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?
The 12-Step programs don’t assume that recovery is a “been there, done that” kind of experience. Recovery is a process, not an event; an ongoing commitment, not a single decision. This is the meaning of “one day at a time.”
I had lunch with an old friend yesterday and told her I was going to risk going deep into my feelings about food and safety (as I know they are linked) and see if I can heal up some more of what is prompting me to overeat. She looked at me rather quizzically and said, “Haven’t you already done that?”
“Of course,” I replied, “but it’s not a talk-about-it-and-be-done thing. It’s deep, it’s complex, and it’s multi-layered, that conditioning that happens to us as kids in less-than-healthy homes. And I’m still not at peace and I want to be.”
I’m not sure I convinced her of anything but I didn’t have to. I just know that I am further along on the journey than ever and there’s still a ways to go. As the AA wisdom says, “More will be revealed.”
What deeper layers of recovery are waiting for you to explore them?
I’ve realized that when I’m in the midst of cravings, having peace in my body is the only thing that seems to matter. Making the craving go away feels urgent and impossible to deal with in any way except eating something. I feel frantic and miserable and I just want it to stop.
But as we all know, satisfying a craving by eating doesn’t keep the cravings from coming back. It just keeps the well-worn groove of response alive in the brain so more cravings occur. And it doesn’t lead to peace of mind, not for me anyway. Once the body is sated, the shame, guilt, and inauthenticity come knocking—every time!
If I can accept that my food addiction, like my alcoholism, is an illness, then what is my body and soul trying to tell me through this? Can I stop medicating with food and really listen to what they are asking? Can I lean into—and learn from—the suffering rather than wishing it away?
What might your soul and body be asking of you when you are suffering with food addiction?
I came across this great quote from Joan Chittester, an extraordinary radical nun, who writes very interesting books. “We have a chance [at all stages of life] to be the best self we’ve ever been,” she says. “And we have the chance to help others do the same.”
This got me thinking about my best Self and how abstinence from demon foods and overeating gives me a much greater chance of being guided by that best Self. When I succumb to the seduction of numbness, my best Self recedes from me in a kind of sadness that I’m making the same old mistakes again and again.
Abstinence is my key to my best Self. I know that and yet I don’t always choose it. But when I attend to the second part of the quote, helping others do the same, there’s a stronger pull to put the food down and live consciously.
How is your relationship with food connected to your relationship with your best Self?
I’ve been coming across the idea of risking more and more often from a number of different sources lately. First, the women and money group I mentioned in the last post where we each expressed a big risk we could take. Then the same conversation has appeared in several books I’m reading for an upcoming course I’m taking on Deep Vocation as I move towards retiring from my paid work. In those teachings, living a fully conscious and considered life always involves risk-taking.
Of course, recovery from food addiction is by nature a risky business. We have to give up the seduction of comfort and lethargy that lies deep in our relationship with food as sedative. We have to risk that we will survive as our feelings surface and ask again to be dealt with. We have to find a way to be okay in a steady state of alertness and consciousness that we have pushed away for so long. We have to be willing to face the large and small demons that cornered us in the past and encouraged us to eat our way to safety.
So when it came my turn to speak my big risk into the circle last Sunday, I spoke my need to find true peace with food, to stop self-medicating and face my dragons. I have the willingness. Now I’m looking for the courage to risk.
What big risk could you take towards further healing with food?
In a women’s money group I belong to, we had an exhilarating conversation about taking big risks, and I got to thinking about what might be in my way of doing that. I was having lunch afterwards with my friend Pam and it occurred to me to challenge us both to a week-long abstinence from TV watching.
This wasn’t directly related to food because I seldom eat a meal in front of the TV. I’ve trained myself to eat at a table and read or write or think instead. And I haven’t had commercial TV or cable since 9-11. But I’m still seduced into long evenings of Netflix or amazon Prime where one episode rolls automatically into another and suddenly I’ve been on my butt for four hours—well-entertained, to be sure, but passive, really passive.
Because I’ve worked systematically in recover to reduce as much stress as I can, my addiction to TV isn’t as a stress reliever. It’s just easier than something where I think, respond, create. And my deep sense of anxiety when I gave it up tells me there’s something here for me to really look at. Today is Day 5 of 7 and I’m feeling more connected to my life. That’s a big thing!
Where are you seduced by comfort and lethargy that doesn’t serve you well?
I’ve been fooling around with granola. The very very low sugar kind. Eating it for a meal with berries and nuts. But it’s turning out to be as bad a relationship as a seedy motel with a married man.
You see, one bowl isn’t always enough. And I’m finding myself tempted to move from the very very low sugar kind to the low sugar kind, just a couple of grams more per serving. And I’ve moved from skim milk to half and half. And I know what I’m doing. I really do. I’m still looking for ice cream.
Ice cream is at the very heart of my addiction to sugar. It’s the perfect combination of fat, sweet, and flavors that puts me in the numbing coma that I’m still drawn to. I know that ice cream is not in my future, not if I want to be sane and have a prayer of a chance of a normal size body. But I still want it.
So when I began to see that granola and fruit and cream was in response to an ice cream longing, I knew I had to let it go. But not without regret.
What slippery-slope foods have you fooled around with?
You’ll have noticed in the last few posts that I’ve been thinking a lot about self-talk, most especially my own. Part of being in healthy conversations is monitoring our assumptions. I was at the grocery store today and bought black beans. My inner voice started talking to me about buying flour tortillas to go with them. As I’d eaten some flour on my trip abroad without big cravings, there was an assumption in there that this would be okay.
Assumptions are tricky devils. They appear to us as facts (“I could never do X”) when they’re not necessarily true; we treat them as beliefs (“People always X”) when thinking that doesn’t promote peace or happiness in our life; we treat them as real when all they are, are thoughts (“I should be able to eat flour”). And just like that clever saying, “Don’t believe everything you think,” most of us are better served by examining our assumptions for what they are rather than assuming our assumptions are valid.
Because disordered eating and chronic struggle with food has been such a big part of our lives, it’s not surprising that most of us have a lot of assumptions about recovery before we ever experience it. We’re skeptical (“that will never work”), jaded (“I’ve already tried that and it didn’t work”), and discouraged (“nothing works for me”). But those assumptions, those false beliefs don’t serve us. It’s almost never true that we can’t lose any weight if we follow a healthy diet of vegetables, fruit, small amounts of protein, and few or no grains and eat these in moderate amounts. Whether it’s what we eat or how much or both, change is possible if we are persistent.
Just like other forms of self-talk, assumptions that empower us (I can find an exercise program that fits my life) serve us better than those that disempower us (I don’t have time to exercise). Those of us who suffer from food addiction need our own help in choosing assumptions and other forms of self-talk that move us toward recovery, not away from it.
What new assumptions could you make that would strengthen your recovery?