Today is my 30th day of sobriety from sugar and sweets, and so to celebrate, I’m going to do a Life in 10 Minutes essay in the true spirit of the form. Timer set for ten minutes. Go.
I am working towards abstinence from bingeing and compulsive overeating, but I can’t say I have many days strung together yet of abstinence from fucked up food behaviors. What I do have is 30 days of abstinence from sugar, sweets, and alcohol. I’m starting there.
Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is for compulsive overeaters what Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is to alcoholics. The shame of needing a 12-step program to overcome overeating, the embarrassment of feeling addicted to sugar in the same way some people are addicted to crack or booze or meth…it is profound and humbling. Sure, it's normal for people to become addicted to addictive substances like heroin or Jack Daniels or Oxycontin. But food?
Abstinence from food is also a tricky thing (after all, you gotta eat!), and I have learned from my short time in Overeaters Anonymous that everyone has to choose their own abstinence—there is no prescribed or proscribed path. Many people (but not all) give up sugar. Lots give up white flour or all flours. Some give up anything that comes in a bag—chips, crackers, pretzels. Some people give up bingeing and purging or restricting or overexercising. Some people purposely give up nothing except overeating because part of their illness is a compulsion to restrict, and the last thing they need is more restriction. Each individual OA fellow works to understand their compulsion around food and body image and to abstain from that compulsion in some form.
The struggle with food is real, and after years in commercial diet program, I find myself in OA for the first time among people who speak the truth about this compulsion and their successful efforts to overcome it. I never heard anyone in a Weight Watchers meeting cop to eating food out of the trash, stealing pastries, gorging on leftovers until sick. Surely many of them had done it. In Weight Watchers, we talked about the struggle with food but in sanitized terms.
When I talk about a struggle with food, I am not talking about eating until you’re stuffed on Thanksgiving or taking a second helping of pie occasionally because it just tastes so good. I’m not talking about stealing a fun-size candy bar or two from your kids’ Halloween stash or eating straight from the bag of Cheetos once in a while when you’ve had a bad day at work. I'm not talking about carrying ten extra pounds because you just love food and indulging in decadent flavors. Many Americans engage in these behaviors—food is comfort after all. Most of us on occasion eat too much or drink too much or sleep or exercise or shop or fuck or gamble or fight or clean or hoard or worry too much. Humans are creatures of extremes, and most of us are constantly doing several things too little or too much, and that's normal and not pathological.
What's not normal is a total loss of control and lack of control over certain food substances. What's pathological is eating a whole half gallon of ice cream at one sitting, and continuing to eat after your stomach is distended, bloated and gassy. What's problematic is eating a normal dinner at Thanksgiving and then sneaking leftovers out of the kitchen to eat alone in the dark, later, when no one is watching. I’m talking about curling up in bed with a good book and a Costco-sized box of candy bars and eating them mechanically without thinking about it or tasting them until either they are gone or you throw up. I have eaten ALL of my kids’ Halloween candy and then had to confess in humiliation when they discovered the theft. I have hidden candy wrappers in the trash, wrapped up in toilet paper, so no one would know how much I ate. I have hidden receipts from bakeries, eaten in my car, used gum and mints to hide the chocolate on my breath. I have stolen food from houses where I am a guest and binged on handfuls of cookies in the middle of the night, in the dark, feigning confusion when and if the missing food is questioned the next day.
I have put the acquiring food, consuming it, and concealing it ahead of friends, family, and work without consciously choosing to. I behave with sugar the way alcoholics behave with alcohol. That is the simple truth of the matter. When I read about alcoholics, I weep with recognition. Food has caused me the same pain and shame and embarrassment, minus the drunken one-night stands, DUIs, and arrests. It’s easier in many ways to hide a food problem.
I say that it's easy to hide, and yet I am nearly 100 pounds overweight, depressed, anxious, and sedentary. The older I get, the harder it is to carry this much extra weight on my frame, the more it becomes a reality that despite fat acceptance mantras like “big is beautiful,” my weight is killing me. Honestly, I care less about it killing me in 20 years and more about the fact that it makes me miserable today. And I feel utterly powerless to stop the behaviors that make me fat.
When people look at me, if they are curious about my weight at all, they must think it is an issue of willpower, or lack thereof. They might think it is a lack of seriousness, a lack of strength, an unwillingness to dedicate myself to the task at hand—weight loss. But let me say this: I’m very good at dieting. I am just as good at losing weight as I am at quitting smoking. I’ve done both dozens of times. I’ve gained and lost 50 pounds three times in 10 years. I am clearly a dieting pro.
I’ve even given up sugar for a month before as I have now, but that 30 day milestone is the marker where all the popular books and diet programs declare you “detoxed” from sugar. After 30 days without sugar, they promise you will no longer crave it and can reintroduce it back slowly into a healthy and moderate diet. Maybe YOU can. Maybe THEY can. If I go 30 days without eating sugar and then eat a single M&M, I will eat a pound. Years and years and years of experience has taught me that. Asking me to eating one M&M (whether I have just eaten a pound or not had sugar in a month) feels akin to asking a person dying of thirst to drink one sip of water.
So today I celebrate 30 days of abstinence from sugar. I’ve lost ten pounds in a month, but I’m beginning to think that might not even be the goal (DON’T GET ME WRONG, I WILL TOTALLY TAKE IT). Freedom from obsession is becoming my new goal. I want to meet a friend for coffee and have a conversation with her instead of entering into an immediate, secret, and obsessive relationship with the donut on her plate. I want my kids to grow up with a mother who is healthy, confident, and secure. I want to be able to go one day without weighing myself, without viewing deprivation as a superior state, and without feeling full of hot shame when I fail—again and again—to stick to a diet or maintain a weight loss.
Are these extravagant promises? I’m still not sure. But I will take my 30-day chip.
Damn, that was 20 minutes. I’ll make up for it by not spending any time editing. Submit.
Anonymous is anonymous. She has been going to Overeaters Anonymous meetings for a few months and has been abstinent for one month. She is still fat and ashamed, but getting less so every day.