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The War on Food and Drugs

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

last week was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

it was also book club week. the spotlight was on Beth Macy’s Dopesick and the nightmarish, all-consuming reality that is America’s opioid crisis.

it was also relapse week. the spotlight was on me and my anorexia. on my own nightmarish, all-consuming reality because ironically and incidentally, this past week kicked off my worst bout of anxiety-induced starvation yet since coming out of the ED version of AA/NA just under a year ago, presumably ready to take on the world again treatment-free.

which is all fine, right, because relapse is normal, right, and actually so predictable that i’m already convinced i’ll be seeing a dietitian for the rest of my life “as insurance, just in case.” (right?)

so relapse isn’t the only thing i want this post to be about.

instead, i want it to to be about addiction and relapse. i want it to be a relational reckoning of drugs and eating disorders. i want it to be the (potentially) controversial claim that drugs and eating disorders are close cousins in a stigmatized family of addictive tendencies, in fact so close that as I was reading Macy’s book on “the United States of Amnesia,” I found myself scribbling in the margins phrases like “ED = my drug” and “drugs = bad” and “NO won’t work!!!” “but feels good” and “takes one to know one” and “i feel weird trying to relate but i do. . .”

because wow the guilt-laced euphoria I feel from not eating sounds eerily similar to the heroin-laced high users get when they’re

“shooting Jesus up their arms” Brian, a Hidden Valley High School student

except we’re not really shooting Jesus, we’re shooting ourselves, “killing ourselves, more or less rapidly,” with food (or lack thereof) and drugs for some morphed mirage of heaven before we trip right back to a very real, living hell.

so with that here are some phrases i really liked or related to.

“the surge of suicides, alcohol-related liver disease, and drug poisonings . . . [were] later referred to as ‘diseases of despair'” Beth Macy

despair because, as Dr. Anita Johnson writes in Eating in the Light of the Moon, opioids and food are only the red herrings. the tangible things we frame as problems because they’re easier to catch than the real culprits.

despair because the real culprits are the feelings like despair, hopelessness, loneliness–fugitive pains that ironically can’t be caught by anyone other than yours truly trying to fight them off.

despair because no matter how much we feel like we need it, we’ll never perfect the pill that perfectly kills pain.

“not that i think we should kill pain, because that would be like the coddling of the human nervous system, no? because to be human is, in part, to feel pain, as part of the entire rollercoaster of emotions we are capable of and entitled to feel, so that we can more fully feel happiness when we have it, no? at least that’s my opinion.” Lucy Gong, NYU senior

despair because it’s hard to explain how we feel sometimes, especially when talking about pain can be painful.

“but what exactly was adequate pain relief? that point was unaddressed. nor could anyone define it. no one questioned whether the notion of pain, invisible to the human eye, could actually be measured simply by asking the patient for his or her subjective opinion.” Beth Macy

honestly, i can’t tell sometimes if my pain is even “valid pain.” my therapist tells me all my feelings are valid. but sometimes i know i’m being a melodramatic nut. so is there a guideline or a threshold of sorts for people’s feelings of pain? tolerance for pain? for others’ pain? for others’ feelings?

“none of the recovering users I interviewed had been in the military, but they tallied their losses with the sorrowful stoicism of veterans who’d been to war.” Beth Macy
“but mostly they kept quiet about it, shut down in their grief and their shame.” Beth Macy

just like people struggling with anorexia, too, who have somehow convinced themselves it’s only normal to feed their addiction but not themselves, and their friends and family members, who are either too in denial or too in shock or too afraid to do anything about it.

cacophonies of denial and shock and guilt and fear often crowd out cries for help.

because apparently it’s still taboo to talk about how normal it is to feel crazy sometimes.

because some of us so desperately want to quash the feelings of “dopesickness” that we a) take more pills, b) starve/gorge ourselves, or c) *insert other self-destructive behavior here* to run away–only to make the feelings come back stronger the longer we’re running around this circular racetrack.

you tell me what’s crazy.

i have heard them, with tears in their eyes, say that they wished it had never been prescribed for them. – Richmond doctor W. G. Rogers, 1884 letter to the local Virginian newspaper

because who in their right mind would voluntarily become an addict to something that “poisons you to death.”

“he told his lawyer that trying to explain dopesickness [the feelings of opioid withdrawal] to a nonaddict was ‘like describing an elephant to a blind man.'” factory worker who flushed his OxyContin pills down the toilet

just like i flush(ed)? food down the drain.

“she was learning that in her loss, she was far from alone.” Beth Macy

i see people i care about struggling with eating disorders too and it kills me to know i can do nothing but listen and share my own stories and hope they save themselves.

“All the sunflowers and speeches in the world would not slow the epidemic’s spread . . .” Beth Macy

because who knew that eating disorders were the most fatal of all psychological disorders, and that opioids are now on pace to kill as many Americans in a decade as HIV/AIDS has since it began

and that sunflowers and speeches won’t “make shit stop” and neither will

all the pills in the world

and even the justice system can’t bring justice when the “system is too rigidified. the drug’s too addictive. the money too good.”

“You whack one dealer, and the others just pop right up, like Whac-A-Mole.'” Andrew Bassford, brigadier general, drug prosecutor

and i almost forgot that before i try to solve anyone else’s problems i still have plenty of my own.

which i am more and more willing to share because

“the biggest barriers to treatment remain cultural. stigma pervades the hills and hollows, repeating itself like an old-time ballad, each chorus featuring a slightly different riff.” Beth Macy

so at the expense of being a total melodramatic nut, i’d rather belt my own ballad of “HELLO I’M GOING CRAZY RIGHT NOW BUT DON’T WE ALL GO CRAZY SOMETIMES” then let the pervasive norm carry on.

because if i’m not calm then convincing myself to “keep calm and carry on” isn’t exactly helping anyone in the long run.

because we’re on a circular racetrack, remember?

best to let myself relapse once in a while than take myself out of the race altogether, suddenly and all at once, gone, poof.

“the active ingredient inside poppy . . . was named morphium after the Greek god of dreams.” Beth Macy

my dream job is to be a writer.

when i told my mom, she asked are you depressed? because she thinks good writers being depressed is not a coincidence.

i told her i’m working on it. on being a writer, i mean.

and now also on recovery. and relapse. and addiction. and forgiveness. and anxiety.

particularly around pastries. and fried stuff. and everything bagels with full fat cream cheese. you know, the really scary stuff in life. and depression.

so okay maybe my mom has a point.

but what she can’t see, what she doesn’t know is my elephant in the room, is that writing is an antidepressant, too.

not a pill writers take to chase Jesus or cravings we have but later regret. it’s more like a mini self-therapy session that anyone can choose to tune into to. an AA/NA session that, instead of placing your life in the hands of some arbitrary higher power, places it in your own.

for self-reflective purposes.

because you don’t have to agree with the writer. writers generally respect the fact that no one knows you or feels like you more than you. (maybe probably) not even that arbitrary higher power. god.

it’s also for group-reflective purposes.

because as David Foster Wallace so dearly reminds us in Infinite Jest, “there might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be angels.”

like the “worn-out EMTs and preachers, probation officers and nurse-practitioners” that whack the moles and simultaneously provide larger-than-life support to the opioid-addicted. like siblings and parents who forgive you not seven, not seventy, but “seventy times seven” times and convince you to forgive yourself too. like professors and classmates and friends who tell you “hey, i don’t know if i understand, but i’m here for you anyway, if you ever need me.” like people going through the same things you are, telling you “it’s not okay, but it will be okay, just close your eyes and breathe. one day at a time.”

“Judge Moore asked me, three times in one sitting, what I had learned from my [six years of] reporting that he could feel hopeful about. I told him what [survivors] had said, more times than I could count: ‘The answer is always community.'” Beth Macy

i feel a little better already.

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