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Surviving Alcohol Addiction and an Eating Disorder: How I Stopped the Cycle

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For decades I drank too much alcohol and ate too little. Day by day I twisted my life into a living hell and hurt a lot of people before I finally asked the most important question I had previously only spoken in silence, “Can someone help me?”

That was more than fourteen years ago, and with a little willingness and a lot of help, I have not found sufficient reason to go in reverse by picking up a drink or putting down the fork.

I wish the chronicling of my life that led to ask that critical question was so simple, but I assure you, there was nothing simple about what I went through.

The stories and questions I swore I’d take to the grave were leading me there. For more than thirty years, I tested fate by playing my own game of Russian roulette, spinning the chamber between alcoholism and anorexia, not caring about physically dying because my soul was already dead. Each day, I would wake up in a hazy fog, promising myself I would eat more and not drink as much as the day before. I would break that promise before noon. On days I knew were going to be tough, I wouldn’t even make the promise.

I masqueraded as someone who had her life totally together. The mask I wore shielded me from revealing the woman I really was.

I had spun a web of secrets and lies but felt confident I kept them well hidden . . . until I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was forty years old playing a role I would never sustain.

Addiction had taken over and made me a prisoner of my own life.

The Start is Never Intentional

I believe my disordered vision of who I was began as early as sixth grade. I have a picture of myself sitting at our Christmas dinner table, all dressed up in front of a big plate of food with a glass of wine in my hand. We were always encouraged to overfill our plate on holidays, and wine was considered a “special occasion” thing. So there I was, with this beautiful Waterford glass filled with wine, feeling special.

A few years later, my friends and I raided a parent’s liquor cabinet as part of slumber party fun. When I opened my eyes the next morning, instead of seeing my friends asleep nearby, I was in my bed at home. I knew I was in a lot of trouble. I was unable to recall many details, and physically, I felt horrid. Yet one thing was for sure: I couldn’t wait to re-enact what I experienced the night before. I couldn’t wait to feel that warmth, that freedom, and that fun once more.

Once more turned into a lot more times, and the thirty-five-year cycle of drinking and dieting began.

The less I ate, I thought the more I’d be accepted, admired, and praised. The more I drank, the more I was able to let go and forget about whatever was troubling me.

The only way I knew how to get through the problems of everyday life was with these unhealthy solutions. The older I got, the more life seemed beyond my control. Whether the issues were at school, in the office, or within my personal life, if I couldn’t control the outcome, I knew with a glass of wine or a passed-up meal, I’d feel in control once again.

When I was drinking, my eating disorder behaviors were in the shadows. When I tried to curtail my drinking, I’d turn back to the unhealthy eating behaviors. By trying to stabilize one addiction, I’d de-stabilize the other. I always—and I mean always—was able to shut out reality by keeping my mind focused on managing my addictions. My life was a never-ending pendulum swinging between disordered perspectives.

Alison Smela

Submitted by Alison Smela

They Weren’t Problems, They Were Solutions

For more than three decades, I didn’t move through one experience—high school, college, corporate life, marriage, divorce, remarriage, the loss of family and friends, financial insecurity, or any other experience—without relying on some sort of unhealthy coping behavior.

Whenever things became unbalanced, I would feel sane again as soon as I picked up a glass of wine or watched the scale flash a new magic number. Instantly, I would believe I was in control while life around me felt out of control.

There is a common belief that people with addictions stop maturing emotionally beyond the age at which they first used or engaged with whatever they are addicted to. From that standpoint, I was dealing with life from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl, reacting to life’s emotional challenges as a teenager rather than responding as an adult.

I was strong-willed and stubborn, a perfect combination to resist food and insist on another drink. If I could do either, or ideally both, I felt I could overcome all those out-of-control feelings, not realizing how quickly my life was flailing out of control.

In my corporate life, these willful characteristics and determination proved masterful. I worked my way up the corporate ladder. I believed I was in control and was 100 percent certain I was infallible, but my body was beginning to give me subtle signals: black outs came more often, while hunger did not.

I always needed more—more wine, more confirmation from the scale, more money, more success, more attention, and most of all more love.

The Emotional Bottom

Eventually, inevitably, my secret support team of wine and unhealthy eating habits stopped working for me. I wasn’t feeling a sense of relief with that first glass of wine or making my way through another day eating only one or two meals. I was experiencing far less freedom and more overwhelming stress and anxiety.

I continued on this merry-go-round until—after thousands of second chances and countless promises to drink less and eat more—my life took a dramatic turn.

Already up, showered, and ready for work, my husband calmly walked into our bedroom. I studied his face. I looked for body language that would give me a clue as to what he was feeling. Nothing offered me a hint of his emotion.

He took a deep breath and said, “Don’t be here when I get home.”

He stood up and walked out of the room. He reached the top of the stairs and, without looking back at me, said, “I hope you find the help you need.” As those words resonated around me, I heard the back door slam. He was not only gone, he was done.

But I wasn’t.

Rising Up Starts With a Slow, Deep Breath

After a flurry of action steps, on the day I hope marks my last drink I took a slow, deep breath and set my suitcase down in the entryway of an alcohol treatment center. Six years later, I did the same thing in the foyer of an eating disorder treatment facility. Piece by piece, day by day, I worked hard to put my life back together including my marriage, my career, and relationships with friends and family.

Since then, many life challenges have come along. When I’ve found myself feeling lost, alone, and struggling to understand why the hell things happen as they do, I take a slow, deep breath and remind myself that I’m a survivor.

I’ve proved to myself that I found a way to overcome two life-threatening addictions without relapsing and if I can do that, perhaps I can face what comes next.

Alison Smela

Speaker, Author, Addiction Recovery Consultant

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EmpowHER Guest

Thank you for sharing your story Alison and for pointing out the way in which addictions can manifest in many forms. Your story of true full freedom from a life in the frequency of addiction has given me hope for the same.

May 5, 2016 - 6:01pm
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