Alcohol & Eating Disorders
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. According to Action Mental Health, eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness, one in five of the most seriously affected will die prematurely from the physical consequences or suicide – and research suggests that as many as 1 in 20 people will develop an eating disorder over their lifetime.
We know from various research including our own that there are many conditions, illnesses, diseases, and mental health issues that are affected by alcohol and vice versa. Eating disorders are one of them, so it’s time for us to talk about it – and to give those who’ve been affected a chance to talk about it too.
Types of eating disorders
- Anorexia Nervosa – Undereating or over-exercising, or both, to try to keep body weight as low as possible.
- Bulimia – Eating a lot of food in a very short amount of time (binging) and then deliberately vomiting or using laxatives to ‘purge’ what’s just been consumed (also restricting diet, or exercising too much following these episodes to try to prevent weight gain)
- Binge eating disorder (BED)– Regularly losing control of eating patterns, often eating large amounts at once until feeling over-full – followed by guilt, anger, and sadness.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) – Symptoms sit somewhere in between all of the above, not quite matching any of them – but can have an equally serious impact.
The connection(s) between alcohol and eating disorders
Eating Disorders Hope say this:
“Eating disorders and addiction are frequently co-occurring. Particular personality traits, such as impulsiveness, have been connected to both eating disorders and alcohol/drug abuse. Research has also demonstrated that there are several similarities between the physiological conditions and mechanisms of addictive conditions, such as eating disorders and alcoholism or substance abuse. A commonality between eating disorders and addiction is that the addiction is inadvertently created into an even stronger form regardless of the health consequences a man or woman may be struggling with. Despite severe medical complications, it is difficult for individuals struggling with addictions to give up their addiction, as in the case of anorexia, alcoholism or substance abuse.”
Not all people who simultaneously suffer from an eating disorder and problems with their drinking will be at the addiction or physical dependency end of the alcohol spectrum, though. Many will be weekend binge drinkers or someone whose go-to end of day wind-down ritual will be to consume a bottle of wine – the types of socially accepted life-responses that slither their way into someone’s cycle of behaviour and ingrains itself into daily routines.
Most of these grey-area types of problem drinking – the area between addiction and moderate alcohol consumption – rely on booze for confidence or emotional support. Eating disorders tend to be rooted in emotional problems, trauma, and mental health, and the person suffering will often seek to gain control of their life via controlling their eating patterns. The same can be said for many types of drinking behaviours. Then when control is lost, it will ignite a feeling of despair, shame and self-loathing, and the cycle repeats.
“Drunkorexia” is a colloquialism for the dangerous blend of an eating disorder and problem drinking, and is often used to refer to those who specifically reduce calorie intake or purge before a drinking binge, due to the calorific content of alcohol. Whether someone is physically dependent on alcohol or is a grey-area drinker and using these methods occasionally or long term, they are significantly increasing the negative physical and psychological impact of alcohol on themselves. Lack of food in the stomach not only speeds up the rate at which alcohol enters the bloodstream, making the body and brain more susceptible to the effects of the booze, but will also seriously reduce the nutrition it receives. So we’re looking at increased chances of malnourishment, a proliferation of a variety of physical and mental health issues, greater risk of social repercussions and heightened potential danger that comes with reduced awareness.
According to the NHS, you are more likely to get an eating disorder if:
- you or a member of your family has a history of eating disorders, depression, or alcohol or drug addiction
- you have been criticised for your eating habits, body shape or weight
- you’re overly concerned with being slim, particularly if you also feel pressure from society or your job – for example, ballet dancers, jockeys, models or athletes
- you have anxiety, low self-esteem, an obsessive personality, or are a perfectionist
- you have been sexually abused
Most of us will identify with something from the above list whether we’ve had an eating disorder or not. Society does indeed pile on the pressure to look a certain way, and that pressure may have even been applied by the people closest to us. We have to be just skinny enough, just curvy enough, just toned enough, just whatever enough. Society also tells us that we should be cool, fun, interesting and clever. It tells us that we should drink, too – but not too much of that either. Never too much of anything. Just enough. Just perfect.
With all that in mind it’s no wonder that so many people struggle with eating disorders, and so many people turn to booze – and that so many are juggling a combination of the two.
As with any issue, but particular with mental health, talking about it and seeking help will without a doubt help – and no doubt knowing that you’re not alone will too.
Here are the stories of two of our Club Soda members who have had personal experience with the issues above. They will remain anonymous.
Member A’s story
I binge ate and drank all through college – it’s taken me years to connect the two – it took me being in a loving, stable relationship to get over the binge eating – I was still having at least one episode per month where I drank more than I wanted, risked getting a DUI, had a violent night with my husband, thought I had lost everything – we have a family history of alcoholism and I think that same behavior contributed to my binge eating – it’s all about a lack of control and trying to control something you can’t. I tremendously cut back on my drinking finally last year and got pregnant a few months later. Since having my baby a month ago I have waited for a desire to drink to come back and it hasn’t, so I’m trying to focus on how I feel even if that means not drinking. I also don’t see it as black and white, I can change my relationship with alcohol without becoming 100% sober.
Member B’s story
I can’t remember a time in my adult life when I didn’t drink or have an eating disorder. Until recently that is. I am now one year and almost two months sober. Apart from my childhood, they are without doubt the happiest months of my life.
The drinking started with friends in the local park at a silly age – 14 or something. Then going to pubs underage, which I guess is a right of passage in a small Welsh town with not a lot to do besides. It was here that I met my soon to be ‘boy’friend. He was 31 and I was 15. He was the bouncer of the local pub and with the hindsight of experience he was a very bad person. The entirety of that sad story is for another time, but during that one year relationship, most of which I was trying to escape, I was made to feel fat and worthless. It was around this time that I started purging my food. I was just 16 and certainly not fat at all.
I had bulimia for more than 25 years. It was part of me and my daily routine. For the most part I was able to hide it, but there were times when it was discovered: once at work (that was embarrassing) and other times by the odd person here and there (I talked my way out of those). I used to plan around eating and purging so that I knew that I could work it into my routine. It was my normal.
My relationship with alcohol was no less destructive. I have also experimented for the first time with drugs during the aforementioned relationship as the person was also involved in dealing. I have had periods of doing drugs in my life, but interestingly it never really became a problem.
My drinking has been the cause of much hilarity over the years. I was always up for a drink and a party, always the life and soul both at school, and especially at university. As I have worked in advertising for most of my career, that kind of thing was almost encouraged. Although, as I got older my behaviour wasn’t funny and more and more often than not I embarrassed myself. As time progressed – and I’m talking over many years here – my behaviour was shameful.
I knew drinking was a problem for me, but it got to a very destructive point about 10 years ago. I can’t remember when exactly, but I know that I started drinking at work during a certain job and started hiding alcohol from my now husband in this place, so I can track back time. In this time period I have not respected my body, humiliated myself and eventually my husband at social events, said the most evil things to him and others, and done a long list of other horrendous things when drunk. Desperately drunk. You can imagine. I don’t need to elaborate. I was drinking too much with friends and family but I was also drinking more on my own. I’d drink to go out drinking, drink before interviews, drink when my husband was out on his morning bike ride. I drank whenever I could.
To cut a very long story short. I was that person. I drank on my own and I made myself sick in secret. On face value, I was still a very likeable, sociable and successful person. In private, and in myself, I was insecure, lonely and profoundly unhappy.
Three and a half years ago I had a son. On the 4th attempt at IVF we finally got the most amazing miracle gift. I didn’t drink much, if at all, during the IVF treatment itself and I certainly didn’t drink when I was pregnant or breastfeeding. I also was very careful what I ate and my eating was healthy. No purging or drinking. For more than 18 months. Then unfortunately I became very depressed.
I knew that I was struggling with being a mum, but everyone was tired. Everyone had bad days. That was being a new parent. At this stage, however, I wasn’t really that new a mum. I had hated being home on my own during maternity leave and I still felt very lonely, isolated and worthless. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with PND. She wanted to give me pills. I didn’t want to take pills, so I left to deal with things on my own. I did go to a counsellor for a while, but it didn’t work out so I stopped.
Over that period, I started to drink a bit of wine at night and then that also became the odd glass at lunch with the other mums. Then more and more and more.
Here I was again back in old habits. Hiding alcohol in my bedroom to drink when my son was in bed at night, and my eating was uncontrollable. I was also drinking at work as I hated my job. I went out and bought ‘bad’ food and spent the next while in the toilet.
I got away with it. No one cared enough to notice me. Or so I believed. I truly was invisible and worthless. I regularly lay awake at night thinking that my son would be better off without me and hoping to die. It was a dark, dark time.
So what changed? What made me decide that I needed to stop?
One evening my husband sat me down. He had that look on his face. I still can picture it now. He looked lost, hurt, panicked. He had four or five 50ml bottles of vodka in his hand. He had found them in my drawer. At that time, I would have been drinking probably 500 ml of spirits a day at least in secret. Mostly neat. It depended how much I could hide. That would have been on top of anything else I had.
We had spoken before about my drinking. Many times. Many very sad and damaging arguments. This one was a hard conversation. My drinking had affected my husband deeply and for that I will always be so very sorry.
However, this time I was so relieved that he had found those bottles. Because he noticed. Someone cared enough to notice and I realised that I cared about both of us enough to do something about it. He saved me with that conversation and I dread to think what may have happened had we not had it.
I decided that night, In December 2017 that I would give up drinking after new year. I also had a picture taken with my son on the 23rd December at his visit to Father Christmas that really really shocked me. I was pale, bloated and overweight. Something really had to change. I didn’t know that person. I didn’t want to be her.
I drank over Christmas. Nothing in secret, and then on New Year’s eve I had a reasonable amount to see in the New Year.
On the 1st January 2018 I started the Body Coach’s 90 day plan and gave up drinking. It was a new behaviour. The body coach gives you an eating plan so that was perfect for me to follow and learn better habits and still see results. It changed my learned behaviours around food and exercise. Now I don’t follow it but I have adopted the principles and it still works for me. I have not had a drop of alcohol since. My eating was less simple to conquer but I have. I have lost over 2.5 stone, two dress sizes, but most importantly I have got my life back and the people around me get so much more. Most importantly my family.
I have since worked on the cause of my issues and unfortunately they link back to that person that I was involved with in my teens and the fact that after that I never thought I was good enough. I lost a lot of friends from being involved in that relationship and I withdrew myself and locked in my emotions. I never really gave myself a chance to be me. I wasn’t even sure who I was.
I now consciously look after my mental health every day. I exercise, which has proven to be invaluable, I do affirmations and I surround myself with positivity. I can’t say that every day I am 100% happy with myself, but I certainly am very proud of myself and know that I am enough. I have had to learn to be sober around people and it has been enlightening. I still feel self-conscious in some circumstances, but on the whole, I love it.
I’d recommend a lady called Angela Cox who has written a book called ‘Enough’ which documents her relationship with food. She’s on insta and Facebook. And I read Russell Brand’s freedom from our addictions. It is amazing. Life changing in fact.
I don’t feel the need to drink and I’m pretty sure I never will.
Are you suffering?
If you think you may have an eating disorder and would like to seek help, then we’d firstly recommend visiting your doctor, GP or local health services. If you’re in the UK then the NHS has information here. There are a number of charities and organisation across the globe who aim to provide help, assistance and treatment for those affected which we’ve listed below – if you’re outside of the UK then speak to your health professional or perform an online search for local charities and services. Talking to someone you trust is also a great start.
If you think you may be physically dependent on alcohol then do seek medical assistance as the steps/advice required are quite different for you than for those who are simply drinking too much. Speak to your GP or look up your local drug and alcohol services via Frank.
Club Soda is a wonderful place to seek support and love from thousands of like-minded people. Remember you’re not alone.