From the Podcast: Emily McAllister – Overcoming Bulimia and Substance Abuse Recovery
In Episode seven of The Courage To Change: A Recovery Podcast, Emily shared her story with her close friend, and our podcast host Ashley Loeb Blassingame. We’ve edited and condensed it here for a fast read. You can listen to the entire interview here.
Emily McAllister grew up in a Boston suburb near Harvard, where there was a lot of pressure to be successful from a young age. “The town I grew up in was very high pressure. There’s a lot of old money, a lot of overachieving.”
Emily was bright, but struggled in high school to apply herself. “I could be on my way to class, and then somebody would want to go smoke pot, and I’d be like, “Oh, okay, let’s do that.” She felt like a misfit and this sense of being ‘in’ the group became important. The smoking and drinking gave her a community, “I just felt at ease. I had something to do with myself, I had somewhere to go. I had people I could connect with.”
The drinking and drug use also served another purpose: to make her fit a physical mold that she idealized. “I felt like I was too much. My whole life I felt I was too much energy, took up too much space. So, I did a lot of things to make myself smaller. I threw up my food, I took drugs. I just wanted to be this tiny little cute person that needed to be taken care of or something. I don’t know. I was just very lost, very lost.”
The Eating Disorder
“I had gone to overnight camp every summer, and I remember, specifically, it was probably eighth or ninth grade. I came home and I was sad, and I remember I felt so sad that I didn’t want to eat.”
She didn’t eat for a week, and after studying Vogue’s emaciated models, she decided to keep getting as thin as possible. “There was a point in which I would try to starve myself, but then eventually I would binge because I was freaking hungry, and I would freak out, and felt like I wasn’t doing it perfectly and then throw up, because I was like, oh, well, I … It was damage control.”
At 14 years old, Emily had developed an array of disordered eating patterns, and lost a lot of weight. “I got a lot of positive feedback because of that. A lot; boys noticed, girls noticed, and I felt cool. It was just everything I wanted it to be. I still felt like crap inside, I still felt like not good enough, I still felt not thin enough, not pretty enough.”
Her sophomore year, she moved to a smaller high school that had a boarding school component with international students, and it was there where she started using harder drugs. “There were a lot of drugs there, because all those rich kids from overseas had all the good stuff.” She started hanging around the stereotypical ‘bad crowd’ and getting in trouble. She was arrested at 18 and was put on probation, so she had to finish school a semester late.
After graduation she had no idea what to do, and so Emily went to volunteer “at this [Jewish summer] camp in Northern California. And I was like, okay. I was just so ready to get the heck out of Boston.”
The camp ended up being good for her and got her “back to myself a little bit because I was around non felons.” She volunteered at the camp for a couple of summers, returning to Boston between summer camp stints. At 22, she decided to make a change and move to Prescott, AZ with a friend. Prescott is a small town, and she quickly got involved in the bar scene there. “It was a town with a street named Whiskey Row, and I got a job at one of the local restaurant bars, The Palace.” She met her boyfriend at The Palace, where he was the line cook, and also sold pot. “I stayed with this guy for about two and a half years, and then his and my relationship came to a screeching halt when I learned that he had been sleeping with my best friend.”
That betrayal shook Emily to the core and “sent me on an eight-month downward spiral. It was like a license to let go. And I was doing a lot of cocaine at the time. I was doing anything that I could put into my system.”
This downward spiral cycled through her issues. “I would go drinking. I’d be drunk for days, then it would turn into drug use. Then I’d be up for a few days, and then I would crash, and then I would lock myself inside, and be in my eating disorder. And then I would come out of that and it would start again.”
The Tipping Point
“So, eventually I had no job. I was dodging my landlord because I hadn’t paid my rent. I don’t know if I was dodging him or the shadow people. But I was dodging everybody. And I threw my stuff in trash bags, and put it in a storage unit.” At this point she was, effectively, homeless.
She called her mom for help, and her mom flew her to Boston. “I think I lasted [a] week in my mom’s house. So, now at this point I’m coming off of a lot of drugs, and I’m not having access to alcohol, and I don’t have money to go get alcohol.”
She left her mother’s house and hit her breaking point. “I stayed with a friend’s mom. And she was pretty oblivious to what I was doing. I would wake up at 7:00 AM, and at this point I have lost my access to drugs and alcohol, and I’d swear I wasn’t going to get into the bingeing and purging. And by 7:00 AM, I was bingeing and purging, and it was 20, 30 times a day, all day, just really in a prison, really aggressive.”
Emily went to a dual diagnosis center in Arizona where they deal with multiple issues including eating disorders, alcohol, and addiction for 47 days. “I went there for 47 days, I got out of treatment, I went back up to Prescott for the night, and relapsed right out of rehab.”
Relapse can be common in the recovery process, and she relapsed again six months out, then again after more than two sober years. She met our host after that third relapse. They had met when Ashley visited Prescott and hit it off. Ashley’s then-boyfriend was from Southern California, and she “really wanted to move to Southern California with him. And he didn’t want to go. Then when I decided to run away.” Emily was living out there at the time, and the two of them became roommates. They “were living together, and were just hot messes in early sobriety.”
Emily became her partner in crime and the person who she learned to have sober fun with. “So many people have the concern that when they get sober they’re not going to have a good time. And I think that if I could flash back to all the things that we did. I mean, we one time went with our other friend to a nightclub in Hollywood and we danced all night.”
Emily was the person who introduced Ashley to a 12-step program after her move to Los Angeles, “connected me with my first sponsor and took me to the meeting where I met my husband.” They say jokingly that Emily is “responsible for all her greatness.”
Meeting Her Husband
Emily met her future husband at that same AA meeting where Ashley met hers. “He walked into the meeting late in the back of the room I was just like, I would like to hang out with that guy.” It was a quick build of a romance, “I ran into him again like a couple weeks later at that meeting, and we did hang out, and I really thought we were just going to have a very short lived one night time of hanging out, and then we kept dating.”
Initially it became too much to be tasked with her own sobriety and someone else’s “we were both really sick at that point of our lives. so we broke up. And then I thought he was the problem because he’s a really Jekyll and Hyde alcoholic, and I thought he was the problem. And I thought once he’s gone, I can figure it out. But it turns out that I’m still an alcoholic.”
She fell back into old patterns, drinking and going to meetings but could not stay sober. A clarifying moment came when a string of friends died. One friend had been at her house a week before commiserating about struggles with drugs and alcohol. When she died, “It was drug related, and it was jarring. It was like the feeling of the way the disease works, where it’s like you can … that 50-50 … It could have been me.”
Emily reckoned with her behavior and had a spiritual awakening. She realized that she couldn’t stay sober based on a threat of punishment if she drank. “I don’t believe in a punishing God anymore. And I suddenly felt like God could help in every area of my life, including food stuff even if there’s a struggle. I just knew that it was possible. I just knew that like anything was possible because here, I was unable to stay sober, and now I’m staying sober.”
Her husband, Mike is “sober, almost 10 years too.” When Mike was using, he used to be much different “he was very dark when he was loaded, and he was very angry.” Mike’s “drug of choice was Speed. And I am a person who will do what you’re doing. I really do think that like God spared me by not putting a heroin addict in my life, because I’ve done heroin a handful of times, and it was literally everything.” They took the time apart they needed to continue the recovery process, reacquainted “and then I married him. Then we got pregnant and we got married.”
Having her two children was healing for Emily’s self esteem, and for her eating disorder recovery. “I got pregnant, and it was done. There’s no more throwing up your food on purpose. There’s just not, it’s not just an option.”
She found “self esteem isn’t what I thought it was. Because, for me, I thought self esteem was thinking that you’re smart and pretty. In rehab they were like, “You have a low self esteem.” And I’m like, “Well, I know I’m smart, and I know I’m attractive, so I have self esteem.” Which she quickly realized was not the definition at all. “Like for me, recovery from the eating disorder looks like, I don’t utter one negative word about my body in front of my children. I mean, I just don’t talk negatively about my body mostly.”
“Deciding that you’re going to accept and love yourself in this moment, and embrace … Life’s too short. If I died tomorrow, would anybody talk about what size my jeans were? No.”
Through having her children and finding her husband and community outside of drinking, Emily is 10 years clean and sober, and says, “my life looks so freaking different, that it’s like I don’t even relate to the girl in Prescott.” She runs a mommy blog called “Chasing McAllisters” and her life looks, indeed, far far different than that girl’s in Prescott.
*Quotes edited for clarity.