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Managing An Eating Disorder

I’ve happily given up drugs and alcohol. But escaping my eating disorder has been much harder.

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By Taylor Ellsworth

03/07/12

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I first got the idea of throwing up from Blair Waldorf. This was before Blake Lively was an American princess, when Gossip Girl was just a series of trashy young-adult romance novels. I devoured each book because Blair and Serena both embodied the girl I wanted to be: dangerously thin, rich, impeccably dressed, carefree, and usually under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both. All I wanted in life was for the rich, damaged friends I didn’t have to talk about how baggy the Paige jeans that I didn’t own had become. In the books, Blair has a case of what I call “casual” bulimia, because she chooses to purge when she feels compelled by the guilt of what she just ate. In terms of addiction, her behavior is akin to mainlining heroin like a lady. People who can accomplish this simply don’t exist in the real world. But at the fragile age of 14, I didn’t know any better. 

The first time I tried purging, I was on summer vacation, determined to transform myself during the three months between middle and high school. I was fit and strong from years of dancing and running, but hadn’t yet come to terms with basic facts—like that 95 pounds wasn’t a legitimate goal weight when you’re 5’5”. I had just shared an entire batch of lime Jell-O with my childhood best friend when I was struck by the idea of slinking away to the bathroom to expunge it. Sticking my finger into my mouth was the hardest part—it just feels unnatural to have a hand wriggling about your uvula—but once I found the hot spot at the back of my throat, the relief was instantaneous. Neon-green goo swam before me in the toilet bowl and my stomach felt smaller within seconds. It was that easy. I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t do this to stay thin. It was the perfect weight control method; eat whatever you want and then get rid of it before your body begins to digest the calories. Once I’d committed to ignoring the foul, acrid scent of bile that trailed after my fingers for the rest of the day, I was hooked. 

By the time I collected my 90-day coin, I was participating in my eating disorder and AA with equal amounts of pink-cloud vigor. 

At first, purging was just a handy tool to un-do the moments where I lost the illusion of self-control. Not when I simply regretted eating a slice of pizza, but when I spent $30 at Taco Bell in a ravenous daze. But as I grew older, all the unnecessary calories that active alcoholism required me to drink—beer, wine, vodka, cheap champagne diluted with syrupy orange juice—grew their very own muffin-top. I realized that I could use my gag reflex for getting rid of those calories so I began to starve myself during the day, living off black coffee and egg whites, then follow my wannabe-anorexic diet with nights of drinking, binging, and purging. I would fantasize about the food I was going to eat all day long: bags of potato chips; those greasy, over-processed pastries found only at corner bodegas; children’s cereal; anything that was embarrassing to purchase, really.  While I ate, I obsessed over chewing thoroughly and quickly enough to get it all back up easily before it could be digested. As soon as I purged, I would be famished again and exhausted from the pure physical violence of repeated vomiting. The classy bottles of Carlos Rossi Paisano that I chugged while binging tinged the toilet water red and left me with a nagging paranoia that I might be vomiting up blood without realizing it. This was just another consequence; I was ashamed, but too addicted to give it up.

Using the daytime starvation/nighttime binge routine, I lost 30 pounds in the heyday of my disorder. My hipbones jutted out from the pasty white flesh of my abdomen and air breezed between my thighs. My elbows bumped against my ribs every time I moved my arms and none of my clothes fit. I felt glamorous and beautiful. When my head would spin from the simple act of standing up from a chair, I felt like Nicole Richie, floating through the world as a waif-like, tragic princess. Old pictures tell a different story: my eyes were puffy, my face gaunt, my hair stringy and thin, and my skin deathly white. I looked like Lindsay Lohan in the infamous mugshot taken the night she was arrested for DUI and cocaine possession. And just like Lindsay, my life revolved around my addictions. I would spend my lunch breaks at school snorting lines of Adderall and smoking cigarettes away from campus, avoiding the worry and judgment in my peers’ eyes. Drugs helped not only to numb the shame of what my life had become but also to suppress my ravenous appetite. Before graduating high school, I was hospitalized for a week for bradycardia—medical jargon for a resting heart rate of a mere 39 beats per minute. Or, simply put, being really fucked up and barely alive.

I knew that I was close to death. As with every addiction, what was once fulfilling and exciting had become a vital and taxing part of my daily routine. Post-hospitalization, I ignored the doctor’s suggestion that I get sober and the nutritionist's that I follow a meal plan. While I began to eat more regularly, I drank and used even more to fill the sickening emptiness inside me, the God-shaped hole that I once filled with orange chicken and Lucky Charms. I filled the hole with mystery concoctions that the Ed Hardy-wearing, beer pong-playing gentlemen at my college frat parties were always so keen to give me. I filled it so thoroughly that I hit my blacked-out bottom standing in a pool of my own urine in the hallway outside of my dorm room. 

Publicly defecating and sleeping in cardboard boxes—not because I was homeless, but because I’d drunkenly misplaced my keys—were not only signs of unmanageability but also humiliating and visible. Alcohol didn’t fill the hole anymore—in fact, it deepened it. After passing out in the dorm hall, covered in urine and vomit in front of the other freshmen one too many times, I made the decision to quit drinking and threw myself into the program—attending young peoples’ late-night meetings nightly, 16-oz Red Bull in tow, and immediately starting to work with a sponsor. Staying sober didn’t seem that hard, as long as I had a food stamp card.

By the time I collected my 90-day coin, I was participating in my eating disorder and AA with equal amounts of pink-cloud vigor. Keeping secrets, however, is much harder when you’re suddenly surrounded by people who have spent the majority of their lives lying and manipulating to get by: my new AA friends quickly discovered what I was up to and, though they were more understanding than my high school peers, they didn’t appreciate it when I would order three scones on a coffee date, then suddenly disappear for 10 minutes in the middle of an intense discussion of what it really means to surrender. They didn’t shun me, but they encouraged me to get help by trying Overeaters Anonymous—the most contemptibly named 12-step program of them all. Admitting OA membership is like confessing to a subscription to Cat Fancy magazine on the first date. I went to two meetings and spent both playing games on my phone.

By the time I was one year sober, my eating disorder had progressed until my head felt like a balloon, my pointer finger was scabbed and peeling, and I was completely isolated. I spent all my money on food and all my time eating and purging. Kneeling over the toilet bowl, alone on a Saturday night, choking on Top Ramen noodles—the only binge food I could afford—I felt the same hollow desperation I’d experienced when I first got sober. And later that night, I met my AA sponsor and began working the steps on my bulimia, despite the fact that she had never had an eating disorder. In the OA meetings I’d been to, I hadn’t seen anyone who had what I wanted: all the women were either severely overweight, which I judged, or bone-thin anorexics, which I didn’t understand. 

Working with my AA sponsor on this issue worked, for the most part. After months of praying and doing things like writing my grocery lists with my sponsor, I stopped having the compulsion to binge and purge every night. I no longer had to waste my money on Cheetos or brush my teeth six times a day. Yet the thing about an eating disorder is that it’s impossible to ever really be free from it: it can’t be escaped the way drugs and alcohol can since living requires eating multiple times a day. I haven’t made myself throw up for over two years, but does that really mean I am a recovered bulimic? What am I when I cry after mindlessly wolfing an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s, or when I stand in front of the mirror for 30 minutes, willing the reflection to look more like Christina Aguilera circa 2001, and less like the 2012 version? 

These bizarre practices don’t constitute active participation in my eating disorder the way binging and purging did, but they certainly aren’t normal. Putting the plate down and never eating again isn’t an option, so I try to listen to my body—whatever that means—and ignore my bulimic mind. It’s been two years since I got sick of choking on Top Ramen, but I still don’t believe I’m entirely there yet—or that I’ll ever be.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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