There was a point in my life not so very long ago when I spent over $400 a month on diet soda. Most of that was Diet Pepsi. They should have been paying me to advertise. I couldn’t be found at any point throughout the day without a can or a bottle wrapped tightly in my fingers. I drank it with breakfast, drank it for lunch, and guzzled still more with dinner. I woke up in the middle of the night to drink it sometimes for Christ’s sake. Add in the $75 I spent every month on Trident gum and I could nearly have paid for my rent.
It’s no wonder I was always broke, always living from paycheck to paycheck. With a habit like that it’s tough to keep money in the bank, but it’s also impossible to satisfy your thirst. Nothing sounded as amazing as an ice cold Diet Pepsi at the end of a long ride, or in the middle of a sale at work, or while watching a movie with my girlfriend, or while driving the car, or while walking the dog, or while writing, or while doing any one of a thousand other things that one can do throughout the day.
Do you know how many ounces are in a liter? There are 33.8 fl. ounces in 1 liter. I drank at least 4 liters of Diet Pepsi everyday... At work. Add to that the the 3-4 12 oz cans I would drink with breakfast and the bottomless refills at dinner, followed by more cans while I was winding down and getting ready for bed and the total would hover around 8-10 liters on any given day. You can do the math.
“That stuff will kill you,” they said to me, God only knows how many times. And I suppose that they were right. I suppose that it probably would have killed me eventually but the truth is that I was too stubborn to die just then. The cutting hadn’t killed me. The 24 hour racing hadn’t done me in. I sure as hell wasn’t going to go as a result of soda-pop. But I gladly would have drank it straight to my grave if only they would have let me.
“Why do you drink so much of that shit?” They would ask again and again. Only someone without an eating disorder needs an explanation. I didn’t dare tell them it was because I would need to eat something if I didn’t fill my belly with carbonation and retard my appetite with copious amounts of caffeine. I didn’t dare let on that I needed that “shit” inside of me to function. They all knew it, I’m sure, but I thought that somehow I was hiding my dependency and my sickness by keeping the words from falling out of my mouth.
Don’t we all think we’re that clever when we’re sick though? Do we really expect the world around us not to notice that we’re disappearing? We are people and we’re not invisible despite what we may believe. Someone is always watching, it’s just rare that anyone says anything about the skinny boy who rides his bike five hours and drinks 10 liters of Diet Pepsi every day. And what would be the point in saying something, in making it known how blatantly obvious is was that something was very wrong with that picture? I was not a child anymore. I was an adult, making my own way through the world, just as all of those people noticing me were doing and who were they to try to change the decisions that I was making for myself?
So they said nothing, other than to ask why I drank so much and to let me know that Diet Pepsi was going to kill me, and we went about our lives, each of us ignoring the dying boy who was withering away as the days passed and the summer drew to a close. And that’s all that I really wanted from them at that point in my life. I wanted to be ignored, to be left in peace, to be left to my own devices and to live recklessly in the only way that I knew how. This was my innocent and socially acceptable addiction, something that could bring me what seemed like endless amounts of joy without hurting me too badly. My girlfriend called it my medicine and she bought it for me when I was feeling down. She knew just how to make me feel better.
But in truth, 10 liters of Diet Pepsi every day wasn’t reckless in comparison to a gallon and a half of your favorite flavors of ice cream going down my throat and coming right back up. And when ice cream just wasn’t enough it was cake, and brownies, and cookies, oh my! And how do you know that you really have a problem with Diet Pepsi? Maybe when it’s part of every binge as well. But it was there for a reason. It was always there to stop me before I got too out of control. The stomach can only hold so much, after all. Those were miserable nights. Horrible, lonely, tragic nights. And then the nights weren’t enough any longer and they became miserable days too, days when I would only leave the house to buy food, if you can call it food, and the TV would never leave the cooking channel.
It seemed there was no end to those days and those nights since when I wasn’t so miserable I thought that I was truly happy because I was so beautiful and thin. I believed that happiness could be found at the end of eight lonely hours in the saddle with nothing but a few power bars and water to satisfy my hunger and I sought to find it often. I thought that real satisfaction lay in the bottom of a 1/2 gallon ice cream container so I went searching for it every chance that I got. And beyond that, I knew that real, pure, unadulterated bliss was carved in human flesh by the tip of a razor blade. But this, this I saved for special occasions because this was an addiction not so socially acceptable. This was something that people couldn’t help but open their mouths about, and this was something to which I couldn’t simply respond, “Because I like the bubbles and I’m too healthy to die, so leave me alone.”
Scars need their explanations, and each of them has one too, I’ve just never been comfortable sharing what those explanations might be. Too much shame, too much guilt, too much hatred for myself. If only I were stronger, I would tell myself, then I wouldn’t need to do this to my body. If only, if only... But strength, or will power, has little to do with it after a certain point. I willed myself into a successful professional athlete, you would think that not drinking Diet Pepsi, or eating a healthy diet, or keeping myself away from a box cutter would have been easy in comparison. But despite all of my strength, I couldn’t seem to do any of those things; and for this, more than anything else, I was ashamed of myself.
Harder than kicking the habit, harder than keeping my food down, and harder still than making it through each day without bleeding all over the bathroom sink, was reaching out for help on that cool morning in October. It seems like a lifetime ago that I sent a text to my mother asking for her help in finding a treatment facility for someone struggling in the ways that I was. She wasn’t blind. She had stood by and watched me fall to pieces as the months had passed but she, like so many others, understood that those were my choices and that her saying something would do little except perhaps push me further into the darkness.
So began the long, slow, grueling process of recovery. And when I say slow, I mean agonizingly slow. Of course, it was only as slow as I made it, and I fought it for over a year before I finally gave up and gave myself to the idea of truly getting better. The right words will get you out of the psych ward, back to your bike and your Diet Pepsi, in 72 hours flat no matter what you’re in for. I lied, I pretended, and eventually I even believed, that I was really on a path to a healthy life until one fateful night in September of the following year sent me back to the psych ward, and this time they refused to let me leave.
The first rule of in-patient eating disorder treatment is: You do not drink diet soda. The second rule of in-patient eating disorder treatment is: You do not drink diet soda. For five weeks I sat at our special table with our special meals prepared from our special menu and I watched the other crazy people, the ones without eating disorders, slurp down their Diet Cokes from frosty 20 oz bottles. It wasn’t Diet Pepsi, but I gladly would have taken a life for even just a sip. I hatched schemes and plotted the ways in which I would steal one of their bottles while no one was looking and hide it until our rooms were unlocked an hour after meal time. Then, I would retreat to my bathroom and I would drink the whole fucking thing in one gulp and cry sweet tears of joy before hiding the evidence and flushing the toilet to make sure the nurses knew I was only taking care of business.
Of course, I never had the guts to turn my plans into reality. But looking back I wonder, what would they have done to punish me? Lock me up? Realistically, they probably would have taken away my walking privileges which were critical in keeping me sane when everything in my world just dared me to lose my shit.
Five weeks wasn’t quite enough for me apparently because the first thing I did when I got out was hit the dollar tree on the corner and buy a Diet Pepsi, and the second thing I did was stop at the CVS a 1/4 mile later and buy another Diet Pepsi. It tasted strange on my tongue at that point but I couldn’t help but feel that I was finally home after a hellish imprisonment behind enemy lines. But there was a catch to my freedom: It would be short lived. In fact, I had less than 24 hours before I was to check in to residential treatment in Los Angeles for god only knew how much longer. I intended to make the most of my time out in the world and for six glorious hours down I-5 I drank until my heart felt content. Nearly, not quite.
I drank Diet Pepsi until the very moment before I walked down the drive way to the house where I was to spend the next 5 weeks of my life. And something amazing happened in that place, something I never would have expected on that morning as I sipped my Diet Pepsi in a Vons parking lot. What? Well, I decided that I had lived for long enough with an eating disorder and that I could be satisfied in knowing that I had been damn good at being sick. I accepted that my life needed to change and I realized that I had every power in the world to leave that house any time I wanted. I saw clearly, not for the first time, that living in the way that I had been living was leading me nowhere and I saw that I had the opportunity to make a lasting change for the better. Knowing that I had the power to make all of the pain of recovery stop at any time was the key. I can endure nearly any amount of punishment so long as I’m the one inflicting it on myself. Put someone else in the driver’s seat and all I can think to do is rebel.
So I embraced the idea of real recovery for the first time and along with that idea, I observed the first two rules of in-patient eating disorder treatment willingly. Believe it or not, when I was granted a three hour pass to leave the house and eat lunch on my own barely a month later, I did not run off and buy a Diet Pepsi nor did I skip my meal and being able to be honest with the treatment team that I had come to trust with my life was a feeling more satisfying than carbonation and caffeine had ever been.
But what now, nearly two years in? I can’t tell you that I haven’t had a Diet Pepsi since November 1st, 2012, but I can tell you that I haven’t consumed more than a single liter on any given day since then and I can also tell you that there are many days like today, when I haven’t had one at all. More importantly, I can tell you that days like today are no more difficult than days when I do choose to have a moment with an old friend. And it is a choice now, a real choice, in a way that it never was back then. I could have chosen to stop in theory, but theories fall short in the real world when addiction is at work. And you’re probably thinking to yourself, who cares? It’s just a Diet Pepsi, what’s the big deal? And if you’re thinking that, you’ve probably never had an eating disorder. And if you’re reading this and you do or have had an eating disorder, I guess the whole point of this story is to tell you that change is possible. Against all odds, and even for those of us going through the worst of times, struggling with the most self-destructive of behaviors, there is still hope.
I know because I am sitting here now, writing these words with a smile on my face, a smile that couldn’t have been forced for anything in the world not so long ago.