Tackling alcoholism and bulimia with Faith

“What is your earliest memory?”

It often surprises me how freely this question is asked. I’ve seen it used as an icebreaker at work and summer camp. It’s meant, I think, to elicit nostalgia, maybe a few chuckles. To provide an intimate but innocent window into someone’s early life.

For most people - for Faith - the question elicits no such sunny response. Faith was two when her seven-year-old brother drowned in the lake. The whole family was there. “My dad was holding me,” Faith remembers, “and it was as if he was gone. I was in his arms, but he was gone. He had checked out, and I was completely alone.”

Her brother had died, her pregnant mother had followed the ambulance, and the light in her father's eyes had gone out. “I felt abandoned, to be honest.” From that point onward, Faith was working to gain her parents back.

Understanding sin

When Faith was nine, the family of eight moved to rural Montana, where Faith's father had been contracted to build an office complex on an Evangelical mission base. In retrospect, Faith sees that the environment was oppressive. “There was a lot of making sure people know they’re sinners.”

Children, as it turned out, were no exception. They were sinners, too. That summer, Faith and a small pack of friends “masterminded” a plot to kindle a romance between two folks on the mission base. When the plot was discovered, the kids were severely reprimanded. Twenty five years later, Faith's memory of that event is vivid: “That was my first experience when I felt this black cloud descending on me. I felt internally like I was a horrible person.”

As Faith speaks, I remember some of the first unkind things I was told about myself. Like Faith, I believed every word.

“I totally believed in my deepest self that I was this blackness...It just felt like evil.” Faith links this self-diagnosis - evil - to her religious environment. In that context, it was at once a crime and a burden to be a woman. The developmental changes that typified womanhood - getting her period or her first bra, for example - were merely examples of this greater loss of naivete. “I wanted nothing to do with being a woman… I don’t want to be stripped of my voice and my autonomy and my dignity and my worth.”

Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

Seeking safety in perfection

When Faith was nine, her mother gave birth to her eighth and last child, Jon. Jon had Down syndrome. “My dad was so depressed that he couldn’t get out of bed,” says Faith. And Faith, as the oldest daughter in a home with strict gender roles, was left in charge. “I felt this keen sense of responsibility for my dad,” she remembers. “Like, I’ve got to hold the world together here.”

I wonder aloud how Faith made meaning of her dad’s depression. “He was having this child that didn’t even have the potential to be perfect,” Faith muses. (It is clear that "perfect," for Faith, is a heavy word.) Oddly concerning to Faith’s father was Jon’s weight - specifically his muscle tone and his appetite. “Jon doesn’t have an off-switch,” her father would lament.

In return, Faith wondered, “What can I do to be the most perfect possible?” By twelve, she’d developed the “off-switch” her youngest brother purportedly didn't have. As it does for many, Faith's eating disorder began with cutting out certain foods in search of purity. Sugar’s bad. Fat’s bad. Over the course of three years, Faith was hospitalized six times and was consistently suicidal. There was a six-month period where she ate nothing at all, and her parents fed her through a feeding tube. “If you’re going to keep me alive, fine. I’m not having any part of this.”

“[My parents] watched one kid die, and now it was like slow-motion watching another one die.” Faith pauses, as if in tribute to her parents. "God."

Eating with no off-switch

For most folks, severe restriction ultimately evolves into binge eating. This is the body’s natural and necessary response to forestall starvation or prepare for another self-imposed famine. For Faith, the physiological need to binge was compounded by a practical incentive. The treatment facility - one of the few that would accept Medicaid - would keep Faith only as long as she was medically unstable. Weight gain was, quite literally, her ticket out.

“It really wasn’t treatment,” says Faith. There was no examination of the familial, societal, and religious systems in which her disorder evolved. There was no evaluation of her thoughts, no excavation of emotions. There were simply open snack cabinets, and the prerogative to gain. “I felt like somebody being fattened up to be slaughtered,” says Faith. “I started to feel like livestock.”

I flash back to 14, when I glared down at my own, expanding stomach. My choices were either to gain weight, or to prolong the oversight of two bewildered parents. The word "livestock" is jarring, and almost right.

By the time she had returned from rehab, Faith had learned to eat with no off-switch. This was the closest approximation of "freedom" that was available. But because none of Faiths' beliefs about weight or appetite had changed, Faith immediately began compensating for her binging with purging.

Prior to entering the hospital, Faith's dad had casually remarked, “‘At least you aren’t throwing your food up, because there’s no hope for you then.'"

"So when I started doing that," says Faith, "I thought, ‘there’s no hope for me.’”

Numbing out trauma

Faith completed public high school in two years. (“My mom was a great teacher,” she remarks.) The freedom afforded by college allowed her symptomatology to escalate. Once in the dorms, Faith says, “I was eating and throwing up at every chance." She used caffeine to suppress her appetite, which meant never sleeping at night.

“I started to cycle,” Faith begins, but stops short. The term “bipolar” doesn't feel right. “I really dislike a lot of the labels around mental illness,” she asserts. The diagnoses she incurred - rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, bulimia nervosa, insomnia, even psychotic depression - were, in Faith's words, just "attempt[s] to survive trauma.” These behaviors were simply “what I was doing to try to manage, to try to get through life.”

Soon, alcohol use would make that list. College was where Faith first discovered alcohol. From the very beginning, she drank to escape. One night, when Faith was too intoxicated to give consent, she was raped. In the aftermath, her father’s thinking haunted her: “A woman should not be in white at her wedding if she isn’t a virgin.”

“Here I was," reflects Faith. No longer a virgin. "The face of evil.”

Not coincidentally, Faith’s next hospitalization came shortly after. She’d escalated from making the dean’s list to receiving a personal hospital visit from the dean. Technically, she'd been put on involuntary medical leave -- but Faith experienced it differently. “They kicked me out of college,” she says. No housing, no identity, no path left to being good. “I was pretty shattered...Like, what am I going to do with my life now?”

Drinking to escape bulimia

Faith met and moved in with a boyfriend. After a few months of dating, he abruptly decided to get back together with his ex-wife. Simultaneously, Faith found out she was pregnant. Her ex dropped off the abortion money at her doorstep. “Even though abortion was murder, I chose that over the shame of having an out-of-wedlock baby,” says Faith. “It was a very lonely time.”

In the wake of the abortion, Faith’s drinking accelerated. She’d received a bonus at work to move across the state and become a manager. This was a chance at a “new life,” she thought. And, in a way, she was right: moving brought her to a new bottom. “When I moved, it became drinking alone. Me and my bottle of vodka… My entire life was just, find a way to get to work, probably drunk, and then get home and drink.”

Drinking was in part an attempt to escape her bulimia. “But I never truly escaped the bulimia,” says Faith, “because I always found periods of the day where I was just sober enough to do it...and then black out, and then wake up, have [delirium tremens]...I spent a year or two in a constant state of inebriation, besides those moments when I was sober enough to find some food and throw it up.”

Photo by Ashley Byrd on Unsplash

Losing the desire to drink

For Faith, treatment for alcoholism was about as effective as treatment for disordered eating. That is, it wasn't. Faith moved a dozen times between treatment facilities, including group homes, crisis beds, and psychiatric units.

Miraculously, the very last drink she ever took was the drink she'd been trying to smuggle into the group home. The next day, says Faith, “the desire to use was lifted. I don't even know what to credit it to. It was just like, I was done… I’m done drinking now.”

Shortly after, Faith was admitted to residential treatment. It was lucky that Faith was already sober, because the tactics used at that treatment facility were too similar to those of her evangelical upbringing to provide any relief. Faith sums up the prevailing attitude: “We beat through the denial, we make sure people know that they’re terrible addicts.” I can hear her eyes roll. "That’s the way to break through and ‘heal’ people, somehow.”

In treatment, patients were assigned mentors - other patients who were farther along in recovery than they were. One of Faith’s mentors was publicly put down for her alleged sins. “They were really hard on her,” says Faith. Ultimately, the woman hung herself in the upstairs bathroom, a room she had always kept locked to prevent Faith from purging. “I would say she died by suicide,” Faith allows. “But I would also say she died in part because of the way they treated us there.”

Absolving the appetite

In the last decade, Faith has forged many alternative paths to recovery. She finished her bachelor’s degree by mail, earned two Master’s degrees in business and social work, and secured a state job working in systems transformation. She has been sober from alcohol for 12 years. She works with a somatic therapist on her bulimia, which is still a daily challenge.

I hear this time and time again: disordered eating hangs on longer than alcoholism. It certainly did for me. Partly for selfish reasons, I ask Faith: “Why do you think that is?"

For a long time, Faith says, she had been fighting the wrong monster. She had assumed that the monster was her appetite, an insatiable need to stuff herself full. "I mean, when I binge and purge, I go all fucking out - I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on food - I have destroyed septic systems - I’m serious - so that appears to be the monster. That’s the monster I’ve been trying to tackle.”

And that, as it turns out, was the wrong monster. “At my core, the issue is still the perfectionism and the self-deprivation,” says Faith. “Even though it doesn’t look like it.” Only in the last few years has she begun to shift her attention towards intentionally feeding herself. “When I’m binging sometimes, I’ll actually pause, check in with myself, and affirm to myself, 'I’m actually hungry right now. My body deserves nourishment.'” Faith laughs again. “And then I just nosedive into it.”

In her laugh, I hear something like acceptance.

Finding support in acceptance

Faith, a writer herself, understands that I need to end her story with what works - what has been the most integral to her recovery. “If you highlight anything,” says Faith, “highlight the people.” In particular, she has been moved by her relationship with her dad, which is now as beautiful as it once was fraught. They have walked parallel paths; Like Faith's, her father's path has been one of "immense and courageous personal work."

In a twelve step program for alcohol, Faith has found support for both alcoholism and disordered eating. “The [twelve] steps, if I take the flexibility to work them from a place of compassion and grace, they do help me a lot.”

“What has helped me more than anything has been fellowship," says Faith. “As much as humanly possible, they love me without [an] agenda." Of course, they want her to recover - "but they are committed to accepting me as I am no matter what.”

“I have people to do [recovery] with me, and I don’t have to keep it a secret. I feel like I’m on my way, you know?”


Hear more from Faith here.