At my first twelve-step meeting—for my eating disorder, two days after Roz made me promise to go—seven women sitting in a church multi-purpose room greeted me with unguarded smiles. There was no coffee pot, no smoker’s room, no half-eaten box of Entenmann’s crumb cake—none of the props I’d seen at my dad’s recovery meetings growing up. There were no men. I chose a faded red upholstered chair with a lumpy cushion and a wobbly left leg. I busied myself to avoid eye contact, surveying the bookshelves and crossing and uncrossing my legs.
Peanut butter was still smeared in my hair from the previous night’s binge. I’d spent the first part of the night at a Sigma Chi keg party, and the second in my dorm to devouring all the food my roommate and I kept on a shelf by our MicroFridge. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I listened to the other woman share what they were doing to their bodies with food. I didn’t exhale fully until after it was my turn to speak: “I do this thing with food. I can’t stop.”
After the meeting, a young woman with peach cheeks and bright eyes handed me a copy of the book with the blue cover I’d seen in my dad’s bathroom all my life. Sometimes he’d tuck it under his arm as he headed out for a meeting; sometimes he’d take copies to guys in jail for DUI. Now I was holding it in my hands. The woman explained: “This book, Alcoholics Anonymous, is like our textbook, but we change the words ‘alcohol’ and ‘alcoholic’ to ‘food’ and ‘food addict.’”
Find and replace. Food for alcohol. Daughter for dad.
Growing up, we never discussed the purpose of Dad’s meetings. Or the phone calls from the men he sponsored. Or the copper sobriety coin on his keyring, commemorating his first year of sobriety. We didn’t talk about those blue books in the bathroom, or why he always asked waiters if the tiramisu had liquor in it.
To speak of these things would undo the fragile miracle of sobriety which held our family together.
On his sobriety birthday, we would dress in our church clothes and join my dad at his meeting to clap as he accepted a new coin with a higher number. He’d say a few words at a microphone: “I’m grateful to the program and my family.” He’d point at us in a row of folding chairs in the back where I sat on my hands and swung my legs back and forth, afraid to look up and see strangers staring at me. At the end, people patted my dad on the back and passed out sheet cake. I angled for a corner piece with extra frosting flowers.
We were always aligned, my dad and I. In the family myth, we were the hungry ones, ravenous for approval, popularity, goodwill. In seventh grade, I ran for student council president—a position historically held by an eighth grader. When I lost the election, my dad told the story of the time he ran for president of the largest student club at his gigantic Texas state university when he was only a freshman. From my seat next to him at our round dinner table, I chewed my buttered roll, warmed by his consolation. Neither of us got the votes on our first try; both of us redoubled our efforts and ascended the thrones on our second attempts.
We had the same aching need, the same gaping want for more, always more. We wanted to be president, not vice president, definitely not secretary. We wanted the votes to tally up in our favor. We wanted proof that people liked us, that we were worthy. All this wanting hinted at a soul sickness roiling deep beneath our ribs.
When my mother would get exasperated with some scheme I’d cooked up for attention or laughs—dressing up as Evil Knievel and begging to take my bicycle into school to enhance authenticity—she’d say, “You’re just like dad,” with a huff of annoyance, but it landed on my heart as a fact and an affirmation.
Yes, we were just alike. Eating daughter, drinking father. We rose and fell together.
I wanted to be aligned with my dad—the blue-eyed raconteur who never met a stranger. The guy who called every waitress by her name and regaled the UPS guy with stories of his humble Texas upbringing, the guy with a self-deprecating “Aw, shucks,” humor.
Everybody loved my dad.
I loved my dad.
In the faded square photo from my first birthday party, five of us semi-circled around a two-layer Duncan Hines cake with a single candle that lists to the right. My two-year-old brother mugs for the camera, his jaw wide as he pretends to devour the whole thing. The three guests—my mom’s best friend and her two kids—smile gamely. My lips, turned downward like a cartoon frown, glisten from the tears snaking down either side of my nose. Mine was a sadness too great to be cured with a slice of chocolate cake.
What the picture doesn’t show: down the hall, my dad sleeps off a bender in a darkened bedroom. Too sick for daylight, for celebrating, for watching his daughter blow out her birthday candle.
The first time I purged was a Friday night in Lent. Seventh grade. I’d made a pan of brownies after school and couldn’t stop returning to the kitchen to shave off another sliver and then another and another until more than half the pan was gone. My belly stretched to aching. It hurt to bend forward. At dinner, the sight and smell of food nauseated me, but I ate the bean and cheese nachos my parents ordered from El Fenix. Then I ate two more brownies.
I’d recently read a book about a bulimic ballerina. In the bathroom, I knelt on the cold tile and rubbed the back of my throat with my index finger. A dry heave. Everything convulsed but nothing moved. I tried again, sending my finger deeper. A seismic wave, and the food came back up. I didn’t stop until my belly was empty.
When I stood up, I sucked in the empty drum of my stomach and my ribcage expanded above it. I marveled at the gorgeous valley of my hollow center.
The fucking thrill! It was so easy to undo my mistake. I vowed not to do it often, to think of it only as an emergency measure for the next time I went too far with food.
Home sick with the flu in eighth grade, I huddled under layers of sheet, blanket, comforter. My dad pressed his hand to my burning skin. “We need to get you to the doctor.” I shook my head, no, no, no. What if Dr. Sheller could “see” my bulimia when he looked down my throat, “hear” it when he pressed the stethoscope to my chest. I blurted out my darkest secret: “I do this thing with food because my body’s not right.”
He pulled my desk chair over to the bed and sat down. I stared at the Baryshnikov poster hanging on the wall opposite my bed, my body blazing and shivering from fever and fear. He knitted his fingers and stared at the crest on his college ring. “Me and you are just alike—we have a hard time living life on life’s terms.” I nodded my head, the only part of my body above the sheet line. Before he left the room, he patted the lump that was my shoulder and urged me to rest. I closed my eyes and slipped into an untroubled sleep.
I wasn’t bad for throwing up my food. I was like him.
Fragments. Pieces. Snippets. I snatched them and stitched a story.
Snapshots of my dad’s life before I was born: He was a church-going Baptist boy from a small Texas farm town thirty-five miles south of Dallas. He abstained from alcohol as the Good Book commanded. He bailed cotton, drove a tractor, and worked at the granary. He was the valedictorian of his four-person high school class. After graduating from the large agrarian state university two hours’ drive from the family farm, he went half way around the world to Vietnam, protected from harm by his mama’s prayers and the Good Lord. He settled in Dallas after the war and married the pretty brown-eyed girl from Baton Rouge who worked at the bank and played piano by ear.
See my dad in the old pictures as I see him: At age sixteen in his white t-shirt and cuffed Levi’s, at age twenty-three in the jungle with his olive-green rucksack, at age twenty-eight in his black wedding tuxedo with the tails. Sober, bright-eyed, all-American farm boy. He was all promise, all Life on Track, all Taking the World by Storm.
But the family came fast and there was a crying baby girl named after Jesus Christ. Soon he started missing things. Missing dinner to entertain clients. Missing birthday parties. Missing visits from his in-laws to hide another DUI. Years later, once I had all my teeth and parted my hair on the left for picture day, I overheard my dad tell someone that by the time I was two and a half—still red-faced and crying—there was enough missing that the pretty girl from Baton Rouge put her foot down. “You have to do something or you will lose us all.” There were doctors and a string of A’s: Appointments, Assessments, Antabuse, Anonymous programs.
Parts of my dad’s story became mine because of what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. I remember him going to a meeting every weeknight. Right after we finished our bowls of Neapolitan ice cream, he’d excuse himself, and we’d watch him from the picture window as he crossed the front lawn and drove away in his burgundy Chevy. We’d clear the table, watch TV, and get ready for bed. Prayers were already said by the time he pulled into the driveway at a quarter past nine.
He’d come in to kiss us and say goodnight after his meeting. The shape of my dad’s almost-bald head in the darkened doorway and the acrid smell of cigarette smoke on his clothes live inside me, real as any ancient coin under museum glass. Cigarette smoke on a sweater is the smell of a sober dad coming home from a meeting, a sober dad kissing my forehead, a sober dad making things right.
In first grade, Sister Mary Margaret—the first person to explain to me my name and its connection to the son of God—taught us that Jesus Christ began his public ministry at age thirty and was crucified only three years later. “Jesus only had three years to spread the word of God,” she said, emphasizing the symbolism of the number three. I sat in the stifling classroom, staring at the crucifix next to the round-faced clock, and felt pride bloom across my chest. My dad was just like Jesus! Both of them accomplished so much in three years. Jesus turned water into wine and spread the word of the one true God all across the land as he made his way to resurrection. My dad did all his using and drinking as he made his way to sobriety. I longed to thrust my hand in the air so that Sister Mary Margaret could call on me. “Yes, Christie?” I would tell everyone about my dad and how he was like Jesus. I have a memory of telling her and watching her face transform into a sunbeam of a smile. I also know I kept my hands folded in my lap and never told anyone about the connection between my dad and Jesus.
By third grade I was allowed to answer the phone. “Hello, Tates’ residence,” I would say as I cradled the receiver with both hands. The calls were usually for dad. Men reaching out from jail or what sounded like pay phones next to jukeboxes—calling to talk to someone clean and sober. SOS calls. For a few years, an old guy with a gravelly voice named Darryl called every night at six. If dad wasn’t home, Darryl would warble at me: “Just tell John I’m clean and sober.” When dad asked who called, I’d say, “Darryl’s still sober.”
I overheard my dad say that Darryl lived in a halfway house. I pictured poor Darryl with the top half of his body above ground doing normal things, like shaving, eating chips, and making phone calls, while his torso and legs were buried in the dirt.
One day, Darryl stopped calling. The story in my head was that he either got drunk or died.
Through high school, purging remained my potent secret. My lifesaving un-doer. The nuclear warhead I kept pointed at my appetite. I used it when I ate too many doughnuts or as a tool for special occasions when I wanted to feel the expansive power of an empty belly.
Senior year, binges came more often. See me eating a box of Teddy Grahams before writing my college essay, sinking my teeth into a frozen cheesecake before the AP English exam, gorging on butter pecan ice cream before prom. My throat was raw and my chest ached from the force of slamming my body against the toilet bowl. Eventually, I got so good at throwing up that all I had to do was bend over and open my mouth. Hands-free bulimia.
I’d swear off purging, but would slip up every few months. It still felt like an ingenious secret, but the story was wobbling, threatening to topple over and take me with it.
Every story starts somewhere. An inciting incident. A spark. A first domino down. I believed I was the spark to the fire of my dad’s drinking. Match to the pilot light. Whoosh!
Roughly three hundred and sixty-five days before he was too sick for my birthday cake, my dad was thirty years old, had fourteen-month-old son, and a newborn baby girl who cried and cried and cried. Cried when held, cried when rocked, cried when sung to, cried when wrapped snug in a blanket. Always crying. Red-faced and furious. Inconsolable.
If you had a newborn baby girl aflame with a misery that no one could soothe, you too might head to the bar after work instead of going straight home. And when your buddy Mickey bailed you out for your second or third DUI, you might swing by the bar for a couple of cold ones before heading home to your irate wife, innocent son, and that wailing baby. You know, to take the edge off.
We never talked about my dad’s addiction. It was a dark, spiky subject that could pierce our skin and draw our blood. I pieced together a timeline from snippets and fragments of stories, things I overheard, things said in passing, things I wanted to believe. Gifts from my imagination that helped me order and survive the world.
This timeline swam in my belly and settled in my bones.
Whatever control I maintained over my eating disorder in high school disintegrated in college. I chose the same large agrarian state school that my dad had attended thirty years earlier. Where else would I go? There, I mixed bingeing, starving, and alcohol. I stole food from my roommate and the cafeteria. I ate out of the trashcan in the dorm’s common room—other kids’ care-package cookies and leftover pizza rolls. I shacked up with a smooth-talking Cuban fraternity boy, and when he fell into a drunken slumber, I snuck into his kitchen and ate his leftover birthday cake, leaving a trail of crumbs from the kitchen to his bedroom. The next day, after a five-thousand-calorie binge, I fainted in the shower, hitting my head on the way down.
“I don’t want to die doing this,” I told my friend Roz who was at a fancy college on the east coast. Roz had joined my dad’s twelve-step program after nearly getting kicked out of our high school for showing up blotto to winter formal. Sometimes she and my dad saw each other at meetings, which filled my belly with dark envy because they had meetings and their books and the fellowship of people trying to get clean. What did I have besides vending machines, empty bags, and a clogged toilet?
“Did you know there’s a twelve-step program for people messed up around food like your dad and I are messed up around drugs and alcohol?,” Roz said. I told her I’d look for a meeting. “Promise?” she said before hanging up.
“Come to my meeting with me,” Roz said, one afternoon during senior year. She needed a ride, and I had a free period. I said yes because I was curious and because I was my father’s daughter. Roz led the way to a seat in the back row. A man in a business suit read from a laminated page: “This is a closed meeting. It is only for those who have a drinking problem and have a desire to stop drinking.” He locked eyes with Roz, then me. “Is this you?” he asked. Roz nodded, but I couldn’t lie or skate by on my father’s credentials. I didn’t belong. “I have to ask you to leave,” he said. My mind went blank as I skittered to the door. I drove around the parking lot of the Galleria Mall for fifty minutes, blaring Purple Rain, trying to drown out the rage and regret that I wasn’t allowed in, that there was nowhere for me to go. I wished I was an addict.
After I sat in that wobbly red chair in my first recovery meeting for bulimia, I became a regular right away. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday I snuck away from my sorority house for a meeting. Within a week, I had a sponsor I called every other day. Other women took my number and called me when they felt like skipping breakfast or throwing up lunch. The blue book that belonged to my dad was now mine, my notes decorated the margins. After a year, I collected a coin. My boyfriend drilled a hole in it so I could hang in on my keyring.
One year, two years, three years. The coins jangled whenever I opened the drawer where I kept them.
When I got into recovery, I hid it as I’d hidden my bulimia. When I left for meetings, I told my parents I was running an errand. When I fielded phone calls from sponsees, I called them “friends.” When I declined trigger foods, I simply said “I’m not hungry.”
It was as impossible for me to discuss my eating disorder and recovery as it was to discuss my dad’s using and sobriety. My dad and I shared the twelve steps, but we had no words to discuss what it was that we shared. So much overlapping, and still so much empty space.
After a few years of meetings, my food addiction was in check and I planned for a future that had been impossible in bulimia. I moved to Chicago, rented an apartment, and enrolled in law school. The weekend before orientation, my parents flew up from Texas to buy me a couch and some bookshelves. On Sunday afternoon, my dad and I left my mom at a coffee shop with the Chicago Reader so we could go to a recovery meeting together as a family for the first time in almost three decades.
At the time, I was trying to figure out if food was my only problem (it wasn’t). When I invited my dad to the meeting, he accepted without asking a single question about my drinking or why I attended “his” meetings.
Twenty-five chairs were arranged in a circle, and I sat to the left of my dad. When it was his turn to share, he introduced himself and announced the date he got clean as September 1975. The familiar pride bloomed across my chest. I smiled as I checked the math against my memory. In September 1975, I was two and a half. Not three, as I’d always calculated.
My dad expressed thanks to the program for giving him a life beyond his wildest dreams. He expressed thanks for his relationship with me, his oldest daughter, who was about to embark on her legal career.
“I had my first drink when I was sixteen,” he said.
My head jerked up. Sixteen? But I wasn’t born until he was thirty. That wasn’t right. My eyes squinted at the floor. Fine, he sipped some Pearl beer in high school. That didn’t mean that the addiction started then. But then he described his drinking and using through college, through the war, through his twenties. Drinking to black-out up to and through his wedding. Hungover on the honeymoon.
Now see my dad with a beer in hand at sixteen, drunk in the Mekong Delta, hungover on his honeymoon. Now see infant me crying, crying, crying into the void of her family in crisis. It wasn’t causation; it was colic.
The spine of my story fractured into a million pieces. All those links I’d fabricated between me and my dad disintegrated and coursed through my bloodstream—out to my fingertips, down to my toes, up to my brain—all away from my heart. We were nothing more than garden-variety addicts.
I don’t know what else my dad said. I know I pressed my toes into the carpet to keep from sliding off the chair into the middle of the circle. My body felt lighter than a puff of cottonwood from the tree in my parents’ backyard. I sat on my hands to keep from floating away. Slowly, I bent over and exhaled in tiny, breathy increments. I curled my lips under my teeth, trying not to cry.
After the meeting, I drove my parents north on Clark Street for dinner at a mom-and-pop Italian joint. We dipped our bread in olive oil, twirled pasta on our forks, and marveled at the Cubs traffic. No one said anything about the meeting.
When the waitress slid the laminated dessert menu across the table, we oohed and ahhed over the descriptions of the cannoli cake with whipped cream frosting, chocolate profiteroles, and pistachio gelato. “One piece of cake and three spoons,” my dad told the waitress. With the edge of my spoon, I scooped out a bite that was two parts cake, one part frosting. We were a family sharing dessert, finding our way to each other the best way we knew how with the tools that we had. I would survive the death of the old story and make my way in the new one.
I let the sweetness fill my mouth and slide down my throat.
Rumpus original art by Kate Stevens.