Editor’s note: This story openly discusses drinking alcohol. Please beware if this is a trigger for you.
When I got sober at 28, I was annoyed.
I was already supposed to be in recovery. My teenage eating disorder was the big secret I shared, usually over a glass of wine or three, when I felt safe enough with someone. I knew the story by heart, and it had a happy ending: I had gotten help, learned how to eat, and started accepting my body.
So when I quit drinking, I worried about how the two narratives would co-exist. In recovery for an eating disorder and alcohol?! I harped on a hypothetical male audience: It’s one thing to tell a new boyfriend that you used to starve yourself but adding sobriety to the mix just felt like too much — like an unnecessary storyline that I would have edited for length if I was writing the book myself. Unfortunately, this particular storyline had become impossible to ignore. It was also far more intertwined with my eating disorder than I initially realized.
I started my freshman year of college unable to eat a piece of bread without having a panic attack. I spent an hour on the elliptical every day and ate most meals alone in my dorm room, only after counting and recording every calorie in a notebook. I stopped eating dairy, meat, and sugar. By my sophomore year, I was always tired, friendless, and miserable enough to give therapy a shot.
With the help of my therapist, things started getting better. We made a new food plan and I actually stuck to it. I started taking antidepressants. And I started making new friends and going out with them. This is when alcohol and I kicked off our torrid love affair, and those early days were nothing short of magic. When I was drunk, I actually felt comfortable and confident in my body. I danced, I flirted, and I let myself respond to the hunger pangs I typically ignored. It turned out alcohol and partying were incredibly helpful tools in those early days of eating disorder recovery.
I devoured 2 am pizza with friends and savored bagels smothered with cream cheese the next morning to ward off my hangovers. These formerly forbidden foods felt more permissible in the context of how I drank, and my desire to eat became more familiar. My drunk brain was more lenient with me; it allowed me to enjoy food without shame, and the experience was cathartic. Eating after drinking was also connected to socializing and filled me with a growing sense of belonging. My therapist was thrilled that I was eating more and isolating less, and I genuinely looked forward to the point in the night where my friends and I retired to the pizza place, cramming into a hightop table with cheesy slices and canisters of parmesan, ready to swap stories about the night.
Eating after drinking was also connected to socializing and filled me with a growing sense of belonging. My therapist was thrilled that I was eating more and isolating less.
Drunk eating made sober eating easier, but my relationship with alcohol morphed into something more complicated after graduation. My college friends were all dispersed in different cities and the real world filled me with fresh pangs of anxiety. I started using alcohol and partying to numb my feelings, and my hangovers became more brutal; the kind of hangovers no amount of bagels or cream cheese could fix. I was often ashamed and anxious after drinking and, by the time I turned 28, I knew it was time for the party to end.
As a drinker, I was always thirsty. I consumed alcohol in excess, binging and blacking out on most occasions. My relationship with food had always been similar. As a child, I turned to food when I felt scared or overwhelmed and often ate for comfort, shoveling down sleeves of Mallomars cookies when I was stressed about homework until my stomach hurt. Similarly, alcohol soothed me and helped lower the volume of the buzzing world around me. The correlation between the two activities is clear today but I had no idea how sobriety would impact my relationship with food when I first quit drinking.
Early sobriety felt like being totally exposed all the time. I had to relearn how to socialize, date, relax without the support and comfort provided by alcohol and I felt vulnerable and out of control. Food was the first substance I had ever learned to control and abuse, and when I removed alcohol from the equation, food quickly reclaimed its top spot on my list of vices.
I was shocked when, a few months into sobriety, I started keeping secrets about food again.
The impulse was both swift and familiar; like getting back together with a toxic ex who makes everything feel exciting and dangerous at the same time. First, I threw away everything in my kitchen that wasn’t “clean” or healthy. Next came the decision to start skipping meals a few times a week, and later, a brief stint working for (and only eating from) a vegan soup cleanse meets smoothie company. I broke down in tears after going out for a big meal with friends, promising myself I would skip breakfast the next morning.
With every new rule I imposed, I moved farther away from the peace deal I thought I had brokered with food a decade earlier. I wondered if I had ever even been in recovery from my eating disorder in the first place or if I had simply created the illusion of recovery by replacing my food habit with my drinking one.
I wondered if I had ever even been in recovery from my eating disorder in the first place or if I had simply created the illusion of recovery by replacing my food habit with my drinking one.
It took time for me to realize that, while alcohol had helped save me during my early eating disorder recovery, it hadn’t truly healed me. When things started improving in college, I had skipped out on therapy, telling myself my work there was done. But that underlying feeling of never being good enough, thin enough, or loveable enough was always present. It just became easier to ignore when I was drunk.
When it came back to claw at me in sobriety, however, I got a second chance to address it. I got honest with myself, found a new therapist, and began doing the work. I learned that my eating disorder and binge drinking were two sides of the same coin. They both stemmed from the same feelings of discomfort, fear, and desire for control. And when I learned to accept exactly where I was — progress, slips, and all — true healing became possible.
Unlike the first version of my happily ever after recovery story, this one is still a work in progress. Some days, being both sober and in recovery from an eating disorder feels like playing a game of emotional whack-a-mole. But because of my sobriety, I get to be present for my whole life; the good, hard, and messy. It’s far from perfect, but it’s honest. And these days, that’s the only kind of story I’m telling.