In my third year of college, I went to the guidance counselor and the college psychiatrist to try to treat an eating disorder. The guidance counselor had a touchy feely approach. She was young and attractive, and I think her therapeutic approach was to be nurturing, to talk, to be supportive, and to see where that led. I imagine she’d had positive outcomes in the past. The problem was, I was the only child of a totally devoted single mom, and I didn’t really need support from a woman. I saw her once, made a second appointment, and never showed up. The psychiatrist had a cloud cuckoo approach. She was not right in the head, I think. She was morbidly obese and wore a neck brace. Her approach, when I came to chat, was to dim the lights and ask me a series of questions. The questions never changed. She put me on Zoloft, which I took for a couple months. Nothing changed, and I stopped seeing her. I walked around with vertigo as I went through Zoloft withdrawal, and then I went through an extremely ugly period, when I just gave in to the eating disorder. It was Christmas vacation. I lived in a suite with three other roommates. They were out of town. One had a television, so I spent the break in her bed, watching her television, and having my disease. Up until then, something had kept me from just buying all the foods I could think of, eating them, throwing up and starting over again. But that Christmas I bought every kind of food I wanted — a dozen iced chocolate Entenmann’s donuts, I remember — and lay on my roommate’s bed, ate the food and threw it up into the grocery bags. And when I was bored with that I masturbated. When my roommate got back from vacation, the first thing she did was take all her bedding down to the basement laundry room to wash it. I caught her in the elevator, holding her down comforter. It was an awkward ride. I say all this because I was a person, at that time, who didn’t believe in solutions. I didn’t believe that there was an end to my problem. I thought, okay, I just have to stop, but I can’t stop. I thought, there’s no magic pill, no thing I can dredge up from my past and say that will change this ugly situation with me, food, and vomit. People said it had something to do with control, but I knew me, food and vomit was totally unrelated to control. So I felt it just was, and there wasn’t an end to it. I didn’t ask myself how I had gotten this way, or why I was doing it. Or if I did, I thought it was simple. I thought it was because I wanted to be skinny, and I also liked to eat. I thought I didn’t have enough self control. And maybe in that last bit I was right. This was kind of my view for the next ten years. It is a view that a lot of skeptical, intelligent people of my generation seem to take about things we don’t understand. And I think it would have remained my view if I hadn’t fallen in love with the drummer of an indie band. I was disgusted by my situation. By this time, I was thirty-one. I wasn’t in the throes of my eating disorder any more. It was something I resisted. I would count the days I had gone without it. Then I would go out to eat. If I felt I had overeaten a little, I would think, “Well, the day’s shot.” If I knew I was going to throw up, I figured — since the process was gross — I may as well get some pleasure out of it, so I’d eat a pint of ice cream first. Then when I was throwing up, once I’d gotten past the ice cream, I’d think, “May as well keep going,” and I’d throw up all my dinner. Other times, someone would make me angry, and I’d feel helpless. At those times I’d eat something planning to throw up, and then I’d feel a little better at the end — tired and numb. I saw another psychiatrist. She prescribed a medication. It didn’t work. It was called Topomax. I would make it a few days, and then I’d slip. I’m saying all this about eating disorders, in relation to alcohol and substance abuse, because I think they’re similar compulsive expressions of emotion. Or I don’t know for sure about alcohol and drugs. But I do know that for me, with food, it was about rage. It was something I did when I was enraged. But I think if I’d taken anger management, nothing would have changed with the food. But back to the love story and how my addiction was suddenly cured. Not just manageable or less vicious or something I might do tomorrow, but not today, but actually, simply… gone. Like you read about what happens to some people with booze and ayahuasca. What happened was that I wrote to my guru. He is a Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche from Bhutan. He’s about fifteen years older than me. It was a completely irrational thing to do. I met him when I was eleven, and “renounced” him, and all things ridiculous, when I was eighteen. But at thirty-one, I wrote to him to ask for advice about the drummer. I don’t know what gave me the idea. Maybe it was just luck. But I recognized, independent of food, that I had a phobia around intimacy. It happened that all the people I fell in love with were totally unsuitable, so my phobia about getting close to them seemed rational. It is totally rational to avoid a married drummer in a big indie band. But for me, the irrational choice — to declare myself, and fall madly and deeply in love — was correct. And this is the part that was a mystery to me. It was something I didn’t know at the time. The issue wasn’t food. It was — and if you had told me this, I would have said you were so stupid it was unfathomable — feeling unworthy of love. But the drummer. I was in love with this drummer. I was thirty-one years old. I ran it by about a thousand New York skeptics, mediocre smart-asses. I told them that the drummer and I had gotten drunk and fooled around, and then he emailed me, and what did it mean? They all said the same thing: he’s married. He’s famous. You’re not. You don’t even know him. What do you mean when you say love? It’s a fantasy. So I asked my guru. Because I had this old faith in my guru, I didn’t bother presenting him with the whole argument. I just emailed him, “Should I tell this drummer I love him?” He wrote back, “Yes, say it.” It was actually very, very difficult to do. It took a strange night that seemed, to me, to be touched by, I don’t know, power? It’s a little bit embarrassing. It’s not a story I tell. But I guess I can tell it. I mistook a storm for a war, and I thought it was the end of the world. I don’t usually make these kinds of mistakes. But faced with my own mortality, I did tell the drummer I loved him. Here is what happened: my eating disorder evaporated. It was strange, because I knew it was gone. I woke up and threw my Topomax in the trash. My psychiatrist called a few times, but I was done with her, and with the whole thing. I never threw up again. I did take a little time re-learning how to eat, but the tremendously ugly part was over. Later, I read that bulimia is a disorder of willpower. That people with it are wasting all their willpower on suppressing something. I think that’s right, for what it’s worth. Of course, I could have stayed with the first counselor at Barnard, and the Zoloft, and if I’d spend enough time, we would’ve maybe found our way to “You never met your dad, and you’re recreating this situation in your life, and wanting to say to your dad this thing that means a lot to you.” It just wasn’t the way it went down for me…. I say all this to say: emotional work is real.
This is the first of a multi-part series on how we drunks suffer differently. Sometimes the hard stuff is the best stuff, so smile and keep pushing that shit up the hill. Clancy Martin shows the way.
Sometimes the only way I can handle my brother’s overdose death is to not handle it. Grief is funny that way.
In today's issue, we have our second "Tell Me What It's Like" anonymous interview. This fine, upstanding human agreed to tell us about the anatomy of their (very) recent relapse when they ended up in the psych ward. The culprit? Adderall.