Another Piece to My Story

How my Alcoholism and Bulimia Coincided

I am sitting on my return flight from New York. This first of two flights gives me ample time to reflect. In many ways I feel as though I have had multiple lives within this one lifetime. I suspect others feel this way too. Pre-recovery and recovery. New York and California, where I moved exactly one year after 9-11. For a number of years I lost myself. I veered down an entirely different road, on which I was not myself. I was an alcoholic and I was struggling with an eating disorder.

 

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Chemical dependency and eating disorders can often go hand-in-hand. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) in a study of women with bulimia nervosa, 31% had a history of alcohol abuse and 13% had a history of alcohol dependence. In another study of 2400 hospitalized eating disorder patients, 22% had an alcohol or substance use disorder.

I do not believe I accidentally stumbled on either of my diseases but that they developed to help me cope.  I believe that there are always profoundly good reasons why we do what we do. My reasons are not important for the sake of this blog but understanding some of the pieces has given me more compassion and love for myself.

When my anorexia morphed into bulimia, the rebel came out

The restraint of living in the anorexic psyche eventually led to complete rebellion. I no longer attempted perfection but gave up on it. I no longer wanted the limitations that anorexia brought. I wanted to be wild and free and careless. After all, I had failed anyway. I did not want to have needs and I did not want to feel. I wanted to be strong and impenetrable. And yet I couldn’t be. I ate but not enough. I purged all the emotions I could not cope with. I put on my bad girl clothes and went out all night to escape my thoughts. When I drank my ED voice grew quieter. When I drank, my lack of confidence diminished. When I drank my bulimic came out to dance.  At first, it felt like freedom but it was only another form of restraint.

I started to drink alcoholically as a senior in High School.  As early as my first drunk, I was hooked. Even though I told myself that I would never get that drunk and sick again, it happened shortly after and soon led to nightly drinking. I drove to the Bronx to stock up on Coors Light forty’s from local Korean bodegas. I hoarded alcohol in the corners of my dark teenage bedroom always making sure I had enough. I carried it discreetly in my purse and when I needed it gulped it secretly in public bathrooms. 

I remember when I visited the Greenwich Village nightlife for the first time I was a freshman in high school. I was completely enamored by the lights hitting the different colors of liquor bottles behind the bars. Each holding the liquid promise of relief. I felt I had arrived. This was where I belonged.  A few short years later, I returned to the village and worked in precisely the same bars as a student at New York University.  

I took a leave of absence in only my second semester at NYU, unable to both attend classes and manage my bulimia and alcoholism. I chose instead to be a full time bartender (and full time alcoholic).  I surrounded myself with friends who, older than me, had already drunk heavily for a number of years longer.  They, unlike me appeared to be me true alcoholics. Yet I drank just like them.  I visited illegal “after-hours”; clubs for those of us who felt the need to continue drinking after the regular bars closed at 4 am.  The most disturbing of “after-hours” was one I visited on the Lower East Side, just some abandoned rooms in an old building. With a few boxes on the floor for seating, liquor was shared at a high cost. People lurked in the shadows occupied with more than just alcohol. I had a moment of clarity then, asking myself, what this once innocent Swiss girl was doing in a crack house. I don’t think I stayed very long. Just long enough to have another drink. 

I walked down many streets of Manhattan alone. It’s a strange thing to feel so lonely in a city with so many people. I was disconnected from them as I was disconnected from myself.  I remember the sparkle of the sidewalks more than the surrounding buildings. I often rode the subway late at night, or more accurately very early in the morning. Sometimes just out of desperation to get away. Most nights it was a decision between bingeing on food or bingeing on alcohol. One way or another I had to fill that hole that was growing within me.  My bulimic was best friends with my alcoholic. They were mutually supportive of each other. They negotiated whose turn it was to play. 

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A series of events eventually led to my sobriety. A good friend of mine from the Village was stabbed seventeen times by a gang member who was in our bar of choice earlier that evening. My friend’s blood stained the Sullivan Street sidewalk for what seemed like months. Visiting him in the hospital as he fought to survive hit me in the heart. I could not go on like this. My friend lived but was partially paralyzed. Shortly after, another drinking friend was attacked in the subway. An apparent hate crime. Again, a visit to St. Vincent’s hospital. I knew I had to leave the city. 

 

I began to seek. I wanted meaning. I wanted clarity. My seeking eventually led me to the conclusion that I could not find what I was seeking with a bottle in one hand. Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy changed my life in ways I will never fully grasp.  I sometimes try to imagine what my life would look like had I continued down that same road of my drinking. Considering where it led me in my six short years of drinking, I can only imagine what was next.  Life certainly would not have been anything remotely to this, this charmed existence I now enjoy. Living on a farm in sunny California. Blessed with a son and a husband whom I love dearly. Working in a career where I find meaning and purpose. Loving myself deeply.

Recovery has allowed me to self-actualize. I have found worth, purpose, and meaning. It has enriched my life in so many more ways than what I could have imagined through the narrow lens of my disorders. All of ME now gets to play freely, safely, dancing sober and “sweating my prayers”. I am not careless but I am carefree.  The alcoholic and bulimic still reside within me. But they are only two small parts of my whole Self, integrated and put in their right, quiet place. Here they can be taken care of and kept safe. Here they no longer need to turn to self-harm to be heard. 

 

And so as I fly above the clouds, I say goodbye to New York once again. Good-bye to old memories. Good-bye to old pain. A visit made well worth it with the enduring love of family and connection to friends. 

Marlena TannerComment