Back in the summer of 2015, an ex-boyfriend asked me: do you think you have a problem with alcohol? His tone was light, as if he’d been asking whether I’d tried sashimi. It didn’t sit well.
No one had ever asked me that. Well, besides myself - maybe 1200 times (that’s roughly once per day for 3.5 years).
I collected myself: “No, not really. I think I have more of an eating disorder problem.”
That’s a pretty weak defense. If he had asked about sashimi, it would have been the equivalent of saying, “Nah, I think I have more of a problem with raw fish.”
That is, I’d responded as if having an eating disorder and having a drinking problem were mutually exclusive. In reality, they are cut from the same cloth. Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that having one predicts the other.
For his part, my ex shrugged and went to sleep. Meanwhile, I stayed awake wondering if I should fire him for how intolerant (read: perceptive) he was being.
For me, anorexia came first. That’s not uncommon, given that access to “not eating” tends to precede access to alcohol on most developmental trajectories.
Here's how it happened:
I was a freshman in high school. My old friends were interested in new things, like theater and boys and scary upperclassmen. I was in need of a little ammunition against a world which threatened to leave me behind. Although I was less than 100 pounds at the time, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to play the one game I could win: starving. I decided I was allergic to almost every food, and soon enough I was.
Four years later, I again felt the need to arm myself against instability. College was not going as planned. I could've sworn I’d been promised an effortless group of “college friends,” but when I looked around all I saw was my roommate and the cross country team and a lot of people having fun with this foreign substance called "alcohol."
I still remember the moment I decided to resume starvation. Someone had taken a picture of me in a purple, clingy, dry-fit Under Armour t-shirt. I could see my belly button through the top. In weight loss success stories, people often talk about the one picture that changed everything. In my picture, I was simply a small person at a bad angle. But when I saw it, I checked out of reality and back into the eating disorder: I will win this one.
The people around me may have enjoyed a social life, but I enjoyed a weight loss of exactly ½ pound per week. In the exceedingly long time between meals, I preoccupied myself with my philosophy classes. I was fascinated by the Platonic conception of the appetitive self. No wonder: I was terrified of her.
The biggest secret of the anorexic is that she is constantly thinking about food. I mean constantly. It's a survival mechanism; what kind of brain would I have if it allowed me to forget about eating? (Or sleeping, or breathing...) To this day, I could tell you exactly what I ate that semester, at what time, and the number of calories in each meal. (The remarks of an anorexic can be a little dry.)
About six weeks into college, I had my first drink. I felt I was walking on air. A month later, I blacked out. The morning after, I sat with a member of the cross country team at breakfast, and she relayed what I’d done the night before. I listened incredulously to the tales of blacked-out Anna. I sounded so care free! So normal! I privately marveled that I’d fallen asleep without eating my scheduled protein bar, and even that morning, food was for once not the most interesting thing at the table.
That began a love affair. Even Anorexia did not count the calories in alcohol. After all, it was a losing battle: freedom from food and body obsession was only a drink away. Drunk, I could look at myself in the mirror and admit it: you’re fine. No one’s thinking about your stomach.
With the introduction of alcohol, my eating disorder gave way to a stronger obsession. I remember coming home for Christmas during my freshman year, and telling my dad about how alcohol had allowed me to relax a bit and make some friends. He was not thrilled, but I chalked this up to prudishness. Looking back, I cannot imagine how terrifying it is to hear from your 18-year-old daughter that alcohol is, in fact, the solution.
That is: until it wasn’t. Alcohol was a little less effective with every drunk. I needed more to forget myself - and in the sober daylight, there I always was. In a future post, I'll discuss how finding sobriety affected my disordered eating. In the meantime, I'm curious to hear from you: what do you think is the relationship between alcohol and food or body obsession?