If you’d asked me a few weeks ago to give examples of self-harming, I would have replied with cutting or anorexia, addictions where the harm is obvious. But then I heard from a good friend that she lost someone to overeating. Robin was in her 60s and weighed nearly 400 pounds. She had a heart attack travelling and died after a couple of days in the hospital. And I thought what’s fundamentally different about that from self-harming? Nothing.
I don’t weigh 400 pounds but I could and, if I’m honest, it wouldn’t be that hard. I got myself to 296 a few years ago without trying. I just ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. But my body couldn’t burn all that food so it stored in a most efficient way as fat.
Three years ago I gave up sugar and flour and ate a crapton of vegetables and under-ate (aka dieting) for about 18 months and I lost 80 pounds. Now another 18 months has gone by and I’m still off sugar and mostly off flour but eating too much again and the pounds are creeping back on.
Here’s the thing: In each moment of eating more than I need, I feel I’m taking care of myself. I’m soothing restlessness or anxiety or fear or loneliness. But at the same time, I’m taxing my body with calories it doesn’t need. I’m making my digestion work too hard and too long every day. I’m forcing my heart and lungs to carry more weight around than it’s designed for. In other words, I’m self-harming. And that makes me very sad and determined to come into a right relationship with food again.
What might change for you if you recognized your eating patterns as self-harming?
Last year, we spent $40 billion on weight loss products, 98% of which did absolutely no good. To give you some perspective, we could give a million dollars a day to a worthwhile cause for the next 85 years with that money. Maybe instead of looking for the next big diet, we should ask:
- What is the one thing that makes me want to get on the table and dance?
- What do I ache for?
- How can I inject surprise, fun, and outrageousness into this day?
Pam Grout, Living Big: Embrace Your Passion and Leap into an Extraordinary Life
I don’t know which came first: my impatience or my addiction to quick fixes. It doesn’t really matter but the two are intimately connected. And while I know what the solution is, I have trouble implementing it when it comes to food. When I get the need, the desire, the craving, I just want to fix it.
But waiting is most often what I need to do. When a craving for alcohol or sugar comes over me, I know how to wait. I know it will pass. I have years of evidence for that and in the case of alcohol cravings, I have decades of knowing the desire won’t last. But when my need for food masquerades as hunger, I have a lot more trouble waiting to see that it will pass. I seem to just get hungrier, not more peaceful.
Some experienced overeaters in recovery believe that we have lost our ability to distinguish real hunger from the craving to eat. That seems true in my case. So the answer lies in a different form of waiting: eating on a schedule of meals (and snacks, if that works for us) and waiting in between. It’s a relief not to have to decide if I’m hungry or just craving because the clock decides for me.
Does scheduling meals support your abstinence?
“Things can’t change as long as the emotional necessities for having them are not changed.” –Karen Horney, psychologist
This sentence leapt off the page at me in an article I was reading for a class I’m taking on finding your purpose. The article was in fact a chapter from a book Horney published in 1950 on neuroses (she died in 1952). The chapter is called “The Tyranny of Shoulds” and is a fascinating look at how we torture ourselves with the need for perfection.
I’ll write a later blog post about some of these ideas, but I wanted to share this sentence with you now because it supports my belief that if we don’t create a more satisfying life for ourselves, we will continue to numb out with food (or work or shopping or alcohol) so we don’t have to be fully in the life we have. Our emotional necessity for sugar or food will continue until we change whatever needs changing (boredom, restlessness, loneliness, dissatisfaction, etc.) and we don’t need to be numb anymore.
What’s helping you build a sweeter life between meals?
I got sober in October and Thanksgiving was my first holiday without alcohol. I went to an AA meeting every day then and on the Wednesday before, I listened to a man with some years of sobriety talk about how he always volunteered to work on holidays. He didn’t do it so that others could celebrate although that was a nice side effect, he said. No, he did it because it was safer for him than celebrating. Why? Because it made Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve into just another day of sobriety. He didn’t need things to be special. He needed them to be ordinary.
It’s been 29 years since I heard that man speak and I’ve never forgotten it. And as a food addict, I find his words especially important. I need Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s to be ordinary food days: three meals of moderate quantities of safe, healthy foods. I don’t need to put myself in harm’s way with parties and buffets and food extravaganzas. That doesn’t work well for me. I’ve learned to attend other kinds of events: concerts, for example. I’ve learned to host other kinds of gatherings: tea and poetry readings, game nights. Events that don’t involve food.
How will you protect your abstinence this holiday season?
I was on retreat last week at the Oregon coast and my regular catsitter stayed at my apartment. As I was putting away the leftover food I’d brought back, I opened the freezer door and there in the shelf/rack on the door was ice cream. Chocolate ice cream. And not just a smidgen in the bottom of a container but a full unopened pint.
I texted the catsitter, who said she’d overslept and had to hurry off to an appointment and had forgotten her food in the fridge and freezer. I asked if she wanted to come back for them but she said no, that I could eat them. I didn’t care about the frozen mac and cheese or the mayonnaise she left because I don’t eat those anymore and they don’t tempt me. But the ice cream shook me.
You see, ice cream was my food addict’s drug of choice. Particular brands, particular flavors. I could eat a gallon in a day. Was I tempted by that pint in the freezer? You bet. Did I hesitate? Yes. There it was and no one would know. Well, except me. I’d know. And it would only be me who’d have to deal with the consequences.
Three years of abstinence from sugar gave me the strength to wash it down the sink and put the carton in the trash. I didn’t taste it or smell it. I just let it go. And I was confirmed in my knowing that I don’t want the stress of visual reminders, that a clean environment keeps me stronger.
What helps you keep strong in abstinence?
I know that my relationship with food, central in my life as it seems some days, is not fundamental to my core self. It’s not who I am; instead it’s a tool that I learned as a child in dealing with PTSD. In other words, I use food as an anxiety-management system.
That was good for me as a child. I know it helped me survive. And because I was a nervous kid, I burned off all those extra calories so my physical health didn’t suffer. But as an adult, it’s no longer my only choice. And it isn’t a good one. Continuing to use overeating to manage my anxiety stands between me and a right-sized, truly healthy body.
So my challenge seems less in how to manage my overeating as has been my focus for so long but in how to manage my anxiety. This seems a most worthy inquiry.
How do you manage anxiety?
To be sugar-free for the last three years, I’ve been scrupulous. I’ve been vigilant. I’ve been committed. I don’t see that changing. Enough people who’ve gone back to eating demon foods and felt terribly sick afterwards have convinced me that it’s not a good idea.
But while I’ve been scrupulous and vigilant and committed, I’ve also been waiting. Waiting to feel as settled and resolved around food as I am around alcohol. By three years sober, I seldom gave alcohol a second thought. Three years of sobriety had carved a new groove in my brain, where drinking wasn’t a response. I didn’t have to fight the cravings any more, I didn’t feel an urge to drink. I was at peace.
I’ve been waiting to feel that way about food. And I get sad and angry that it isn’t happening. It’s still painful to walk by the imported chocolate bars or the donut case at my grocery store. It’s seriously uncomfortable to be confronted by a table loaded with little treats as I was two weeks ago at a gallery opening. It isn’t the sugar I want but the freedom to eat whatever I feel like.
I realized recently that I need to stop waiting for that peaceful absence of desire. Because food is everywhere and because I have to make food choices every day and several times a day, it’s going to take a lot longer to get to that place, if ever. I can be okay with that, I think, if I stop comparing the two manifestations of addiction and accept my abstinence for what it is: an ongoing habit I’m developing.
What are you waiting for in your relationship with food?
Three years ago today I stopped eating sugar. Since then no ice cream, no cake, no cookies, no candy, no donuts. No brown sugar on my oatmeal or acorn squash. No honey mustard dressing. There’s been one exception. A morning where I mixed yogurt into my oatmeal, fruit, and nuts breakfast and discovered I’d misread the label. It was sugared yogurt. I chose to eat it anyway.
In exchange for no sugar, I’ve gotten normal cholesterol, normal blood sugar, normal blood pressure, and 50 pounds off my body. Was it worth it? You bet. Was it easy? Not at first. I was miserable for a few days detoxing from the poisons in refined sugars. But I was eating a crapton of vegetables, which is just about the best thing you can do for your mood and nervous system.
Do I miss it? Sometimes. But the longing for it has morphed over these years into an anxiety when I’m around it. I tend to get up from the table when people are eating dessert and going to the restroom where I hang out for 4-5 minutes while they eat it. It’s not that I begrudge their enjoyment but I don’t want to look at the sweets, just like I don’t want to sit facing a row of liquor bottles in a bar or tavern.
Will I ever eat sugar again? Not if I’m wise, not if I put my peace of mind first. But I might. I don’t know. I just won’t today.
What would you gain if you stopped eating sugar?
In a very interesting course I’m taking on vocation, we are asked to look at our childhood experiences and especially at those places in our current lives where we haven’t really grown up. That is, where we don’t act like mature adults. Two things immediately come to mind for me: food and spending.
I know that once I get on amazon, my toddler self (me want cookie NOW) is going to be managing the keyboard and so I stay off as best I can. This may seem a cute image but it isn’t really. It means that a non-thinking but highly desiring part of me is in charge.
That’s the same thing that happens when I’m in active food addiction. A whiny kid shows up at the first efforts at abstinence. She’s rebellious and defiant. “You can’t make me. I don’t want more vegetables. I want fat. I want sugar. I want treats.” Sometimes it’s just “I want more.” It’s interesting for me now to contemplate the maturity aspect of this encounter. What would my relationship with food be like if I grew up around it?
Is food one of those places where you don’t want to grow up?