, to seize the day, to YOLO, that we become caught in this vicious cycle of comparing ourselves to others and feeling like we can never stack up. We face such a need to LIVE, and I mean FULLY, TRULY RELISH IN LIFE, but at the same time, we exist in a society that is constantly reminding us to consider our future while reflect on our past. This is a tricky dance. 

We took a long walk yesterday evening and talked about our childhoods. I noted that maybe we struggle so much in adolescence not because we struggle to enter adulthood, but because we have to grieve exiting childhood. Our whole lives shape us, in a sense, to become adults and have responsibility, but we are never taught how to prepare leaving our youths. Is it any wonder that many mental illnesses stem during puberty, during adolescence, in that awkward transition time between not having any autonomy to suddenly being forced to make an identity? 

I have never met a child born with a compulsive or addictive mindset. No child is born with an eating disorder. This is learned behavior. Even with a genetic predisposition, a toddler is not simply going to starve him or herself or think to overeat beyond the point of satiation. A young child is not going to suddenly down a bottle of vodka for the sheer pleasure of it. The very thought is unnatural. Why do we suddenly feel this incessant need to escape? Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, food, work: it’s all the same. Passion is doing something because we want to do it, and compulsion is doing something because we have to do it.

But what are we running from? Ourselves? Reality? Responsibility? The complexities of life? 

The opposite act of escaping must be embracing. Accepting. Just like children do before the world taints them, before their own minds turn against them. Can the compulsive mindset really be erased? Or is it something we must constantly manage and monitor? Is it possible to live a life without wanting to run away from it? It has to be. It absolutely has to be.

 

Life does not ever slow down, and we cannot freeze, alter, or go back in time. The world is constantly fluid, in motion, and evolving. I will never be younger than I am at this very second, and that is a very grounding thought. A terrifying one, too. I visited my grandmother earlier this morning, who has been plagued by her own set of mental illnesses and is currently residing in hospice care, and realized that at one point, she was my age. She was a vital woman with a sharp mind and an active body. Now, she is confined to a hospital bed with decaying health. Again, life does not slow down. We will age; time will always catch up to us; one day, we will turn around and realize our youths and our adulthoods are practically behind us.

The only constant every human shares is birth and death. What lies in between is up to us. 

Yesterday was a rough day, and I didn’t do my best at recovery. But it was in my past, and I have chosen to let it go. I am a human being, and I make mistakes. I punished myself for it already; I can choose to reward myself today. 

Life is a beautiful blessing and no day is inherently ours. Whether we seize it or let it pass on by, the awareness that we are one day closer to our imminent death, does seem to make the ride worthwhile. 

The woes of treating addiction in eating disorder recovery.

Dear Bee,

I am just so glad that it’s the weekend. My Monday-Thursday are such a blur between classes, paperwork, supervision, and clients.

I basically spend the weekend at the boyfriend’s house, which is such an amazing way to transition out of the therapist life. I like being able to unwind with him. It feels like a mini-vacation at the end of the week! He’s my greatest supporter. Okay, this is not a time to gush on and on about him, even though we all know I very well could.

So, I have my first addiction on my hands. Alcoholism. This client and I are close in age, but that’s where the similarities concerning our backgrounds end. She’s in that contemplation stage of addiction, that awful in-between in knowing that she has a clear problem, but not sure what to do about it just yet. Her support system is shit. Her living arrangement is shit. She has experienced significant trauma and represents a classic textbook case of life is against her. I understand why she drinks to numb out her feelings. She needs that blanket of intoxication to cope with the chaos that is her life. Like so many of us, escape is all she wants. We don’t fall into addictions to escape the pain and demons outside of us. We fall into them to escape whatever lies within us. When we cannot tolerate our own selves, our own genetic makeup and uniqueness, our own peaks and valleys of emotions and experiences, we must alter consciousness in order to keep going.

Obviously, I have an urge to help her. She reminds me of a friend, one I wrote about in a previous post (http://loveletterstobee.com/2013/03/21/the-day-i-broke-up-with-my-alcoholic-best-friend). Originally, I went into this field with the intention to specialize in substance abuse. Naturally, I wanted to save the world, which is such a novice, idealistic goal for young, fresh-faced therapists. In reality, working with addicts embodies hard, exhaustive work, and the recovery rates hover around 5%. Out of 100 people with chemical addiction, approximately 95 will relapse. Of course, I see it as, Let me be the one who guides those remaining 5.

I am not an alcoholic, but I know what it is like to feel dependent and compulsive. I know what cravings feel like. I know when the thing you want the most is the very thing that is destroying you the most. I know secrecy and deceit, hiding around from others, shame and lying, minimizing and saving face. I know what it’s like to feel like you have absolutely no control. Addiction is just a name and the drug of choice is just the band-aid poorly covering our deep wounds. Food, drugs, gambling, sex, alcohol, it’s all the same. We are in pain, and we cannot tolerate it. The addiction voice has tremendous hold and impeccable logic. There is nothing easy about recovery or sobriety. There is nothing easy about going against every single thing you believe you want or have or must do. Addiction may not be a choice, but letting go of it is. And for many of us, it will be the hardest choice and journey we ever take. Although it may sound contradictory, for those in recovery or sobriety, nothing is harder than letting go of torture and surrendering to freedom.

Alcoholism, just like any other addiction, including eating disorders, is progressive. It just gets worse. You start out with a drink or two a night just to relax and take the edge off, and soon enough, you’re blacking out daily. This is a stereotypical example, but not an uncommon one. The worse the addiction gets, the more the addiction voice justifies it. Our addiction voice protects us because it wants us to remain close and friendly. The addiction is the parasite, and you are its host. It will latch on you, rent-free, and never leave on its own. Only you can remove it.

I don’t know what will happen with this client. My agency does not allow us to work with active drug or alcohol addicts, simply because it hinders therapeutic treatment. She needs to commit to attempting sobriety, and I don’t know if she can do that at this point. I want her to, just as I want any addict to, but that change lies in her, not in me. Therapy is for her, not for me, and I have to continually remind myself that. I cannot change anyone; I can just metaphorically hold their hands as they decide to venture on a new path.