I work in a heart-attack prevention program. My job involves counseling middle-aged male participants to stop smoking, eat less fat and cholesterol, lose weight, drink less alcohol, and change other “health-related behaviors.” I wear a white lab coat and a plastic badge that says “Gretchen Newmark, M.A., R.D., Nutritionist.”
After work I stop at a grocery store or a fast-food place. I buy a half-gallon of ice cream, a package of cookies, and a bag of chips, sometimes more. Then I drive home. My roommate usually isn’t there, so I come into a dark, cold house. I change my clothes, sit on the bed, and begin to eat. Mindlessly. Quickly. I can taste the food at first, but after a while I don’t taste much at all. Still, it’s exciting. I get to do something that’s wrong, I get to eat food I shouldn’t be eating. I read a magazine so I don’t have to pay attention to what I am doing. I always worry that my roommate will come in and discover me. She never does.
Then — unaware that anyone else ever does this — I go into our chilly, damp bathroom, bend over the toilet, touch the back of my throat with my finger, and force myself to vomit, over and over, until my stomach is empty. The pressure forces tears from my eyes, but I never cry. My face is red. I make sure the toilet is clean. I brush my teeth. Now I can sleep.
At work I sift through the “behavior change technology” that we use with our clients and hope to find something there for me. I talk with and listen carefully to the psychologists on our staff, although I would never reveal my secret, even to my therapist. I try various diets: vegetarian, low fat, raw foods. I promise myself every morning that I will never do it again. But soon I am fantasizing about what food to buy, where I will find it, when I will eat it, where I will throw it up.
No matter what I do, “it” only gets worse. The harder I try to control how much I eat and what I eat, the more out of control I get. I begin to eat and throw up even at work, even when it is light and warm, even when I am not alone.
My friend Shari used to be a psychologist but now trains horses. We are sitting under an umbrella tree at the organic fruit farm where she lives out of a sleeping bag. She tells me of the time she ate Taco Bell tacos in her car, crying, unable to stop. She decided that if she couldn’t stop eating, she could at least start paying attention. She decided to watch, without judgment. I promise now to do the same.
I watch myself as I shop for food, picking out anything I want, hoping I won’t run into anyone I know. It’s a moment of limitless possibilities. I watch myself as I eat forbidden and rich flavors — all I can eat. I watch myself as my jaws grow tired, the food loses its flavor, and I have to work hard to keep going. I watch myself as I vomit. It hurts my throat. I’m afraid I won’t get it all out. I notice how depleted and exhausted I feel. I watch myself as the ritual ends. The relaxation, the completion, the shame.
And somehow, a little at a time, I begin to do it less. Other things feel better and take the place of some of the food. I keep a journal and when my feelings are too difficult to articulate, I draw them in crayon. I stop dieting. I begin to forgive myself for not being all that I think I should be.
A few months pass where I am actually free of eating and throwing up. Then a woman publishes her doctoral dissertation in New York and gives “bulimia” a name. Suddenly, amazingly, I’m not the only one. I begin a self-help group for myself and other women (no men reply to my ad). I build a successful practice treating “eating disorders.” Ironically, my old nightmare begins to support me. As support me it always had.
I never drank as a teenager, never smoked, never worked too hard, never gambled, and figured I was free from addictions. But there is one area that has me: I’ve always had to have a man. I’d walk a mile for a man. I couldn’t go two weeks without one. I’d see my man, pull his levers till I hit the jackpot, then do it all over again until I’d given him everything. I’d walk home empty, be back again the next day.
I want to write my life story but I cannot remember it. At least not in any order and certainly not like a story. It is more like that dotted swiss fabric, with all those furry raised bumps on some pastel rectangle. There are some memories sparked by home movies and snapshots, but mostly, I draw a blank.
Each time my husband and I have a stupid fight and we say mean things to one another, I hate him and blame him for the black hole that seems to swallow me, the overwhelming pain.
I have been trying to hide this black hole for eighteen years with drugs, alcohol, indiscriminate sex, and food. I guess the first eighteen years of my life were spent digging the hole, then the next eighteen years keeping a lid over it, and here I am at thirty-six. These days I don’t light a joint before I roll out of bed, or wash so many Percodans down with Johnnie Walker Red that the couple with whom I slept the night before has to search for me on the beach where I lie face down in the sand. I no longer fuck guys like Fast Eddie — who was uncouth, disgusting, and a misogynist — just to feel anything, or nothing. And for twenty-two days I have not overeaten myself into numbness and lethargy to deaden the ache that is way too big to allow out, but is there anyway. Still, I cannot remember my childhood.
The bottle is almost empty now. Rafe pours another glass and comes back to the table to take up his cards. He turns his cards upside down, frowns, and turns them right-side up. My brother Dan and I eye each other. My father starts the ante. When we look at Rafe expectantly, he pulls his cards into his chest. “What?” he asks.
“Your ante, Rafe,” says Dan.
Rafe has one eyebrow that spreads across both eyes. He works it up and down as he realizes he is late. He throws his chip so that it rolls across the table. I catch it and add it to the pile.
The betting starts. Rafe takes another drink. I can hear the music from the beach club where the New Year’s Eve celebration is underway. I put in two chips. When the betting gets to Rafe, he deliberates over his cards and takes another drink. His single brow goes up and down; his eyes don’t seem connected to his head. He puts in two chips and shouts, “Wait, I’ll raise you one,” then laughs. His eyes swim menacingly around the table, pretending he is a villain in a movie, or the Devil. He is good at it.
Dan’s wife Liz brings him another beer. She pulls up a chair to watch the game. Rafe sees this and says, “I wish I had my own slave bunny.” He explodes from his seat and prances around the table, chanting, “Slave bunny, slave bunny.” He stops behind Liz and points at the back of her head. He chokes on his own laughter.
Dan’s voice is brusque. “Rafe,” he says, “let’s go outside.”
Rafe’s eyes go wide. “What’re you talking about?” he asks. “We’re not finished with the game.” He tries to sit, but misses the chair and sprawls on the floor. My father stands and says the game has ended. Rafe, embarrassed, lets Dan help him out the sliding door.
“Liz,” I say, “he didn’t mean it.”
“I know,” she says. “He never does.”
“Someone should see that they don’t fight,” my mother says. She is drying the same dish she dried an hour ago.
I grab my sweater and head out the door. I remember the times I have seen my brother drunk. It feels like we’re in a foreign movie or a recurring dream.
From the beach, I can see the blaze of the club’s bonfire and silhouettes of naked dancers.
I draw near the heat and take my sweater off. I notice a paunch-bellied man cup the rear of a waitress in his fat hands. I squeeze past an obese couple who must have arrived just this afternoon, judging by their sunburns. At the far end of the open terrace, Rafe and Dan are seated at a table. Rafe has pulled his shirt off; his tan blends well with the surroundings. Dan is bent over the table in a polo shirt.
I push through the naked throng. When I reach the table, Dan’s voice is even and controlled. “You got here just in time,” he says. “I’m helping Rafe hit bottom. He says that once he hits bottom, he’ll quit for good. It’s his New Year’s resolution.” Dan takes Rafe’s glass and fills it to the brim. “We’re almost there. Just wait.”
I wonder how we’ll know when Rafe hits bottom. I picture him putting his head down on the table and sinking into sleep. I picture him casting insults across the room until a person hits him or the bouncer kicks him out. I wait and watch the dancers as they swarm around the fire. They start the countdown to midnight, chanting in the same infernal tone that Rafe had used on Liz. When the count hits five I start to pray. I pray for it to stop.
I’ve been sitting at this computer screen for more than an hour now, glued to the keyboard, playing Tetris, the video game I swore I’d never play. I keep saying to myself, “This is the last game.” This time I shut it off and walk away from the desk. Then I turn right around and flip the screen on. There’s an invisible rope pulling me.
When I play, there’s no time, no space, nothing but this blinking screen. Even now, as I sit writing, I am waiting to flip the control back to “game mode” and reenter the world of Tetris. When my brother used to play it on his Nintendo set, I’d leave the room with a superior and judgmental air. But now, I’m hooked. I see no way out of this. This is bigger than pot, bigger than nail-biting, chocolate, sex, Dylan. I deceive myself by thinking I’ll make an earth-shattering discovery about left-brain/right-brain integration, or another way of inducing alpha waves.
“I’m powerless in the face of Tetris,” I kiddingly tell friends. I’m frightened to admit it’s no joke. I tell myself that after I print this confession, I’ll leave the room (and the computer). But it’s a lost cause; there’s nothing else in the house — not books, not music, not pictures — that draws me as do these yellow, hypnotic shapes wiggling down my screen, like an ant farm of light, reaching some recess in my brain and giving me a high that I just can’t seem to do without.
There — I’ve said it.
New York, New York
In the sixties we learned that the truth gives you energy. Maybe that’s why Matthew’s lying made me so tired. There was no way to know whether he was telling the truth, because the story had to do with some detail of business known only to him. “We stand to make a nice profit on this deal.” “I paid them in cash, which is why I have no records of the transaction.”
Sometimes I had to choose between believing my eyes or believing him. “No, of course I haven’t drunk all that liquor.” “I’m not drunk.” “I don’t have a drinking problem.” I chose to believe him, since the marriage seemed to depend on my believing him. I supposed that liquor could evaporate, even if the tops were on the bottles and the bottles were in the kitchen cabinet. He drove up the wrong side of Main Street because he needed glasses, not because he had just spent four hours at Dan’s Bar.
After he moved into his workshop across the street, presumably so that he could get more done, I often looked at the six dents in the kitchen floor. I had bought a six-pack in hopes that he would stay home and drink rather than go to the bar and later risk driving. “I know you don’t really approve of my drinking,” he said, “so I’m going away for a while to think things through.” I threw the bottles, one by one, on the kitchen floor. Amber-colored glass flew everywhere. The floor was awash with foamy beer. The kitchen smelled like a football game. It took a long time to clean up the mess, and then all that remained were the six gouges in the linoleum. I thought about this fit of temper every time I waxed the floor.
One of the boys came home from college and went down to the corner to buy a beer. He didn’t want Matthew to think he disapproved of him when they talked in the workshop across the street. I had never seen my son with a beer in his hand. He actually took a sip before he walked across the street, so I would know he wasn’t just faking it. He was there for about an hour, until the bars opened and Matthew drove off in his truck, heading for Dan’s.
“He doesn’t really lie, Mom,” my son said, pouring the rest of the beer down the kitchen drain. “He just tells about things the way he wishes they were.”
My strongest addiction is to the woman I’m in love with. I’m never able to break it without her help.
My high-school sweetheart and I agreed to break up when I went to college. She was only a junior, and neither of us could see waiting in limbo for two years. That was a mistake on my part, for she soon had a new boyfriend while I had only my memories of her and us. I couldn’t believe she’d stopped loving me. I agonized far longer than I would have imagined possible.
I was still suffering two years later when, on impulse, I quit school and ran off to Houston, Texas, where I got a job selling sportswear. I thought physical distance might kill the pain at last. But now friendless and alone, I wrote J. a letter proposing we go out West together and get married.
She wrote back suggesting I join the army. Her English instructor had said he thought everybody ought to go into the army for a couple years — as if I were now everybody, some kind of composite average, instead of the individual who had once looked into J.’s eyes, and she into mine, while we made love for the first time and cried tears of joy.
There were thoughts of suicide, but within a couple of weeks I’d made a date with W., who was intrigued by my northern accent. I never actively suffered for J. again.
It was the same story with R., my therapist. How sensitive she was to my pain. She cried as I told her sad stories from my past. I fell in love with her, wrote her poems, bought her presents. She told me that she cared about me, but not in that way.
I didn’t believe her. For months, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. One night in group I approached her, and she recommended that I leave therapy, go back to graduate school, and finish my dissertation.
I wasn’t writing a dissertation. I wasn’t even in a Ph.D. program, never had been. I despised everything a Ph.D. stood for.
In a matter of days, I was in bed with D.
Petersburg, West Virginia
Better than drugs, better than sex, better than booze is the lush rush of chocolate.
Chocolate addiction is, I’m convinced, the hardest to kick — because of all widely abused substances, chocolate is the easiest to get. It’s legal, it’s sold everywhere at all hours, it’s heavily advertised, it comes in infinite varieties, its use is condoned for children and even clergy. Yet chocolate remains a sensual, spiritual mystery. It’s the one fantasy that always turns out to be as good as you imagined it would be. And it cures premenstrual syndrome.
Chocolate addicts get high together or individually. There is no equivalent of the opium den, the crack house, the bar. There is no need, because chocolate abusers are out in the open; they’re everywhere. Just bring a big sack of M&M’s to the office, and you’ll see.
I like to think I have a relationship with chocolate, not an addiction. It’s like an illicit lover. It understands me. Our rendezvous are secret, full of ritual. I like to undress a candy bar slowly. I like to roll a Hershey’s Kiss around in my mouth, coating my tongue with nearly unbearable thick sweetness, until the candy all but disappears. Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies are great, even at a party, but when Milano and I are alone. . . .
Kew Gardens, New York
I knew that I was supposed to be horrified at the prospect of going to war in Vietnam, yet I was still afraid that it would end before I got there. I was sure that if I survived, the experience would purge me of my naiveté and my morbid curiosity. While some things did change after I went to Vietnam, my appetite for intense experiences only grew. The potent vapors that I inhaled were found only in war. I was seduced by the intensity of the passion.
Things happen in war that overwhelm and saturate the senses. War makes men display extremes of loyalty and betrayal not otherwise seen. Men endure numbing hopelessness; at other times, they experience absolute power. They feel both the flush of boundless pride and the shame of the dupe. War is squander and waste, yet miserly economy is also seen. While life had such purpose and promise, the deaths were bewilderingly senseless. And still we went.
Consider Winslow. Winslow was the kind of useless helicopter copilot they wouldn’t let touch the flight controls for months. In the summer of 1968 I watched his aircraft descend into a hot landing zone to bring out the wounded south of Tay Ninh. As it touched down, the Viet Cong started shooting from the dense palm and bunkers in the tree lines. The aircraft took a lot of hits fast. The pilot pitched and slumped in the straps; the crew chief and gunner both got shot dragging wounded on board. Though Winslow was shot in both legs, he figured he’d try to fly them out of there. Nobody told him not to. He said later that it hurt pretty bad but the radios were shot out and nobody could hear him, so it didn’t make any difference when he yelled. The hydraulics were shot out, too, and that meant that the tail rotor pedals required more pressure than most folks can handle with good legs. He got out of the landing zone, and managed to keep the thing in the air all the way to the medevac pad at Tay Ninh. The wounded were bleeding badly, so he risked an approach straight to the hospital pad instead of sparing his legs with a more manageable approach to the runway. He made it in all right, “heroic” they said, but it didn’t matter. The crew and the wounded died anyhow.
Terror was pretty much as I had expected, except that it was bigger, and filled me more than I could have imagined. But the evil never overpowered the seductive desire to experience again the intensity. I’d eaten the apple. I’m still afraid it’ll be over before I get there.
Last week I had a dream about freebase. Other people were smoking but I refused. The smoke was thick, thick enough to taste.
The first time I discovered the consciousness of inanimate objects was with my freebase pipe. It was alive with seductive energy. But it promised what it could never give.
I remember the drawn curtains, bolted doors, locked suitcases in the closet, all-night conversations propelled by “just one more,” the pain in my gut, the miraculous way I managed to get by at work. I remember the deterioration of my relationship with my partner as suspicion, accusations, greed, and dishonesty grew. Ironically, we were more partners in addiction than anything else.
What wisdom about addiction can I offer? Most important, that I am not a green Martian. I am your neighbor, your friend, your daughter, sister, mother.
I write this because it is my story, even though it seems light years ago — like a dream, or something I heard about someone else. Still it is mine, a part of who I am now — just like the darkness.
Kerry Bryant Lemon
I have ninety-three houseplants. About a month ago, I bought a pickle cactus at the annual greenhouse sale at Cranbrook. I knew when I bought it there would be no room for it at my house, but I had never heard of a pickle cactus and the name was fun. So, here I was with this pickle cactus. I set it on the table in the dining room. Later that evening I took it from room to room, trying to squeeze it in, but no luck. I had done it again, and now I hated the plant. I wanted it to die so it wouldn’t remind me of my addiction. I didn’t water it for three weeks. I finally noticed all the pickles were drooping. I took it in the kitchen and drenched it. With any luck, it would get root rot. I cruised the house again, but no opening had miraculously appeared. I pushed it back on the kitchen counter, thinking that if I saw it more, I might search harder for a home for it, or for some understanding of myself. A few days ago, I noticed I had a sick begonia that has not perked up after watering. I think it might be dying, I hope it might be dying. Once the begonia goes, there will be a hole for the pickle cactus, and I can relax again.
Rochester Hills, Michigan
During the years that my sister used cocaine, I worried for her; I encouraged her to seek help. Now that she’s been in “recovery” for a couple of years, doing the twelve steps, the tables have turned: she thinks I have a drug problem because I smoke pot two to four times a month and I take acid or mushrooms six to eight times a year. She read me a questionnaire entitled “Are You An Addict?” There were twenty-five yes/no questions, such as “Do you think about getting high at times when you’re not high?” and “Do you ever get high in the bathroom?” It seems that if you answered yes to one or two questions you might consider carefully whether or not you have an addiction; if you answered yes to three or more, then you were definitely an addict. I’d answered yes to eight. “Who makes these up?” I demanded.
The proliferation of twelve-step programs — covering everything from sex to sugar — has dramatically shaped our attitudes toward addiction. As a recreational user, I find this a little scary and a little irritating. Even the most casual use of any drug is now suspect. What does “addiction” mean anyway?
From what I’ve gleaned, the twelve steps recognize human life as a distinctly spiritual quest, without coming right out and saying so. Whether an “addict” has previously been dependent on a substance, another person, or even a certain pattern in relationships, the twelve steps direct the “addict” inward, to a primal source of strength and nurturance, a “higher power.” Presumably, any time we look to something outside ourselves for fulfillment, we are behaving as addicts. The suggestion is that what we really want is already inside each of us. As “addicts,” we miss out on the truth; we miss the point.
Several times a year, I turn to a substance like LSD for an experience of what I might call divinity, or the higher self, or higher consciousness, or God. While LSD, on the face of it, seems to work, there’s an inherent paradox in my using a material substance to gain a transcendent perspective. And of course there’s a danger that if higher consciousness is what I’m after, I may foolishly come to identify higher consciousness with the drug experience, and never learn how to get there on my own.
Then there are the little addictions. I don’t think anyone would say I had an eating disorder, and yet every day for the past week I’ve kick-started myself with a big glass of hot chocolate. Could a craving for chocolate be a legitimate basis for a twelve-step program? I don’t see why not. Chocolate is a stimulant that affects the emotional centers of the brain.
Perhaps the twelve-steppers are on to something. As a society we are always reaching for something outside ourselves to plug into, to give us energy, juice. Some people even use the telephone for this purpose. I think some of the conclusions the twelve-steppers draw are a little cockeyed. Anyone may become a candidate for a “dysfunctional relationship”; anything may become the object of an “addiction.” These are loaded terms; they unfairly suggest condemnation. Until we evolve dramatically, addiction in one form or another will remain a part of the human condition. Perhaps the twelve-step programs are part of this collective process? I don’t know.
In twenty-five years of marriage, I have had a dozen affairs. It would be tidy to say, “I am trapped in a loveless marriage,” or, “My sexual needs are beyond my husband’s abilities,” but those would be lies. What is true is that I have long been addicted to the rush of romance and sex. I suspect I’m merely trying to counteract feelings of inadequacy by seeking the attention and approval of men.
When I am not in the throes of a new passion, I see how terrifying and dangerous this behavior is, and I vow, “Never again.” But these things are not planned. They begin quite innocently. I never deliberately seek an adulterous relationship. It just happens. First, there are playful exchanges, delicious flirtations, not-so-totally-innocent teasing. I am admired, attractive, appealing. It’s a dance, a delicate pattern without formal rules. Suddenly, something breaks open. One of us confesses a desire that goes beyond the feelings of (always) mutual respect and admiration that existed (we thought) platonically between us. Without hesitation, I am swept away. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I jump when the phone rings. I ignore my work, my family, my husband, my children. I pretend meetings, escape for furtive calls from a pay phone, fabricate excuses to cover late nights. I long for my husband to go away on a trip, for my children to go to sleep, so that I can grab a few private moments on the telephone. I travel long distances on preposterous pretexts to steal afternoons with my lover. Several times, I have thought of leaving all that I hold most dear to make a new life with this someone.
Inevitably, it doesn’t last. Sometimes, my lover comes to his senses first; his guilt causes him to end our affair. Sometimes, I imagine that I am more anxious for this relationship than he, and I fall into self-doubt; insecurity cannot be helped by something that fosters more insecurity. Finally, I begin the process of unraveling. There are no chemicals to ease the agony, no treatment center from which to gain support; only the burden of my shame and guilt. I am plunged into depression. I cannot bear to visit old haunts. I call my now ex-love, only to hang up after hearing his voice.
For the past two years, I have been “clean and sober.” I have found new value in myself and new understanding of my destructive pattern, and I guard against it. My husband, who I’m certain has had his suspicions over the years, has nonetheless stood by me. Last winter, we celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We speak of grandchildren yet unborn and of years spent in loving communion. And I am well satisfied.
But the old pattern is still here. Two days ago, in a meeting with an associate, our eyes connected for a split second longer than was necessary. Yesterday, I started to phone him, and then I stopped. I do not want it. I hung up. No more. Enough. Done.
But last night, in my dreams, he came to me. His mouth was sweet upon mine and I was beautiful.