This morning I read a great blog on Huffington Post about recovering from the addiction of making resolutions. So funny and so poignant filled with small insights we all can learn from.
Naturally, the topic of resolutions is very popular this time of year because of the pavlovian response we, as a society, have to the turning of a new year. We see this as a fresh start to correct the ills in our lives. Much like Monday morning being the best time to start a diet after we have gone on a food bender over the weekend. It’s a new week, a fresh start, a new opportunity to try again. The symbolism of the changing of the calendar is the perfect time to hit the reset button. However, as I pointed out in last year’s blog on resolutions, it’s pretty unrealistic to think that simply because we are starting a new year, we are somehow prepared to fix what is broken and preventing us from reaching our goals.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the post I read this morning is the idea of becoming addicted to making resolutions. Rooted in humor, this is something I am sure many of us can relate to. How easy it is for us to commit to resolve to do things differently and how quickly we are able to disappoint ourselves by abandoning these resolutions within weeks and sometimes even days. It certainly makes sense that we can become addicted to making resolutions because if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Being addicted to making the resolutions allows us to avoid addressing why we are not able to accomplish our goals in the first place. Like any other type of addiction, we are masking the true feelings or pain we are struggling with.
Addiction is such a compelling subject for me and one that I would suggest we are often quite afraid of because it inherently suggests that we have no control. How can we tackle addiction when, by its very definition – the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma – suggests that we are bound up by it?
Earlier this year I found myself in bed, under the blankets suffering from a nasty winter cold. While it stinks to be sick, sometimes that ability to just curl up in bed and shut out the world is a gift. I usually try to find some old movies or catch up on television shows that I have missed. On Demand becomes my best friend when I am sick. During this particular stint, I discovered the show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Now, I enjoy a good reality show as much as the next guy but, somehow, this one had managed to escape my attention for four seasons! I guess I had heard of the show but tacitly made the decision to avoid it because it seemed more like Celebrity Train Wreck. On this day, perhaps because of my groggy state, my compromised immune system or my desire to watch something mindless, I decided to tune in. I figured it would be cringe-worthy and good for some laughs. Much to my surprise, I became completely enthralled watching these celebrities battle with their own demons and confront emotions they had so carefully bottled up and expertly masked with drugs and alcohol. I hardly expected to care about these people or relate to them on any level. I assumed their problems were rooted in them being spoiled, overindulged, petulant fame seekers. No one was more shocked than me when I realized that we shared many common obstacles in our lives and I felt compassion when I recognized the deep pain they were suffering from. They were raw, vulnerable and on the verge of losing their battles with addiction and, ultimately losing their lives. I was hooked.
I had a very emotional reaction to the group “process” sessions the patients were undergoing and, remarkably (or perhaps not so remarkably), found connection points to so many of them. Our lives had no parallels except for the fact that we were all damaged in some way. I understood their pain, I understood their drama, I understood their addiction.
I became a bit overwhelmed watching episode after episode because, while I could not label myself as an addict (I had no dependency to drugs or alcohol), I felt like I understood the addiction and recognized many of the same addiction characteristics in myself. Could I be an addict of some sort? If so, what was my addiction? These questions rattled around in my head as I obsessively began to go back and watch every season of the show. I needed more insight from Dr. Drew and I needed to find more links to help me uncover what my addiction was.
Watching the show stirred up a lot of the feelings that had developed in me as a result of being the child of an alcoholic. My father, for most of my childhood, was a severe alcoholic which completely defined who he was and what our experience was with him. I never understood what motivated his drinking as I was simply too young to even explore that aspect of his life. All I knew was the impact his drinking had on my family. My relationship with his drinking was related to what I witnessed when he would become violent, damaging everyone and everything around him both physically and emotionally. I never understood my father and, even as an adult, I never understood the power of the drink. Having never been a heavy drinker myself (although research suggests that children of alcoholics have a 50% greater chance of becoming alcoholics themselves), I did not understand the dependency. I could not empathize with the suffering that caused him to turn to liquor to squash whatever pain he could not tolerate. My only reference point was the experience I had and the instability it caused in my family. Curiously enough, those feelings were not the ones that erupted while watching the shows. Rather than relating to the patients’ stories from the perspective of a victim, I felt connected to them as an addict myself.
I processed my own feelings stemming from this for a long time. I cried a lot while watching the show and, as a result, a lot of very raw feelings emerged. I knew, for certain, that I was an addict and I knew, for certain, that I needed to understand what my drug of choice was. And, as it often the case in my life, it came to me a quiet moment. I wasn’t really thinking about it and suddenly I realized that my addiction was food.
This probably should not have been a big surprise to me but, remarkably it was. Despite the fact that I struggled with my weight my entire life, I never felt like food defined my life. I have read so many books about emotional eating and, while I related to some of them, it never really nailed how I felt about food. I was not necessarily the person who ate when I was upset. In fact, I actually did not eat when I got upset. I had to go deep to really embrace this concept of food addiction. I talked a lot in therapy about it and tried to conjure up memories from my childhood where food played a significant role. I focused on one particular memory that had haunted me for so long.
When I was young, my mother was an obsessive clean freak. This was her way of controlling her environment and it made it difficult to be a child in her home. She would not allow us to sit on the furniture and could not tolerate any mess anywhere in the house. So, to preserve her sanity, she sent us down to our basement, which was neither finished nor heated. Twelve months of the year my mother would send us down there to entertain ourselves. The cellar was quite scary and did not contain many toys for us to play with. I often sat down there on a lawn chair and colored in coloring books or made up stories. We also had a few key items in the cellar that was the central point of my attention – an exercise bike and an old refrigerator/freezer. I used to like to sit on the bike and ride a little bit. I did a lot of my thinking and imagining while on that bike. I also pretended that I could escape my life if I rode hard enough or fast enough. I imagined myself visiting far off lands where things were peaceful and different from my life. The refrigerator/freezer was a place for me to root around for sweets because my mother, in order to try to control my weight, prevented me from having any sugar of any kind. What I did discover in that freezer was frozen cool whip. I would sneak a spoon down to the basement and often hide it on the top of freezer and when I was feeling particularly sad or my emotions were taking over, I would pull out the cool whip and begin to eat it by the spoonful. Now, frozen cool whip is a very different culinary experience than thawed cool whip. It was hard to dig out and was not very creamy. However, after plowing my spoon in it a few times, it started to have the nurturing consistency of the cool whip that we all came to love. After I had one of my sessions with the cool whip and I was thoroughly ashamed and feeling incredibly guilty, I would spread the spoon around the container to try to smooth it out for fear that if my mother found out, I would be incriminated and even further punished. Looking back as a parent, I cannot believe that she could NOT know that I was eating the cool whip but, only on a very few occasions did she actually reprimand me about this. I have never understood that to this day. Perhaps she had some compassion for me or perhaps she couldn’t be bothered. I guess I will never know.
This went on for many years until I finally was old enough to go out of the house on my own and found places to escape to. I would walk to friends’ houses, the library, go to the movies – anything to get out of that cellar. But, the soothing of the cool whip now had to be satisfied in other ways. I found other foods to make me feel good but, because it was such a shameful practice to me, it was something I did very privately and often berated myself for the behavior.
On that fateful day earlier this year, after many, many, many years of exploring my relationship with food, I surprised myself when I finally made a connection that had never revealed itself to me before. The idea of addiction was never part of my processing. The symptoms of addiction never resonated with me but on this day it was so fundamentally clear. It all made sense. My desire to go downstairs each night after we had all gone to bed to “sneak” some food back upstairs suddenly made sense to me. My moments standing in front of the pantry cabinets in the kitchen searching for something that would never reveal itself to me because it could never be found in there seemed so painfully sad. My definition of addiction was so thoroughly connected to alcoholism or to someone shooting heroin that I never suspected that I could also be an addict. Sure, I had joked about sugar addiction and suggested that a mainline of sugar into my veins might cure all that ails me but I never really took myself seriously enough to understand what the sugar did for me.
I was all at once overwhelmed and liberated. The ability to label myself gave me the freedom to seek out a plan for recovery. I did not for even a minute believe that I would be instantly cured but I was certain that I had information, awareness and acceptance that would allow me to follow a path. As the serenity prayer goes:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
One day at a time was all I could tackle. And, slowly, I saw the change taking place. Of course, unlike chemical dependency, you cannot eliminate food from your life. There is simply no option that allows for us to remove the drug. Instead, learning how to manage my addiction was all about learning how to acknowledge and process feelings that I would normally shove away in a drawer and replace with a pint of ice cream. As one friend said to me during a particularly difficult time last June, “just sit with your feelings and see what happens.” It didn’t break me. I survived. And another step forward I took.
Today, as we come close to the end of 2011, I have a lot of things to be proud of. I am not “recovered” but I am on my way. I have lost 35 lbs and no longer feel defenseless against food. I still struggle with “sitting with my feelings” but I am learning to be uncomfortable and constantly reassure myself that I will feel better and will survive. There are no more late night visits to the kitchen and that is one of my accomplishments for which I am most proud. That was a pattern of behavior I struggled with for nearly 40 years. I no longer struggle.
So, getting back to that wonderful blog post from this morning, let’s stop trying to cure ourselves with new year’s resolutions and let’s stop running from what causes us pain. It is far less painful to confront what hurts than to run from it and allow it to control us. Please share your stories with me. Together, we can do anything!