The Liar’s Disease

by Bill Brenner on January 27, 2010

Truth: People who engage in addictive behavior lie all the time.

Mood music:

You might remember a few years back when the author James Frey wrote  A Million Little Pieces; his memoir on life as a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser and his rehab in a Twelve-step program.

A Million Little Pieces.jpg

The credibility of the book was eventually ripped apart after it came to light that a lot of the book was fiction. You might remember how Oprah Winfrey took him apart piece by piece on her show over his lack of honesty. She was especially livid because the book had once been at the top of her book club reading list.

But when I think of the book my thoughts turn to horror novelist Stephen King. I’ve never been much of a Stephen King fan, though I did love “The Stand.” But at the height of the Frey controversy, he wrote an absolutely brilliant article called “Frey’s Lies.”

King, himself a recovering addict, shines a bitter, devastating light on one of the most uncomfortable truths people like us live with: When it comes to honesty, we  suck big time.

Here are some of my favorite parts of the King article:

“Substance abusers lie about everything, and usually do an awesome job of it. I once knew a cokehead who convinced his girlfriend the smell of freebase was mold in the plastic shower curtain of their apartment’s bathroom. She believed him, he said, for five years (although he was probably lying about that, it was probably only three). A recovering alcoholic friend of mine reminisces about how he convinced his first wife that raccoons were stealing their home brew. When she discovered the truth, she divorced him. Go to one of those church-basement meetings where they drink coffee and talk about the Twelve Steps and you can hear similar stories on any night, and that’s why the founders of this group emphasized complete honesty — not just in ”420 of 432 pages,” as James Frey claimed during his Larry King interview, but in all of it: what happened, what changed, what it’s like now.”

He concludes: “Surely there are more important lessons to be learned here. They have to do with drugs and alcohol as well as truth. Addiction is a plague on American society. The cruelly ignorant assumption that addicts bring it on themselves (and thus can take care of the problem themselves) only exacerbates the problem. No child on third-grade Careers Day says he wants to grow up to be an alcoholic like Mommy or a rock hound like Dad, and no addict struggling to get clean before the spike or pipe can do him in deserves to be told, ”Just pull yourself together and clean up your act like James Frey did.” Because, dig: James Frey isn’t the way you sober up…and if you think I’m lying, let’s go to the videotape.”

I’ve mentioned my own talent for lying to those around me during times where my demons were out of control in The Most Uncool Addiction. The lies aren’t built around malice. It’s more about the shame an addict feels after giving in to the craving and feasting on their chosen substance like a wild animal in the sewer.

To help you understand, I need to repeat the story I told in that earlier post:

In my case, the addiction is food, something we need to survive. It’s not the least bit cool. Certainly not a “normal” addiction.

That food would be my problem makes perfect sense. As a kid sick with Chron’s Disease much of the time, I was often in the hospital for weeks at a time with a feeding tube that was inserted through the left side of my chest. That’s how I got nourishment. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything. At a very early age, my relationship with food was doomed to dysfunction.

It didn’t help that I was from a family of over-eaters who would stuff themselves for comfort in times of stress and fatigue.

In our society it’s considered perfectly OK to indulge in the food. Time and again, I’ve heard it said that overeating is a lot better than drinking or drugging. But for me, back when I was at my worst, binge eating was a secret, sinister and shameful activity.

Here’s how it works:

You get up in the morning and swear to God that you’re going to eat like a normal person. You pack some healthy food for the office. Then you get in the car and the trouble starts before the car’s out of the driveway. Another personality emerges from the back of the brain, urging you to indulge. It starts as a whisper but builds until it vibrates through the skull like a power saw.

The food calls out to you. And you’ll do whatever it takes to get it, then spend a lot of time trying to cover your tracks.

Before you know it, you’re in the DD drive-thru ordering two boxes of everything. It all gets eaten by the time you reach the office. You get to the desk disgusted, vowing to never do that again. But by mid-morning, the food is calling again. You sneak out before lunchtime and gorge on whatever else you can find, then you do it again on the way home from work.

You pull into McDonald’s and order about $30 of food, enough to feed four people. From the privacy of the car, the bags are emptied. By the time you get home, you wish you were dead.

The cycle repeats for days at a time, sometimes weeks and months.

For many years I hid it well, especially in my early 20s. I would binge for a week, then starve and work out for another week. That mostly kept the weight at a normal-looking level.

Call it athletic Bulimia.

In one inspired episode, I downed $30 of fast food a day for two weeks, then went a week eating nothing but Raisin Bran in the morning, then nothing but black coffee for the rest of the day. After the cereal, I’d work out for two hours straight.

In my mid-20s, once I started working for a living, I kept up the eating but couldn’t do the other things anymore. So my weight rose to 280. In the late 1990s I managed to drop 100 pounds and keep it off through periodic fasting.

Then I started to face down what would eventually be diagnosed as OCD, and I once again gave in to the food. The gloves were off.

The binging continued unabated for three years. The weight went back up to 260. I also started to run out of clever ways to mask over all the money I was spending on my habit. I was slick. I’d take $60 from the checking account and tell my wife it was for an office expense or some other seemingly legitimate thing. But she’s too smart to fall for that for long.

Then I discovered Over-eaters Anonymous (OA), a 12-step program just like AA, where the focus is on food instead of booze. I didn’t grasp it immediately. In fact, I thought everyone at these meetings were nuts. They were, of course, but so was I.

Thing is, I had reached a point in my learning to manage OCD where I was ready to face down the addiction. If it had to be through something crazy, so be it.

Through the program, I gave up flour and sugar. The plan is to be done with those ingredients for life. Put them together and they are essentially my cocaine. I dropped 65 pounds on the spot. But more importantly, many of the ailments I had went away. I stopped waking up in the middle of the night choking on stomach acid. The migraines lessened substantially. And I found a mental clarity I never knew before.

I can’t say I’ve slaughtered the demon. Addicts relapse all the time. But I have a program I didn’t have before; a road map unlike any other.

When Erin read that post, she was pretty shocked, even though I eventually told her the truth. I told her the truth in bits and pieces, though, which is different than having it delivered in one, vivid flashback in the form of a blog entry.

That she was surprised makes sense on review. Even though I eventually gave her the honesty she deserved, I’m sure that in coming clean, I used the most passive, diluted language possible. Shame makes people talk that way.

King was right about another thing: Addicts don’t find recovery on their own. They need help from others who have suffered.

They are dragged up those 12 steps kicking and screaming in the beginning.

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Joe January 27, 2010 at 12:30 PM

Lots of us where we crew up Bill have had to deal with this disease in all it’s forms both small and large. I’ve personally met some duzzy’s who’s lying addiction makes all of own normal tendencies pale in stature. I really appreciate your points and the issues here.

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