What will kill you first?
Unspooling my secrets, one terrifying truth at a time.
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I want to write to you now about pleasure. About how, after I let go of the things that were slowly killing me, I discovered what brought my life into living color. Like Dorothy, blast into a kinky, technicolor Oz. About the erotic, and the transgressive, and the delight.
But first, I have to tell you how I stopped hurting myself.
I think you need help, my therapist Nancy said over the phone. I’m really worried you’re going to hurt yourself.
I sat in the parking lot overlooking Lady Bird Lake in South Austin, suddenly regretting calling in for our weekly session. Her concern irritated me.
It’s really not that bad, I lied, hoping to move on quickly.
I’d started seeing Nancy a few months earlier, finding her on a list of psychoanalysts willing to work on the cheap after I’d moved to New York City for my music career. The stress of life in the city had fractured the modest reserve of wellness I’d built up during a short stint of sobriety in Austin—I was drinking again, snorting adderall to pound through my grueling tour scheduling, subsisting off of Nutrigrain bars and Redbull.
But it wasn’t the depression or drinking that concerned her; all of those things I could talk about. What worried her most was my bulimia.
How often are you doing it? She asked.
I bit back tears, my irritation burning into what it was that I really felt: Shame.
Every night, I finally admitted.
On the surface, my life seemed great: I was 26 and touring the world, playing packed shows, selling records. But the excitement was fleeting—underneath it all, I was in pain, and I felt totally unable to change it. It was a feeling that had plagued me since I was a kid.
My father was a loud man. On good days, he could be boisterous and charming, entertaining unsuspecting strangers by regaling them with dubious facts about our Egyptian heritage. We are descendants of the pharaohs! he’d talk-yell at some waitress while my brother and I slumped in our seats, mortified.
On bad days, the walls shook. The ceiling AC vents were ancient, and when he yelled, his booming voice echoed from room to room like a tin-can telephone line. I’d lay in bed at night, watching the popcorn ceiling tremble as he hurled a barrage of insults at my mother:
You spend too much,
You’re a terrible mother,
What do you think I am, a bank?
He yelled at her about money. Other than that, I never fully understood our financial situation. He made a good income as a pathologist, but every year we seemed to be on the precipice of losing it all. He’d invest in some ponzi scheme or gamble off hundreds of thousands right before a huge financial crash. When things were bad, he lashed at anyone who crossed his path. Mostly her, but sometimes us. By middle school, I’d learned to listen to the NASDAQ numbers on the radio while we drove to school. When the stock market was down, I steered clear of the living room.
But in that house, with those ancient vents, there was no avoiding the sound of her muffled weeping.
Mornings after, my mom and I would drive to school in a heavy silence. I’d come home, hide in my room and turn up the TV screen. As if the flowers on the kitchen counter meant it wouldn’t happen again. As if my mother hadn’t become so afraid of him, she’d begun hiding her bills in my dresser drawers.
Your father is a stable man, good with money, she insisted.
Secretly, I fumed. I hoped that he would die and stop hurting her, or that she would leave. But where? We were wholly reliant on him.
I couldn’t control or predict his moods. So instead, I turned on the one thing I could control: My body.
I wish I could explain to you, in three simple steps, how a 13-year-old develops an eating disorder and addiction to alcohol in one summer. Maybe I was primed for it, a neurotic, hyper-sensitive girl in the South. Maybe it was genetics.
I didn’t need much encouragement. Somebody passed me a Zema at a backyard party. A Zema. A few sicksweet sips in, the harsh voice inside my head eased up. It cooed. Then everything felt easier. Calmer. Almost immediately, I wanted more. Back at home, when the air was tense, I learned to sneak tall shots of the Tanqueray my parents kept behind their bar, refilling the bottles with tap water so they wouldn’t notice.
Once I was drunk, I instinctively turned to food, self-soothing with bowls of Corn Pops or Blue Bell mint chip ice cream or whatever else I concocted out of my parents cupboards.
I’d hit puberty that summer. My hips and breasts expanded, and I worried about gaining weight. In Home Economics, we learned about calorie counting and watched a Lifetime movie starring Calista Flockhart about a stressed-out overachiever who threw up dinner. It was like a made-for-tv instruction manual for how to conceal an eating disorder. I followed it to the letter, teaching myself how to throw up and evade my parents’ detection.
Just like that, alcohol and food became inextricably linked: Drinking eased my self-control, and after I binged, bulimia restored the illusion of it.
For 13 years, I made believe I had the power to control it. I enacted arbitrary rules: no booze before the gym, no ice cream in the house. Invariably, I’d have a few drinks at a show and swing into the bodega on my way home to stock up on junk food, then slink home to binge and purge alone.
But I was getting messy. After one particularly depressing gig, I was too tired and drunk to make my nightly trip, I rifled through the freezer and polished off a pint of my roommate’s HaagenDaas. Afterward, I stuffed the evidence at the bottom of our garbage can. In the morning I stumbled out of bed to find the smashed ice cream container on our kitchen counter, with an angry post-it note: To whomever stole my food: Replace it.
I was humiliated.
By the time I was 26, my teeth were riddled with holes. My cavities had become so excruciating from years of bile exposure that, at one point on tour, I was swallowing upwards of 20 ibuprofen a day, chasing them with peanut butter sandwiches and beer. I was terrified of the dentist, their patronizing glare, and the staggering bill that awaited me.
I was tired of this disgusting monkey trailing me while I crisscrossed the country, trying to drown it out with songs and praise, pretending it wasn’t that bad. Not that bad was a lie I told myself each morning, waking up with a sandpaper throat and a sour tongue. The lie wore at me the way acid strips enamel.
Until finally, on a late-night drive to Austin, I caught myself wondering what it might be like to let my car drift into oncoming traffic. That’s when I called Nancy.
Looking out over the lake, listening to the worry in her voice, I realized I couldn’t imagine a world in which I didn’t use food or booze to hurt myself. At least now, one of us had admitted we were afraid.
Alright, I told her, and sighed. I’ll go to a meeting.
What I want to tell you now is that recovery is messy. I was messy.
In the weeks that followed I went to meetings for overeaters and made the commitment not to binge and purge, and then broke that commitment. I drank and purged all the way up the Southeastern Coastline. Each morning, I woke up ashamed, promising myself I wouldn’t do it again.
Somewhere between Raleigh and Richmond, it hit me that the drinking and purging were part of the same vicious cycle I’d discovered as a kid, trying to punish my body for the parts of my life that felt out of my control. The cycle almost always began with a drink.
I would never recover from bulimia if I didn’t stop drinking, too.
Once I got back to the city, I went to a 12-step meeting for alcoholics. In a dark, dusty West Village basement, I raised my hand, and for the first time ever, I told the full truth.
I can’t imagine going the rest my life without alcohol, I told the group, or how to give up my eating disorder. It was terrifying and freeing.
Afterward, a woman in the meeting approached me.
Just keep being honest, she said. Focus on what will kill you first.
I made a decision in that moment: I would not abandon myself anymore. For just that night, I wouldn’t drink. I’d have to put the alcohol down and face my eating disorder, stone-cold sober. I could survive the discomfort—the fear of gaining weight, the calories, the nausea.
No more heavy silence, pretending it wasn’t that bad.
In the rooms of recovery, we have this saying: You’re only as sick as your secrets. I’ve had to unspool mine, one terrifying truth at a time.
The truth is that my father was a hurt man who hurt his family. But he was plenty other things, too. He was dogged, and silly, and worked hard to put us through college, making it possible for me to sit here today, writing to you about how he was a hurt man who hurt his family.
He isn’t the reason I became an addict, and he certainly isn’t an excuse. But there’s just no getting better without facing the ugly underbelly of it: The human animal will defend itself from pain however it knows how—sometimes, by harming others. Other times, by harming itself.
I took my last drink in 2013, though I continued to binge for many years. I kept seeing Nancy and going to meetings. Along the way, I worked up the courage to face other things that scared me, too.
I wouldn’t see a dentist until I was 31, when I was five years sober and got my first day job with dental insurance. I had thirteen cavities, four root canals, three teeth pulled, and two bone grafts. I hid in the bathroom stall and cried after many of those visits. Half from sadness, and half from the relief of finally dealing with it. I paid off the last of that work this year, when I was given my first clean bill of health in 23 years.
I know two things for sure: This shit is hard, and we have a fantastic capacity to heal. But healing required honesty.
“What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make them your own, until you will sick and die of them, still in silence,” Audre Lorde asks.
I had to give up the notion that my avoidance would protect me. Once I did that, the world cracked open.
Soon, I’m going to tell you about everything my life became. A weird, and sober, and queer life filled with more delight than I could have imagined. Maybe some of it will shock you, or maybe it will surprise and delight you, too. But I had to tell you about the pain first, about listening to the signals we cannot afford to silence. I am telling you all of this because I want you to come with me.
Maybe it’s as small as a boundary you aren’t setting with someone you love, for fear that they’ll reject you or anger. Maybe it’s as big as an addiction. Or bills, you’re quietly slipping into the bottom of a dresser drawer. What tyranny are you swallowing day by day, until you sick and die of it?
What if instead you told the truth?
What will kill you first?
PS. In March, I’m launching Writing Self-Liberation, a 6-week guided writing journey that uses writing as a tool for healing and self-discovery. This group is the culmination of 15 years of my work as a writer, teacher, and trauma-informed facilitator, and I’m so very proud of it. If you’ve got a story you’ve been longing to write, this group is for you. Click here to learn more.
I've been fortunate to have had a smoother path through life, but your essays still have lessons for us all. Your writing has gotten very strong and I look forward to these.
This is relatable to me in so many ways. I appreciate your willingness to tell your story, it may well save someone’s life! the Miracle of 12 step recovery is we learn how to live without causing ourselves harm, one day at a time. Keep ‘em coming!