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?
With my current food plan, I stick to three meals a day and snacks are a rare occurrence. In my not-so-distant past, I ate off and on all day long; not surprisingly, this was the same way I drank before I got sober. Getting off snacking was a huge revelation to me for I’d always accepted the folk wisdom that 5-6 smaller meals were better. But to be honest, those meals for me weren’t much smaller than breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Here’s what I’ve learned about snacking. First, I was overtaxing my body, which never got a break from digesting. Second, I thought I was burning off those calories with a lot of activity, but I wasn’t. Although I moved a lot (walking, going to the gym), it wasn’t enough to burn all consumption. Most importantly, I wasn’t accepting the reality that it is very hard for me to eat a small quantity of food and then stop. I can eat until I’m full or I can abstain from eating, but once I get started, I can’t just stop after a few bites.
Snacking assumes you can stop, that you can eat an apple or an ounce of cheese or a few nuts, and be done. Turns out I can only be done when a full meal is over, when I’ve had enough. So now I rarely snack. Instead, if my schedule changes, I move my three meals around to accommodate and sometimes I’m just hungry.
What’s your experience with snacking? Does it help you stay abstinent or hinder it?
Some food addicts come into recovery terrified by food. They have been so out of control, eating anything and everything in excess, that they don’t feel safe around choice. If they’ve also had success on one of the monotony diets (cabbage soup three times a day, for example), they may believe that’s the only way they can safely live.
My mother was one of these. She felt safest with a strict regimen of grapefruit and toast for breakfast, cottage cheese and tomato for lunch, and fish and salad for dinner. She didn’t want to have to think about food, she said.
Others of us see such monotony as a sure recipe for relapse, a return to cravings and bingeing. We need to enjoy what we eat while watching out for favorites that we can hooked on and then obsess about. We feel safest when we try new combinations and fresh flavors.
While most addicts agree on abstinence as the best path out of food addiction, what we choose to eat can vary widely. And while peace with food is our common goal, how we achieve it can be quite individual.
Do you feel safer with sameness or variety? Why?
www.lifebetweenmealscoaching.com offers several kinds of support.
I wrote a post recently about the critical importance for us addicts of keeping our word. A strong sense of integrity makes abstinence so much easier. Then a couple of experiences over the past weeks have had me thinking about this some more.
One of my problems is that I say yes too quickly. Yes to a freelance job coming my way even though my work calendar is full. Yes to an invitation from an acquaintance because I feel guilty saying no. Yes to hosting an event for good friends even though I don’t have the time and others could do it just as easily. I generally end up keeping my word on all these things, but my stress level really ratchets up.
In support of my abstinence, I am practicing thinking twice about saying yes. If it’s something that goes on the calendar, I say “I’ll have to get back to you.” If it’s something that feels like a should instead of a want to, I say “No thanks. Can’t make it.” I don’t let myself raise my volunteer hand until I see if someone else will raise theirs. Stress reduction is key to my sweeter life between meals.
What promises and commitments do you need to think twice about?