I’m gonna take a break from my regularly scheduled Stitch Fix reviews to finally write that post that’s been eluding me for one reason or another and just throw it all out there. Edited to add I lost this AGAIN, at roughly the same place, during my first re-attempt at it, and then I learned where the damn Save Draft button is. And now I’m hitting it.
I’ve been informally studying addiction for years. Every day I count myself blessed that I am not an alcoholic or addicted to drugs or gambling. I’ve occasionally wondered if I am a shopping addict (and haven’t come up with an answer, but…sheesh, I’ll deal with that next, promise).
Not to sound like the most terminally unique person ever, but a food addiction is different. Just is. You can’t treat it by going cold turkey. You have to eat if you don’t want to check out entirely.
So what is my food addiction? From what I have learned from observing myself the past couple of weeks, it’s being unable to refuse food that is right in front of me or that I believe with be “wasted” if I don’t eat it (at the least), being unable to recognize hunger or fullness and often being unable to identify what I’m hungry for when I do get it, using food to relieve boredom, and binging and purging when I feel particularly and acutely anxious or out of control (at the worst). I am particularly triggered at work, but at home sometimes I feel guilty about not eating food that is available or will go stale soon and I eat something I don’t want, which usually means I’m either going to continue to eat until I get some kind of actual satisfaction, or I’m going to eat well past the point of fullness and then feel bad/ill/uncomfortable until that feeling passes.
I feel pretty good about my assessment of my issue.
So what to do about it? According to Overcoming Overeating, compulsive eaters, like other addicts, engage in compulsive eating because they haven’t any other tools to soothe or reassure themselves. And food does work to do that, albeit temporarily. What happens, however, is that after we overeat, we feel shame. And then we try to fix that shame by dieting and restricting our food intake and counting calories and over-exercising and all sorts of things we have convinced ourselves we can control and sustain. But of course we can’t, and all that deprivation eventually leads to another binge, and the whole cycle begins again — all without ever addressing the initial anxiety that led us to overeat in the first place. We haven’t identified that anxiety, so we translate it into shame over making ourselves fat — because we get that, we understand it, we think we can do something about it, and pretty much the whole of our society has reinforced that belief. Thinking that Being Thinner is going to Make You Happy is just as out there as planning to win the lottery to solve all of your problems (full disclosure, I do that too). “Winning the lottery” isn’t a plan. The book states that 98% of diets fail. People gain back the weight they lose and then some, and the longer they stay engaged in this cycle of dieting and binging, the harder it is to pull out of it. Still, even after all sorts of evidence has been accumulated, the world keeps rolling out the same tropes, in million-dollar industries: Fat is bad. Fat is shameful. Fat is our fault. Worst of all, fat is fixable.
At the root of the belief that ‘fat is fixable’ is the idea that we are unacceptable as we are. There’s something wrong with us. We are not good enough.
I’ve been struggling against not good enough thoughts all my life, it’s no wonder I’m where I am with food and eating today. The difference between feeling I’m not good enough to make my parent stop drinking and feeling I’m not good enough because I weigh more than I think should is that I can let go of needing to fix my parent’s unhappiness. I can’t let go of food. So I need to redefine my relationship to it.
How? Well. Step one is to realize that our body knows how to regulate itself. It’s a good machine. It knows when it needs fuel and it can tell you what kind of fuel it needs if you pay attention and learn its language. Left to its own devices, the body regulates to each individual person’s natural weight. Years of dieting and scheduling snacks and counting points and calories have monumentally interfered with my ability to read my body’s signals, and just the idea that my ‘natural weight’ might be higher than that last number I saw on the scale is very difficult for me to accept. The book offers up a series of changes to implement. I am working off of memory here, but they had such a tremendous impact on me that I’m confident I’ll get them right (if not exactly in the right order):
- Get rid of the scale. Easy. Done! Right? Well, sort of. I’ve been weighing in every Monday morning (when not on vacation at least) for the past three years. Even after I ended my Weight Watchers subscription, I continued to weigh in every Monday. Just to see how I was doin’, you know? But, the scale can only judge you. Say it with me: “The scale can only judge you.” It is not your friend. Either you’re unacceptable now or you were unacceptable yesterday. Scales are fear-based illusions of control. I told my husband that he did not have to get rid of it completely if he wanted to continue using it, but it had to be out of the bedroom and out of sight. Last Monday I woke up quite early and remembered that it was my first non-weigh-in Monday, and I am pretty sure that had something to do with the fact that I spent about twenty-five minutes longer than usual getting dressed, trying on and tossing top after top. How do I know what to wear if I don’t know that number?? HOW DO I KNOW HOW I AM DOING? Ugh, right? In better news, one week later, I got dressed right away without fuss. So, improvement.
- Buy a full-length mirror. Get used to looking at myself and what I really look like without judging what I see. This is the easiest step (though I haven’t done it yet), but I still pushed back. Where will we put it? We don’t have room! Wah! Actually we have a perfect place for it and plenty of room. It will be in the bedroom where I will definitely not be able to avoid passing by it by accident.
- Purge your closet of all clothes that don’t fit, and purchase ones that do. So the entirety of the rest of this blog is a testament that I have been doing this for the past several months, but let me be clear that this means getting rid not just of the “thin” clothes from ten years ago you’ve been hoping to deprive your way into again sometime, but also the ‘fat’ clothes you save for the particularly dark days. I have a hard time accepting that my natural weight might not be a size 2, assuredly. I mean I’d hate to never be able to wear the clothes that make me feel so confident and fun and stylish again but guess what? The world is just stupidly and ridiculously full of more fun, confidence-building and stylish clothes. It’s important to me to learn to love and accept myself whatever those numbers and letters on the tags are. I’m getting there. I think.
- Commit to never dieting again. So, I read this instruction and felt way ahead of the curve because I ditched my Weight Watchers subscription way back in July! Look how advanced I am! Except, ten minutes before I read this, I had been recording my dinner, snacks, and the exact number of minutes I did what kinds of exercise the night before into my food journal, like a low-tech Weight Watchers tracker. Sigh. Turns out that’s just another way of dieting. So I ditched the journal. I also resolved to change the long-term exercise goal of my program from Lose Weight (inherently judgmental and de-motivating) to Strong Back (positive focus on core strength and flexibility and incorporating enjoyable exercises like Pilates vs the boring ones of Cardio).
Okay folks, the next one is a big leap so brace yourselves, and be forewarned it just gets tougher after that.
- Legalize all foods. In other words, forget the words, “I can’t have that, I’m watching my weight.” If you’re going to learn to let your body ask for what it wants and when, you have to stop telling it that it cannot have certain things. PLEASE NOTE: People with MEDICAL CONDITIONS that prescribe a restrictive diet, such as diabetes or Celiac disease or anything else like that, should under no circumstances be worrying about ANY OF THIS. These guidelines are intended to address otherwise healthy compulsive eaters. Enough of a disclaimer? I hope so. What this meant for me was that I had to stop beating myself up over wanting freaking potato chips all the time. There is literally nothing shameful or insane about wanting potato chips, potato chips are AWESOME TASTING. Does my body need a constant stream of them? Not likely. But I have to let it be okay to have them, because obviously I’m not always capable of just letting my body drive the bus here. Sometimes my emotional state is going to demand potato chips. And the idea here is that I’m going to let my emotional state have them. I’m not going to judge myself, I’m just going to lovingly allow myself to soothe myself with whatever works. I’m not going to tell myself I am dirt because I ate potato chips. I’m going to tell myself that I’m sorry that I’m feeling so anxious and that I hope I feel better soon. Eventually, in theory, letting myself have access to whatever I want without judgment will help me learn to tell the difference between “mouth hunger” (anxiety-soothing cravings) vs “stomach hunger” (the physiological need for fuel).
- Practice demand feeding. When you were a baby, you cried when you were hungry, and (hopefully) someone came along and fed you. You learned that when you were hungry, there would be food for you. As you got older and your parents stopped responding to your every need 24/7, you were expected to eat at meal time, eat what was prepared, and, if you lived in my house, to finish everything you were given. This was all done for practical administrative reasons, especially if you were part of a large family or even just a budget-conscious one. Maybe your body adapted to be hungry at mealtimes. Maybe you really developed a taste for healthy, non-fattening foods like vegetables and lean meat. Or maybe you, like me, learned to stop listening to your body altogether because it just wasn’t convenient or satisfying. So you ate when you weren’t hungry. You ate when you were angry or frustrated or tired or sad, but not usually when you were hungry. And when you were hungry you either ignored it or scrounged for whatever was available hoping it would satisfy you until the proper time to eat. If you did listen to your body, and stopped eating dinner when it was full, you might have been scolded for leaving half a burger on your plate. Maybe you stood your ground and were forced to sit at the dinner table for hours over an ever-more unappetizing mess, or maybe you just finished it because it was better than the “starving kids in Eastern Europe” spiel. Or maybe you were even more like me and developed an eating disorder in an effort to regain even the slightest bit of control over yourself, even if that independence came at the risk of your health. What the hell, you were thin, right? That was all that mattered. And so here were are, many years on, and we no longer know when we’re hungry.
Now given all that, we must re-train — or “re-parent”, as the book says — ourselves to listen to our body, and we must do so in the most loving and gentle way we can. We must provide ourselves with all of our legalized foods, and in generous quantities. We must feed ourselves whatever we want, whenever we want, and as much of it as we want. We must train ourselves that we are always going to respond to our cries. Every time we give ourselves what we are asking for without beating ourselves up about it, we invest in a sort of savings bank of self-care. By doing so we accept who we are and what we want to eat without judgment or fear of consequences. Only then can we start to understand our behavior — because the observation is not clouded by self-contempt. Free from the pressure of our harping conscience, we can observe that we are eating because we are bored, not because our body needs fuel, and we can start to explore other options without pressure. Eventually, we are taking care of our actual needs (to be soothed, to be stimulated) rather than our translated ones (to eat, and eat a lot), and our body is allowed, once again, to self-regulate: to ask for food when it is hungry, to let you know when it is full so you stop. Then the body settles into the natural weight and shape you were born to be…and you accept it, because it is worthy of self-love and care, whatever it looks like.
Where I am in all of this? I’m transitioning from Legalizing Foods into Demand Feeding and I am kind of mess. It’s proving that all my years in the deprivation/binge cycle have obliterated my ability to read my own hunger. I don’t know if I want food because it’s there, because I’m hungry, because I’m bored, or for some other reason. I sit with my stomach growling but no craving for food and don’t know what to do with myself. I agonize over what to eat for dinner, unable to figure out what I want, reminding myself over and over not to judge but to observe.
We bought a bunch of my legalized foods last weekend and it was just weird. It felt so wrong to be adding so much of it to the cart. There was no joy or anticipation or giddiness. I was afraid and confused and I frankly still am. I don’t want to eat whatever I want, it’s too frightening. I don’t want to let go of chastising myself for that bag of chips because I feel like I’m giving myself a pass (and yeah, I recognize that those are all just more “not good enough” thoughts). I am learning that getting back into therapy was the smartest thing I could have done right now because for the first time in a long time, I feel lost. I have a wonderful support system in my husband and friends but find it hard to discover I do not trust myself in this and am often afraid to communicate what I’m really feeling. That’s the worst — wondering every moment if I am doing this right, if I am missing something, if I need to be more vigilant. If I am not scolding myself then what do I do, that kind of thing.
And, yeah, so…in the middle of all that, I also feel hope, and can even imagine the relief of feeling content in my own skin, whatever it ends up being. I’m flailing right now, but I won’t flail forever, and I have a lot of help.
I’m exhausted, so, that’s enough for now. Maybe later in the week I’ll have an update on how this is going, or maybe next week. I welcome any experience, strength, and hope from others, as well as questions or concerns. I don’t really need alternative dieting advice, I truly am done with that, but I do appreciate that such thoughts come from a place of concern and wanting to help. Thanks for listening, and many blessings to anyone who made it this far.