Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Thoughts on Food and Addiction

Does not measure a woman's worth.

I like to go back through the archives of blogs I've just become acquainted with and read some of the older posts. Every Woman Has An Eating Disorder has a link on her sideboard to a post from 2006 about her one and only visit to a Weight Watchers meeting. Unfortunately, I attended more than one meeting. Many, many more. While I don't miss the obsessing, feeling hungry all the time, wanting to throw my baggie of raw veggies against the wall (and I like raw veggies), feeling like a failure when I didn't lose weight, the endless shopping, cooking and meal planning, the anxiety preceding any social gathering about whether there would be food that would fit into whatever iteration of the food plan WW was following that year, the endless explaining to relatives that yes I could have a salad but no I couldn't have Aunt Fannie's scalloped potatoes, there is one thing I do miss: the solidarity. You don't feel isolated at a WW meeting. Everyone there is in the same boat and shares your struggles. There's a lot of cameraderie and support and sense of shared purpose. And it's my belief that this is why a lot of women keep going, or going back, even if they aren't losing weight or don't have much (or even any) weight to lose.

I think it's also that sense of connection that makes Twelve Step programs work. Back in the 80's, when you weren't anybody unless you were addicted to something, I used to joke that some of my friends had simply switched their drug of choice when they "got sober." Instead of booze, drugs or bad relationships, they switched all of that compulsiveness over to The Program. Being On The Programâ„¢ became all they wanted to talk about or think about. For some, it became another way to avoid facing themselves and how they'd fucked up their lives. They'd talk the lingo, but the changes weren't happening. (Before anyone starts jumping all over me, I know that there are people who never would have made it without Twelve Step programs and who really did transform their lives. Those aren't the folks I'm talking about here.) Back in those days, a couple of my "addicted" friends suggested I go to Overeaters Anonymous. They knew I struggled with weight and food, and were eager to slap the Addiction label on just about anything that moved. So I went to a couple of meetings. Now this was in the days when OA wasn't about religious adherence to the "gray sheet" (the diet). Even though a part of me knew I wasn't actually addicted to food, I tried to follow the program and be "abstinent." But how to define "abstinence" when it comes to a substance that you can't actually abstain from without eventually kicking the bucket? No one in the OA group was able to offer me much guidance there either. "It's however you define it," was the standard answer at that time. I tried eating three "balanced" meals a day with no snacks, gained 5 lbs in three weeks, and gave up. These days, it's my understanding that OA has gone back to a food plan, which avoids all sugar and white flour, at least according to someone I know who was an OA regular about 5 years ago.

Part of why I couldn't believe that I was addicted to food was that I'd had times in my adult life when I wasn't obsessed or overeating. The first time was back in 1980 in the months after I read Fat Is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach. I stopped dieting, and almost overnight I stopped bingeing. I stopped worrying about my weight. The freedom I felt around food was a revelation. I hadn't felt that way since I was a kid. After a few months, the weight gain started to bother me, so back to restricting my food I went. (But I never did go back to "bingeing with a vengeance" like I had in my teens and early 20's.) I went back and forth with this stuff over the next twenty or so years. The cycle would go like this: I'd read something that convinced me that dieting was futile, I'd have a few months of eating like a normal person (or pretty close to it), then I'd get discouraged about my weight, go on a diet, lose weight, gain back some, all, or more of it, decide dieting was futile, rinse, repeat. I "did" Weight Watchers a couple of times during those years, the most "successful" stint being the months before my wedding, losing 15 pounds and keeping it off for about a year. Anyhow, I've come to realize that my eating was always most out of control following a diet, and when I gave myself permission to eat, the overeating stopped. Kind of the opposite of what happens when you're actually "addicted" to something.

It took me another few years to really commit myself to not dieting. In the process, I joined an online support group focused on the process of learning to have a normal relationship with food and learning to love our bodies as they are. It was based mainly on two books, Overcoming Overeating and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies. Both approached food and weight issues from a feminist perspective, as had Fat Is a Feminist Issue. In this discussion group, the topic of OA came up frequently. And during one of these discussions, the light bulb went on that for me and a lot of other women, it isn't food we're addicted to, but dieting, or food and weight obsession. We're addicted to beating ourselves up over what we look like and what we eat. We're addicted to worrying about what the scale will say and if the restaurant will have grilled fish and diet salad dressing. We're addicted to comparing ourselves to other women to see whose the fattest. And especially, we're addicted to the fairy tale that getting thin will solve all of our problems, and that we'll get to be the Beauty Queen we never had a chance to be when we were young. It's not a physical addiction, no. But an eating disorder serves the same purpose as an addiction: to distance us from pain, to distract ourselves from the stuff we don't want to face about ourselves, and to narrow our focus down to one thing that we know and is familiar and predictable.
After a few years of really working on it, and experimenting with food and what works for my body, I can honestly say I have a pretty normal relationship with food. I can pass up dessert if I'm full, I eat what I want (provided it's available) when I'm hungry and I stop before I'm stuffed. None of this takes much effort anymore, which at times I realize is a small miracle. And I'm sorry for all of those years that I had a miserable relationship with food. I missed out on so much, not just tastes, but experiences. But in the end I'm grateful to be where I am now.

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Blogger Maya's Granny said...

Isn't it a major miracle? I look back over the decades of struggle and realize that it was my struggling that was the problem rather than the solution. We were like drowning people -- flaying around and pulling all of our rescuers (body signals, taste, feelings) down with us, rather than relaxing and floating.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Deja Pseu said...

That's a great analogy, mg. Yes, exactly, it's the struggle itself we become dependent on to give our lives focus and meaning, and a handy scapegoat for everything that's wrong. It feels so good to be able to let it go, and yes, "miracle" doesn't feel like too inflated a word here.

11:23 AM  
Blogger drstaceyny said...

How wonderful that you've learned to eat intuitively! Thanks for the link and the mention--I'm actually glad I never went back! ; )

9:08 AM  
Blogger Deja Pseu said...

You're very welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

9:32 AM  

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