Once upon a time I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I wasn’t there for myself, but had gone with a friend that needed my emotional support. I went there expecting that I would only hold this person’s hand while they took a very difficult step towards recovery, and that my participation and emotional investment would end there.
I have never been so wrong about anything in my life.
I listened silently as each person related their struggles with alcohol addiction. Their stories were serious and sometimes heart-wrenching. It was all I could do to not weep as I listened to them tell of the physical and emotional struggles that they had to overcome or were still struggling with. It was not an easy hour, and it became almost impossible to bear when from seemingly out of left field I had a sudden realization. Every statement these folks had made about alcohol I could repeat verbatim if I replaced the word “alcohol” with “food”.
Oh my God, I thought. I’m addicted to food.
I’m addicted to food. That phrase started to echo through my head as the meeting finished, and by the time I had returned to the car with my friend I was sobbing. My emotions were all over the scale, from shame, to anxiety, to an immense relief that I had taken an important step towards understanding the nature of my life-long unhealthy relationship with food. I was a food addict, and that explained so much.
But a day later I started to second guess myself. Surely I couldn't be addicted to food in the way an alcoholic was addicted to alcohol? It wasn't that bad, was it? I mean, I wasn't going to die from a food binge like an alcoholic might die from alcohol poisoning, right? I kept coming up with excuses in my head as to why the notion of food addiction was ridiculous, but there was a nagging voice in my head that would not stay quiet. You’re a food addict, no matter how many different ways you might try to deny it.
This kind of dialogue went on in my head for over a year before I became fed up with my internal conflict. So I do what I always do when I have a question about something: I went to Google’s homepage and searched the words “food addiction”. The search returned 174 million results. The first item pointed to a WebMD article titled “Food Addiction Signs and Treatment”. Another link I found was a questionnaire created by Narcotics Anonymous to help people figure out whether or not they are drug addicts. I found that if I changed the questions so that the words “drug or drugs” was replaced with “food” I answered 24 out of 29 questions with a “yes”. Those questions included:
Have you ever substituted one food for another, thinking that one particular food was the problem?
Have you ever manipulated or lied to someone to obtain food?
Have you ever stolen food or stolen to obtain food?
Do you avoid people or places that do not approve of you eating food?
Has your job or school performance ever suffered from the effects of overeating?
Have you ever lied about what or how much you eat?
Does the thought of running out of food terrify you?
Have you ever felt defensive, guilty or ashamed about eating food?
Have you ever eaten food because of emotional pain or stress?
Do you continue to overeat despite negative consequences?
Yes, in my early grade school days I actually did steal money from my mother to buy my daily fix of fat and sugar. I would avoid people that pointed out my overeating. I would get raging mad if anyone even thought about questioning the amount or quality of food going into my mouth. I’d start eating a bag of chips thinking “I can stop after a few,” and an hour later find myself holding an empty bag. Something at school would stress me out and all I could think about was getting home to eat whatever so I could feel better. I would come home from school, sneak food from my mom’s snack drawer and eat nearly 2000 calories and then later eat an entire dinner without giving it a second thought. I would feel horribly ill afterwards, but that never stopped me from doing it again and again and again. I could go on and on with examples here, but I think you might get the picture now. Food addiction is apparently a very real thing, and I really am an addict.
Of course they always tell addicts that the first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem. Even after I had that realization it took me nearly a year before I actually acted on it. Fighting an addiction is more than just removing the substance from your environment. There are a myriad of emotional, physical and environmental changes involved, and every one of these aspects needs to be addressed, no matter how big or small. I had to learn how to stop beating myself up and that it was okay to be human and make mistakes. I know in words this seems like such a trivial thing, but in reality, I was my own worst enemy when it came to overcoming my addictive behaviors. I had to completely reprogram my internal dialogue so that my little internal voice would stop saying things like “Why are you even trying? You know you’ll just fail again.” This took a substantial amount of time, and I still catch myself thinking derogatory thoughts about myself. Thankfully, that happens less and less these days.
Now, this is the sixth time in my life that I have made a major concerted effort to get myself physically fit. But I have this feeling that it is going to be different this time around, because I finally understand one very important thing: just as a recovering alcoholic will always be a recovering alcoholic, I will always be a recovering food addict. I can never stop counting calories, and there are certain foods that I just have to avoid. But you know what? I’m okay with that. I understand that about myself now, and that knowledge makes it much easier to control myself when I am in a situation that tempts me to eat more than I should. There are days when this is really easy. Then there are days when I am literally tugging on my hair to distract myself because I just want that glazed donut so much that I am unable to focus on anything else. But at least now I understand where that behavior is coming from, and I know not to give in to the temptation. I must always remind myself that I cannot go back to doing things the way I was before. I will always have to remain vigilant.