Most weight loss programs and recovery programs don’t spend a lot of time talking about the environment we live in. Sure, they’ll say stay away from places where the sight of foods will trigger you but that’s about it. They don’t really tell us what to do with the coworker at the next desk with a big bowl of jelly beans or the break room with donuts and cookies. They don’t have much in the way of suggestions for eating out with non-addict friends who look forward to beer and pizza and a chocolate lava cake for dessert, a meal that will have us stopping at the grocery store for sweets on the way home.
Nor do they talk about the emotional environment we swim in: the overly critical mother-in-law, the narcissistic boss, the cheating or indifferent or demeaning partner, the teenage son or daughter who’s always in trouble, the aging and demanding parent. Of course, non-food addicts have these issues too, but they may not respond to them in the self-destructive way we do: by bingeing or overeating.
Recovering alcoholics often discover that they have to change jobs, change partners, change their lives in major ways to stay sober.
Can we food addicts find the same courage to make big changes to make peace with food?
It’s always easiest for me to undertake something difficult if I know what I want to accomplish. When I’m vague about where I want to go, I have more trouble really committing. Many people, especially women, come into food recovery wanting to lose weight. They’re tired of carrying the extra pounds, they’re concerned for their health, and they want to look better.
If weight loss is your goal, you don’t need abstinence. All you need is to under-eat, that is, consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain the weight you have. Almost any diet that restricts food intake will help you lose weight. And as long as you continue to under-eat or eat exactly (usually through trial and error) what your body needs each day, you will stay in a right-sized body.
Abstinence is for something else. Abstinence is a treatment for addiction to food, for those of us who can’t under-eat or eat appropriate portions of healthy foods. It’s for those of us who binge on sugar and flour and fat or salt and fat. It’s for those of us who sneak food, hide food, lie about food. It’s for those of who can’t keep ourselves from eating foods that make us sick or make us miserable.
I had to get clear on what I wanted from abstinence—freedom from obsession with food and the guilt and self-loathing that went with it—before I could embrace it.
What do you want abstinence to do for you?
It’s a well-known and very sad fact that less than 10% of people who seek recovery from any form of addiction, including sugar and food, have long-term success with abstinence. There are several reasons for this. Addiction is a powerful mental disorder in which a deeply entrenched habit rules our impulses. In addition, we accept irrational and self-destructive behaviors in ourselves, feeling powerless to do anything about them.
Also, and quite importantly, while we may be willing to put the food (or alcohol or drug) down and walk away, we are unwilling to make the changes in our lives and our environments that would give recovery a fighting chance. I’m watching this happen to two women I know. They want to be abstinent, they keep putting down the food for a few days, but they won’t make the other changes that will let them leave the food alone. It seems too difficult to create a more peaceful home, leave an abusive boyfriend, step into leisure activities that would be more satisfying than TV and food. Even the idea of taking baby steps towards change remains in the realm of talk and not action.
At a recent workshop, I asked the 8 women present to rate their willingness to really and truly give up sugar and flour on a scale of 1 to 10. Only one woman was at 10. She has now been abstinent for a month. The next highest score was an 8. Most of the women were at 4 or 5. None of them are abstinent.
What will it take to get your willingness to a 10? What will it take to keep it there?
Many of us stay in addiction because it’s safe. It’s awful, it’s terrible, it’s miserable, and it’s safe. We know exactly what our lives are going to be like. We may talk about how we would like something different, maybe even freedom, but the truth is that we are terrified of the uncertainty that recovery can bring.
This fear makes no sense to a non-addict. Why wouldn’t we want to break our chains and step into the sunlight from those darkened rooms of corn chips and ice cream and sitcoms? Why? Because we’re human, and as with most humans, the miserable familiar feels a lot safer to us than the unknown, even if that unknown could be fabulous. In addition, some of us have had unhappy experiences with happiness and we aren’t so trusting when times are good.
So how can we be brave? One way is to start by building a healthy, predictable structure for our abstinent life. Regular bedtimes, regular meal times, regular exercise, regular social life. That structure can provide a dependable framework we can count on.
What structure added to your life would help strengthen your recovery?
There are many ways in which our addiction to sugar and food can trip us up, but self-loathing is surely one of the cruelest. Recovery is not an easy journey. Addiction is a powerful and deeply entrenched force in our lives, and it takes considerable time and attention to change our habits, which in turn slowly changes our thinking. We can get tired of the struggle and just give up, and then we’re right back in the misery.
A big part of our tendency to loathe ourselves in the face of relapse is cultural. Our early Puritanical founders perfected self-loathing and it hangs on all these centuries later. We feel guilt and shame when we are unable to stop eating demon foods, and of course, that guilt and shame lead us to eat even more. It’s a horrible cycle.
There is no simple cure for self-loathing but it doesn’t help us in the least to just stay in it. The best treatment is to recognize it when it’s gripped you and take some small action to shift out of that space.
What small steps could you take to get yourself out of self-loathing?
There are any number of traits that we must call on to get and stay abstinent from demon foods and overeating. Discipline, self-worth, and perseverance come quickly to mind. But I’m learning that curiosity is a key component as well.
When we are curious, our minds are open, available to receive new ideas and new information. We can let in something we haven’t considered before. We can shift our attitude, our mood, and even our beliefs by remaining open and curious.
One of the great benefits of meditation, however we practice it, is to stay curious about what thoughts cross our minds and what feelings arise in our bodies. We don’t have to follow them, we don’t have to wallow in them, we don’t have to fix them. We can just experience them without doing anything about them. Instead of thinking this is awful, we can think I wonder how long this will last or I wonder what this is all about. We can learn to let the thoughts and feelings rise and fall away.
We can also stay open to new solutions to problems we are experiencing. When we respond with food, we are solving our problem in the old, well-worn way. Sadly, we are also reactivating that well-conditioned response, waking it up again as it were, and getting our cravings going again. We don’t want to do that. We want that old response to wither away. Curiosity can help us do that.
How are you using curiosity in your recovery?
Over the last few months, I’ve watched two friends who follow the same food plan I do fall into what 12-Step programs call half-measures: one foot in recovery and one foot in addiction. They each had some serious success for the first few months and then things began to slip.
One of the two women struggles to put more than a few days of continuous abstinence together because
frustration or anger or disappointment seem unbearable and the only relief she can think of is a demon food with sugar, flour, and fat. She is adamantly convinced that the frustration, anger, and disappointment are inevitable and cannot be eliminated or managed in another way. The other friend is continually adjusting the food plan, the structure, the support, trying to make it fit so that she doesn’t have to abstain completely. But doing it her way isn’t working very well either.
In the 12-Step philosophy, we have to let go of half-measures. We have to be all in with whatever food or recovery plan we have chosen. We have to trust that what is working for other people will work for us too if we just do it.
Where are you stuck in half-measures? How could you get unstuck?
I’m not someone who generally suffers from insomnia. I go right to sleep and if I get awakened, I go right back to sleep. But since Trump’s inauguration, my sleep has been fitful and I’ve had wakeful wee hours in the morning. The world feels like it’s spinning out of control and I am helpless to do much of anything about it. And it would be so easy to go back to abusing food around this.
But I’m not going to do that. Here’s why:
• Overeating and bingeing on sugar will bring only the most temporary of relief (a few minutes at best).
• It will not change anything in the world or the political climate.
• It will promptly put me back in the land of guilt and shame and self-loathing, which is not a happy place.
• In addition to worrying about the world, I’ll be worrying about my health again.
If I stay in recovery, follow my food plan, abstain from sugars and flours and snacks, I will stay awake. And the world desperately needs all of us to stay awake, to participate in our lives and our culture. Going numb will do no one, including me, any good. Not any good that counts.
It’s tempting to go numb. Those in power want us to be numb, to not care. So in a way, it’s revolutionary to stay awake, to stay alert, to stay sober and abstinent. And it’s one small thing I can do.
Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” I suspect he was talking about being a success in the business world but he could just as easily have been talking about recovery from food addiction.
The most powerful things we say are those we tell ourselves. We can tell ourselves that we can’t leave sugar alone. We can tell ourselves that we can’t stand being frustrated and so we have to self-medicate. We can tell ourselves that we will always be fat and unhappy. We can tell ourselves food plans just don’t work for us. And when we tell ourselves those things, they become true. Why? Because we believe whatever we tell ourselves over and over. We create a groove in our brain, a neural pathway, where those statements take up residence as beliefs.
So if we’re going to have any real chance at long-term success at staying off sugar and overeating, we have to monitor and shift our self-talk. We have to start saying I can do this. Being hungry for another hour won’t kill me. Being frustrated will pass and I don’t need to eat over this.
We’ll have to say these things (or whatever works for us) over and over, as many times as all the negative talk we’ve inflicted on ourselves. But it is so worth it.
What affirmative self-talk could you start doing right now to support successful recovery?
Most of us have talked and talked and then talked some more about getting off sugar and flour or cutting down on how much we eat or getting more active. We’ve even gone so far as to make resolutions or promises to ourselves and others about when (usually sometime in the not-too-distant future) that we’re going to do this. Often that time never comes. Or, if it does come, the actions we take are not enough to overcome our well-entrenched habits and nothing really changes.
But action is key to change. We cannot talk or think ourselves into a right-sized body. We cannot talk or think ourselves into a food plan that supports weight loss and reduces the cravings that keep us stuck in food compulsion and addiction. We must step into new actions to get these results. Here are some actions I had to take (and keep taking):
• Remove all sugar, flour, and processed foods (with the exception of some salad dressings, nut butters, and canned veggies) from my home.
• Eat three meals a day with nothing in-between.
• Give up the occasional diet soda (I now don’t consume any kind of sweeteners).
• Plan my shopping and meals ahead of time so I always have delicious, safe foods available.
• Choose freedom over self-medicating.
What actions can you take to get what you want?
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