Therapy looks different for different people. For some, it’s yoga, for others, it’s cigarettes and gossip. It might be an emergency session with a legitimate counselor or a vigorous hike or a bottle of red. For me, it’s these keys. This space. You guys are at all of my therapy sessions. Sometimes I sit down at my computer and I can almost instantly feel the weight of my burdens give way. Like a bra coming off after a 12-hour day, just the thought of being brutally honest about what ails me can be so freeing. But not today. Today, this post is scary and embarrassing, and I feel heavy just sorting through the words that might appear on this screen.
As you know if you follow DSS, I just had my 35th birthday. It was lowkey and sweet, both figuratively and literally. Those who spend any real time with me, know the key to my heart comes baked, frosted and coated in chocolate. My mom got me a necklace, gift card and seven candy bars. My birthday party (an event I share every year with my nephew) didn’t disappoint, as I blew out a candle nestled in a white cupcake topped with decadent whipped frosting, my favorite. My girlfriends from work took me to lunch and passed a superhero bag across the table. Inside, I found my favorite bath salts, a heavenly scented candle and three bars of dark chocolate.
The irony was lost on everyone but me. Because I am in on the secret. And now you will be, too.
While I’ve lightheartedly documented my suspicions here before, I am fairly certain that I have some food addiction issues. It seems so small, right? Inconsequential and petty. Dramatic maybe. It’s silly to assume that a grown woman would be incapable of practicing moderation. That she would compare a simple sweet tooth to true, uncontrollable compulsive behavior. But staring at the bag, with a superhero emblem on the front and my greatest weakness inside, I had to face the fact that none of this is funny or small anymore. Food is my heroin, my whiskey, my cocaine. It is destroying my body and wreaking havoc on my soul.
I often find myself hazy, drunk on additives and refined, racy treats peeled from brightly colored wrappers. I celebrate with chocolate. I mourn with cakes and cookies. I string the hours at my desk together with a licorice rope adorned with syrupy popcorn balls. I fight stress with frozen delicacies, named mint chip and cookie dough. I reward with cocoa-coated almonds and lean into lazy with a bowl of sweet cereal for dinner. I reach to find food in every high and scoop it up in every low.
And I guess most people would argue that it’s normal. Because in our culture, it kind of is. We eat too much, we joke about it, and then we have a salad to make up for it the next day, followed by a cookie that afternoon. It feels like balance and looks like trouble. But that’s the game. It’s a merry-go-round of too much and not enough, and we all have a generous roll of tickets.
From a 30,000-foot view, I’m checking the boxes. I’m doing it right. I work out at least 5 days a week. I pin vegan recipes and shop on Thrive Market. I obsess about curating all of the things my ultra-healthy alter ego is going to need for her ultra-healthy life. But it’s aspirational. All of it. I am planning meals for a person who doesn’t yet exist.
“You look fine!” people say, when I groan about my binges or complain about my weight. But I don’t feel fine.
I’ve been fighting the scale for months now. About two years ago, 11 months after I had Sloppy Joan, I made it back to my pre-baby weight. I was running, going to classes at the gym, tracking my calories. I was making the smart sacrifices you make to get your shit together. And I got there. But then, I got comfortable. And comfortable for me, is sugar and those simple, simple carbs. But it’s not just a little sweet here and a little apple fritter there. It’s disgusting, mindless gluttony.
A lot of people love food. I get it. Clearly I love it, too. But love, as many of us know, can be pretty twisted. It can make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. It can consume you and blind you and make you sick. As so many loved ones pointed out last week, I’m flying toward 40. I don’t want to go into the next chapter of my life flailing and foggy.
I smoked for years (I know, gasp!). I can remember sitting in my garage and having these tough conversations with myself. About how I was killing myself, and paying a lot of money to do it. Every pack was “my last pack” and every Sunday night was the Sunday night before the Monday morning when it all went away. But what I didn’t realize, was that I never gave the substance enough credit. I underestimated everything about those little white bastards. I always thought I was stronger. And, in the end, I was, but it took years and years and countless attempts to find that strength. Because I loved those cigarettes. And only now can I see that love for the twisted lie it was.
But this time, I can call this by name. I can see this cycle as addiction rather than a harmless romantic indulgence. I know that, right now, I have no control in this relationship.
Let me give you an example. The marketing geniuses who came up with retail birthday coupons saw me coming a mile away. The second a voucher for a free frozen yogurt hit my inbox, I started thinking about it. What flavor, what night, what toppings. I obsessed. I mentioned it to Hank everyday, until finally we went, on a night when it wasn’t convenient – because with three kids, it never is – and after a sensible dinner that left me more than full. But that’s what I do. I lust after sugar like Heath Ledger in his knight suit, may he rest in peace. And I tell myself I could stop if I wanted to. I could just let the coupon expire. But I don’t. I can’t.
My relationship with food is one of shame rather than guilt, and it’s important to know the difference. When I eat an entire coffee cake, I instantly feel like I’ve satisfied those triggers firing off in my brain that scream, “Right now! Do this! It’s delicious! You don’t always have this in the house!” And then I immediately wash that down with a tall drink of regret and shame.
Behavioral researchers would make the distinction between shame and guilt in my situation this way: If I were a woman in control who made a bad food choice here and there, that would elicit some guilt. Guilt is temporary and not tethered to the characteristics one associates with their core being. But I’m on the other side of that. I am not a woman who feels in control of her food choices. I feel consumed by urges and addictive patterns, and overall, just riddled with shame about the whole thing. Then I try to swallow and shrug off that shame so that I don’t pass these tendencies down to my girls. Oh my gosh, life is short. It’s just food. I don’t want to feel deprived. But what I really feel, is sick.
They say shame is the worst thing for children, because they connect feelings of shame with feelings of being unlovable. But I’m an adult. I feel loved unconditionally and I feel accepted. I don’t fear being abandoned or found out or rejected based on this addiction. I just feel like shit because of it. I feel like I turned over a huge piece of my self-respect to a chemist who sat in a lab and figured out exactly how to hook me. And I want to think I’m stronger than that. But I’m not. And that concession is where the shame resides.
But you do Whole30s and 14-Day Vegan Challenges and all that stuff. I know, I do. And I stand by the fact that I find these exercises valuable in the war to gain control over my habits. But I also find it troubling that I require such strict parameters around what should be such an intuitive act in order to feel like I’m driving and not along for the ride. I feel like there should be a simpler way.
So what’s a girl to do, huh? When she’s come onto this blog more times than she can count and confessed her shortcomings. When she’s tried so many different diets. When she’s 21 Day Fixed and bootcamped and MyFitness Pal’ed her brains out. When she’s scared the sugar’s stronger. What is she to do then?
Last week, I saw the number on the scale I’d been running from for two years. I know that number does not define me, or my worth. I know that obsessing over that number does nothing for me nor does reacting to it in the way I instinctively want to react to it, particularly with three little chicks watching everything I do and listening to everything I say. I need to see it as the spark for change, rather than the fire that’s going to burn me down.
I choose to try again. I choose to make this Sunday the Sunday before the Monday when it all goes away. Because if 45 things don’t work, maybe the 46th will be the one that sticks. I’ve been reading a lot about mindfulness, transcendental meditation and food addiction. While the salt/fat/sugar trifecta is certainly something to conquer, there’s also a lot of noise and stress and underlying triggers lingering just below the surface, whispering, “Food is comfort.” A little quiet might just help shut down those extra triggers enough to make some progress. So, maybe there’s something there.
It would all just be so much easier if the answers were in the back of the book. If I knew the solve. I have this friend at work and she’s always cold (you know the type). She combats the chilly office climate with a space heater. One she turns on periodically throughout the day and one that, inevitably, pops the circuit. She used to have to chase down a maintenance guy, explain her misstep and then wait for him to go flip the breaker. Until one day, it occurred to her to just follow him, write down which switch he flipped and then take care of it herself when the fuse, inevitably, popped again. Now, she heats her space without fear. “Well, I mean, I know my button,” she’ll say. Having the power to fix things for yourself is such a simple but rich reward in this life. I wish I knew my button.
I have no answers, no plan, no challenge in the works. I don’t know which button is my button. What you’ve read here was a trip to the confessional. An informal declaration. I just needed to come here for a bit of therapy. I needed these keys tonight. But our time is up for now.