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My Disease is Always with Me

My disease is a bitch. Even in recovery, there isn’t a day that I’m not aware that I have an eating disorder.

The best way I can describe my disease is it’s the Fast-Eddie-used-car-salesman-older-cousin of The Oatmeal’s The Blerch. It feels like it’s floating next to me, everywhere I go, and I can’t shut him up. For St. Patrick’s Day, I had a constant barrage of thoughts about binging and purging. I felt like my Blerch was hovering next to me saying:

Back to My Old Life: Alone by Rachmanuddin Chair Yahya from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

“Check out all the St. Patrick’s Day goodies. You can have an entire tray of cupcakes with green sugary buttercream frosting. Oh – and a Shamrock shake. You’ve never had one of those. You can eat all the things, and don’t worry about the calories – because you won’t keep it down. It’s win-win. It’ll be great.”

Reality check: When I was in my active disease, forcing myself to binge and purge was not great. It hurt – a lot. Eating that much hurt my stomach, and then forcing it to contract to vomit really hurt. It’s violent, and when it’s over, my head throbbed, I had no energy, and I felt like shit.

Ugh. I wanted to growl, “Shut up shut up shut up. Shut the fuck up!” My disease tried to convince me that it’s not dangerous, that all the literature that binging and purging is hard on your heart and rips your esophagus apart was written by neurotic doctors. My disease said those are rare instances. It wouldn’t happen to me. Reality check: Eating disorders have the highest morbidity rate of any mental illness.

I dragged my fingers through my hair in frustration, then grabbed my phone and sent a single request to two of my confidants: “Tell me again why it’s bad to eat all the things and puke my guts out. My disease is messing with my head.” They both reminded me of the myriad of ways this disease can destroy my health. One of my confidants is also in recovery from an eating disorder. He reminded me of the powerlessness that comes with this disease. Giving in once makes it that much harder not to give in next time (and the next time, and the next).

I asked my therapist if my Blerch will ever go away. He said it might not, but it can get quieter. I likened that idea to Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind making the decision to ignore his hallucinations, though they seem to always be lurking in the shadows. As he said, “I’ve gotten used to ignoring them and I think, as a result, they’ve kind of given up on me. I think that’s what it’s like with all our dreams and our nightmares . . . we’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive.”

I’m not fond of the idea of living with my Blerch for the rest of my life, but that may not be something I can control. The disease of addiction never goes away. My default setting may always be to self-medicate and self-destruct, but choosing recovery means I don’t have the luxury of indulging these thoughts. Perhaps if I ignore it long enough, my Blerch will finally shut up.

Thank Goodness I was Sober in Law School

My friend Brian Cuban recently wrote a post about his experience of being in law school while being deep in his alcohol addiction and eating disorder. It’s hard to fathom what that must have been like – going to class after waking up with a hangover, getting smashed when he was supposed to be studying, and puking his guts out as he staggered home. Law school is hard enough without struggling with addiction. I’m so grateful I got sober before I went to law school.

I carry two chips in my wallet - my most recent birthday chip and my 24 hour "desire" chip. They remind me how far I've come but also that I have to take it one day at  time.

I carry two chips in my wallet – my most recent birthday chip and my 24 hour “desire” chip. They remind me how far I’ve come but also that I have to take it one day at time.

Actually, it’s because I got sober that I was able to go to law school. I never would have had the courage to apply when I was deep in my addiction. Before I got sober, my self-esteem was fragile at best and I was too afraid of failure to try anything that put my desire to maintain the illusion of perfection at risk.

I had plenty of classmates who drank to blow off steam (and who sometimes drank over lunch and came back for afternoon class tipsy or drunk) and/or used prescription stimulants to help them study. I remember one of my classmates brought of bottle of booze and little plastic shot glasses so he and his friends could drink right after they got out of our Con Law final. (That was a bitch of a final. I understand why he did that. That was the only class where I had doubts about passing.) Being sober, I didn’t have the luxury of numbing my feelings with alcohol and drugs or using anything stronger than coffee to study.

Don’t think for a second that I am/was as pure as driven snow. For full disclosure, I struggled with my eating disorder throughout law school. At the height of my disorder, I binged and purged about once a week, but this was mostly an infrequent occurrence during my law school years.

Throughout my law school career, I was fortunate to have strong connections within the recovery community. I was lucky to have a classmate who was also in recovery from addiction. We would talk during our study breaks to vent about the stress of law school and life in general, and be there to support each other. We experienced the discomfort of law school without the option to mollify our stress with recreational substances. It was pretty brutal at times, but it was comforting to know I wasn’t going through it alone.

As a member of a 12-step program, I have a sponsor, and it was fortuitous that he was getting his degree (different field) from Arizona State University while I was in law school. Both being students in difficult programs, he understood my level of stress because he faced it himself, although he seemed to handle it much more gracefully. There were many times I met with him between classes, to touch base about how I was feeling and to make sure I was perceiving and responding to situations appropriately. Just having him nearby was reassuring.

One of the things I’ve learned in recovery is how important it is to stay connected to others. I’m grateful I had strong connections to others in recovery on my campus. They kept me grounded and gave me a place to vent when I needed it.

I also want to give a massive hat tip to my undergrad alma mater Oregon State University. They established a collegiate recovery community with sober housing for students in recovery from addiction. I didn’t even know I had a problem when I was an undergrad, but I’m glad this is available for people who need/want it.

SALK Day 129: The Miracle of Recovery

Today’s sponsor is my dear friend who is celebrating 22 years of sobriety this week.  He asked me to write about recovery from addiction.  I’ve had the privilege of knowing a handful of incredible people who are recovering from addictions to various substances.  It is amazing to hear their stories about how their lives used to be and to see them now as functional and successful people.  Most of my friends who have done this needed help from a recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous.

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The transformation that people in recovery can experience is incredible.  One of my friends used to be a prostitute when she was using, and now she’s a nanny for a family with a special needs child.  Another one of my friends used to be a misanthropic drug dealer who sold drugs to college kids to support his habit, and now he’s close to finishing his college degree and has aspirations of going to graduate school.  He’s also one of the most thoughtful and gentle people I’ve ever met.

A few years ago, I invited one of my friends who is in recovery to dinner with my parents.  He is one of the kindest and warm-hearted people you will ever meet and he does not hide the fact that he’s in recovery.  Afterwards, as Mom and I were washing the dishes, she turned to me and asked, “Did he used to be really messed up?”  She couldn’t believe that this wonderful intelligent person that I’m proud to call my friend used to be drunk and/or high on a daily basis.

These are only a handful of the stories of recovery.  Dozens of AA Speaker Tapes of people’s stories of recovery are available for free on iTunes.  These are people who were so full of pain and shame, who had no self-esteem, and were so uncomfortable in their skin that they had a compulsion to medicate their feelings with drugs and alcohol, regardless of the consequences.  It’s amazing that the found the help they needed and stuck with the program to get sober.

And it’s hard work.  I’ve heard that programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are simple, but not easy.  They require a willingness to be uncomfortable and to learn to live in a new way where people don’t have the option of self-medicating to escape their discomfort.  It requires being willing to walk through fear and not self-sabotage their potential for success.  The work is worth it, because recovery comes with hope, freedom, and the ability to dream again.

Tonight, I asked my friend who, if all goes according to plan, will be celebrating 22 years of sobriety this week what advice he would give to someone who is contemplating recovery or who is new to the program.  He said, “You’re worth it.  You’re worth giving it a try.  You have nothing else to lose.  Give yourself permission not to self-sabotage.”

Sponsor A Law Kid is my endeavor to pay for my last semester of law school. Today’s sponsor is Anonymous.  For more information about Sponsor A Law Kid or to see what days are still available for sponsorship, visit my Sponsor A Law Kid page.