Standing in the checkout line at my local 7-Eleven, clutching a 20-ounce Diet Sunkist in each hand — still can’t stop at just one! — my eyes fixed on the familiar row of baked goods displayed near the registers. Saran-wrapped snickerdoodle cookies and Reese’s peanut butter brownies stared back at me, in all their impulse-buy glory, and a couple of thoughts suddenly sprung to mind.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in this place sober!
I’m so [bleep]ing glad I don’t do THAT anymore!
“THAT” refers to bingeing on junk while drunk, and it’s part of the reason I ballooned up to an unthinkable 176 pounds — thank you, gastroenterologist office, for informing me of that number against my wishes! — before I finally got so disgusted with my gutter-bound existence that I quit drinking on July 7, 2019 — a full 125 days ago.
Back in the bad old days, sweets from the 7-Eleven were my go-to nightcap on more occasions than I can count. I mean, there’s only so much about those occasions I remember, so… You see, tequila started flowing at my house before noon on most Saturdays and Sundays near the end. So while sober Jen held herself to a reasonably strict gluten-free, Paleo-ish diet all week long and never even kept other types of food in the house, those booze-soaked weekends regularly devolved into one big orgy of Swedish Fish, Ben & Jerry’s and whatever ill-advised refined carbs I found up front at the cash wrap and said “🤬 it!” and tossed up onto the counter with all my other bad ideas.
My husband always protested, reminding me of all the other times this DevilDogs-may-care attitude led to my feeling like death for an entire week, BECAUSE HELLO, I HAVE A WHEAT ALLERGY (AND OTHER DIGESTIVE ISSUES WE WON’T DISCUSS)!!! I always ended up with a belly full of gelatinous goo, regardless.
I would retain only foggy memories of those episodes, so it was kinda like they didn’t happen, right? And then, sometimes, I would catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I tried to avoid this, being deeply ensconced in denial as I was, but occasionally, my eyes stuck on the reflection. I stared and wondered how I got so swollen all over, and why my clothes felt so uncomfortably tight.
And I’d promptly pick up a drink to drown the self-loathing and escape back into avoidance.
Addiction will ruin everything in your life, if you let it. I certainly let it ruin my body.
The abuse started late in my first year of college and never let up. First, I starved myself, eating nothing but rice cakes and vegetables for a year and whittling an energetic varsity athlete down to a bony, listless shell, unrecognizable to her family in both appearance and personality. Then, after my mother basically staged an intervention on my anorexia, I went the other way. I started secretly bingeing, using laxatives and distance running to try and keep all the full pizzas, half gallons of ice cream, boxes of Pop-Tarts, etc. from sticking (it worked…until it didn’t).
Next, I discovered alcohol, and my unhealthy relationship with food wrapped itself around this new obsession and held on tight, the two becoming forever entwined, like conjoined evil twins.
I’ve come to think of my eating disorder as a kind of gateway drug for the harder stuff to come, but it has always remained at the core of my story — the first real clue that something inside me was broken, something was missing.
I sit here at 41, a little over four months sober, finally beginning to unravel the mystery.
From age 20 until present day, that self-imposed vicious cycle of abuse put my poor body through the wringer. When I drank too much, I almost always ended up eating too much. My weight ballooned. Then, I’d decide I was going to go on a strict diet — a diet that, of course, allowed tequila to be substituted for food at any point — and my weight plummeted again. Meanwhile, I indulged in a daily exercise obsession that was less about staying healthy than it was about punishing myself (the subject for a whole other rambling rant; maybe some other day.)
Throughout my life, the chaos going on inside me has always been reflected in my outward appearance. I’d go from hiding the shame of weight gain under the same 15-year-old sagging skirts and stretched-out Under Armour leggings to treating my slimmer physique to a bunch of expensive new designer jeans… which would end up not fitting me when the cycle repeated itself.
Up, down, expand, contract, binge, purge, love, hate…
Stop The Planet of the Apes! I Want To Get Off!
(Can’t make it through a blog without a Simpsons reference; sorry.)
Deadly-sinful as it may seem, I allowed myself a gratuitous mirror selfie to mark Day 125. My vanity was inspired by an event that, to me, made all the utter insanity of early sobriety worth every mood swing and emotional outburst.
I put on a pair of designer jeans (AG brand, size 29, whatever the hell that means), and I was….comfortable. Who knows if I actually lost weight; a person prone to unhealthy obsessions is asking for trouble by owning a scale, and so, I don’t. Then again, who cares about the numbers? I’m living in this body, and how I feel should be the ultimate arbiter of all things.
My body feels changed for the much, much better. Therefore, my attitude toward it has shifted. Or was it the other way around?
The caption that accompanied this photo on Instagram read, “Haven’t changed anything in my lifestyle except giving up drinking and adopting a recovery program…” And that’s certainly true on a basic, surface level. Simply removing the hundreds of thousands of empty alcohol and convenience store cookie calories from my otherwise very healthy nutrition equation, shockingly, got rid of the miserable, steadily inflating balloon of bloat I walked around with for at least the last year, probably longer.
On the other hand, I feel like that caption was severely understated. Seriously, quitting drinking and adopting a recovery program? Oh, is that all you did? It’s only THE MOST MONUMENTAL LIFESTYLE CHANGE A PERSON CAN MAKE AND MANY PEOPLE AREN’T LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE THE CHANCE BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.
Deciding to commit to better mental, emotional and spiritual health and actually attempt to fill that deep, yawning chasm inside with acceptance, faith and love, rather than food and drink, is a lifestyle change that transforms not just bodies, but entire lives. It’s a natural process that you don’t even have to consciously think about: start to mend what’s broken inside; the outside eventually takes care of itself.
So yeah, the attitude shift — so simple, yet so seismic — came first, and the physical stuff followed suit. Just thinking about this miracle that’s happening right now, to me, fills me with such joy…and such terror. I’ve never succeeded at fixing my shit before. What if all this progress is just another setup for a colossal crash-and-burn?
And that makes me think of another, much more relevant animal-related reference than the one I made earlier.
Folks in recovery like to tell the old Cherokee story about the two wolves, and when you hear/read it, it’s obvious why it means so much to addicts.
“Which wolf wins? The one you feed.” Yep, that pretty much sums it up.
I can decide which wolf wins in my life, because I can choose where to allocate essential nutrients. The insane addict wolf will always be a part of me; I can never kill nor even banish him. But I can stop stuffing his face and instead continue to nurse the joyful, hopeful, benevolent wolf who’s slowly but surely coming to life, getting stronger every day.
All these years, she’s been starving while I’ve been busy poisoning myself. Now that I realize that, I also realize this:
I’m so [bleep]ing grateful I don’t have to do that anymore.