This week Caroline spoke to me, and to all of us, about the concept of substitution. Y’know, the way that we sometimes transfer addictions or transfer the severity of addictions. Caroline, talks about the years that she replaced heavy drinking with food restriction. Another of her friends cut back on drinking for a while and started to shop like a maniac. Yet another friend seemed to moderate his drinking by hanging out at the casino on a regular basis. And so, as I am wont to do, I started looking back on my own checkered past with addiction.
I can remember a period in my freshman year of college when I cut back on my drinking for a few months. During that time, I replaced drinking with tennis. I played three hours each day and five hours each day on weekends. Ostensibly, I thought I was trying to control my weight and it certainly did go down, but actually, I had replaced my booze obsession with tennis. When the first snow fell, I put away my racquet and – surprise, surprise – I started drinking again with a vengeance.
I often say that I had two drinking careers. I had a ten year period of sobriety – well, I wasn’t drinking at least. Whenever I have been asked to share my story at a meeting, I have been quick to say that I was not drinking but I didn’t really consider it sobriety. So what exactly was going on during that hiatus from the drink?
Well, let’s see if I can piece this together. During that time, I had two children, so I spent a remarkable amount of time trying to be Super Mom. I worked long hours and came home to make dinner, run baths, read stories and sing lullabies. When they were a little bit older, we added homework to the mix. I just kept very busy with them. During that period, I also suffered some anxiety and depression issues. My doctor gave me Xanax for a while. That made it possible to stay “sober”. Shortly after my son was born, I bent down beside the tub while giving him a bath and suffered a meniscus tear. I actually heard my knee “pop” and I could not get up. Surgery was required and the orthopedic surgeon sent me home on Vicodin. Imagine that – I didn’t need to drink because when I felt tense or anxious, I just popped a Vicodin – or three.
When the doctor no longer prescribed the drugs, I turned to food. In my whole life, I had only been slender during that freshman year of college because I exercised like crazy (and ate only salad, raisins and ice cream – don’t ask- it worked for me). I was born overweight and was referred to as butterball as a baby. With the drugs removed and the alcohol not an option in my head because of having small children, I returned to the comfort of food. It was very easy to do. Food was a big deal in a large Jewish community. And I became a large part of it, gaining 60 pounds. My next substitution was to control that weight again, because drinking was just out of the question. After all, I was recovered, right? So we moved onto Optifast, the first well-known liquid diet. Anyone remember that? Oprah and I went on it at the same time with similar results. I lost 72 pounds. But I didn’t deal with the demons and since I could not drink – I ate again and soon gained it all back.
After a while, I could not stand it any longer. Did I turn to Overeaters Anonymous to finally deal with the issues? Hell no! I started drinking again so I would not have to think about them. And this time, I was drinking, and using sedatives, and eating. I just wanted to be numb. Yet, as long as I was using other substitute substances, my drinking stayed “under control” and therefore, it was not a problem. When the sedatives were again removed, and the doctor insisted I do something about my weight, I started drinking and exercising again. At no point did it occur to me to look deeper into the root causes. I just didn’t want to feel. As Caroline said, the purpose of any of these addictions was to distance me from my feelings. Her exact words — “same dance, new shoes.”