Sarah was one of the funniest girls in my high school class. Hence, one of my favorites.
What I did not know at the time was that she was also one of the most conflicted. With two “highly functioning” alcoholic parents, Sarah grew up immersed in addiction issues. Unlike her parents, she eventually mustered the courage to do something about them, which is why Sarah agreed to let me share her story with all of you—but, of course, not her full name, which you will understand as you read.
Sarah’s parents had experienced their own traumas. She was born just two weeks after her parents were devastated by the death of their 2-year-old son to TB. Sarah’s aunts and grandmother pitched in and doted on her. As a toddler, Sarah felt “adored.” She loved going to her grandmother’s house where she “was treated properly—like a princess.”
But at home? Her parents both were very talented and “movie star gorgeous.” Her father had served in the medical corps in World War II and saw the carnage that came with the Allied landings in Europe. He returned to the U.S. believing he could have saved more soldiers’ limbs—so, he went back to school and became a surgeon. Her mother was a professional artist, although she never got over the death of a child to TB.
Both parents turned to alcohol every day.
Sarah also faced a number of other challenges in her family. “I wasn’t as pretty as my mother or sisters. So I worked at being funny and fun.” Around 9th grade, Sarah realized that alcohol was a serious problem in her family. “So I fixed the problem. I poured out all the liquor in the house.”
Her parents “went batshit.”
That’s partly why Sarah was sent to board at Kingswood School Cranbrook, a prep school in Bloomfield Hills, MI. After six weeks of boarding school, Sarah was frustrated. “Nobody realized how special I was. And school was really hard.” Home for Thanksgiving, she cried to her parents, “Don’t make me go back.”
Sarah has never forgotten her father’s response: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But your mother and I are spending thousands of dollars trying.”
Sarah snapped, “Just remember who the boar and the sow are.”
Back at boarding school, Sarah decided the food wasn’t bad. She competed with a friend to see how many dishes of apple crisp they could eat. She put on weight and tried, but failed, to run off the extra pounds playing field hockey. “My classmates all seemed slim and gorgeous. A couple tried to teach me to put my finger down my throat, but I couldn’t do it.” She spent 10th, 11th and 12th grade “still trying” to lose weight.
After graduation, Sarah went to Finch College in New York City. Then, in her sophomore year, she got pregnant and eloped with her boyfriend Tom. Both of his parents and her mother were “horrified.” Her father was resigned.
There was a bright period when Sarah and Tom settled into a home in a lovely Ohio suburb. “I was hitting my stride,” Sarah says. “I got contact lenses, played tennis, joined the Junior League, had a social network. We had three beautiful, smart children. Tom’s father was a big sponsor of our symphony.
“But at cocktail parties, I was drinking and eating too much. Everything tasted so delicious. To control my weight, I started taking diet pills. They just made me drunk faster. I mixed alcohol with diet sodas.”
In her mid-30s, Sarah realized her husband was having an affair. She and Tom attended marriage counseling. The counselor asked Tom, “Why are you here?” Nodding toward Sarah, he said, “To get her fixed.” Later, Tom told Sarah, “This marriage would have worked if you weren’t so damn dumb.” They divorced.
Sarah internalized Tom’s criticism. “I went into a sad spiral.” She started dating, but “it was going badly.” Then, her parents both died between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1982.
Worrying Tom had been right about her being “dumb,” Sarah took a Stanford-Binet IQ test. With nervous fingers, she opened the envelope for her results. “It was a big, fat number. Oh, I said, so that’s not why the marriage ended.”
Sarah’s parents had left her “a little money,” and she decided to go back to school. She “crammed two years of classes into eight months.” When she realized she’d made the Dean’s List, she says, “I burst into tears.”
Over the next ten years, Sarah held a variety of jobs in Cincinnati, including working in a dress shop and an ad agency—but Sarah still was drinking and gaining weight.
“My rear end would have stopped a freight train. But shoulder pads were in. They helped balance the bottom.” By age 50, Sarah was running out of money. She could no longer afford her “pretty little townhouse.” She binged on self-help books. She was unemployed. One night she “fixed a fabulous meal for four and ate every bite.” She filled three tall glasses with ice and bourbon and a splash of water, downed them and fell asleep in her wing-back chair watching Jeopardy. She awoke “wedged” into the chair and had trouble getting up.
It’s often said no one can cure an addiction problem until they’ve hit bottom. Sarah hit bottom—literally. She realized, “no matter how big your earrings are, they won’t stop anyone from noticing your ass is stuck in a chair.”
That’s when she resolved to take action and called a friend who was a member of Overeaters Anonymous. The organization was founded in 1960 by Rozanne S and two other women, following the 12-step pattern of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935.
At first, Sarah was hesitant to attend the group, telling her friend that she would be embarrassed.
“Sarah,” her friend replied, “they already know you’re fat.”
In fact, Overeaters Anonymous’s thousands of local groups welcome anyone “recovering from unhealthy relationships with food and body image.” Many come because they are overweight; others come to the group because their “unhealthy” relationship to food amounts to anorexia or bulimia. Unlike various nationally known dieting organizations, however, Overeaters Anonymous does not prescribe any specific plans or diets. Instead, participants encourage each other through the 12 Steps to take control of their lives and find their own paths toward healthier living.
Sarah was impressed by the group’s approach. She chose a sponsor. “I chose someone who said she’d prayed I wouldn’t want her because I’m so confrontational.”
“Everybody has a sobriety date,” Sarah says. Hers is January 21, 1995, the date of her first meeting. As Sarah talked with her sponsor and others in the group, she developed a plan that “with God, one day at a time” would control her compulsive eating.
Sarah recalls writing out answers to questions about what triggered her eating. She realized that for her food meant comfort. “But the comfort didn’t last. I realized it still could, as long as I stuck to a food plan.”
Eventually, Sarah lost 113 pounds.
“Now I understand how much I can eat,” she says. After a small lapse—gaining 10 pounds in her early 70s—Sarah says, “I finally leveled out. She’s been following the plan, and helping others do so, for 28 years.
Sarah has been attending both Overeaters Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings since 1995. She says, “I got to the point of admitting I was powerless over food and alcohol. My life had become unmanageable. That admission is the First Step. I realized I’d also been coming on strong in relationships. What I really needed was to be quiet and calm. I have no control over other people, places or things. Myself—maybe. With God’s help.”
She says, “I realized I’d been beating myself up with thoughts like I wasn’t smart enough; I wasn’t pretty enough like my sister. Whatever my first thought is, I’ve learned to pause.”
And the past? Well, Sarah says, “We all start out as a cucumber. Once we’re pickled, we remain a pickle. We can’t go back to being a cucumber. I take responsibility for my life.”
A stronger, wiser Sarah has held a series of jobs, including as a parish administrator and as a staff assistant, now, at Northern Kentucky University. She was delighted to receive a Student Support Award for faculty and staff members who most help support students.
Sarah no longer internalizes others’ criticism of her. “I realize I just married the wrong guy,” she says. Introspection, sobriety, weight control and self-help work have led her to shed her earlier insecurity. Today, she says, “I actually like myself. I have gifts to give and am happy for the opportunity to serve.”
To keep herself centered, Sarah repeats lessons and positive messages she’s gleaned from AA. One is making amends. When you’re wrong, promptly admit it. She apologized to her children for being hard to get along with for so long. Another: The three Cs. When dealing with someone else’s addiction, realize you didn’t cause it, you can’t change it; you can’t cure it.
Certain slogans continue to resonate.
“Let go and let God.”
“Are you trusting God or are you playing God?”
“ Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go there alone.”
“A 12 step program is not for people who need it; it’s for people who want it.”
Sarah says, “12 Step programs are simple, but not easy.” She has forgiven her parents for slights that occurred in the past. She says, “I’ve come to understand we all do the best we can.”
Amen to that, girlfriend. Thanks for sharing your journey. And for inspiring others to live their best, and healthiest, lives.