I didn’t think I had a problem with procrastination. Doing things at the last minute made me so anxious that I got used to doing everything early. But I read a definition recently about procrastination as putting off living, and I realized that has been and still is me some of the time. Why? Because from time to time, I’m still acting out my addiction to overeating, and nothing encourages us to put off living our true and real lives like addiction.
Overeaters like me eat when we don’t want the reality we have. Maybe it’s boredom, maybe it’s restlessness, maybe it’s loneliness, maybe it’s anger. Something in our reality isn’t the way we want it to be and so we use food to escape. We aren’t always conscious that that’s what we’re doing. In fact, not being conscious is the whole point of self-medicating with food. But now I see that when I do that, I’m putting off my life, rather than fully living it. And I don’t want that. I don’t want to put off my life. I want to live it fully and consciously.
What might change for you if you stopped using food to put off your life?
Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful, something I learned in the treatment center 28 years ago when I was first getting sober. It’s a common slogan in 12-Step programs because it’s true. And one of the most cunning aspects of the disease process is the shame spiral we fall into when we are using our self-medication of choice.
We feel ashamed because we can’t stop the behavior (overeating, bingeing, drinking, shopping) and that shame so erodes our confidence and determination that we go on doing whatever it is we would like to stop doing. We may think the food or alcohol is running us, but it’s really shame. We’ve given our power to shame.
In order to protect our abstinence or to step back into it if we’ve gone back to self-medicating, we need to change our response to shame. We may not be able to control its occurrence, but we can refuse to use it to relapse. We can refuse to participate in the cycle of shame → eating → more shame → more eating. We can offer each other support in releasing our shame in helpful ways and moving back into abstinence.
What has helped you step out of the shame cycle?
A woman who’s very public in her recovery from food addiction announced on her blog that she’s experimenting with a water fast (going without any food for a prolonged period and drinking only water). I was surprised at this. Not because of what she’s choosing to do. That doesn’t appeal to me but I know that water fasts can be a healing experience for some illnesses, especially when it’s supervised by a physician.
What surprised me is that this woman is still looking for a cure. She promotes a very healthy and successful food program of abstinence and support but it’s apparently not enough. I understand this. We addicts are restless creatures. We’re still looking for the easier, softer way to deal with our emotional dependence on self-medication.
I sure did. I cut out ice cream and that worked—for a while. So did eating no white sugar. So did eating no fried foods. So did Weight Watchers. So did Slimfast. But eventually I was just right back in it up to my increasingly thick neck. It was only when I gave up all of my trigger foods AND began creating a satisfying life between meals that I could stop searching for some magic solution.
What magic solutions have you tried? What is really working for you?
I’m an anxious addict. According to Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction, there are six kinds of addictive brains, six variations on the illness that is addiction, and I’m the anxious type. That makes sense to me. Childhood trauma switched on my flight or fight mechanism in such a huge way that it’s often running the show, whether I’m in any discernible danger or not. I started self-medicating my anxiety when I was 9 and that became a deep groove in my brain and my habits.
Lately I’ve been way more anxious than usual. I suspect some of it is triggered by the increasingly fractious state of the world: the hatred, violence, fear that we are all swimming in. I know that some of it is triggered by the severe heat waves that have been visited on us here as a result of global warming. The claustrophobia of closed curtains and loud fans all day and all night are taking their toll.
But even though self-medicating with food is my first impulse, adding guilt and shame into the mix is not going to make things better. I know that only too well. So I’m doing other things to soothe myself: more painting, comedies on TV, naps on the porch swing, talking with friends, 12-Step meetings. Each time I do one of these things, I’m better for a while. I’ll take that.
How do you soothe yourself now that food isn’t an option?
One of my food addict friends decided to rent out her home and move into an apartment in a newly upscale neighborhood. Her city has been in a big real estate boom and she figured her plan would net her money and give her a fresh start. Things didn’t turn out quite as she had expected. She leased the apartment, moved her stuff, and then her house didn’t rent and it didn’t rent and it didn’t rent. She finally lowered the rent considerably and found someone.
Her new apartment is lovely but she’s no less unhappy than when she was living in her house. She ‘s still grieving the break-up of a romantic relationship, still at loose ends in retirement, still struggling with food, and now has added money stress to the picture. The magic cure of a new place to live turned out to be what we in recovery call a geographic: we change places but our inner issues move with us.
In active addiction, this was my habit too. I’d change some external circumstance instead of addressing the real issues of unhappiness, loneliness, anger, grief. Cleaning up the wreckage of the past doesn’t just mean making amends to others; it means dealing with what triggers us to eat.
What geographics have you attempted? How did they turn out?
I rest now in my day
a late afternoon siesta
4 pm is a witching hour for me
It used to be drink
that went on until bed
but that led to no good
So now I rest
sometimes I doze
are my accomplices;
someone’s always happy
to join me
looking for a hand
It’s a sweet time
not an eat time
A rest practice
is an antidote
that kicks in
when the food free-for-all
isn’t a choice
This idea sounds counter-intuitive, I know. Typically, we use our experience and learnings to decide what to do next. That’s what our learnings are for, to guide us into a safe future. But when we’re trying to step out of addiction into abstinence, we can’t trust a lot of what we already know. Those old knowings—like continuing to overeat or binge or medicate with demon foods in order to deal with our stress or boredom or unhappiness—aren’t useful.
Instead we have to lean into what we might discover if we do things differently. If we put down the sugar and flour, cleaned the processed foods (hidden and not-so-hidden sugars) out of our kitchen, and began to create a sweeter life between meals, one that supports our recovery from guilt, worry, and self-loathing.
Of course, it takes a leap of faith to make decisions based on curiosity, on a desire to see if there’s another way. But we don’t really have much to lose. We know we’ll get the same old misery if we don’t try something new. And most of us are so miserable that the unknown can begin to look pretty interesting.
How might you decide on abstinence based on what you don’t know yet?
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?