My 30s would roll into my 40s before I realized my anorexia and bulimia were the symptoms of, the soothers for my deeper, unresolved issues. In fact, it wasn't until 2003 when one of my loved ones entered a residential treatment program for alcoholism that my "true" recovery began. I say “true” recovery because back in the day (early 1980s) there was no ACE Study, nor an understanding that ACEs are often rooted in secondhand drinking.
About my soothers...
After dropping to 95 pounds on my self-imposed daily food allotment of carrots and a can of shrimp with ketchup, I slowly started eating again. I was 16. But it wasn't long after giving myself permission to eat that the dam broke.
I vividly recall one night as a teen living at home. Late – very late, after I was sure everyone was asleep – I took a bucket I had hidden in my closet outside my sliding door into the backyard and jammed three fingers down my throat, forcing myself to keep retching until I had thrown up that evening's food rampage. Anxiously, I washed my hands off under the outdoor hose, slipped back into my bedroom, and returned the bucket to its hiding place. And then I waited in the dark and waited and waited until I was certain the rest of my family was still asleep. Heart pounding, I tiptoed down the hall carrying the bucket to the bathroom. The smell was disgusting.
Locking the door, I flushed my stomach's contents down the toilet. It took three flushes to get rid of all the bits and pieces in the toilet bowl, adding angst to angst, as I held my breath after each flush – waiting for the tank to fill and allowing a reasonable period of time before flushing again – all the while praying no family member would wake. I then snuck from the bathroom to the laundry room to wash out the bucket, terrified the water running sounded like a waterfall in the quiet of the house. This whole "process" took hours. Hours. And that was in the early stages of my bulimia. It got so much uglier over the ensuing 11 years – so much uglier – as I share in my poem, "Bulging Eyes," below.
And then one day, 11 years into my bulimia, I read a small column in a Newsweek magazine. I was 28. It was about a woman who'd been eating huge quantities of food and throwing it up – for seven years. I remember the feeling of, "Oh my God – I'm not the only one," followed by, "Oh my God, if she stopped, maybe I can, too."
That was over 35 years ago, and it marked the beginning of my ending the binge/purge cycle that had ruled my life. I'm thrilled to share that I succeeded in learning to re-eat. Unfortunately, it wasn't until 2003 that I fully understood...
anorexia and bulimia were only the symptoms.
My 30s would roll into my 40s before I realized my anorexia and bulimia were the symptoms of, the soothers for my deeper, unresolved issues. In fact, it wasn't until 2003 when one of my loved ones entered a residential treatment program for alcoholism that my "true" recovery began. I was 49, soon turning 50.
I say “true” recovery because back in the day (early 1980s) there was no ACE Study, nor understanding that adverse childhood experiences caused toxic stress. There was no understanding of what secondhand drinking (coping with a family member’s drinking behaviors) does to a child. There was no understanding that children can experience toxic stress and that toxic stress can actually change a child’s brain architecture, negatively affecting their lifetime physical and emotional health.
Additionally, there was no understanding that for millions of people like myself, secondhand drinking is a breeding ground for adverse childhood experiences, nor did we know that one in four children live in families with a parent addicted to alcohol, according to the National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA).
Thus, without my bingeing and purging to focus on, the voice had shifted to its root cause – coping with secondhand drinking – as it tried to help me dodge, control, make up for, get ahead of, minimize, blame, shame, rationalize, condone and condemn my various loved ones’ drinking behaviors. Drinking behaviors I’d first experienced with the onset of my mother’s alcohol use disorder (aka alcohol misuse | alcoholism) when I was a young teen. Drinking behaviors that multiplied, as the numbers of loved ones with alcohol use disorders in my life multiplied over the ensuing decades.
Given my inability to “fix” my various loved ones and the scores of others whose lives were crumbling in the wake of their own and my secondhand drinking behaviors, the voice settled on attacking me for not being important enough, good enough, loveable enough – just plain, enough – to make them want to stop drinking and thus stop the crazy, convoluted drinking behaviors it spawned.
When ACEs are Rooted in Secondhand Drinking
Unless you have been a child in a home with untreated, unhealthily discussed alcohol misuse, it’s difficult to image what it’s like to be a child in such a home.
Devastating. Scary. Shame-filled. Life-robbing. Lonely. Isolating. It’s a set-up for a “rest of your life” that NONE of us would ever wish on a child. It’s one of the most distressing examples of secondhand drinking and affects millions of children who struggle to cope with their parent’s changed behaviors. Children do not understand that the drinking behaviors their parent exhibits are due to the chemicals in alcoholic beverages changing brain functioning – not to anything they've done or could have done differently. Children do not understand that when their parent’s drinking crosses the line from alcohol abuse to dependence (aka alcoholism), their parent has developed a complex brain disease that changes their rote thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well.
90 million Americans are affected by secondhand drinking (based on population figures and estimates of persons with alcohol use disorders at this time). It is my hope that understanding secondhand drinking and that adverse childhood experiences are often rooted in secondhand drinking can be the "Oh my God – I'm not the only one," followed by, "Oh my God, if she so radically changed her life once she understood this, maybe I can, too," moments they need to start their own recovery journey. I will share mine in a follow-up post. In the meantime, I leave you with the link to my April 12, 2013, post, “3 Reasons People Tolerate Secondhand Drinking,” followed by my poem referenced above, "Bulging Eyes."
The clerk knows her by name and
makes small talk as she rings up
$14.98 of candy, cream puffs, a 32-oz.
Slurpee and those to-die-for barbeque chips.
The girl is at the conversation and misses the
clerk’s double-take, her cue that her
answer’s not jiving with the question.
But she can’t hear very well;
the Voice has started its volley with SELF—
“You said it was the last time!” | “It’s not that much.”
“Paper or plastic?” the clerk asks.
“Plastic,” she says, as she drops the two pennies into the cup by the register.
Robotically, she scoops up the bag,
glances over her shoulder with the haunted
look of someone prodded at gunpoint, and
tears the wrapper off the ice cream sandwich.
The Voice is now venomous | “You weren’t going to do it, again, dammit!
The girl jerks her car door open, looking like the
bride after the groom feeds her the cake,
cream puffs now smeared around the edges of her mouth.
She tosses the bag onto the passenger’s seat and
paws through the food wrappers.
It feels like Christmas when she finds her
brother’s old sweatshirt.
Quickly, she pulls it over her head and unzips her skirt,
minutes before the choice is no longer her own.
Rote reactions leave no memory of the route traveled
until she’s startled by the squawk, “That’ll be $4.99
at the second window.” She registers a pleasant feeling
as the smell of the #2 special fills her car.
She heads to her last stop and parks her car around back.
Deadman walking, she enters the restroom—
no key dangling from a
tin can, guarded by a salesclerk, needed here.
She rams her hip into the door just below the
cockeyed doorknob—attention to its proper fit long overdue—and stumbles inside.
A graffiti-filled mirror, slashes of reflection missing, adorns one wall
facing an empty feminine napkin dispenser and stench-soaked urinal.
She glances at the toilet and inventories what she sees
in the detached manner of a policewoman recording a crime scene—
Rust-ringed toilet bowl. Urine-stained rim. Streaks of dried unknowns
snaking down the sides. Missing toilet seat. The Voice unleashes
a string of expletives about the weak, pathetic, spineless,
worthless piece of shit she is.
She knows. She’s heard it thousands of times before.
Methodically, she ties her hair back and takes a center
lineman’s position facing the toilet.
She stuffs three fingers down her throat
as far as the connective webbing allows, her teeth
scrapping the calluses on the backs of her knuckles.
The retching commences and continues until
the mound of regurgitated food is topped by a pool of yellow bile.
Trance-like, she washes her hands and ventures a look in the
Mirror – bulging eyes stare back.
Protruding veins worm their way along her temples and down her neck.
Puke streaks her chin; a strand of hair is stuck in the vomit.
She still can’t zip her skirt. Defiantly, she unties her hair, instead.
Moving towards the door, she hears her mother’s voice and
pulls the sleeve of her sweatshirt over her hand,
“Don’t touch the door knob, dear. Nasty germs. Nasty, nasty germs.”
©Lisa Frederiksen. Excerpt from her collection of poems, “Breathe Out.”