Secondhand Drinking Recovery

My name is Lisa Frederiksen. I’m 62 years old.

In 2015, I celebrated 34 years recovery from anorexia and bulimia – the eating disorders with which I’d struggled for 12 years. I also celebrated 12 years recovery from secondhand drinking – the impacts of loved ones’ drinking behaviors with which I’d struggled for nearly four decades.

“Recovery” From Eating Disorders

Thanksgiving is the day I quietly celebrate my recovery from bulimia even though my recovery had started around Halloween.  That’s when I happened to read a small column in a Newsweek magazine that talked about a woman who’d been eating huge quantities of food and then throwing it up — for seven years. The column went on to call this behavior bulimarexia. I’d never heard the term but just reading that someone else was doing what I’d been doing, and that she’d stopped, dropped me to my knees.

I write, “quietly celebrate,” because back in the day (34 years ago), eating disorders were not talked about. The only doctor “treating” them in my area treated them as a phobia — in my case, what he decided was a fear of getting fat. He referred me to a group of other phobics — people afraid of spiders, leaving their homes, heights, flying, and closed spaces.

I didn’t buy the fear of getting fat idea, but I was bingeing and purging two, three, even four times a day, so decided to give it a try.  I was desperate to stop the never-ending voices telling me what a weak, worthless, pathetic piece of shit I was when my promise that “this is the last time, really” was broken, again. I was tired of the double life – the highly successful, senior executive businesswoman, who gave Oscar worthy performances as Lisa, that nice girl who _____________ (fill in the blank – “is my boss,” “is my daughter,” “is so much fun to go dancing with,” “wrote that article,”…), on the one hand, and the hollow shell with whom I lived on the other.

Since I had no words to explain why I did what I did, I attended a couple of that doctor’s phobia sessions, but it didn’t work for me. So I decided to “just quit” and follow what the woman in the Newsweek article did – I learned to re-eat using nutrition and exercise. As it turned out, this approach is something like being a “dry drunk.” [My article, Eating Disorders | Anorexia and Bulimia, describes how I broke the binge/purge cycle. There you will also find two of my poems, “Bulging Eyes” and “Running On Empty,” that express the hell of living with an eating disorder.]

Secondhand Drinking Recovery – When My “True” Recovery Began

The reason I didn’t fully “recover” from my eating disorders back in the day was because I’d never healed my heart, which I now understand really means to heal my brain. I did not do what I needed to do to unravel the deeply embedded brain maps of unhealthy coping skills I’d developed to block out, cope with, and shout down the voices. The voices that never stopped chattering about my faults, my guilt, my shame, my inability to stop the sexual assault that’d occurred when I was a teenager, and my inability to stop bingeing and purging in spite of the horrors it involved. Competing for mind space were the voices that tried to help me dodge, control, make up for, get ahead of, minimize, rationalize, condone and condemn various loved ones’ drinking behaviors. The voices that eventually settled on attacking me for not being important enough or good enough to make them stop drinking. I didn’t fully recover because I didn’t realize my anorexia and then my bulimia were only symptoms, “the soothers,” for these deeper, unresolved issues.

Instead, back in the day, I thought learning to re-eat meant recovery, so I quietly celebrated each year of not bingeing and purging with silent kudos to self at Thanksgiving, and set my sights on stopping my loved ones’ drinking because that would fix things. And then I became a workaholic and a super mom and an impressively organized, busy person who could get more done in a day than most people. Eventually I turned into a hawk who saw every move of every person and inserted herself as often as she felt necessary into every situation in order to “fix” the various alcoholics | alcohol abusers and the scores of others whose lives were crumbling in the wake of their own and my secondhand drinking. All the while the mind chatter grew louder, and I’d find myself exploding with anger, which I justified as my right given their drinking behaviors.

So by 2003, I was one bitter, angry, black-or-white, truth-or-a-lie, you’re-with-me-or-you’re-not type of person. It was the year one of my loved ones entered residential treatment for alcoholism.  I remember feeling almost kiddy with excitement, “I knew it, I knew it – now we just fix my loved one and all will be well!” I still didn’t get it that I desperately needed help.

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Thankfully the treatment center had an incredible family program therapist. She was truly a godsend for she finally put words to what I’d been experiencing for almost four decades. She called it codependency and called me a codependent and an enabler. I baulked at these labels, hence the term I coined in 2009, “secondhand drinking,” to raise awareness that there are real physical, emotional and quality-of-life consequences to the person coping with a loved one’s drinking behaviors. But I was so done with feeling FINE, I listened as she and the others who were in the rooms with me described to a “T” what my life was like.

Hearing their stories and that they’d not only survived but thrived once again dropped me to my knees.  I took her advice and attended as many family group therapy meetings as I could – continuing long after my loved one left treatment. I started attending Al-Anon meetings and spent three years doing cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) with a therapist who specialized in treating family members deeply affected by this family disease. And I also did what I do — I went in search of facts to answer my burning question, “Why do they call alcoholism a disease?” “Cancer is a disease,” I’d say, “all they have to do is put down the bottle! After all, I’d learned to re-eat, there’s no reason they can’t learn to re-drink.”

I buried myself in research — lots of research, and I found more answers that raised more questions that provided more answers. It was life changing. Thanks to imaging technologies of the past 10-15 years, there’s been an explosion of new findings about the human brain: how it develops and “wires” brain maps of coping skills and habits so deeply influenced by our genetics, environment, brain developmental processes, mental illness, and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

I learned what secondhand drinking-related stress does to the brain and a person’s physical and emotional health, resulting in anxiety, depression, migraines, stomach ailments, sleep disorders and a host of other conditions.

I learned that addiction is now medically understood to be a chronic, often relapsing brain disease and that people develop this disease as a result of the brain changes caused by their substance misuse in conjunction with the presence of five key risk factors: genetics, social environment, childhood trauma (ACEs), early use, and mental illness. Thus their treating their disease and my treating my secondhand drinking impacts required healing, re-wiring our brains for which there are a host of options.

It was through a combination of family group therapy, individual therapy, Al-Anon, and research, as well as pursuing the common brain “healers” of nutrition, exercise, sleep, mindfulness, and massive doses of self-care, that I finally quieted the voices. And in quieting the voices I’ve opened a world that far exceeds my wildest dreams.

It was through that combination that I finally forgave my loved ones AND myself because I finally understood we were all doing the best we could with what we knew at the time. I finally understood that fixing them did not fix me; we ALL needed help.

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Lisa Frederiksen is the author of nine books, including, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! and Loved One in Treatment? Now What! She is a national keynote speaker, consultant and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com for families and SHDPrevention for businesses and public agencies. She can be reached via email at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com. You may wish connect with or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn.