I’m two weeks into my psychiatry clerkship, sitting quietly in the back of a crowded Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and watching a middle-aged man discuss his past struggles with alcoholism. He starts with his difficult childhood, describing his abusive father. When he was eleven years old, his parents divorced. Soon after, he resorted to alcohol as an escape from his loneliness, drinking to “fit in” and impress his friends at social gatherings. As time went on, his cravings for liquor and his inability to control his drinking made him feel “more pathetic than impressive,” and he fell into a downward spiral. But it didn’t end there. Later in life, his marriage crumbled because of his addiction. “I cried every night,” he told us, “It was my wake-up call to recovery.”
At his words, I couldn’t help but recall a time when I cried myself to sleep each night. His story struck a chord in me. Not because I had ever been addicted to alcohol, but because of my past addiction to food. As a young boy, it seemed I was always comforting myself with large quantities of junk food whenever I was sad or upset. When I was eight years old, I remember eating an entire plate of French fries after learning that my parents were getting a divorce.
If I had a tough day at school, I’d return home and demolish bag after bag of buttered popcorn, package after package of Reese’s peanut butter cups, and plate after plate of creamy cheesecake. By the time I finished elementary school, I was morbidly obese—so much so that to this day I wish my MCAT score had been as high as my BMI was back then.
Things got so bad that by the time I was twelve my mother enrolled me in a local Weight Watchers program. Not long after, I became one of the program’s youngest dropouts. For years I had myself convinced that I left the program because “it wasn’t right for me,” but looking back now, I realize it’s because I wasn’t yet ready to face my demons.
A few years later, we moved from the suburbs into a small apartment in New York City, where I started high school. I dreaded each day because I was constantly reminded of how unpopular I was. My life was lonely. Never before had I felt so isolated and incapable of fitting in. On a particularly memorable day I overheard an attractive girl in my class refer to me as “a fat tub of lard.” I was devastated. While I’ve since realized that teenagers are a ruthless species all their own (much due to rampant hormones), I’ll never forget how it felt to sleep in a pool of tears that night.
As hurt as I was by the put-down, it was what I needed to finally make a major change in my life. The very next day I began running on the treadmill and continued to do so, day in and day out, every afternoon. Instead of my usual junk food dinners, I ordered salad without dressing and ate whole-wheat pasta without sauce.
At a certain point my determination became an obsession, and my attempts at weight loss bordered on dangerous. For instance, I began weighing myself before and after every meal, and I would become extremely upset if my weight increased by even a fraction of a pound. Thankfully, over time I managed to develop a healthier relationship with food through learning to exercise portion control and to recognize my triggers, and have kept most of the weight off.
Like many people, I still have occasional moments when I stand in front of the mirror with doubts about my appearance. And of course, there are still times when I walk into a movie theater and am sorely tempted by the aroma of fresh, buttered popcorn. In those moments, I have to check myself before I wreck myself.
Despite these sporadic challenges, I am usually able to come out on the other, stronger, better side. For instance, if I have a terrible day and find myself devouring a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup at two o’clock in the morning, I go to bed and leave it at just one package.
I wake up the next morning and tell myself everything’s going to be all right. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that I’ll always need to be vigilant in my relationship with food, knowing that I might turn to highly caloric snacks when I feel low and remaining conscious of the toll that doing so takes on my body and self-esteem. As a result of becoming more mature over time, I’ve also come to respect myself far more than I once did. I’m resilient. I can move on and start over.
So here I am, sitting in the back of this meeting and listening to a stranger talk about his alcohol addiction. He tells us he’s been sober for six years as of this month, and the room erupts in loud applause. I can’t help but fantasize about sharing my own story with this group and having people cheer for me. In a way, it seems unfair that I had to struggle with weight issues at such a young age.
Then I glance around the room at all of these people—from the young man wearing an expensive blazer in the front row to the elderly lady wearing baggy sweatpants in the seat next to me—and I realize they’re not here to celebrate success stories. Rather, they’re here to share their experiences and draw strength from one another, to show each other that no one is alone.
Addiction meetings are about learning to accept who you are and coming to understand that sometimes you’re simply powerless over something, whether that something is cocaine or heroin or alcohol or food. It’s about reminding ourselves that it’s perfectly human to feel weak, that it’s not the end of the world if we have a relapse, as long as we wake up the next morning and start over. Sure, I’m impressed this man has stayed sober for six full years, but I’m even more impressed that six years ago he had the courage to show up to a meeting in the first place.
Maybe that mean girl’s remark will forever be embedded in my mind, but it’s what fuels my motivation to work on myself. That was my first true wake-up call. Now that I’m older, I realize that most of us are constantly working on ourselves—recovering from addiction or not—to become better people. I also realize that we all slip sometimes and must forgive ourselves, get back up, and keep moving forward.
Robert Spencer is a medical student. He wrote this reflection after attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as a requirement of his psychiatry clerkship.