Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Step One

It amazes me that I have been in program for over six years now. During that time I have attended numerous meetings and listened to boat-loads of people share their experience, strength and hope. Many of them talk about this “allergy” thing they have with food—especially flour and sugar. I have listened very dutifully and thought that was just their dramatic way of explaining to other people why they don’t eat flour or sugar. Of course, we all know that it isn’t REALLY an allergy.

I have finally learned that whenever the “old timers” say something that I think sounds bizarre, over-dramatic or down right crazy, it is usually word for word out of the Big Book, and the reason it doesn’t sound familiar is because my initial breezing through the Big Book wasn’t nearly enough to grasp, let alone internalize, all the important concepts.

I have been studying the 12x12 with my sponsor. As with the Big Book, I am amazed at how clearly it outlines the problem of food addiction. Of course, it is talking about alcohol, but it is clearly all pretty much the same. Every time I open either one of those books something particularly critical to my recovery jumps up and hits me right between the eyes.

In my last blog I talked about the nature of addiction: 1) an obsession of the mind and 2) an allergy of the body. Furthermore, recovery is also pretty straight-forward—not easy—just straight forward.  1) complete abstinence, 2) work the 12-steps to heal the crazy thinking that drives us to turn to our addiction. Virtually everything we do in our recovery program is related either to staying abstinent or working the steps.

Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become “unmanageable”.   Label for step 1 = HONESTY.

No one, much less me, wants to admit that they are powerless. But I tried to solve my eating problem; I kept thinking I could do it on my own. Regardless of my best efforts, my destructive eating was so out of hand that only an “act of Providence” could remove it from me. Remove what? The obsession of the mind, the constant pre-occupation with food. It turns out that being able to admit that kind of powerlessness is the bedrock upon which recovery is built.

The book says that no good can come “unless he has first accepted his devastating weakness and all its consequences. Until he so humbles himself, his sobriety—if any—will be precarious.”

Humble?  “Awareness of one’s own shortcoming or powerlessness.”  It is interesting that that kind of humility is inseparably connected to serenity. It turns out that serenity doesn’t come until we are done with the experimentation….until we are done trying to figure out what we can get away with and still stay at an acceptable weight ( or stay sober, abstinent, sane….depending on what our actual addiction is.) Wow, have I struggled with that over the years!

The 12x12 says “none but the most desperate cases could swallow and digest this unpalatable truth’ but when they did lay hold of A.A. principles with all the fervor with which the drowning seize life preservers, they almost invariably got well.”

The chapter ends by saying “under the lash of alcoholism [food addiction] we are driven to A.A. [90-day OA]. Then, and only then, do we become…open-minded…and as willing to listen as the dying can be. We are ready to do anything which will lift the merciless obsession from us.”

So that is how Step 1 works. Be honest with myself. Admit that I am a food addict. Admit that no matter how hard I have tried, I haven’t been able to overcome it on my own. Get to the point that I am so desperate for help and healing that I am willing to do anything to find recovery. When we get to that level of desperation—our “rock bottom”—we are finally willing to start following the program and we work toward having that “psychic change” or “spiritual awakening” where our obsession is lifted and

As I evaluate myself in context of step 1, there is some good news and some bad news. Good news: I get that I am a food addict. I absolutely, unquestionably get that I have an allergy (abnormal reaction) to flour and sugar. I have accepted the fact that I can never, for any reason, put that stuff in my body. In that area I have had that “psychic change”. Yesterday we were at a restaurant where the first thing they did was plop a huge basket of the lightest, softest, freshest white dinner rolls with honey-butter in front of me that you could ever want to see. I LOVE those kind of rolls. I would have eaten the entire basket in my previous life. But, I was able to look at them, admire their beauty and smell and then leave them sitting on the table for someone else to eat. I wasn’t even white-knuckling it. I really didn’t want them. I totally have accepted the fact that they are not and will never be a part of my life again. There was no obsession, no longing—just acceptance of my reality.

That is the good news. The bad news: There are other areas of my abstinence that I am still just white-knuckling it. I know I can’t eat certain things without getting in trouble with my sponsor, but I REALLY wish I could and still secretly wonder if some day I will be able to again. Just a few nights ago we were poking through some cute touristy shops and they had some wonderful-looking sugar-free chocolate. I haven’t touched that for a long time now, and yet it was all I could do to not buy a piece.  I longed for it. I had conversations with myself on what the pros and cons would be of putting it in mouth. Note that the vast majority of the shop—regular “chocolate with sugar”—wasn’t’ the slightest temptation. My brain recoils from the word sugar. But that “sugar-free” label almost killed me. I actually had to reach out to another OA member for mental and emotional reinforcements. I didn’t eat it because I have done the “experimentation” and I understand that I am such an addict that I wouldn’t be able to stop at one. I knew that the “allergy” would kick in and I would kept shoveling them into my mouth. (See, I am making progress on step one.)  The difference in this case was that even though I didn’t eat it and didn’t trigger the allergy, I really wanted to. That old obsession of the mind was there in full force. The tools of the program kept me from giving in, but I recognized that  unless I can overcome that “obsession of the mind” in all areas of my abstinence, I will at some point cave in.

Even as I am writing this, I recognize it as a recurring theme—something I have written over and over about on my blog. It is important that I keep writing about it until my acceptance of the fact that my food addiction makes it as impossible to eat anything with artificial sweeteners, or anything that isn’t precisely weighed and measured at mealtime as it does make it impossible for me to touch flour and sugar.

For today, I am not totally there yet, but I am working at it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Nature of Addiction

The book explains that most of us enter the program expecting to be taught self-confidence. Instead, we find that self-confidence is a total liability. Why?  We learn that we are victims of a mental obsession so powerful that no amount of human willpower could break it. That is actually an important thought. The world—and ourselves—have always believed that overcoming addiction was just a matter of will-power. In reality, however hard we try to fix the problem ourselves, the mental obsession is stronger and generally prevails, leaving us defeated, dejected and more susceptible to our addiction.  We just can’t break that cycle on our own. These principles basically apply to all addiction—drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, pornography, shopping, video games, etc.

The dilemma is worse than that, actually. The Big Book and the 12x12 explain the true nature of addiction. It has two parts:

1)   the obsession of the mind
2) an allergy of the body 

In order for that to make sense, it is important to understand those two terms, “obsession” and “allergy”.

Obsession (mental component of addiction)  = an idea that haunts, troubles or preoccupies the mind; an idea so strong that it overcomes any thought or evidence to the contrary; an idea strong enough to overcome concern for possible negative consequences.

Allergy (physical component of addiction) = an abnormal reaction to something. In an addict, allergy almost always presents itself in the form of abnormal CRAVING.

Examples of an “obsession” (an irrational idea):

“I can take just one drink (bite) and stop” even though experience has shown the opposite to be true.

“I haven’t had a drink for three months; I must not be an addict any more.”

“If I do it just this once it won’t matter.”

“That pair of shoes is such a great price; even though I haven’t budgeted for them, I really ought to buy them.”

Examples of an “allergy” (abnormal reaction):

I eat a piece of cake; rather than feeling satisfied like a “normal” person, I have a strong craving to eat the entire cake!

I buy a new T-shirt and end up getting it in three different colors.

I see an inappropriate picture on the internet. Rather than being repulsed by it, I have this compulsive craving to see more.

Addiction is a two-edged sword: we are smitten with an “insane urge” to do what ever we determined we would not do; once we do it, the abnormal reaction (allergy) kicks in and we can’t stop.  This explains why serious addicts rarely, if ever, recover on their own resources.

The problem of addiction is both mental and physical. The solution has to be spiritual.

The literature explains that “only an act of Providence can remove it from us”.  This is where the spiritual solution comes in. We pray for the willingness, the surrender, to stay abstinent. Then we work the 12-steps which provide the spiritual and emotional healing which will eventually overcome the mental obsession.

Addiction = 1) allergy of the body,  2) mental obsession

Recovery = 1) complete abstinence,  2) spiritual healing through the 12-steps.

By staying abstinent—never  putting the offending substance or idea in our body or brain—we prevent the “allergy” which makes us unable to stop.

By working the steps, we heal the mind in such a way that we are able to overcome the mental obsession and face life in a rational, healthy way.

For today, that covers the topic in a nutshell.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Homework Assignment

My sponsor and I have been working on step #1 (again) and she gave me a homework assignment: write about what it was like weighing 326.

I have conveniently forgotten about being morbidly obese. Notice that I can say that term now. I didn’t used to be able to. There is something about having that label medically applied to yourself that makes it substantially more offensive. But, not meaning to digress—it seams that forgetting what life used to be like is closely connected to forgetting that I am a food addict and that I don’t want to go back there.  So, here goes.

326 pounds.

I wear between a size 30 and 32 pants. That is not the waist size. It is the size you get to when you grow into and out of the “women’s sizes” of 18, 20, 22, and 24.  Then you are relegated to shopping at a very select number of specialty stores that sell the “extended” sizes that go up to 28 and occasionally 30 and 32. Since those stores are few and far between, I am forced to make a lot of my clothes. Thank goodness I can sew. That little skill assures that I will have an endless supply of what I affectionately call “my uniform”. That means that I wear either pants or a skirt (all identical style, different color or prints) and a T-shirt with a blouse worn over the T-shirt like an open jacket. It has to be a soft, drapey blouse because a real jacket would be too stiff, too bulky and too hot to wear at that weight, to say nothing of that fact that I could never get one big enough to go around my middle that would not drown me on the shoulders. I wear the over-blouse regardless of how hot I am because just a T-shirt would expose every roll of fat too clearly. With a soft blouse left open, it creates the illusion that I am wearing lose, flowing clothing because I like it, not because that is all that will fit me. I posted "before" pictures on q previous blog that document this image and point out that my strategy didn’t work as well as I imaged.

That uniform has its advantages. It always looks better with a flashy, chunky necklace, which means that I still have something to shop for since clothes-shopping is no longer entertaining. The drawback is that now it is even hard to find long enough necklaces to look good at that size. Ah—but what about shoes? Even though my body has grown bigger, my feet haven’t gotten any longer. That means that shoe shopping is much more satisfying and I have, indeed, gathered a nice collection of shoes. The problem with that is that at 326 pounds my feet have started to hurt and my knees are acting up so much that I can’t really wear any of those shoes and in the recent months have had to resort to wearing Birkenstocks with my dresses as well as the pants I’ve always worn them with. What a fashion statement! My children make merciless fun of the Birkenstocks. I guess that is better than them making fun of my weight or overall size.

Forget the logistical complications of trying to dress an “extended” size body. What about the emotional ramifications? Being fat stinks. Pure and simple. I’ll admit I am somewhat vain, but not really any more so than most ladies. But, I have to admit it crushes my vanity to look like this. It is more than a blow to my ego. It is humiliating. I hate having my first concern every time I have to walk into a new social situation be “what will people will think about me?” I know, it sounds egotistical to think that people will even notice, let alone think about it. But they do. The fact is that there is a great prejudice against people of size. I know there is. I have the same prejudice against other fat people. The difference is that I know me. I know that I am different. I’m not fat because I am lazy or stupid or weak or incompetent. I’m fat because of a genetic problem over which I have no control. It is the other fat people who are lazy, stupid, weak or incompetent. But, that is how I know people really do judge me. It is because I judge them too. I spend too much time looking for people who are fatter than me. Comparison is my best friend. I may not be thin, but as long as there is someone bigger than me, I am still okay.

Back to the self-esteem issue. I am such a talented person. I have so many gifts—so many things I have accomplished and done well in my life. Why is it that none of them seem to matter compared to the utterly bleak sense of failure I feel at this size? Why isn’t anything else I have done in life enough to erase the pain that I can’t conquer this one problem?

Emotional well-being aside, there are some very real physical inconveniences that come with being a person of size. For example, thin people take moving around for granted. They get on the floor and back off the floor when they want. They bend over. They fit in confined spaces. They really don’t understand what it is like to have to make getting down on the floor a huge decision-making process. Will I be able to get back off the floor? How many people may be watching me try to do it? After all, it won’t be a pretty site. Will the furniture I need to grab onto be steady enough to support my struggle upward? Even if I can get back up, at this weight it is downright painful to sit on the floor. What do you do with those huge legs that don’t conveniently fold in any particular direction without causing instantaneous pain? Never mind all the years I didn’t get down there and play with my kids. Never mind that fact that I can’t get on the floor with my grandkids. It is easier to just make sure I never get into that position. After all, that is what chairs are for.

The problem is that most chairs aren’t for people of size. They break at very random, inconvenient times. I have learned this the hard way, and as a result, I am much more clever than most fat people at assessing chairs BEFORE I sit in them and they break under my weight. There are subtle tricks to that game…make sure I am never the last one into a room and left with no seating options. Arrive early. Pick a sturdy looking chair that I know I can get out of. Sofas are never a good choice. When as few people as possible are watching, scoot the chair farther away from the neighboring chairs so I don’t invade someone else’s personal space with my over-flowing body. Plant myself in it and stay there until the event is over.

Cars are problematic. The front seat belts in my particular cars do still go around me. The problem is that not all seatbelts do. That means that it is very stressful to go anywhere in someone else’s car. It is SO embarrassing to get in their car and the have to say, “I’m sorry. Your seatbelt won’t go around me. We’ll have to switch to my car.” The majority of the time I actually can get the seatbelt on with enough effort, but the stress hardly makes it worth it. It is a lengthy struggle that involves twisting and turning and sifting around, pulling the belt in and out multiple times. After all, my rear end is completely covering the seat-end of the belt so it takes a minor miracle to even be able to find it, let alone pull the belt tight enough to get it to actually click. By the time I finally hear that “click” and experience an unexplainable sense of relief that the ordeal is over, my back has been pulled out of joint and I am exhausted.

If cars are bad, planes are ten times worse. The seat belt may or may not go around. Even if it does, my body overflows into the adjoining seats. I can usually deal with this as long as I am traveling with my husband. He loves me and never complains that I put the arm rest up and ooze onto this seat. But other passengers are not nearly so gracious. There is something culturally unacceptable about having part of my body dog-piled on their body when they paid for their seat fair and square. But, then again, nothing about being fat is fair, is it?

There are so many activities that I can’t do like a normal person. I try to play volleyball, but I am only somewhat effective if the ball comes directly to me. After all, I don’t run, let alone jump for the ball. It is not that I don’t want to. It is just that my brain is programmed to protect my body and every instinct in it says that a sudden movement at my size will likely result in a serious injury or fall. Falls are bad, not just because of the chance for injury, but because should I ever land unexpectedly on the ground, it would take nothing short of a small army to get me up again. I know. I’ve done it and it is humiliating.

Swimming is another fun activity when you are overweight. It actually ought to be a wonderful choice since it is the closest to weightless I ever get. The problem is two-fold: 1) you have to wear a swim suit. Even with long shorts over it, a swim suit at 326 pounds is not a pretty sight. 2) being in the water is fine, but having to step out of the water and make that transition from the water supporting much of my weight to having to get my wet, soggy body out of the water under my own steam is a nightmare. Its easier just not to swim at all. There is one situation where the benefits of being corpulent are a real asset. Swimming in lake. When I was young, prudence dictated that I wear a life jacket in the open water. However, I found that at 326 pounds, I don’t need one at all. I can float in a lake without touching the bottom and without any movement of my arms or legs. In fact, if I float in the water in a “standing up” position the water only comes up to my chin. I can breathe quite freely through my nose while being completely motionless. How cool is that? It’s really cool, but not cool enough to counteract how hard it is to try and get out of the lake afterward.

I could talk about the trauma of trying to go to amusement parks…of being too large to get on any of the fun rides. I could talk about the time my husband assured me I could fit on a particular roller coaster since he was sure he saw lots of other people “bigger than me” on it. Well, obviously they weren’t bigger in all the same places because when all was said and done, the safety bar would not latch and I basically shut down the ride while the staff figured out what to do. Not a happy moment in my life.  What about the time we were in Hawaii and I couldn’t go on the helicopter ride with my husband because I was not willing to purchase the TWO tickets needed to accommodate my weight?

There are lots of other little inconveniences. Not being able to bend over in the shower and shave my legs. Okay. It is a small shower. The real problem was that I can barely fit in and close the door. Forget the bending over. Slip on shoes are a must when you can’t bend over to tie your shoes. Putting nylons on is a big challenge and trying to reach behind myself to zip a dress would be a mission-impossible situation if I happened to have a dress.

Climbing a ladder is a no-no. Putting 326 pounds of pressure on the ball of one foot at a time on such a skinny rung is too painful, so I stay on solid ground with my weight evenly distributed over the entire surface area of both feet, and the feet carefully protected in my Birkenstocks. No, I’m not making a sales pitch for Birkenstocks. I am just saying they are a fat person’s best friend. I have learned to walk slowly and pick my steps carefully. Curbs are dangerous. Steps are exhausting. Uneven ground is hazardous.

Life starts to feel all around safer in the confines of my own house. In fact, staying home has two advantages. It is safer and it saves me a lot of embarrassment and mental anguish. At least that would be the case if I had removed all mirrors in the house. I remember one day sitting at my desk. The closet doors in that particular room happened to be sliding mirror doors. I glanced up from my computer and caught a side-view glimpse of myself in the mirror. It was startling. It was shocking. Was that really me? I remember staring at my image with this sick sense of fascination and horror all rolled into one and thinking, “Wow, I am grotesquely fat! That is unbelievable!” And then after a few minutes I looked away and made a point to move my desk so I didn’t sit in front of the mirror like that anyway more.

Luckily, miraculously, I am not 326 pounds any more. I am not grotesquely fat. I don’t wear humongous sizes. I don’t even have to wear Birkenstocks.

But I am still a food addict. I am still just one bite away from being back to that old me, and it is worth remembering that how ever much I might want to eat that other kind of food, there is no “easier, softer way”. Being fat isn’t easier. Being crippled and unhealthy isn’t easier. Feeling lousy about myself isn’t easier.

For today, I think I am stuck with the reality that as hard as it is, the 90-day program and the 90-day OA program is the easier, softer way.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Off To A Rough Start

This morning I had a very unhappy conversation with my sponsor.  By unhappy I mean that I called in being in a pretty good, happy mood and got off the phone on the verge of tears.  For those of you who don’t know me, that is VERY unusual.  Crying is akin to running naked through a shopping mall for me…it just isn’t done.  Why the emotional 180° turn around?  My sponsor told me off.

Of course she told me off with great civility and calmness, but I felt emotionally thrashed none-the-less. So here’s the scenario:  I have been in Portland for almost three weeks. I am staying at someone else’s house, living someone else’s life. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it has been wonderful in so many ways. But the reality is that it is much harder to do certain things when you are away from home and out of your normal routine—like work your recovery program.

So, I got up this morning figuratively patting myself on the back for what a good job I have been doing with my food here. My mistake was to casually mention to my sponsor that I hadn’t listened to a phone meeting yesterday like I had planned. She was all over that. As the conversation moved along, she wasn’t sure she could keep sponsoring me. She felt she was just hearing excuses and “disease” talking. I wasn’t willing to do what she asked and put my recovery program first. etc. etc. etc, blah-blah blah-blah-blah.

That was just not what I had been expecting to hear. What about giving me a little verbal affirmation?  Why not acknowledge that I had done pretty well considering the circumstances? Or how about at least a little understanding of why I couldn’t seem to fit the phone meeting in with picking up after four active kids, running them to and from dance classes, cooking dinner, potty-training, dishes (okay…and I will admit, also a lovely evening getting a pedicure and manicure with my daughter….)

When I got over feeling like I had to cry I settled in for a brief period of just being resentful. She was the bad guy. I was the victim. I didn’t notice that was my thinking, but my all-wise daughter was fairly blunt at pointing it out: “Mom, that is addict talk I am hearing from you. ‘Poor me. I am trying so hard and she doesn’t even acknowledge it. She expects me to be perfect’”.  My daughter went on to point out that you can tell when someone is “not in recovery” by the fact that they feel like they are victimized by someone else’s callused lack of understanding.  In contrast, someone who is in recovery will listen openly, hear the truth and make the appropriate course corrections without defensiveness. Well, I head already tangled with two people who were being less than sympathetic to my plight and the day had harding begun yet.

It would have been so much easier to stay resentful had I not realized they were both right. I was making excuses. I wasn’t putting recovery first. My addict-behavior was prodding me to turn things around so I was the victim and they were the bad guys. I was forgetting that my sponsor’s reason for spending time on the phone with me every morning is not because she is bored, has nothing to do, or secretly wants to torture me. She is merely trying to share her experience, strength and hope in a such way that I can find and keep recovery.

So, I let go of the impulse to eat everything I could find just out of spite. I stayed with my food plan today, and after I put the kids to bed I actually listened to a couple of recorded online meetings.  She is right—my life is one long string of exceptions and extenuating circumstances. I have to put recovery first all the time…not just when I am comfortably sitting at home with nothing else to distract me. Good lesson learned. Just for today I will try to be grateful for people who are willing to say what I need to hear instead of what I want to hear. The truth really can set us free.