Eating disorders and Alcoholism
An addict waiting to happen.
By the time I was thirteen, I was an alcoholic waiting to happen. I was wounded mentally and emotionally long before picking up the first drink. In my case, there was no gradual progression. As a young teenager, I had to medicate my conflicted inner world. No sooner did alcohol hit my brain than I was off to the races. I was a homeless drunk by the time I was twenty.
A compulsive and obsessive personality was like lighting a match that ignited my alcoholism. It burned like a fire that nothing could extinguish. I never took a social drink in my life. Initially, I was very cynical when AA called alcoholism an illness. But after thirty-seven years in the program, I became convinced that addiction, in all its forms, is a disease, not a moral deficiency.
Addiction: an accurate definition.
As a recovering alcoholic and addict, after so many years in recovery, this is how I came to define my illness. The basic recovery text of Narcotics Anonymous states, “Addiction,” including alcohol, “is a physical, mental, and spiritual illness affecting every area of our lives.” As someone who doesn’t believe in the traditional idea of God, I define spiritual illness as an inner duality. It created a painful internal conflict, resulting in emptiness, loneliness, and anxiety. I felt driven to medicate these feelings from my early teens. I have come to believe that the illness I have is essentially spiritual. It amounts to the exact opposite of harmony between mind, body, and spirit.
Problems from childhood.
You may think that thirteen was a young age to start abusing substances. The plain truth is that my addiction started even earlier than that! Compulsive eating began when I was seven or eight years old. Sugar became my first drug of choice. Since early childhood, I needed relief from the pain of growing up in such a dysfunctional family. I never saw any of my addictions as a problem. They were my solution!
I came into recovery after seventeen years of drug and alcohol abuse. When I was thirty, I went to my first meeting. Once I put down the substances, I believed I would live happily ever after just by attending meetings. I was in for a big shock! The “causes and conditions” * of the illness would condemn me to keep seeking refuge in other addictive behaviors. * (BB p.64)
A journey from the head to the heart.
The twelve steps are a beautiful and life-giving process. Crossing ‘the bridge to normal living’ (AA slogan) has sometimes been difficult and painful, just as it is for ordinary folk. Getting well from addiction continues to be a ‘journey from the head to the heart.’ (Another AA slogan). To be more specific, I have come to define “the head” as my maladapted ego and “the heart” as my true self. Although I still don’t believe in the traditional idea of God, I have come to believe that the essence of my true self is spiritual. It amounts to becoming a whole, complete, and loving person.
Although I wasn’t aware of it then, I embarked on a spiritual journey the day I picked up alcohol and drugs. Through these substances, I sought a sense of connection with myself. Recovery has been a gradual release from the living death of addiction to an awakened and conscious life. The destination has been inner peace, acceptance, and forgiveness. It has been a homecoming to my true self. As a chemically dependent person, the only thing I learned in my dysfunctional family was fear, resentment, and denial. It is an ongoing process. The elevator to a quick and easy recovery is out of order; I have to use the steps.
The adapted self.
I grew up in a cold and loveless foster care environment. To adapt, I had to develop some skills to ensure my emotional survival. The first of these was compulsive overeating. It helped me cope with the abandonment that I experienced from my biological mother. Moreover, I grew up in a foster family in which I never felt accepted. That wasn’t easy to deal with.
When I came into recovery, a psychotherapist once told me something interesting. “Your early addiction to food and sugar was a substitute for an emotionally unavailable mother.” She said that children who grow up in a healthy family environment experience a secure attachment. They feel safe, held, and comforted. They thrive on the love and ‘sweetness’ they come to expect. “What you didn’t receive from your alcoholic mother, you found in the comfort of sugar’s ‘sweet’ taste.” It was hard to hear, but it made sense.
Attachment and dependency.
It was the same with alcohol and drugs. I turned to these substances because a healthy and loving attachment to the security of a loving family was missing. I don’t say this with any degree of blame. The twelve steps have helped me to accept my early life for what it was. At the risk of sounding overly analytical, my obsession with food, drugs, and alcohol were all substitutes for meaningful relationships. In stark contrast to my early experiences, these addictions never seemed to let me down.
No concept of a “true partnership.“
Until I worked the twelve steps, I felt incapable of forming “a true partnership with another human being.” (12&12 p. 53) The steps enabled me to enjoy a beautiful and loving connection with my mother before she died. Like me, I realized that she was sick. She was never a bad person. AA’s program of action released me from a lifetime of resentment.
I have now been clean and sober for many years. In my youth, until I entered the program, I was consumed with blame and self-pity. I now wake up with inner peace and gratitude in my heart. Compared to where I came from, I have been given a life beyond my wildest dreams. Despite remaining agnostic, AA’s program of action is teaching me how to live a valuable and useful life. I am now learning the healing power of love and service to my brothers and sisters in recovery. These two qualities are the higher powers that I have come to depend on to maintain a “fit spiritual condition.” (BB p.85)
The scourge of an eating disorder
Although I have found a happy and worthwhile life in AA, the struggle with an eating disorder has continued. The steps have given me a life well worth living. However, I can’t deny that food has remained a problem. The scourge of sugar addiction has remained deeply engrained in my emotional responses to life. Perhaps this is because it started in early childhood. I already have ‘type 2’ diabetes. If I don’t address this aspect of the illness, I may well go on to develop ‘type 1’ diabetes. The prospect of becoming insulin dependent is not something that I would welcome.
Being fully aware of its power, without help, I doubt whether I would be able to stop. The prospect of an early death through this addiction is a possibility that I cannot afford to deny. How ironic and tragic would that be? I survived twenty years of drinking and drugging only to lose my life to an eating disorder!?
If, with the help of AA’s twelve steps, I have been able to stay clean and sober for so long, why have I found it so challenging to address this aspect of the illness? Firstly, I have to deal with this drug of choice three times a day at meal times. Secondly, I have used sugar as a coping mechanism since early childhood. Finally, there was always some street credibility being an alcoholic and addict. Not so with an eating disorder. It has, for me, always been a shame-based disorder.
Powerlessness around sugar
As an alcoholic and addict, getting clean and sober with the help of meetings wasn’t that difficult. Once I put them down, sugar addiction, long-buried, resurfaced and began to make life unmanageable. Why wasn’t my AA program sufficient to deal with this aspect of the illness? As someone with twenty-seven years of sobriety in AA, I had to surrender again and admit my powerlessness over this problem.
Recently, a fellow alcoholic with an eating disorder told me that OA was a more appropriate forum for treating eating disorders. That said, I have come to see my eating disorder as just another extension of the “Spiritual Malady.” (BB p.64). ‘Spiritual malady’ is the expression that Bill W, the author of The Big Book, used to describe alcoholism. Could it be that all other addictive behaviors were just different manifestations of the same problem? A fellow alcoholic with an eating disorder recently told me that reworking the twelve steps in OA has been a game-changer in her recovery. Perhaps the time had come to take my emotional and spiritual growth to a new level.
I started attending Overeaters Anonymous (OA) in the late 80s after being in AA for several years. With the help of a food sponsor, I successfully achieved abstinence. It was a great feeling! The truth was that I didn’t treat this problem with the same gravity as my alcoholism. Thinking I was now well, I stopped going to OA meetings. I quickly returned to denial, no longer exposed to the honesty I heard in that fellowship. The sugar obsession returned almost immediately.
The “spiritual malady” – A holistic approach
What amazed me is that when I re-surrendered, I suddenly found the power to abstain from overeating. Seeing so many of my AA friends at OA meetings was eye-opening. They were all trying to overcome their addiction to food. This journey toward emotional and spiritual maturity is yet another new frontier. Once again, I am enjoying “three moderate meals a day with life in between” in OA. (A humorous OA slogan!)
I have decided to do 90 meetings in 90 days, not forgetting that I also need to attend AA meetings. I have reconnected with my other tribe of “foodies.” What a wonderful feeling! Another homecoming! I hope I will never again forget that compulsive overeating is as much a part of my illness as is my alcoholism and drug addiction. If I fail, I may have to deal with the consequences and possibly develop serious health issues. Viewing the illness from a holistic perspective, it may yet prove to be “progressive, incurable” and potentially “fatal.” (NA Basic Text p 21)
A medical perspective
I want to end this blog on a medical note. It’s a poignant description of the addictive power of sugar. As a recovering drug addict, I can completely identify with the following statement. It has been my truth since I was eight years old. It is the reality for many of us who struggle with a sugar addiction:
“Sugar is eight times as addictive as cocaine. What is interesting is that while cocaine and heroin activate only one spot for pleasure in the brain, sugar lights up the brain like a pinball machine.”
(Dr. Mark Hyman. Reprinted with permission)
(with the support of Danny D)
Please be advised that I mention four twelve-step fellowships in this blog. They are unaffiliated with each other. Moreover, the opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the ideas, beliefs, and practices of the twelve-step programs mentioned here. What I have shared with you are my own experiences of recovery from addiction in all its different forms. The suggestions I became willing to take have led me, an agnostic alcoholic and addict, to a contented and meaningful sobriety.