I recently read an article (and when I finish this, I’ll try to find it and link it) about cross- addiction, and specifically about how people who undergo gastric bypass surgery, which physically limits the amount of food they can eat, will go on to struggle with alcoholism post-surgery (I did not have this surgery, but I work with people who have, or who are considering it). A few factors are at play here – first, people start feeling good about themselves as they lose weight – maybe for the first time ever – and they may start going out to bars and clubs and join in on the social scene that they previously avoided. This is no surprise, and I definitely can understand the desire to celebrate your success and even to show off a bit once you start to feel better about your body. The more troubling part here, and the part this article touched on, is how alcohol can quickly and easily become a new coping mechanism for managing or avoiding difficult feelings and emotions once food is quite literally no longer an option.
While alcoholism runs in my family, I have never been a big drinker. Even in high school, when we’d have sleepovers and sneak some nasty Kahlua or rum from someone’s parents liquor closet, and even though I went to a party school where drinking felt like the shared (and only) pastime of the entire student body. I’d have a few drinks here and there at parties, but I never really liked the way it made me feel. Alcohol affects me very quickly – I start to feel a burning sensation in my shoulders and down my arms, and it makes me even more emotional than I already am and it pushes me totally off-balance. Not in the good way.
As an adult, I actually tried to be a drinker because I thought it was cool, and because I wanted to fit in (I haven’t quite outgrown that one yet). I wanted to be that person who could enjoy a glass of wine while making dinner, or who would enjoy sampling different specialty drinks or craft brews or whatever the fuck it is – see? I don’t even have the right lingo down. But I just never craved it and never really enjoyed the experience. When I drank with other people, I was always secretly afraid that I might tell them I love them or burst into tears – or both – and then I’d return home dizzy and confused and then feel like shit physically for the next 24 hours or so. (I may be especially sensitive to the effects of alcohol, but I have to respect what my body tells me.)
Over time, I’d collected quite a stash though – gifts, party leftovers, etc. – most of which I kept tucked away in my scarf drawer (yes, I have a whole drawer for scarves, and it’s big). For the record, my wife is sober (for 23 years in January) and she does not have any problem with keeping alcohol in our house, but I’ve never felt great about just leaving it out in the open – not because I don’t trust her, but because it feels disrespectful to her recovery and to the choices she’s made. So for years, my collection kind of just sat there, untouched, periodically joined by a new bottle I’d receive as a gift. I didn’t even think about it. It never even occurred to me to go have a drink.
(Until it did. But I’ll get to that in a minute.)
As you know if you read here, or if you know me in person, my addiction was (is? was?) food. Growing up, I used food to comfort myself and to shelter myself from some difficult things that happened to me and the painful and confusing emotions I was feeling. As an adult I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but growing up I just assumed that everyone felt as nervous and panicky and empty as I did, and I didn’t understand how everyone else seemed to function so normally. I knew there must be something wrong with me – a thought that became so deeply enmeshed into who I was that it’s taken years and years of work to even begin to unravel it. Food was my go-to, probably because it was always there and it always worked, at least for a little while. It is through a combination of grace and hard fucking work that I managed to pull myself from that addiction, and I no longer use food in that way. At times, my relationship with food is still complicated, but for the most part I am able to view food as fuel that allows my body to function and to thrive. (And yes, I like it to taste good, too, and I still enjoy treats here and there.)
But the hardest switch to flip – by far – was going from using a substance to escape or numb out to using NOTHING to escape or numb out. In other words, when I’m anxious now, or depressed, or when I’m scared or overwhelmed or ashamed, I just have to sit there with it and fucking feel it. Of course, over time I’ve learned that there are tools I can use to help balance myself (mine are exercise, yoga, meditation, prayer, writing, and … coffee), but for the most part I just have to stay right in the center of the pain and feel it and breathe through it until it passes.
And sometimes it doesn’t pass quickly – or at least, it doesn’t pass as quickly as I’d like. This year surprised me with a rebound of some pretty intense depression, the kind that brings me to my knees some nights, begging for some help or at least some sort of relief. One evening this summer, after this darkness had been dragging out for a couple weeks, I was sitting in my bedroom and all I wanted was just an escape from myself, and from the way I was feeling. I was grasping, and spinning, and sinking. Suddenly, it occurred to me that just a few feet away I had a whole drawer full of ethanol that could stop me from feeling anything pretty damn quickly. It would be ok, I thought, other people do it all the time. It’s kind of funny, even. People on TV do it. I told myself I wouldn’t start drinking all the time, but maybe I’d do it just tonight – just to give myself an escape until morning. I sat with that thought for hours that night, but ultimately I did not act on it.
The next morning, some of the heaviness had lifted – I sensed that right away. I went about my morning and as I stood in my bedroom getting dressed, I glanced in the mirror past my own reflection and to the reflection of the “alcohol drawer” that was behind me. My eyes lingered there for just a second when I heard a voice – loud, firm, and clear – in my head. It was a woman’s voice, but not my own. The quality and clarity of her voice made it feel as though she could have been standing right beside me. She said this:
“You need to get that alcohol out of this house. You need to gather up all of the alcohol that is in this home and remove it, and you have to do it today. You have to do it right now.”
Thinking back, it’s funny to me how I was not the least bit shocked when I heard this voice. Instead, her words sank into me immediately with the weight of truth. I took these words as a directive and I never questioned it – not once. I replied out loud: “OK.” That morning, I gathered all of the various bottles I’d been holding onto and I loaded them into the trunk of my car, having decided to either toss them or give them away (I ended up giving them to friends). When it was gone I felt lighter still, and also as though a chapter had closed. I am not sure what to make of that experience other than to say that I felt I was guided by something outside of myself – something loving, something protective. For this reason, I never questioned the decision. And in that moment I knew also that I would stop drinking alcohol. For now, and maybe for good.
Why am I writing this? I didn’t want to, because I don’t want to seem as though I’m bragging or somehow judging people who drink (I don’t) and I am afraid it will come across that way. It still might, and if you interpret it that way, I’m sorry. But I promise you that this post is not about you or how much you choose to drink, or not, or what I think you should do with your life.
Instead, this post is for the people I know and the people I often work with — my people — who are trying to stop comforting or numbing out with food and who are now facing the world with what feels like raw skin that’s been stripped if its shell. I want to tell you that I understand you, and that I am with you, and I know how overwhelming it feels to think that it’s going to be this hard forever (spoiler: it’s not). I want you to know that being brave enough to wake up and to let this thing go is a testament to how powerful you are and what you can achieve (spoiler: it’s way, way more than you can even comprehend). I also want to warn you to be careful with yourself. When you are used to relying on food (which, by the way, is everywhere, all the time) and suddenly that option is gone and there’s nothing there yet to replace it, the transition can be painful and terrifying. Please be mindful of all your decisions during this time, and – if you are anything like me – be especially aware of how you may find yourself wanting to trade in one destructive behavior for another when things get tough. Another crutch is not the answer.
Instead, let’s lean on each other.