My Alcoholic Eating Disorder

Josie at Themiraclesaroundthecorner responded to a line in my previous post: “I have opted instead for addressing my eating disorder in the same way as my consumption of alcohol and nicotine.”

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As you know, I struggle with food issues as well, but I don’t understand this sentence. Since you clearly cannot remove food from your life in the same way you do alcohol and nicotine, then how have you addressed food issues in the same way? Any insight you provide would be much appreciated!

First, I appreciate Josie raising this point as it required me to really think through that process more.  Here are my thoughts.  In addiction, the issue for me is less the consumption of the substance, but the attitude, the decision, the circumstances that lead me to consume.  I use substances to avoid living life on life’s terms.

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Granddaughter and me a bunch of years ago.

At the age of 6 or 7, I was a pretty unhappy kid.  I learned early on that food could make everything feel okay. I remember well climbing up on the step stool, and onto the kitchen counter, to shovel scoops of sugar into my mouth from the storage canister.  I would then make my way over to the bacon grease pot and eat scoops of that.  I enjoyed going to my grandma’s apartment or the home of my great-aunt where I could eat to my heart’s content.  It just always felt good.  In grade school I had a good petty thief gig going, but the only thing I ever stole was food or money to buy food.

I had my first beer on the 4th of July when I was 10 years old.  I got a release from my unhappiness with that beer that I got with food, only it seemed better.  That experience led me to focus more on alcohol for the next 22 years.  When I went into detox I weighed 165 pounds.  When I was about 13 years sober, I quit smoking.  When I was about 20 years sober I weighed 250 pounds and for the first time acknowledged/recognized my compulsive overeating.  For the past 10 years I have been doing this yo-yo thing with food and weight between 195, a good weight for me, and 230 or more pounds.

About 5 years ago I was standing in our kitchen listening to my wife have a rather disturbing phone call with one of our children – one of those deals where I could get the gist of the conversation from my wife’s words.  I was three hours drive away from our daughter and could not take any immediate  physical action to remedy the situation.  What I could do though was, without really noticing it, was eat an entire bag of cookies that was sitting on the kitchen counter in the 10 minute conversation.  After my wife hung up the phone, she asked me what happened to the cookies – it was then I realized I ate every one.  I could not deal with life on life’s terms, so I ate the bag of cookies instead, like I would have drunk a bottle of wine, chain smoked cigarettes or whatever.

I have been sober for some 30 years today.  There is no question in my mind that it is my behaviors and my attitudes that can lead me to relapse either with alcohol or tobacco – the refusal to live life on life’s terms and choosing to escape instead.  Although alcohol and drugs are my primary addiction, I consider the compulsive overeating as just another type of relapse.

For me, here is how I deal with food in the same way as with alcohol – my binge eating time is particularly strong at night.  I can have a very healthy diet until about 5:00 PM.  Without a great deal of trouble, I can often have just one plate of food for supper.  But the hours between 9 and midnight can be very difficult.  I can eat until I am numbed in the same way I could smoke or drink to numb everything else out.  The question is why?  With food, I don’t always know the answer to the question.  It’s often just the anxious feeling, the depression, the anxiety, the unmet expectations, or whatever, that can be filled with food.

What I know is that if my head is in a good place, in the same way I could be sitting in any bar with any favorite drink in front of me and have no desire to touch it – the same can be true with the favorite grease, sugar, or salt food.

Here is also how for me, food is like alcohol.  In early sobriety, my primary defense against taking the first drink was not necessarily knowing why I chose to escape into the bottle, but visualizing that first drink through to the logical conclusion – that I never just wanted one drink, and I consistently ended up drunk.  In the same way, today I don’t always know the answer to my binge eating, but I have come to understand that if when I go into the bedroom or living room with a book or my iPad for the evening, if I take a bowl of chips, cheese, or similar foods with me, I will keep refilling that bowl till the food is gone or I am stuffed.  On the other hand, if I eat a bowl of granola, that is all I will consume.  I know that is the way it will go.  I have “tested that hypothesis” so many times and have never refuted it.  But . . . why do I sometimes choose to go the binge route?  I think for the same reasons I kept drinking for as long as I did knowing full well the consequences.

Ultimately, I have come to understand why I chose to take the first drink – the self-sabotage, self-loathing, refusal to be accountable, etc. etc.  Today, I don’t completely understand the escape I get from binge eating in the same way as alcohol, but I do find the “treatment” is basically the same.

Some folks speak of “trigger” foods for their addictions such as sugar, white flour, bread, and so forth.  For me, my trigger food is food.  I can go through 6 apples or a quart of ice cream if my head is not in the right place.  But I also know that I can go out to the Mexican homemade ice cream store down the road, get a small dish, come home and eat it, and not even consider going out for more.

Again, to me it is like alcohol because through time and experience, I know the results.  We don’t keep half gallons of ice cream in the house.  I don’t buy pints of Ben and Jerry’s.  I go to the Mexican store to get a small dish maybe once every couple of weeks.  But then, I also make choices to violate what I know are the way things work.

Like with alcohol, when there are no good answers to the compulsion, to the craving, sometimes I need to just sit there and know that this to shall pass, whether I decide to binge with food or not.  But not using the food, like not using the alcohol takes me through an experience without actively practicing my addiction.  That makes it easier for the next time.

I am amazed that it took me over 20 years of sobriety to recognize that I was eating addictively long before I picked up the first drink, in the same way that I later consumed alcohol.  That was a total revelation to me!  I have often thought it would have been cool had the counselors talked about smoking and eating when I was in my 30-day detox in 1984.  However the line back then was something like “Hey, I came to AA to get sober, not holy.”

I can be a slow learner, but I think that I learn well.  For the last little while I have been feeling much better about my food consumption.  I also thoroughly enjoy that this whole thing is truly a process and not an event.

That’s what I have got.

15 thoughts on “My Alcoholic Eating Disorder

  1. This is good stuff exactly what I am working on right now. I have come to believe that one of the only differences for me between a pint of vodka or a pint of ice cream at 10am is the potential for me to get arrested. I am also coming to think of my over eating as an addiction as well. Late night eating was a challenge for me. I combatted it a little by becoming an early riser but still working at it.

  2. I had wondered the same thing that Josie asked. How I understood it in my head anyway was you choose the next right thing instead of using food to avoid unpleasant emotions. (It hadn’t occurred to me to ask you for clarification.) I’m struggling with this too right now. Food definitely replaced alcohol as a numbing agent, even though I’m not sure how or even if it works. I know I eat more than I’d like and I’m getting pretty sick and tired of the guilt and obsession. I know there are things that worked for me in the past. I like how you pointed out you don’t keep B&Js in the house and how you can go out for occasional ice cream at the mexican shop and feel satisfied. I have my own versions of this, as I suspect we all do from trial and error. The key is applying them consistently to actually do that next right thing. I agree with Josie that this feels trickier with food. Not impossible, surely, but alcohol feels so much more black and white (thank God). Thank you for sharing this, Robert. It’s given me much to think about.

    • You make a very important point that I did not. Yes, alcohol, cigarettes, the overt action is very black and white – you do or you don’t. Food is much more of a process. I listen to a lot of Overeaters Anonymous speaker tapes and the range of what is considered “abstinent” is quite far ranging from abstaining from specific foods to not eating between meals, not purging, and so forth. As Josie noted, you gotta eat. In this way I have always argued that dealing with the actual consumptive process of addiction is much easier for alcohol and drugs than for food – you just don’t put the stuff in your body. The eating thing is like the equivalent of telling the alcoholic to just have one glass of wine each day – see how well that goes! That is one of the reasons too that I find when dealing with the food addiction issue, the behaviors for that are the basis for practicing the addiction seem more upfront.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. I just read this through twice, and I’m still not sure how to comment without writing a novel. Robert, I am so grateful to you for taking the time to write this out. Typically I would grab a line or two that impacted me the most and copy it into my comment; for this post I would essentially be copying the entire entry. I can relate to absolutely every line of this, and your wisdom, I am sure, will help me tremendously in my quest to find a balance in my eating.

    Because that is what most stumps me. Like you, I have been cross-addicted, but my solution for those situations was simple… not easy, it goes without saying, but simple: cut all ties. Alcohol, mind-altering substances, nicotine. I suspect as time goes on I will add caffeine to that list but for now I am clinging to it like a life raft!

    But when it comes to my eating overall, I am truly stumped, and that is why I posed the question to you: how can the process be the same when the substance is a necessary part of life?

    You have done a fantastic job answering that question, and I will be copying and pasting this post into a word document for easy reference.

    Again, I appreciate so much your thoughtful reply to my question. I am revising my earlier statement, because even as I am formulating this comment, two sentences keeps coming back into my head, so I guess they are the winners:

    “In early sobriety, my primary defense against taking the first drink was not necessarily knowing why I chose to escape into the bottle, but visualizing that first drink through to the logical conclusion – that I never just wanted one drink, and I consistently ended up drunk. In the same way, today I don’t always know the answer to my binge eating, but I have come to understand that if when I go into the bedroom or living room with a book or my iPad for the evening, if I take a bowl of chips, cheese, or similar foods with me, I will keep refilling that bowl till the food is gone or I am stuffed.”

    I am going to make an earnest effort to employ that strategy the next time I reach for my bag of chips (my “drug” of choice). I will keep you updated and let you know how it goes!

    A million thanks for this post, Robert 🙂

    • Josie, thanks very much for your kind words. And I thank you for providing me with the opportunity to really articulate those thoughts as doing so truly helps me with my addiction.

      Interesting your comment on caffeine. That is a substance I have never considered cutting out – and I think it is because it has never been a “problem” for me. I have never been advised medically I needed to do so. Caffeine does not pose a problem for me of which I am aware directly. I actually consume a pretty good amount in the form of espresso and my true favorite, Turkish tea strong enough to curl your hair. To me that is where the “getting holy” would start to come in – not an apparent problem. I can actually function pretty well without any when I am up in the mountains where the best you can get is Nescafe, and I would rather do without.

      I find the same thing with gambling. The couple of times I have gone to a casino and put the obligatory 20.00 in a slot machine, and won something, I have always felt it was somehow tainted, and could not keep it – dumb protestant work ethic or whatever.

      My point being – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  4. This speaks to me as well, Robert. I too can be good until the witching hours and then dive into whatever is in the fridge and cupboards until I am stuffed and then go right ot bed. Not very healthy. I can also go well with sugar and then have mini-binges. Just today at Target I told my wife “wow, I could wolf down a whole bag of those double-chip cookies right there”. And I could. no worries. So it is with great interest I read this and start to think about where food sits in the spectrum for me. We all have our “go-to” foods – mine is chocolate and carby stuff. Chips and salty snacks are useless to me – i don’t touch them often. But cookies or chocolate bars? Get out of my way.

    Thank you for this. I was gonna say “good food for though” but thought it cheesy.

    Blessings
    Paul

    • Paul, Thanks for commenting. I really do appreciate that folks are thinking about these multiple addictions these days – not writing it off as “I never got arrested for driving under the influence of tacos” and leaving it at that.

      But your “Food for thought” and “cheesy” how I savor the words. 😉

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