I had a great conversation this morning with my friend L., a comrade in forks. We were buddies in food recovery before she moved away and we’ve stayed in touch by email. About six months ago, she decided to also do Bright Line Eating and we’ve committed now to a weekly phone check-in with how we’re doing.
I’ve been needing some support around overeating. While I have surprisingly little trouble with my demon foods, sugar and flour, as I move towards two years abstinent, I still struggle sometimes with hunger between meals and after meals. I knew L. would be great support for me because she and I share a commitment to rigorous honesty with each other. I know she won’t shame me when my program gets wobbly because she knows as I do how difficult abstinence can be.
In our call this morning, we got to laughing about our need for a non-action plan. When we get a craving for something or an urge to eat when it’s not meal time, we need to take non-action. That’s right. We need to do nothing, one of the hardest things for an addict to do since we want to fix any discomfort and fix it now. I appreciate having L.’s support for my non-action plan.
Who can support your non-action plan?
You may know that in the 1980s, the government ramped up the War on Drugs and First Lady Nancy Reagan got involved in a campaign for kids that boiled down to the slogan Just Say No. Already conscious of my own debilitating addiction to alcohol and my inability to quit, I scoffed at her advice because I knew what a tenacious grip addiction has on our will.
If we’re deeply mired in our addictive behaviors, Just Say No is too simplistic to do us much good. We need a lot of support and structure to get out of the hell of self-loathing and craving. But once we have a few months of abstinence under our not-so-tight belt, we can use this idea as a tool.
Some of the time, in our recovery, Just Say No is the right answer. We get offered a dessert. Just Say No. There’s an invitation to a party with a lot of snacks and treats. Just Say No. Friends want to meet for coffee in a bakery. Just Say No. We’re home alone and restless and it’s an hour until dinner. Just Say No.
While the slogan is really too simplistic to get us into recovery, it can be a handy tool to keep us abstinent.
When could you use Just Say No to safeguard your abstinence?
I’ve finally come to the point in my recovery where I’m willing to do some active work to repair my relationship with my child selves. I’ve long known they were there—awareness is a great first step—but I didn’t know how to heal any of that up. While my parents were good at providing for our physical well-being and safety, they didn’t have it in them to provide an equal measure of emotional security, and I often felt neglected and abandoned. Food was my go-to safety net.
As an adult, I’ve realized that when I numb out with food over emotional stress, it’s me who’s choosing to abandon my tender selves. In essence, I’m doing what my parents did. And I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to count on myself to be present for myself just as I want to be present for others.
It will take courage and compassion for both the adult in me who’s stressed and the child in me whose old fears get triggered but I’m willing to take that on.
What can your child selves count on you for?
We’re in the middle of a prolonged heat wave here in Portland, Oregon, and I am just back from my morning walk. The walk is nothing unusual. I walk every day that I don’t go to the gym. What’s unusual is what I’m wearing: a sleeveless cotton shirt. I haven’t worn a sleeveless shirt outside the house in decades, no matter what the weather. In fact, I haven’t worn them inside the house as I couldn’t stand the way my arms looked. I had fat, old-lady arms and I hated it.
While weight loss was not a surprise to me when I got off sugar and flour and snacking, the increase in my energy was and so was the renewed interest in gentle weight lifting to improve the tone of my body. Three days a week I do bicep and tricep work, shoulder weights and upper back weights. I didn’t start doing these for cosmetic reasons. I wanted a strong upper body so that I can lift groceries and kitty litter with ease. I also know that a strong upper body is an essential part of balance, which gets more and more important as we age.
What I also got were respectable arms. Are they gorgeous? No, I’m 70 years old. Are they toned? Yes. To the point where I can go to the store or walk down the street and feel good about how I look.
What might gentle weight lifting do for you and your abstinence?
At a workshop I attended recently, we practiced getting happier for no reason. We were asked to rate our current happiness in the moment on a scale of 1-10. Then the leader gave us 30 seconds to raise it by at least one number. We weren’t asked to think of anything in particular. We were just asked to get happier, to feel happier by choosing to be so.
Almost all of us could do it, and some could raise their number by 2-3 points. His point was that we don’t have to rely on external circumstances for our happiness. We can choose to be happy. This wasn’t some facile, Pollyanna thing. It was a choice. And the next thing he said was even more interesting.
If we have a big problem to solve, it is way easier to solve that problem if we’re happy. Why? Because when we’re happy, we’re more relaxed, we’re more patient, and we’re more creative. We have access to a wider range of solutions. I like that possibility.
What might change in your life and your abstinence if you chose to be a little bit happier?
As I move deeper into my practice of making decisions based on peace of mind (will choosing X increase my peace of mind?), I’m becoming conscious of how many decisions I make without much thought at all, especially when it comes to food. When I do that, what’s missing is a pause.
AA talks about “pausing when agitated,” and I’ve become better at doing that. But what if I also paused when I wasn’t agitated?
Here’s the important thing: Choice lies in the moment between thought or impulse and action; choice lies in that pause. As food addicts in recovery, we need all the choice we can muster instead of just responding to life’s difficulties by eating something. We need to move from automatic response to chosen response. If we pause before acting, we can choose something else, something better.
How could you create more of a pause before acting in your life, especially around food?
I was at a workshop over the weekend and one of the presenters quoted author Geneen Roth. “Your body is the piece of universe you’ve been given.” Although I’d read the book it comes from (Women, Food, and Money), I don’t remember reading that. Chances are I wasn’t ready to hear it, for I was still mired in food and sugar addiction.
I love this idea now. And I think it’s more than an idea or a clever poetic phrase. I think it’s a fact. On the intellectual level, we know this is true: that we are made up of the same elements as all other living beings. On a wider intellectual level, science tell us those elements are made of old stars. On the spiritual level, we know deep down we are part of everything.
So what can this suggest to us on the recovery level? That our bodies are a gift. That we are responsible for that gift and its care. Recovery is about self-responsibility, taking care of ourselves. But we can see that it’s a wider concern, a wider responsibility. If we take good care of our part of the universe, through wise eating and exercise and loving attention, we are modeling better care of everything. It’s a responsibility that fills me with wonder.
How will you take care of your piece of the universe today?
I’ve been emailing with a friend of a friend in Wisconsin about her struggles to stay abstinent with food. Every morning she plans to have a clean day and every day she doesn’t succeed. She’s feeling pretty hopeless about it. I know that feeling. I lived there for a long time. I wanted to stop and couldn’t imagine how because I thought I’d tried everything.
What I hadn’t done was look beyond the food. I was focused on the food, on what I was eating or not eating, how much I was eating, how much I should be eating. It was all about the food. It wasn’t until I could really, truly realize that the food wasn’t the issue that I could stop.
If we can look beyond the food, we can move out of what and how much to why. Why am I self-medicating with food? For that’s what bingeing and starving and overeating and chronic snacking and huge meals are all about. Anesthetic. Once we begin to fix what’s not working in our lives, we have a good chance to let the food habits go that don’t serve us.
What might happen if you could look beyond the food?
I was talking to a friend recently about all my goals and projects and giving her an update, and she said to me, “I wish I had your discipline.” I understood what she meant because I know that’s probably what it looks like from the outside, that somehow I can whip myself into sitting down to do a writing project or keep off sugar and flour or walk most days of the week.
But it isn’t discipline that gets me going where I want to go and doing the things I say I want to do. It’s something much more positive than that. I heard Pavarotti, the opera star, explain how he finds the “discipline” to sing and practice and study many hours a week. He said that it wasn’t discipline, it was devotion. Devotion to his art, to his contribution. That resonated with me. I feel that it’s devotion that’s spurring me on a lot of the time.
I’m devoted enough to my writing to do it most every morning first thing. I’m devoted enough to my well-being to walk or go to the gym almost every day. And I’m devoted enough to my abstinence to keep saying no to sugar and flour and snacks.
What are you devoted enough to do for yourself?
I’ve been thinking a lot about goals lately. I’m in a 9-month intensive course on getting what we want out of life. And I have three goals: Live as much of the time as possible in peace of mind and spaciousness, complete all 52 modules for my sugar addiction online program, and develop a sustainable art practice that fits my life.
How do I know these are goals and not wishes? Because every day I interact with them. I’m in relationship with them. I’m learning to make all my decisions based on peace of mind and spaciousness. Will choosing X increase peace of mind? I’m scheduling 2-4 writing sessions a week on the modules. I completed 11 more modules in May. And I’m keeping track of my painting time with a goal of five 45-minute sessions a week. I’ve exceeded that number the last four weeks.
On the other hand, here’s a “goal” of mine that is really a wish. I want to lose another 30 pounds by Christmas. It sounds like a goal. I’ve got a specific measurable outcome and a deadline. So how do I know this is a wish instead of a goal? I’m not doing anything to get there. I’m talking about it. I’m thinking about it. I want it to happen. But I’m not interacting with the goal. I’m not in relationship with it. And I’m finding that makes all the difference.
What one wish could you turn into a goal and how would you do it?