Be-liev-a-rex-ic – An Eating Disorder Story

believeI have never done a straight-up book review/recommendation on this blog.  Last week I came across a book Be-lieve-a-rex-ic by J.J. Johnson at the Peachtree Press exhibit at the National Council of Social Studies meetings in New Orleans.  The book is a more-or-less autobiographical account of Ms. Johnson’s two month in-patient treatment for her eating disorder some 25 years ago.  On the book’s website the author includes her journal from the hospitalization.  The website also has a set of resources for addressing eating disorders, along with affirmations, her own in-patient treatment plan, and a bunch of other related materials.

The author defines believearexia as “a pervasive alternation between craving for and aversion to belief in one’s self.”  That definition leads to a story of which I can relate from the adage of being an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” as a practicing addict and ultimately leading to a search for true self in recovery.

The first 50 pages of the book set-up the inpatient treatment – a very real experience of a fifteen year-old fighting the demons of bulimia with parents who are in denial that anything is wrong other than their daughter’s craving for attention.

I found the opening sequence particularly powerful:

Who is the girl with the eating disorder

if she doesn’t have an eating disorder?


No one.

A nonentity

I related strongly to the lead character’s complete consumption and self-identification through their addiction.

Besides being just a good read, I found the book very helpful on a couple of levels.  First, Ms. Johnson paints a vivid picture of the manifestations of an eating disorder and the treatment process.  Second, the book reinforced for me that in many ways addiction is addiction is addiction.   Her story of in-patient treatment for her eating disorder mirrored my in-patient treatment for alcoholism – from the Code Blue emergencies, interactions with staff, rebellion against rules and the workarounds created by patients, the period of self-discovery, and the regimentation and discipline of the experience – to the ultimate recovery road.

I also related to Ms. Johnson’s committing herself to the in-patient program in a sense of desperation and then “drinking the kool-aid” of recovery pretty early in the treatment when others in her cohort continued to fight the process.

For an addict, particularly with eating disorders, reading Believarexic is much like looking into a mirror.

I also enjoyed that the book is written by someone who has come out the other side – has met their demons and is now living into their true self.  In recovery, in addition to having a family, Ms. Johnson has received graduate degrees in education, worked as a counselor to at risk youth, and now the author of multiple young adult novels translated into six languages.  The book’s website also has candid updates on Ms. Johnson’s recovery over the past twenty-five years that includes some relapses.  The book is a real life story of addiction and the ongoing process of recovery, reminiscent of  Nicole John’s book Purge. 

I should add that the title is listed as a “Young Adult” book but will be of value to anyone who suffers from or knows someone who suffers from an eating disorder – or any other addiction disorder.

An excellent read.

Expectations Mess You Up

sand1I was having a conversation recently with a fellow addict and we were talking about our mutual eating disorders.  For the friend, food is their primary addiction, and alcohol a more secondary issue.  For me it is the reverse.

I relayed how after 30 years of sobriety, alcohol, dexedrine, and my other mind altering drugs of choice remain the furthest thing from my mind.  I have been nicotine free for coming up on 20 years.  But food – that is another whole issue.  I have written before about how just in the last few years, I realized I had a full-blown eating disorder when as a young kid I had to push the stool up against the kitchen counter to climb up to scoop sugar into my mouth from the storage canister.

And today, I can and often times do go into that same binge behavior.

As I was talking to my friend, I noted that losing weight was not a problem for me.  I can yo-yo up and down with some regularity.  As we talked, I had a huge revelation.  For at least the last 20 years, there has been a strong correlation between my binge eating and my career expectations.  Most dramatically, about 10 years ago I weighed more than I have ever weighed in my life – some 60 pounds overweight.  I was in a job where the expectations on what I was hired to do got shifted midstream and the job became miserable.  For a couple of years I struggled with trying to figure out what was wrong.  When I realized that I was trying to put my square skills and interests into a round job hole, the recognition was truly transformative.  My expectations were at odds with the new job demands.  It was irrelevant whether my expectations were reasonable or not, they were not going to be met.  When I realized this, my expectations shifted dramatically, my food got good, I became more physically active, and I lost 60 pounds in under six months.  I kept the weight off and had a good relationship with food for a couple of years.

Since that time, my eating disorder has been directly tied to my feeling of self-worth – when I have value and feel supported in what I am doing, my food is good.  When my expectations are not met, when I struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth and value in what I am doing in the world, my eating disorder comes to the fore.

Like so much in recovery, I don’t get down to the lowest of lows as I might have done in the more distant past before I start to climb out. But, like all else, my eating disorder recovery is truly a process and not a single event.  I consider myself blessed today to at least be aware of the questions and some of the answers that work.

Stories of What Works In Recovery

eckoOver my time in recovery, most of what I learned in support groups has worked but some advice turned out not to hold much water:

  • Story 1 – If I don’t go to AA meetings/have a sponsor/read the Big Book, I will get drunk.  Fact is I have gone for years without attending an AA meeting, haven’t had a formal sponsor in at least 20 years, and don’t read the Big Book that much. But . . . I do acknowledge every day that I am a recovering addict, I do relate and engage with other addicts on a regular basis, and I regularly read  about and study living into the solution.
  • Story 2 – If I do go into a bar, keep alcohol in the house, go to slippery places, I will get drunk.  Fact is, I go to a bar if I have reason to, we keep alcohol in the house for company, and what has been a slippery place in the past (Mardis Gras for example) in sobriety is a sober party.  But . . . I don’t go to bars to hang out, I have poured alcohol down the sink when it sat in the house for too long and started talking to me, and slippery places today are boring, obnoxious and loud.
  • Story 3 – As a recovering addict I should not take any mood altering drug under any circumstance as it would trigger the old addictive cravings.  I had some out-patient surgery about five years ago and was given some narcotics for pain after, just in case.  After laying in bed that night and not being able to get in any position where the pain was not excruciating, I took one of the pills, got through the night, in the morning went back to Motrin, and dumped the rest of the narcotics down the toilet.
  • Story 4 – just happened yesterday.  In January I had some oral surgery and opted not to given a general anesthesia because I did not want the drunken stupor effect.  I went with a local while the doctor hammered and drilled on my jaw.  It was not fun.  Though the after effects were not that bad, I got by with Motrin alone.  I had a repeat surgery yesterday.  The surgeon said it was going to be worse this time and he strongly advised me to go with the general anesthesia.  He noted too that with a general, the pain after would not be as bad – for reasons I am not certain.  He asked “So what are your concerns about this?”  I replied that I just did not want to have that feeling of euphoria while going under or waking up.  He noted that could be taken care of by the type of drugs administered.  It worked.  The last thing I remember was the anesthesiologist saying, now you might feel some burning on the iv . . . and me waking up 4 hours later and asking where am I.  A bit shaky, but after a two-hour drive we arrived home, and now 24 hours later, I am taking the prescribed antibiotic and Motrin, but have not touched the oxycodone prescription that got filled “just in case.”

Here is my takeaway on all of this – if I am living in recovery, that which would have led to a binge in the past is not a problem today.  I have posted before on my active addiction and recovery life in New Orleans, my favorite city on earth.  Forty years ago I experienced the worst of my worst blackout drinking and suicidal behaviors in the City That Care Forgot.  Today, I walk the same streets alive and with meaning, living into the solution.

But I know, too, that I am one drink and one drug from being back in the active addiction.  When my wife came home yesterday with the prescriptions for the antibiotic, motrin, and narcotic, she said “I only got half the prescription on the narcotic filled.  Even if you are in pain, that is some strong stuff and you are just going to flush it down the toilet anyway.”  And so here I am 24-hours later without any pain, and I thought about the time some 40 years ago when I had strep throat and was prescribed a narcotic for that pain.  I didn’t take the narcotic while I was sick then because I did not want to waste it while I felt bad.  I was going to save it for when I felt good.  That thought crossed my mind last night with my just prescribed narcotic.

I am pleased that the blessings of recovery that I have experienced over the past decades have insured that I will flush these pills as I have done in the past.  Today, being anesthetized is not my normative existence as it had been in the past.  It is now reserved for things like surgery.  Today the blessings of life are so abundant that I do not want to miss any in a drugged out state.  That is my story today.

Problems, Solutions, and Opportunities in Recovery

crop hillisdeMuch of what I have done professionally over the past several decades has been because of problems.  In my most recent job, (from which I will retire in eight months and twelve days, but who’s counting) I was hired because of problems.  I am the director of a small museum that in 2007 had reached its lowest point in a sixty-year history.  I was charged with either making the institution work or it was going to be shut down.  Eight years later we are operating in the black and have developed a national reputation for our creative programming.  Although my bosses don’t really appreciate the fact, the success over the past near decade is a direct result of the principles of addiction recovery.  Here are some of the things that have guided our work at the museum since 2007:

  • although we assess the problems and difficulties, we live into the solutions.
  • we live life on life’s terms
  • our staff of paid employees, students, interns, and volunteers form a team that support each other with their experience, strength, and hope.
  • the work at our museum is an ongoing process and not singular event.
  • we practice progress not perfection in all that we do.
  • and quite importantly, everyone – whether visitor or staff – is treated with respect and worth.

Sounds a lot like what you hear in an AA meeting!

I find that all of this takes a good bit of work, but the results are certainly worthwhile and life changing.  Student graduate assistants from our small museum go on to successful employment, win fellowships to the most prestigious museums in the country, and/or are accepted into PhD programs at top universities.  We receive visitor comments filled with enthusiasm after a visit to our facility – a good bit of which directly acknowledges our excellent student workers.

Sounds a lot like folks who keep coming back in recovery programs as well!

As I wind down to my formal retirement, there are three other “problems” that I have begun to work with – one in Peru, and two in Louisiana.  I look forward to these opportunities to live into solutions.  I will be eternally grateful to taking that First Step in recovery on August 4, 1984 when I admitted I was powerless over alcohol and other drugs and that my life had become unmanageable.  Addressing that problem provided me the opportunity to find a solution to my addiction and served as model for everything in my life since.

Where is Home?


The first time I met Shayla in her kitchen, August 2013

As many others in recovery, I spent a good bit of my active addiction taking geographic cures throughout the US – for myself this primarily meant a host of locations in the Upper Midwest and Deep South.  Over the past 30 years of recovery I have also spent a good bit of time making pilgrimages of sorts to many of these locations, looking for I am not certain what.  On those trips I have had a bunch of insights.  For example, if you want to really experience the perspective of being a kid in the old neighborhood, trying riding a bicycle down those streets instead of viewing everything from the middle of the road in a car!

I attended a family event a bunch of years ago in my hometown – or not really my hometown, but the suburb where everyone escaped from the working class A-frame urban decay of my youth.  Someone said to me “Welcome Home” to which I immediately responded, “This is not my home.  I live in Louisiana.”  And the fact is, if there is one place where I feel most free, most secure, most alive, it has always been on the streets of New Orleans – my part-time soon to be full-time residence.

But I have been thinking about this concept of “Where is home?” for quite a while now.  I bought Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again but have yet to get past the first page of the 600 plus page tome.

My colleague from Peru is living with us for two years in her first adventure outside her native country.  During her first week in the US, when we went to the Hispanic market and I showed her tangerines with “Peru” labels on them her eyes filled with tears.  A year later we were in the same market and found that on a bottom shelf of the aisle where Inka Cola is stocked, packages of purple corn for making chicha morado and bags of trigo that we had made a special trip to the mercado in Lima to bring to the states for soup making.  Once again, she was ecstatic to find a bit more of her home in Memphis, Tennessee.

I asked her when we were driving recently, when she felt the most homesick.  She said when she knew she was missing family events, or certain foods, and friends.

I reflected on that question as well – but wondered the place I felt homesick for – and realized that was actually the wrong question – it is not a place.  I am homesick for spending more time with my wife as I will not join her in New Orleans full-time until I retire next summer.  But I have also thought about my recent years of spending time in Peru and realize I am homesick, less for the physical place, but as my colleague notes, the people, events, and food.  Perhaps the most “homesick” I feel is for the daily meals at Shayla’s in Hualcayán.  The place is a large room with a dirt floor, adobe-type walls, sitting on plastic stools, and eating from tables of plywood on top of sawhorses.  The food is good, but mostly it is a time to spend time visiting with extended family and friends who happen by – drinking tea after meals.  Here is where I learned the satisfaction of just drinking hot water to have something warm to hold in your hands and drink on a cold winter night.

So home, like serenity, and recovery are more about relationships and states of mind – the physical spaces become irrelevant.


31 Sobriety Anniversaries of Gratitude

carla,luciana,kevinToday is my 31st anniversary of being sober.  Once again I am in Peru for the anniversary, just come down from the high altitude rural Andes where I have been doing field work for the past few weeks.  That environment is a good place to reflect on gratitude, beauty, life, and hope.

Gratitude for the opportunity to build relationships and make new friends in this rural place.  Gratitude for an understanding of what is important – family, friends, and place trump all the materials gadgets and other such success markers of life.

Beauty for not just the natural world but the people and their relationships too.  For people whose language I butcher quite badly.

Life is not easy in the rural Andes.  If you don’t work, you don’t eat.  Although there is plenty of time for gossip and bickering, there is also a simple reality of existence – an acceptance, not excuse making – that I find very healthy and nurturing.

The Andes is about hope and the need to act on that possibility to make it real.  Whether because of disasters that are cultural or natural in making, there is a perseverance and resilience that is motivating.

I am thinking that these now annual trips I make in July-August each year to the Andes, and then my sobriety anniversary occurring as the trip is winding down and I am getting ready to return to the US – as an opportunity for reflection on the year past in preparation for the year to come.

And of course, were it not for my sobriety, if I were even still alive, I would still be making excuses on why the world is out to get me, how no one really understands, etc. etc. and drink myself into oblivion to both avoid and intensify my misery.

Today, life is good and I have nothing in the world to complain about.

Social Relationships in Sobriety

Hual-and-RCI am spending my third summer of field work in Hualcayán, Peru – a 400-person village some 10,000 feet above sea level in the very rural north central Andes. I have posted before about recovery and my time in Peru.

This morning I reflected on an event from my first summer here.  A graduate student lectured me that I should not have refused the offer of beer at dinner by our host.  He noted that in the highland Andes, alcohol is an important factor in creating social relationships. My unspoken reply at the time was that I did not buy his theory on relationship building.  In fact, if my Spanish were better, that would surely be a more effective relationship building tool. This interaction took place in 2012.

In 2015:

  • The graduate student has not been back.  I doubt his social relationship building went much beyond our host noting that gringos will generally accept a free beer.
  • This summer our very small two-person crew eat all of our meals with the same host as in 2012. We have conversations about everything from farming, Huayno music, the electoral process, and more.
  • I have spent hours with the youngest in the house playing the Spanish language children’s apps I loaded on my iPad before leaving for Peru.
  • Last year, there was some dissension from US students because of the number of children that play in the afternoon in the lab courtyard.  The concern is they are distracting and make too much noise. This year, from 3 – 5 PM every afternoon, 5 – 15 of the nearby children come to draw, watch videos, and create other crafts in the same courtyard and empty dorm spaces. One of the best ways for me to learn Spanish is to work with the children. So, I have now more-or-less translated/adapted a bead bracelet program used at my museum in the states for the kids down here and play other word games based on a gringo who speaks very poor Spanish.
  • I now have a godson in the community.
  • The list goes on . . . and my Spanish slowly improves.

The lecturing graduate student was simply uninformed on addiction issues and misguided on building social relationships, though he is certainly not an alcoholic (to the best of my knowledge) or an advocate of excessive drinking. However, during my drinking days I would certainly have latched onto his suggestion as an excuse to drink. But I also know full well, that my interest in social relationship building at that point would have stopped as the only relationship I would have been interested in was with the beer and how I could get more.

I am incredibly grateful for my sobriety today. I would not be in Peru today were it not for my sobriety. If I were not sober, I would not have married the woman I did some 16 years ago, then met my step-daughter’s childhood friend some 12 years ago, who ultimately went on to do Peruvian research, who over 4 years ago I interviewed about her work for my other blog, and accepted her invitation three years ago to come to Peru and work with her organization on some cultural heritage development projects, and I have now made 4 trips in the past 3 years doing just that. Were it not for my sobriety, besides the logistics and circumstances not lining up, I would not have an interest or the ability to carry out such projects.

That path all began on August 4, 1984 when at the end of my work shift at the paper bag factory, I checked into a detox center instead of going home and drinking myself into oblivion. I enjoy that I will spend my 31st sobriety anniversary this year hanging out in Lima with folks I have built social relationships with over the past few years – all without alcohol as an intermediary.