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.