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The Good Girl's Chemical High by M. Rohr

M. Rohr enjoys getting free therapy by writing about the difficult stuff. She hopes sincerity and honesty helps others feel not-so-alone. She lives along the Rocky Mountains, where she works from home while trying to prevent her toddlers from destroying everything


The Good Girl's Chemical High




Christmas. Age 19.


The smiles seemed a little forced when I entered my aunt’s house.


Christmas breakfast was going to be the first time my mother and I had been in the same


room with each other since I ran away six months earlier.


Well, according to my mother I ran away.


In my version of events, that fateful day started with my mom warning me that we were


going to have a ‘chat’ when she got home from work. I sat down and sobbed after she left,


knowing what that conversation would entail. The prospect of waiting all day to listen to her


unleash on me for everything she thought I was doing wrong felt unbearable.


In the midst of my breakdown, I realized I didn’t actually have to be there when she got


home. I was eighteen. I’d graduated high school just a few days earlier. I had a job. I might have


to live in my car, but that seemed phenomenally better than waiting around for another tirade on


my failings.


I packed everything I could fit, stayed long enough to tell her when she got home, and


left. Fortunately, I was spared from living in my car by an acquaintance from school who was


moving in with her grandparents that summer. They had plenty of room and quickly became a


second family to me.


When Christmas came around six months later, my family called to invite me. I knew my


mom would be there and seeing her would be unpleasant. I wanted to believe my family wanted


me there, even if my mom didn’t. So, I went.


At the table, I made small talk about my first semester of college with the person sitting


next to me while my mom sat at the far end of the table speaking graciously and politely with


everyone but me.


An uncle said to me, “You should apologize to your mom.”


“Thanks,” I said. Because I’d tried to explain to him for years what life was like at home


and this was where that conversation went every time.


During clean up, my mom and my aunt lowered their voices to speak privately. I caught


snippets as I helped pass dishes to the kitchen. My mom was clearly venting about all the years


she’d worked two and sometimes three jobs to give me a good life, only to have me run away in


a fit of ‘teenage selfishness.’


I headed to the bathroom. Alone behind the locked door, I pulled out the Oreos I’d


brought for just such a moment. I sat on the floor, the familiar anticipation settling over me as I


took my first bite. As the first cookie hit my taste buds, a wave of relief swept over me.


Five minutes and a half-dozen cookies later, I cleaned up and returned to the family.


Reinforced and fortified, I stayed for two more hours.


In the rounds of well-wishes before leaving, my aunt gave me a hug and whispered,


“Please be kind to your mom. She loves you.”


Two blocks from my aunt’s house, I pulled my car over and retrieved donuts from the


trunk. Then I leaned my seat back and released the tears I’d been holding as the first bites of


sugary fried dough melted in my mouth with a satisfaction that made me want to close my eyes


and sigh.


As I finished the first donut, the crying eased. By the end of the second, I was mostly


calm. Licking the last of the third from my fingers, I wondered what it would be like to be happy.


I ate a fourth to cheer me up.


Then, finally, the Christmas party now a distant memory, I turned the car on and started


back to the home of the family I lived with, contemplating which donut to reward myself with


when I got there.


***


When my descent into addiction began, I had no access to cigarettes or hard drugs,


alcohol in my home was closely monitored and I didn’t know anyone who would buy it for me.


Any adult in my life would have noticed the smells or behaviors associated with cannabis or


opiates. Such things—fortunately—weren’t options.


Food, however...


Food was the perfect drug: available, socially acceptable, delicious, and the side effects


of over-indulgence could be hidden with ease.


And, of course, it was universally available in my home growing up. Even more so as a


young adult with a car, a job, and all the freedoms those gave me.


It began with shocking innocence: I was ten when my parents separated and I discovered


eating and watching TV made me not so sad.


By high school, store-bought cookies and other hyperpalatable sweets were my go-to


after my mom yelled at me or I felt I’d disappointed her.


By college, I’d catch myself sneaking a fifth piece of cake into my bedroom so I could


eat alone. Knowing ‘normal’ people didn’t eat five pieces of cake, I’d convince myself to throw


it out. Then I’d pace, fidget, go a little crazy in the midst of the mental insanity of a craving that I


didn’t understand or have the skills to cope with, then go back to retrieve the food from the trash


because my brain and body were so much calmer if I just ate it.


What started as mild self-soothing in my early teens eventually became my only method


of self-care. By high school, my solution to anything that upset me became food. Not just eating


a meal, but overindulgence on hyperpalatable, sugary foods until I was too ill to move.


Satiety does not apply to food addiction. A food addict loses all sense of hunger and


satisfaction. We eat when we need a high, not when we are hungry.


We have a lot in common with smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts: our drug of choice


soothes and distracts from problematic emotions we don’t know how to deal with.


Consuming an entire package of Oreos in one sitting does wonders to anesthetize guilt,


anger, and stress.


I haven’t tried opiates, but I’ve heard they do the same.


***


I’ve lost jobs because I caved to a craving an hour before my shift and ended up eating


uncontrollably for several hours, too ashamed to call in sick.


I failed college classes because I sat in my car watching others walk to class sipping their


coffee or breakfast smoothie while I downed a clearance bakery cake.


But I wasn’t obese. I didn’t have diabetes. To all who cared to look, I appeared perfectly


normal.


And though I didn’t feel ‘normal,’ I also didn’t perceive the danger I was in.


Food was necessary, after all. Trying to decline cake or ice cream at family or other


social functions attracted protests and offense.


And the high was nice.


That fleeting, temporary, utterly satisfying glimpse of physical bliss that relaxed and


calmed and made me feel safe and comfortable and happy...


It was an elusive, glorious thing.


And convenient.


I could get high on Thanksgiving, in a house full of people, simply by making an “I-


shouldn’t-but-it’s-only-for-today” face and filling another bowl full of brownies or ice cream.


And I didn’t regret it. There was nothing in my life that made it so easy to face my


mother’s displeasure than eating until I was first high and then extremely sick.


The only problem was that some of the time, I didn’t want to eat so much.


Sometimes I ate long past self-soothing, spiraling down into a miserable and lasting


discomfort accompanied by self-loathing and disgust.


The high didn’t feel worth it, afterwards. And on increasingly frequent days, I couldn’t


seem to stop.


I could put food down, but I’d be so agitated and upset when I walked away, that it was


only a matter of time until I returned with renewed frenzy to finish off the sugary substance I’d


walked away from.


It’s a special kind of hell to watch yourself doing something that hurts you and not be


able to stop it.


***


As the binge eating became increasingly frequent and uncontrollable, I researched diets


and self-help programs.


As I tried and failed in those endeavors, I inevitably ate more. It was easier to not try to


stop overeating because failing provoked self-loathing that led to eating in order to anesthetize


the self-hatred, which led to guilt and shame, which led to more binging.


After one particularly ugly day of uncontrollable eating, I tried purging. There, kneeling


in front of the toilet, trying to force myself to vomit, I had my epiphany moment: I am not okay.


I checked out books about eating disorders, assuming that was what was wrong. But I


wasn’t purging routinely, as is typical of bulimia. I wasn’t anorexic. I also didn’t have a struggle


with body image, as the texts seemed to suggest was a fundamental symptom in both disorders.


One symptom did apply: abusing or restricting food in relation to emotional distress,


which, the texts suggested, might be treated with counseling.


The first counselor told me that every day after work he got one of his favorite chocolates


from the cabinet above the fridge and ate it while he looked at his garden. He suggested that food


routines, such as this, could be extremely helpful for people with eating disorders. So I went


home and made my favorite cookies, planning to eat one every day. Then I fidgeted and paced,


eventually dissolving into hysterical crying, unable to think of anything except how much I


needed those cookies.


The next thing I knew I was in my room, alone, sitting on the floor scarfing down two at


a time. I had no memory of retrieving the cookie dish. And I was furious someone had suggested


I limit my ingestion of such sweet, lovely, happy cookies.


The second counselor gave me a copy of Intuitive Eating and explained that sometimes


people place so many restrictions on food that they need to release all of those restrictions in


order to start the healing process.


I tried that, too. I ate everything and anything. No guilt trips. No arguments. No internal


battles. I gained thirty pounds in three months and lost my job because I was so physically ill all


the time I couldn’t get to work.


When the uncontrollable urges to eat didn’t ease, I found a third counselor. After six


weeks, she told me I seemed to be doing very well, and perhaps I should only come see her once


a month.


I didn’t tell her I couldn’t hardly stand up because I was in so much pain after my most


recent binge. Instead, I smiled, thanked her for her help, and never went back to see her again.


The continued failures to achieve any success through counseling left me with the lasting


impression that I was too broken for mental health experts. If I couldn't fix me and professionals


couldn't fix me, it seemed obvious nothing else could fix me, either.


***


In my mid-twenties, I went to the last friend I had left: an adult child in my second


family. I’d lost touch with any friends I’d made in school, either high school or college, because


I was so humiliated and disturbed by the increasing frequency of the binge eating.


I told that one friend I thought I had an eating disorder.


The next day, he gave me a hefty stack of literature on prayer and God’s power to heal.


I read it.


Then, as some Christians do, I added fasting to my prayer practice.


I lost twenty pounds in two months of fasting before I gave up and started eating again,


this time with a renewed vigor I hadn’t thought possible.


The friend I’d told about the eating disorder told his family what I’d said.


I overheard them talking about me.


One of them said, “I wish I could tell her she’s better than this, to just get over it.”


In hindsight, I realize that with great familial love, a person who cared dearly for me was


venting frustration that something so seemingly simple might be handicapping my happiness and


potential.


At the time, the hurt felt irreparable and I started packing to move out.


Self-help books frequently share stories of people whose bad habits stopped being a


problem once they moved or changed jobs or took a long vacation. I hoped moving would be that


solution for me.


It wasn’t.


I quickly discovered that renting a room in a house of college girls meant I didn’t have


the same need to hide my uncontrollable eating as I’d had while living with my second family. In


the new place, no one noticed if I took a pizza and three milkshakes to my room. If they did, they


didn’t care.


That was fine with me. Liberating, actually.


I could get high any time I wanted.


And I did.


***


A year after moving away from my second family, I spent an entire week in my room


eating, not leaving except to get more edible substances and use the bathroom.


Sick and disgusted and at a loss, I looked around for anything or anyone else who might


help. I found nothing. I didn’t talk to co-workers outside of work and didn’t feel a close


connection with any of them. I knew names of people in my college classes but had no


interaction with them outside of the classroom. At church, I arrived late and left early in order to


avoid exposing my shameful secret in any way. The hurt I’d felt after the reactions by my second


family still stung bitterly. In my mind, counseling had been tried and proved useless.


In desperation, I went to the last person in the world who—in my mind—might have an


interest in my well-being and obligation to help save me from my hell.


“I think I have an eating disorder,” I said.


My mother frowned. “What makes you think you have an eating disorder?”


The emphasis on the word “think” bothered me.


Before I could get past that, she said, “You don’t need to look like women on TV, you


know. That’s not normal or healthy.”


It seemed so obvious to me that this had nothing—nothing—to do with the stereotypical


misunderstandings of anorexia and bulimia that I had no response. I hadn’t considered how I


would describe the problem. I wasn’t going to tell anyone that sometimes I came to after a binge


only to find myself lying on my bedroom floor next to empty food packages having no memory


of eating them.


I was so ashamed of it that I couldn’t describe the symptoms. Couldn’t even begin to


formulate a sentence that would describe my hell.


“How’s school?” my mom asked, changing the subject to bring our dinner conversation


back to something more ‘normal.’


Grateful for the change of topic, I told her about my classes and then spun an acceptable


tale about the social events I’d attended.


I hadn’t actually gone to any social events. I’d get twitchy and agitated in any situation


involving food. Like the proverbial “little kid in a candy store” insanity but on steroids and laced


with the paranoid rapidity characteristic of a cocaine addict in need of a hit.


So instead of socializing, I sat in my bedroom, alone, and ate.


Well, not alone.


I had my food with me.


***


A recovering alcoholic once described alcohol as her soul mate. That’s exactly how I felt


about food.


In my mind, I’d tried every option I had: counseling, telling a friend and then my second


family, and, finally, trying to talk to my mom about it.


I stopped trying to fix whatever it was that was wrong with me and surrendered—utterly


and completely. Life became nothing more than a calculation between the previous binge and


how long it would be until I got my next one. There was no joy or happiness or laughter unless it


was with food. No sadness or sorrow unless it was a lack of food.


While my days spiraled into a roller coaster of emotion based on how long it had been


since my previous high and how long I had to wait until I could get my next, I got nearly straight


A’s and paid my way through college. I paid my own bills, went to church, helped elderly


neighbors, and made appropriate appearances at family events.


None of it meant anything.


It was like watching someone else live my life—the conversations I had, the people I


interacted with—all of it was someone else using my body to go through the necessary motions.


Meaning only existed when I ate.


My highs were my lovers and my friends.


When I was lonely, I found companionship in food. When I was sad, solace came only


from eating.


No one understood my misery—except food. No shared happiness with me—except


food.


Food calmed the madness, the guilt, the shame. It took away the pain.


Food didn’t judge me. Didn’t tell me I should be better. Didn’t tell me to stop trying to be


something I wasn’t. Food was kind, gentle, and understanding. Food didn’t hurt my feelings.


Food stayed with me when I felt lonely. Food was never too busy or distracted. Food gave me its


undivided attention. Food provided devoted affection.


It was, as that woman described, the perfect soul mate.


***


In church one day, a woman shared her experience overcoming an addiction to opiates.


At its worst, her life had been nothing but a calculation between how long since the last high and


how long until the next. Nothing else existed. She maintained a marriage, took care of three kids,


worked part time, participated in community service...all the while caring about absolutely


nothing except when she could take her next pill.


That was me.


The years of isolation shattered. I wasn’t having a mental breakdown. I wasn’t unfixable.


Eating disorder treatments hadn’t helped because I didn’t have an eating disorder.


I was an addict.


I found that woman after the service and started sobbing before I could even say hello.


She wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “I know, sweetheart. I know.”


***


Three days later, I drove nearly forty minutes from home to ensure no one recognized me


when I attended my first recovery meeting. The woman from church had invited me to her


meeting, but I’d declined. I didn’t even want to be in the same space as anyone familiar for this


first meeting.


A quick survey of the half dozen people in the semi-circle led me to sit between a small,


timid looking man probably in his early fifties, and a soccer mom in knee-length shorts sporting


light makeup and a ponytail.


The meeting started. The facilitators introduced themselves and explained the meeting


format and told me I could say “pass” if I didn’t want to participate.


The soccer mom to my left shared about a decade of shooting heroin into her veins


between her kids’ sports and music practices. Her husband didn’t know. Her family thought she


was meeting with a book club.


Next, the man to my right shared about nearly forty years fighting the addiction that


brought him recovery. Based on a few of his vague comments, I quickly realized I was sitting


next to a person who had, in the throes of sexual addiction, committed heinous crimes.


The facilitators asked me if I’d like to share.


Yeah right.


What would I say?


“Hi, I eat cookies.”


No f***ing way.


Those people had serious challenges. I just needed to stop eating so much.


I left the meeting promising myself I’d never overeat again.


That week was a brutal awakening as I paid attention, for the first time in years, to what


my daily life consisted of.


Every day that week, I woke up sick and miserable from the previous days’ binge and


knew that within hours I’d be watching myself eat until I was in physical and emotional agony. I


couldn’t stop it. I hated it. I hated myself. I hated every second I was alive.


“Dear God,” I thought, reciting the only prayer I had left, “please don’t make me live


another day.”


I bought ice cream on my way to the meeting the following week.


The next week, I did the same.


***


After nearly six months of sitting quietly in those recovery meetings, I overcame the


embarrassment of introducing myself to ‘real’ addicts.


“Would you like to share this week?” asked the woman leading the meeting.


“Hi,” I said. “I’m an addict. I...have an eating disorder.”


“Welcome,” the group said in unison, as is the 12-step custom.


No one laughed when I said eating disorder.


After the meeting, the facilitator told me her daughter had a similar struggle. It started


when her parents divorced and she began eating her feelings because she didn’t know how to


cope with them. The facilitator gave me her phone number and invited me to call so we could


chat one-on-one.


For the first time in years, the chasm between me and the outside world had been bridged.


Someone knew me. Knew what was wrong. Didn’t despise me because of it.


As we walked out, the facilitator told me the title of a book her daughter had found


helpful. “It was the best we found on food addiction,” she said.


Food addiction.


Finally—finally—my nightmare had a name.


I cried all the way home.


***


Food is sometimes referred to as a good girl’s chemical high. The name is not just apt,


but quite perfect.


Drugs weren’t available to me, but hyperpalatable foods, particularly sugary ones,


provided a sensory experience leading to a dopamine response which numbed difficult emotions.


The relief became a high. A cue-reward cycle began. I became dependent.


Part of the tragedy of the last twenty years is how different they might have been if I’d


latched on to alcohol or cigarettes or prescription painkillers instead of food. I can’t help but


assume my attempts to ask for help would have had very different outcomes.


With that in mind, I’ve worked hard to find the courage to share a little of my experience


with people in my church congregation, with ecclesiastical leaders, with twelve-step meetings,


and with friends who are parents.


“If you’re the kind of parent who talks to your kids about drugs,” I tell them, “then talk to


them about food, too.”


As with any compulsive substance or behavior, early awareness is key.


Several times, after speaking with groups about my experience with addiction and


recovery, someone has come up to me afterwards, crying so hard they can’t introduce themselves


or explain.


Like the woman so many years ago did for me, I hug them as tight as I possibly can, tell


them I understand, and ask if they’ll come to a meeting.


***


Christmas. Age 37.


My husband, kids, and I arrive as breakfast is set out. I make the rounds giving hugs, then


make my way to the kitchen where I find a small space for the crockpot I brought with a favorite


dish of mine. It’s a crockpot chocolate cake made with avocados, almond flour, and honey. Yes,


I’m planning to eat chocolate cake for Christmas breakfast. It’s sweet and I think of it as a treat,


but there’s nothing in it that is addictive to me.


I started preparing myself for this day almost two months ago. Around the middle of


October, I stopped anything that could be stopped: work projects, house projects, self-


improvement projects, homemaking projects. I emailed all the distant relatives, told them happy


holidays, then gave myself permission to not answer calls, emails, or texts until January.


We’ve been eating off disposable dishes for nearly a week to minimize kitchen clean-up.


I made freezer meals, too, so I wouldn’t have to cook for most of December. I purchased extra


linens and kids’ clothes from a thrift store so that we can simply toss the used stuff in the laundry


room and pull out clean ones. I’ll deal with it in January.


This is my self-care bubble.


Most importantly, any edible substance in my house that might possibly be problematic


for me over the holidays was either discarded or given away.


Over the course of Christmas morning, some in my extended family ask why I’m not


eating the toxic substances they’ve brought. I give vague but firm answers about dietary


preferences. I’ve practiced those responses in front of a mirror.


I sit as far away from the buffet as I can. I try not to look at it. I get agitated because I


know it’s there. I take long breaks in the bathroom—without edible substances—for deep


breathing and centering.


After two hours, I give my husband the signal that I can’t be here anymore.


When we get in the car, I close my eyes, and cry—whether from relief at success or


misery at leaving behind that buffet of sweet and intoxicating bliss, I’m not sure.


Right now, it doesn’t matter.


I did what I’d set out to do: my first Christmas sober in more than twenty years.

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