How Sobriety Influenced my Eating Disorder Recovery
*Please keep in mind this is one person’s story and that everyone’s path to recovery and beyond will be unique.
Rachel Moe is a Registered Nurse, Emily Program client, Aunt, coffee connoisseur, and writer who loves sharing her experience through recovery in hopes of connecting with and helping others. Rachel started and leads an Eating Disorders Anonymous meeting in Duluth, MN. She also recently started a blog and plans to dive more into recovery advocacy, as she is passionate about ending the stigma around mental illness. She loves to hike, spend time with her family and friends, write, and practice yoga.
I vividly remember the first time I was told by someone that I may be an alcoholic and I should consider a life of sobriety. It was a hot August day in the Twin Cities, I was 24 years old, and sitting in my therapist’s office in a residential treatment center for my eating disorder. I had already been struggling with Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa since the age of 13. My parents were on the couch across from me, tears in both of their eyes, and we were participating in family week at treatment. Now, this was not the first time someone had brought up my drinking and substance abuse to me, this was just the first time that I chose to truly listen to what was being said. I could no longer deny my life was falling apart as a result of alcohol, drugs, and my eating disorder.
The flood of emotions came immediately that day—sadness, shame, anger, grief. I mostly felt sad for my parents. I felt as though I had already inflicted enough pain through my eating disorder, how could I add another diagnosis to the list that has been growing for as long as I can remember? I felt angry that once again, I was different from my peers. In my group of friends, I was always the friend who was too anxious to go out for pizza or ice cream, so how could I also be the sober one as well?
In that moment in my therapist’s office, I felt as though I had been dealt the absolute worst hand in life, and all I wanted to do was fold. I couldn’t comprehend that this was not something I chose, just like Anorexia and Bulimia were also not a choice, but rather serious life-threatening mental illnesses. This day was both one of the worst and best days of my life, and in that moment, I had no idea sobriety would change my life in miraculous ways that I never could have imagined.
It is truly no surprise that people who suffer from eating disorders are at a higher risk for also having substance use disorders because both these mental illnesses impact the reward system of the brain, and are an easy, but ineffective, way to numb painful emotions. I learned early on in my journey that I used drinking to help cope with my eating disorder thoughts and urges every day, sometimes multiple times a day. The “whack a mole” of symptoms was in full effect.
If I felt anxious about my body or weight, I drank. If I was out with friends and was anxious about how I appeared to others, I drank. If I was filled with shame from engaging in eating disorder behaviors, I numbed with alcohol. I had to literally relearn how to live life and it was a messy process at first. I was terrified the first time I had to go clothes shopping in sobriety, in the past I would drink or use before as a way to not have to face the feelings and thoughts I had toward my body, and this was no longer an option for me.
The first few honest attempts at sobriety were ruthless and filled with setbacks and relapses. Somehow, I managed to always get back up rather quickly after these slips. Somewhere in my mind, I realized my life depended on my ability to stay sober and work toward recovery from my eating disorder. I got a sponsor and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Immediately, I realized the there are many similarities in sobriety and recovery from an eating disorder. I began to learn so many tools in AA meetings that I could apply to my eating disorder recovery as well.
On the contrary, there is also one major difference between sobriety and eating disorder recovery. In AA, my main obligation is to stay away from the first drink or drug, abstinence was the long-term goal. However, in eating disorder recovery abstinence was not my solution and avoiding food was a huge part of my problem. Unlike alcohol, I had to face eating six times a day, while also maintaining sobriety and not diving into exercise and restriction to cope.
This required some major vigilance on my part, I found myself comparing my journey to other people in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Many people when they first sober upturn to exercise or food to deal with urges to drink, for me this couldn’t be what I turned to. When people after meetings talked about hitting the gym or going for a run, I had to work really hard to focus on my journey and accept that it looked different than others. I had to begin to believe that the uniqueness to my story was not only necessary but also accepted and OK.
I honestly believe that the first year of sobriety is the hardest and one of the most magical times. I remember saying after a year that “everything changed, and nothing changed.” My attitude and outlook on life had completely changed, and yet I still lived in the same area, had some of the same friends, and worked the same job. Although I was living sober, I still faced challenges every day, and I had days where I found myself relying much more heavily on my eating disorder. I had to make the choice to continue to do the next right thing in regards to my recovery, some days on an hour-by-hour basis.
Through a lot of effort, tears, setbacks, and daily recommitment to my “life worth living,” I celebrated 5 years of continuous sobriety on June 1st, 2019. Today, I can say sobriety is one of my greatest gifts in life. I no longer have pity for myself being a young sober adult, instead, I can see how it has allowed me to truly become the person I was meant to be, and I consider my sobriety one of my greatest attributes.
Today, I connect with people on a much deeper level, I have a clear mind most days, I LOVE mornings and the idea of a fresh day, and I no longer place the people I love in constant fear of my well-being. My life has become much more simple and serene, and I know if I continue to show up to life, and do the next right thing, life will only become more wonderful.
I want to share a few tools and ideas that helped me IMMENSELY early on in sobriety and still help me today to maintain my sobriety while working toward complete recovery from my eating disorder.
- One day at a time, but keep going! This AA slogan is hands down one of the most useful tools I use in my recovery. Choosing to commit each morning to stay sober and free from eating disorder behaviors just for the twenty-four hours ahead is MUCH less overwhelming than thinking, “I have to be sober forever.” It takes the pressure of perfection off the table and allows for mindfulness and focusing on the here and now. If I screw up on my meal plan mid-day, I can still recommit in that moment to my long-term goal of recovery.
- Let go of comparisons. I believe this is a useful tool for everyone in life and has been extremely helpful for me. My journey will never look similar to someone else’s and when I compare, I tend to focus on how I don’t add up. This mindset takes away from all that is amazing about me and my journey.
- Focus on the positive. It is so easy (and our natural human tendency) to see all that is wrong or the mistakes we have made. However, rarely do we take the time to acknowledge the positive things we have done. Taking time at the end of each day or week to reflect on what positive steps were made is CRUCIAL to moving forward in recovery. It is amazing how even on a bad day taking the time to find the positive can change your outlook in a positive way.
- Find (or create) your tribe. When making a big life change like pursuing sobriety and working toward recovery from an eating disorder, being surrounded by supportive, understanding people is essential. Find the people who inspire you, find the people who support your dreams, find the people who love you and know your worth, imperfections and all.
- Focus on your Values. And then put your energy into living a life aligned with those values. If I had a dollar for every time my therapist had me do a “values assessment” over the years, I could probably take myself on a nice little vacation! (HA) But in all seriousness, getting clear about what you value in life and then making decisions based off those values is so meaningful and a great way to live a purposeful life.
These tools, amongst others, are the reason I have the life I do today. My life is far from perfect, and definitely not struggle-free, but it is more meaningful than ever before. Thanks to my sobriety, I have been able to achieve things I never could if I were still drinking. Today I get to fulfill my dream of helping others through my job as a Registered Nurse, something I could never do while maintaining an active addiction. I also help others by sharing my recovery story through writing and sharing my story to others who are struggling. In the last two years, I started and now lead an Eating Disorders Anonymous meeting in Duluth, which has been a great way to combine the practices and principles of my sobriety into my eating disorder recovery. Most importantly, for the last five years, I have shown up to life, both for myself and for my loved ones.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, substance abuse, or both, I want you to know YOUR STORY MATTERS. More significantly, recovery is possible and you deserve to have a life of freedom. Although I am still working toward full recovery from my eating disorder, I can confidentially say today that I have hope I will reach a place of complete liberation. I also believe you can too, by doing the hard things, showing up for yourself, and understanding your worth. Recovery has without question been one of the hardest things I have ever experienced, and it’s also been the most magical. Moving forward is the only option, one day, one-step, one moment at a time.