Where Alcoholism and Eating Disorders Meet: A Recovery Story
Are we going to make it through this time? Of course we are. We have already survived so much and we will survive this too.
When developing our #GivingTuesdayNOW campaign, I thought of what I needed to get through this time. What I have always needed to get through tough times is a reminder of how much I have already survived to allow me to see that, this too shall pass, and I will emerge from the ashes of this fire stronger than ever when it does.
Like most alcoholics, I never felt like I belonged growing up. I had my first drink when I was 12 and I wanted to feel like that for the rest of my life. For the first time, I felt like I could be myself without overthinking every action. When my friends drank, they weren’t the judgmental mean girls they were when they were sober, which was a huge plus as well. Despite my early alcoholic red flags, I drank pretty normally until I got to college. The moment I was no longer under my parents’ roof however, it was off to the races. Quickly, I was celebrating my newfound freedom and the college party lifestyle with nightly drinking. I was barely able to get up for my 2:30 PM class, doing the bare minimum to get by. This was a drastic change from my perfectionistic, straight A, four sports for four years, overachieving self. My parents quickly noticed and I reigned it in, consciously controlling my drinking until my senior year. I knew when I got to college that I liked drinking a little more than everyone else and that most people did not need to control it in the way I did. However, because I could still control it, I turned my cheek to it.
I turned 21 the summer before my senior year and it was like the reality of leaving college hit me. I wasn’t ready to grow up, I wasn’t ready to get a full time job, and I wasn’t satisfied with the college experience I had thus far where I wasted time on a 3.5-year, dead end relationship with a guy who was not very nice to me.
I hadn’t been single in years and I was now quickly filled with the weight of extreme loneliness, unlike anything I had felt before. I knew I couldn’t stay in that relationship but it was equally as uncomfortable to sit in my own skin. So, I did what I knew how to fill the void; I drank. I drank every night and sometimes during the day, if the occasion permitted. I had moved off campus and was a senior so my teachers expected less from me, especially during the blizzardy Iowa winters. I dated and tried to find someone to fill the void but I grew quickly annoyed when they didn’t. All of my friends started to get in relationships and I was still just there with a drink in my hand. Everybody moving on and finding someone made that hole inside me feel bigger, deeper and scarier than ever before.
One night at a friend’s birthday party, I decided to give this guy who had been trying to date me for a couple of months a chance.
That was my first step off the cliff.
I unexpectedly fell for him very quickly. Cue my first and second red flags, which I didn’t know were red flags at this time. “How is the person who I’ve felt like I’ve waited for my whole life, the relationship I’ve fantasized about, this amazing man, how does he want to be with me?”
Red flag #1: This is too good to be true.
Red flag #2: My extremely low self-esteem.
Our relationship had everything my sick self craved: drama, abuse, passion, anger, lust, fighting, jealousy, no trust, and most importantly a mutual support of substance abuse. The toxicity of this relationship was all-encompassing. For the first time in my life, I was so connected and intertwined with another human that I lost where I ended and he began. At the time, I believed that’s what made us soulmates.
Eleven months into our relationship, we broke up for the first time. I could not have prepared for the immense amount of pain that breakup brought. It was as if somebody had reached directly into my chest, ripped my heart out, and then sewed me back together without it. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I just felt heavy and so, so much rage. It was at this time that I began drinking to cope with the insane amount of depression I felt. I knew anxiety; we had been friends for some years. Depression was new for me. What other way to treat depression than with a depressant, right? That is when my alcoholism really crossed that threshold for the first time.
The next two years was a dance back and forth across that threshold, as I withstood the narcissistic emotional abuse from this guy and fully committed to the toxic roles that were in place. The abuse occasionally turned physical depending on how much he had to drink and how many drugs he had consumed. During this time, my mental and physical capacity diminished at a rapid rate.
Three years after that relationship began, it finally came to its bitter, ugly end. Again, I knew I no longer wanted this relationship and the insanity that came with it, but sitting in my own skin was physically unbearable. I was physically addicted to alcohol, quickly withdrawing within hours of not having a drink. So many times before I had been physically addicted and shaken it pretty quickly. This time was different because, this time, I didn’t want to shake it. I just wanted to keep drinking 24/7, no matter what that meant, because that was the only time the need to no longer be a part of this world wasn’t so all-consuming.
Fast-forward four months and I was groggily coming out of a 13-day medically-induced coma as a result of severe withdrawal from alcohol. As I came to, I had no idea where I was or what had happened. My only recollections were hallucinations I had while in the coma. I quickly realized my legs had atrophied so I could no longer walk. I learned that, while in the coma, they had prepared my parents for the very real possibility that I would not wake up, as my brain had swelled and my lungs were failing. Shortly after, I came to Florida for residential treatment and, thankfully I have been sober ever since.
I survived all of that, and much more since I got sober, so I could have the life I have today. My favorite author in the world, Glennon Doyle tells us,
“Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.”
Without going through that immense amount of pain and discomfort I would not have risen from the ashes with the life I have today. I would have never learned that life is supposed to be hard, and that the only way to grow and evolve is to survive these struggles. Your choices are simple: remain stagnant for the rest of your life or walk through the fire of struggle, discomfort, and pain. I am now able to sit with myself in peace. I am able to not collapse at the first sign of adversity. I am able to live a full life. I am no longer angry at the sun for rising, for individuals enjoying a morning jog, or for people’s laughter around me. I no longer feel the need to numb and stuff down every emotion I have. I now know what a healthy connection to a significant other looks and feels like, what love is. I would have never gotten to this point without surviving some of the worst moments of my life.
When the career opportunity at The Alliance presented itself, I couldn’t jump at it quick enough. The parallels between alcoholism and eating disorders hit close to home for me. Our struggles are the same; our coping mechanisms for those struggles are just a little different.
Working for The Alliance is my way of giving back the gift that was given to me in the best way I know how. Support groups saved my life. For someone who constantly felt like I didn’t fit in, having one more thing that made me different than everyone else would have been too unbearable. Support groups for my alcoholism are what saved me, and continue to save me. They keep me surrounded by people who are just like me, who are going through the same stuff I am, and who think so similar to me it’s scary. They keep me surrounded by people who have done this thing and are living proof that it works.
Alcoholics already have sustainable groups that work internationally, however individuals with eating disorders do not have that same access to care. Everyone experiencing an eating disorder deserves the access to free, safe, clinician-led support groups to find their freedom and their light at the end of the tunnel.
I share this dream with our CEO and Founder, as well as the rest of my colleagues. We work every day to make this dream become a reality, and we get closer to realizing that dream one group at a time.
Despite all the negative this pandemic has brought it has also created even more opportunity for this dream, allowing us to be in others’ living rooms, three times a week. As of last week, we have now reached 800 individuals since starting our virtual check-ins 6 weeks ago. 800 people in 6 weeks; that is truly amazing. This pandemic has brought to the world an opportunity to see another way to do things, to break us out of the constraints of how the world “should be” and allow us to find what the world can be.
We will survive the COVID-19 pandemic. We will survive it with growth that we would have never tapped into if we did not have to walk through this storm. We are survivors, we are fighters, we are warriors. COVID-19 is just another battle scar of life that we will wear with pride when this is over.
I invite you to remember just how much you have survived this #GivingTuesdayNOW