4 - Chapter One: My Story (and Food as a Fix)
The Love-Powered Diet: Eating for Freedom, Health, and Joy
I was a fat little girl in a fat-phobic family. There was a diet for me taped to the refrigerator and I only got a milkshake when I was sick. Years later I had a cold and my boyfriend brought me a French vanilla shake. I married him. You see, my father had been a physician who had gradually turned his practice from ear, nose, and throat to fat, flab, and cellulite. My mother managed "reducing salons"—anemic precursors to the modern health club—with adipose-jiggling machines and the promise of effortless weight loss. I knew early on that my plumpness was not pleasing and that I was bad for business.
It wasn't that I didn't want to be good and stick to my diet. I knew that there were starving children who didn't even have grapefruit and grilled halibut, but the notion of restricting what I ate was terrifying. It meant giving up the sublime security that came from an illicit cookie or a bag of trail mix (that's healthy, right?). When I was eating, I felt safe, content, and loved. Once the food was gone, so was the feeling. Like everyone else, I needed food to sustain life, but I also needed it to face life. I didn't know it then, but I was hooked. Food was my fix.
When I was thirteen, I discovered the flipside of my addiction: the high of being thin. I'd been sick and wasn't able to eat for a couple of weeks. Once I got out of bed, I weighed myself: 111 pounds. I had bones. They were wonderful. I was wonderful. I bought a gorgeous green satin dress with puffy sleeves and a dropped waist and a flippy little skirt. I was awed by own reflection in the mirror. I thought I looked like the models in the teen magazines. I could have died in peace at that moment. I was finally OK.
I never got to go anywhere in that green satin dress, however. I was back to 140 pounds in little over a month, and I felt for the first time "pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization"—the phrase the book Alcoholics Anonymous uses describe the state of an alcoholic who had once gained some control and then lost it again. I never drank, but the phrase fit.
I didn't realize then that, as with the alcoholic, control wasn't the point. I was ill when it came to food, and I could no more control my eating than I could "control" the healing of a broken leg. That's why all my stalwart attempts at managing my eating ended as dismal failures.
One of these came for me at age twenty when I lost weight with a popular commercial weight-loss system. When I reach the prescribe "goal weight," I was afraid to go off the diet and got down to the absurdly low weight of 98 pounds. Unlike an anorexic who would have kept on losing, I took my two-digit reading on the scale as evidence that I'd broken the thin barrier. I was cured. I bought a pound of roasted cashews, ate them all on the bus ride home. I kept this up and gained twenty pounds in sixty days.
Had I been sane, I'd have realized that that put me at my ideal weight, but instead I saw myself on an unstoppable course that would take me further and further up in poundage and down in self-esteem. "Pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization" combined with such hatred for my eventually inflated body that I refused to be seen by anyone who knew me. I quit my job and moved to Chicago where I planned to hide, diet, and return at some future date in triumphant thinness.
While in Chicago, I learned to fast, perfecting two-week stints on water only and doing several short juice fasts as well. My physical self shrunk obediently every time, but I was so ravenous after each of these Gandhian intervals that, after eighteen months on a starve–binge cycle, the final tally was a weight gain of over fifty pounds. After that, I stayed away from scales.
It took months for my ability to diet to resurface. I was inspired by my boyfriend's taking off for the West Coast, maybe to come back, maybe not. Hurt and anger mobilized my resolve: I'd get thin and beautiful and show him what he'd left behind. I lost weight and he proposed, but neither of us realized that, heavy or slim, I was a food addict.
The façade started to crack with little weight gains here and there. They were frightening, and I felt I couldn't trust myself around a refrigerator while subject to any of the ordinary pressures of life—work, my roommate, my cat. The answer: fat farms. I took a week in Texas the first time, then two in Florida. It was becoming an expensive habit, so I started checking myself into nice local hotels to diet or fast and use their health club facilities. It worked well for a while, but as I needed to go more frequently, cost again became an issue.
I looked for cheaper and cheaper hotels. The last was a past-its-prime hostelry at the tawdry end of downtown. It had a phone book minus the Yellow Pages and a Gideon Bible lacking most of the New Testament. The carpet had been burned in spots by a careless smoker and the television was chained to the wall. "I'm in a bona fide flophouse," I told myself. "And I got here with a fork." I cried most of the night because I knew I'd become the equivalent of a gutter drunk, but if I told anyone that, they'd laugh and tell me to push myself away from the table.
It was becoming obvious that I had a problem that went beyond calories in and calories burned, so I sought help from various therapists and counselors who pointed out numerous reasons why I ate the way I did. The list was impressive:
I was grateful to learn all these fascinating hypotheses about my behavior. Unfortunately, being so enlightened didn't change a thing. The solution, if there was to be one, had to come in another way. And it did. I didn't outgrow my food addiction, I don't have any more willpower than I ever did, and I haven't had broiled halibut in decades. Nevertheless, I didn't eat for a fix today and I didn't obsess over the size and shape of my body. As a practicing food addict, I was helpless, but I was never hopeless. Neither are you.
- I'd had a digestive disorder as an infant, so I carried with me a primal fear of starvation
- My parents' professions had set me up for an eating disorder, and my staying overweight was an unconscious ploy to demand their unconditional love
- Since I'd been a heavy kid, I had a greater number of fat cells than people who had gained weight in adulthood and simply enlarged the ones they had; all those greedy lipid cells were crying out to be fed
- I had, according to one unconventional psychologist, died of hunger in a past life and was trying to make up for it in this one.
You may eat for a fix in many of the ways that I did. The pattern may have started early in life or when you got married or after you were divorced. You may trace it to a pregnancy or the loss of someone you loved, or it may have come upon you subtly and gradually. You may eat enormous meals or snack all day and not even remember when you had your last real breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You may only eat unreasonably when it comes to chocolate or other sweets, or salty, crunchy snacks. Perhaps you eat sparingly around other people and binge on the sly so no one can understand why you can't lose weight. ("She eats like a bird," you've heard them say, "but she's as big as a house.")
On the other hand, you may be enviably slim and only you know that you stay that way by throwing up every day or that your preoccupation with fitness long ago shifted from a healthy habit to a tyrannical compulsion. You could be eating quite reasonably and looking fine but you feel fat, berate yourself, and believe that if only you had a perfect body, you could live a perfect life. Maybe you're so devastated by the addiction that you avoid people as much as you can and hardly bother to wash the one outfit that you can still wear. More likely, though, you seem to function flawlessly and keep on top of everything except for a "little problem with eating." It's also possible that you don't have a serious problem with overeating or body image, but it's been six months since your doctor told you to make some changes in your food choices and you haven't been able to do it to save your life.
Whatever category you belong in, you've probably said, "I guess I just like food too much." Of course you like food. Everybody does. We're supposed to like it so much that we eat it as long as we live and live as long as we can. That's nature's way. It's only when food seems to choose us instead of our choosing it that something is wrong. Any time we stuff ourselves, starve ourselves, or eat something we know to be harmful, we're mistreating ourselves in ways that we don't deserve. When we do any of these things repeatedly, we establish a self-destructive and self-defeating pattern. When we want to stop but can't, we're addicted.
Some would argue with that terminology. That would say that food is not universally addictive like heroin or even selectively addictive like alcohol. They might argue that food can cause, at worst, a behavioral dependence. The phenomenon of craving, however, exists in food addiction as in any other kind. It was powerful enough to send me out on foot at midnight in search of caramels. I once had cravings so strong I took leftover cake from an office wastebasket, brushed off the debris, and ate all but the cardboard plate.
I also know that food can be the object of addiction because I see others and myself recovering by using the same principles of transformation that work for other addictions. The only real difference in getting over a food addiction as opposed to an addiction to alcohol or cocaine is one of abstemiousness versus abstinence. Alcoholics stop drinking alcohol. Drug addicts stop using mood-altering drugs. Food addicts can't give up eating, but we can stop eating for a fix. Recovery is a delicate balance somewhere between the binge and the diet. That's where we abandon the struggle and find sanity and peace of mind.
The dictionary defines recovery as "to get back." For me it has meant getting back some surprising things—the years I lost to binge-eating, for instance. I spent so much of my earlier life in the disease that even though I'm well over fifty, I delight in looking and feeling younger than I am. I'm able to use the nutritional knowledge that I had in abundance (food addicts love learning about food) but could never apply. I've even gotten back the joy of eating. What I did before was drugging, and it was seldom pleasant to my stomach or my conscience. Eating is a pleasure today—that's how it should be. But it's a peripheral pleasure, not the center of my world. And this is not some new, post-diet euphoria: it's been like this for me, one day following another, for nearly twenty-five years.
I once hated the way that I ate but couldn't change it. The difference started when I gave up willpower for the power of love—love for myself and from myself, for others and from them, and grounded in the love that is also power. I'm comfortable calling that God. You can call it whatever you like. It has, by any name, provided an answer where there seemed to be none, and a life beyond the fix that's filled with hope and humor and expectation. Tapping into this power is essential for addicts to live again, and my hunch is that some of that same power is needed for almost anyone to make major lifestyle changes that last. If you do not believe in miracles, or if you think that they don't happen anymore, just come to my house for dinner.
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