One of the enduring myths about sugar and food addiction is that it’s the food itself that is the problem. That how good it tastes is why we binge or overeat. But for those of us who are enchained by food, we know that’s not true. Most of us don’t even savor or enjoy the foods we are using. Instead, food is the misguided solution to the one or many other problems that plague us.
I began self-medicating with food as a child. It was the only thing I could figure out in the face of my mother’s inconsistent moods, my boredom and restless in school, my fears of nuclear war, cancer, abandonment. Eating a lot of sugar or buttered toast didn’t make me happy but it made me much less miserable for a few minutes. And it worked well enough for me to develop a habit of using food that way. Yes, the food was tasty but I ate it so fast, I didn’t enjoy it. I just wanted relief.
I do believe that sugar has an addictive component for some of us (me included) but even when I’m not eating sugar at all, I still want to use food to relieve any misery. So my challenge—and maybe yours—is to both find new ways to relieve misery and to eliminate as much misery as we can.
What new ways to relieve misery can you imagine?
You might think that the biggest challenge of abstinence is finding the willingness to give up your favorite foods. It isn’t. The biggest challenge, I think, is the willingness to be conscious during all of our waking hours. We don’t eat more often or in bigger quantities than other people for the taste. We do it to get numb, to avoid the pain of our feelings, our circumstances, our knowledge and experience of the suffering of the world.
Most of the sugar and food addicts I know are deeply sensitive people who care about what happens to other people and to animals and to the planet. They knew this about themselves early in childhood, and because they couldn’t find a way to express this and be understood, they turned to numbing out with food, which sadly is more acceptable in many families than sharing our grief.
Many of us continue to not know how to be with these feelings or whom to share them with. Early experiences of rejection and even ridicule makes us wary of speaking up. But if we don’t, we run the very real risk of continuing to stuff those feelings down with food. So we need to develop one or two relationships with friends or mentors who can welcome our words and help us hold our sadness and suffering.
Who in your life might be such a friend or mentor?
Last month, I spent four days with my family in a rented cabin on a mountain. At my house, no food is out on the counter except for ripening fruit. At the cabin, there was granola and chips and trail mix with M&Ms and birthday cake all out in the open. The first couple of days I didn’t think anything of it. I made it through the birthday celebration watching them all eat cake. I got used to their erratic meals and snacking and stuck to my own schedule of three meals at specific times. I find safety in that.
But on the third day, the visual triggers got to me. I didn’t really want the granola or the trail mix (I don’t like M&Ms) and the cake was down to the dregs. But all day I wanted sugar. I wanted to get in my car and drive to the grocery store up the highway and get ice cream bars and my favorite chocolate and stuff myself with them. I didn’t do that, and I didn’t eat any of what was there. But I really suffered.
I realized after I got home that I could have asked to keep the counters clean. There were empty shelves in one of the cupboards and I could easily have removed the visual triggers but it didn’t occur to me to do that. I think I’m still not completely comfortable asking for what I need even if it means I suffer. There was a good lesson in that and one I want to remember.
What do you need to ask your family for in order to strengthen your abstinence and recovery?
I recently ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in a few years. We’re both addicts, and she had been in and out of abstinence and sobriety for a long time. She looked great and I told her so.
“What’s made the difference?” I asked.
“Painting most days,” she said. “It makes me so happy. I don’t worry about making great art. I’m not out to sell it. I just like doing it and it keeps me grounded and sane.”
I know what she means. Incorporating art-making into my daily life has made all the difference to my abstinence and sobriety. I get a daily dose of joy and full engagement and satisfaction. It engages my mind in learning and problem-solving; it satisfies the child in me (and there’s one in all of us) who just likes to make stuff.
I started with coloring books, moved to drawing and painting. Took a few art classes from kindly and encouraging teachers. Now I have a studio at home and paint most days. I’ve no intention of becoming a professional artist. I give most of my work away. But I love the doing of it.
Not sure where to start? Check out my book, Sober Play: Using Creativity for a More Joyous Recovery.
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