Food Addiction: This Heifer's Thoughts

FOOD ADDICTION

For most of my life, I've been addicted to food. I remember using it as a kid to deal with the constant instability of my home life. As a teenager, I used food when I needed a friend after yet another move or when the kids in the lunchroom excluded me from their lunch table.

In college, my Friday night dates consisted of whole pizzas, and I was on better terms with the delivery guy than I was with any other man in my life.

I used food in the way other addicts use drugs, gambling or alcohol. I used food to soothe hurt feelings, celebrate achievements or avoid loneliness.

Unsurprisingly, my food addiction led to obesity. By the time I reached my mid-thirties, I was more than 100 pounds overweight, sedentary and sustaining a Mountain Dew habit that had me on a constant sugar roller-coaster. I was fat, out of shape and depressed.

Most addicts know this cycle well: I ate to feel better about something (relationships, work, school, being fat). I devoured foods that would give me a ‘food high,’ which meant I was eating junk. While eating, I enjoyed that high. Life seemed pretty great, actually, if I had a pizza in front of me, or a sleeve of cookies and a gas station tumbler of soda to wash away any negative feelings, worries or fears.

But then I’d crash. The come-down from a food high is strikingly similar to what addicts who use other substances report. I felt lethargic and tired. My body ached. And worst of all, I sank into depression.

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And what did I do when I felt depressed?

Yep: I reached for the chips, hunkered down on the couch and waited for the good stuff to kick in. So the cycle started all over.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Diet and exercise are always presented as matters of self-disciple and in connection with motivation, of just wanting the results bad enough. But obesity doesn't come from laziness or from a lack of desire to eat better. It comes from the same place that all addiction comes from, which is a hamster wheel of trying to shut down and soothe emotional pain.

Yet this dark side rarely gets talked about. It's almost a taboo in our society. Many people have the attitude "Don't mention it, pretend it doesn't exist. It's just food, not a drug."

I think it's time to break through this taboo and address the issue.

Food addiction not only exists, but is common. Let's bring it out into the open.

Addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. It is characterized by the inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behavior and interpersonal relationships, as well as a dysfunctional emotional response.

I definitely ticked every box on this list. I was unable to consistently abstain from eating junk food, even though I must have tried a hundred times to clean up my diet and ‘get healthy.’

Yes, I had impairment in behavior control. I wasn’t really controlling my behavior at all - my behavior was controlling me. I wasn’t sitting down to a balanced meal or going for an evening run. I was crawling into bed with an armful of snacks and watching TV until I passed out. (WAIT. I DID THAT LAST NIGHT TOO, oh crap!)

To say I had diminished recognition of problems with my behavior and interpersonal relationships is putting it mildly. Let me be more blunt: I was in no way owning my shit and being honest about just how often, how much and how poorly I ate. I always figured I was just another Monday away from the diet that would change my life.

I had seriously dysfunctional emotional responses to food including anticipation, joy, contentment, anger, guilt and then, the final emotion that always crept in: shame.  

I was, in every way, a full-blown addict.

The thing is, I think a lot of people struggle with food addiction and may not even recognize the signs. It’s fairly easy to see that if you’re knocking back three bottles of vodka before noon, you have an alcohol problem.

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If you’re spending the weekend high on cocaine, you probably have a drug problem. If you lost your life savings in Vegas a week ago and are booking your next ticket back to Sin City, you’re struggling with a gambling addiction.

But food is such a common and acceptable substance that it’s harder sometimes to identify when it has become an addiction. And unlike other substances, we can’t cut it out of our lives entirely or avoid it. We have to eat every day, several times a day, and that means facing our addiction every time we wake up.

So, how did I do it? How did I go from active addiction to recovery?

Like any addict will likely tell you,recovery is a tough journey. It took a lot of time and involved relapse and remission. But six/seven years later, I'm maintaining my weight loss and, more importantly, have a much healthier relationship with food, with my own body and with myself overall.

Here are three steps I took on the road to recovering from food addiction and taking back control of my own health:

  1. I admitted I had a problem, and I realized it was a big problem. The problem wasn’t my weight; it was my relationship with food. My weight was a symptom of that problem. Once I realized this, I knew that simply dieting wasn’t going to solve this problem, and I reached out for help.


2. I got help. I began seeing a therapist to help deal with my emotions and the pain of a dysfunctional and damaging childhood. I knew that the feelings behind my compulsive eating weren’t going to go away with a low-carb diet or calorie counting. I knew, even before I first began losing weight, that if I didn’t get the emotional help I needed, I would never be able to heal myself physically.

3. I didn’t quit. I still, every day, keep at it. Like any addiction, food addiction doesn’t go away. It’s a life-long side-kick always there, dancing on my shoulder, whispering offers of a good time into my ear. I still feel urges to take down a sleeve of cookies. I still struggle. And I still keep going.

I know those are the steps recommended to deal with any type of addiction, but this doesn't mean they're easy. They certainly didn't come easy to me, and they took a long time to master. Dealing with the emotional side of addiction is hard work. It’s messy and confusing and exhausting. It would be a lot easier to get back in bed with a Domino’s pie.

But whenever that was a temptation (and sometimes there still is), I remembered the roller coaster, the feelings of shame and guilt and frustration, and I knew I didn’t want to get back on that hamster wheel.

For more information on food addiction including how to recognize it and what to do if you’re struggling with it, Food Addicts Anonymous is a great resource.

How about you? Do you experience food addiction? Do you you agree that it's time to break through this societal taboo and talk about the issue openly?

Share your views - and perhaps your experience - in the comments section. I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Let’s hear it. Go ahead!

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Self Care: Put on YOUR Oxygen Mask First!

Self Care:  Put That Oxygen Mask On Your Own Face First


A few days ago, when Phoenix actually saw temps under 100 degrees and the air was thick(ish) with humidity, I was driving the minivan. The low-tire-pressure light came on. Instantly alert, I hauled the Swagger Wagon to Costco to get it checked out.

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Notice what I did there? The moment a light came on telling me something was wrong, I took the car to a service.  I didn’t ignore the light, hoping the problem would just go away. I took action and got things fixed up pronto. I was on it.

This got me thinking. How many service-engine-soon lights come on in our lives, alerting us to faults that jeopardize our health and happiness?

Maybe it's because we hope that things will just work out by themselves, so we shut the our minds to the warning signals and keep going as usual.

When it comes to other people's problems, we're often more aware. If our friends look wan and tired, suffer from frequent headaches or show signs of mental exhaustion, we urge them to cut down on stress and see a doctor, or a counselor, or nutritionist, or whatever. But we ignore our own physical, mental or emotional exhaustion. We put off seeking help, because we prefer to think the problem doesn't exist.

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Yes, it's easier to see the danger our friends and loved ones are in,  and we help them get the assistance they need. How many times do we give the child beside us the oxygen mask before putting one on ourselves?  We get the principle drilled into us when flying: put your own mask on first before helping someone else- but do we do this in practice? Do you?

I often don't. I'm slow to respond to warning lights (and dropping oxygen masks) because I delude myself that the problem isn't real.

The subject of self-care has been hot for a while now. I remember it floating around when I was a kid in the 80s, when women started talking about taking care of themselves instead of everyone else. I’m gonna be honest, Heifers, that left a bad taste in my mouth.

As a kid, I watched my mom take a whole lot of care of herself at the expense of my father, brother and me. She seemed to take self-care to an extreme and ended up neglecting everyone else. This early experience may be at the root of why I neglected myself so badly for so many years. I equated self-care with selfishness, and didn't want to become like my mother. When I had kids, I was determined that they should never feel the way I'd felt: alone, neglected and invisible, while their mom practised 'self-care' at their expense.

What happened then? Well, in my effort not to become like my mother, I went to the other extreme. While my mom focused almost entirely on herself and her needs, I focused almost entirely on the needs of the people around me. I put my thought and energy into making a nice home and life for my husband and kids. It rarely occurred to me that I was neglecting myself... and in the rare moments of realization, I actually felt virtuous. I was proud to of my self-neglect, because putting everyone else's needs before mine seemed to prove that I was a good wife and mother.

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As time went on, I started to see and feel the effects of not taking care of myself. I put on weight. A look in the mirror showed a tired, worn-out woman. I felt tired, depressed and overwhelmed.

Today, I only need to look at the photos of that period,  and I can clearly see the signs of self-neglect. But at the time, I was so caught up in taking care of everyone else (and trying so hard not to become like my mother) that I didn't see the damage I was doing to myself.

The warning lights were on, alerting me that my body (and my mind) needed care. But I chose to ignore them, because I thought those potential problems were not urgent and didn't matter anyway.

The greatest irony: I wasn't even the best mother or wife I could be. Feeling frustrated, angry and tired all the time, with suppressed resentment against family demands fermenting in my guts, I didn't have the energy, strength and inner joy to give genuine loving care. Although I sensed that something wasn't right, I didn't pause  for a check-up and examine the root of the problem.

Instead, I just kept going on in the same direction just pushing myself even harder, giving away even more of my time, my energy and myself.

It's no surprise this approach failed. There’s only so much we can give. When we don’t refill our own reserves, things dry up pretty quickly.

When I was forty, I finally looked at myself honestly, and saw a woman struggling in many areas. I was unhealthy from the inside out. I finally grasped (with the help of therapists, friends and my own self-reflection) that I needed to take better care of myself. Moreover, I realized that it wasn’t anyone else’s responsibility to make me healthy and happy. It wasn’t up to my husband and certainly not my kids. I would have to do it myself, and it was going to take full-blown effort and focus.  

I was willing to accept that responsibility.

But it meant that I had to redirect some of my efforts away from other people and towards myself, and this concept was difficult to accept.  

Heifers, this was hard. I know it seems all good on paper It's sensible to believe that you deserve to take care of yourself. But I struggled.

I was willing to put the oxygen mask on my own face... but couldn't bring myself to put it on myself FIRST, before looking after others.

How many of us put ourselves and our needs last? How many times do we meet everyone else’s needs before our own? How many times do we feel guilty or lazy for spending our time, energy and money on our own needs?

If you’re anything like I was, it’s a lot.  We are all caretakers, in one way or another. Some of us have kids and husbands, others have pets or care for our aging parents or someone who has a chronic illness.  Many of us are caretakers at work, putting the needs of employees, employers and companies ahead of our own. Others work for charitable or environmental causes that need our help.

We promise ourselves that we’ll take some time off, go on vacation, workout or eat better...  when everything else is done.

But this moment never comes.   There always is more work to be done. A carer's (parent's, spouse's) work never ends.

So, if we understand that done is never done and that the moment is now to start taking care of ourselves, what does that even look like? What is self-care? And, maybe more importantly, what is it NOT?

According to my therapist, self-care is identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them.

Boom.

That's simple, clear and powerful.

Self-care is NOT about hanging out all day in massage parlors and nail salons, shirking responsibilities and neglecting the people around us. Self-care is not what my mother did, ditching our family countless every time she pursued new boyfriend.

There is a huge difference between self-care and selfishness.  

Self-care actually helps us take better care of not just ourselves but of the people around us. That's the key difference between someone who selfishly pursues a life focused entirely on themselves, and someone who meets their own needs so they are healthy and happy in all of their relationships.

Putting on your own oxygen mask first enables you to help others.

My distorted, negative idea of self-care fueled a lot of my self-neglect over the years. Add to that the fact that I didn’t have good examples of self-care and hadn’t been cared for by others, and my ideas about all of it were pretty messed up.  When I finally understood the real meaning of self-care, I could see that meeting my own needs wasn't selfish at all.

Caring for myself didn't mean I couldn’t take care of others. In fact, when I began to meet my own needs and fill up my own energy reservoir, I had more energy, patience and resources to give to the people around me.

Taking care of ourselves is the first step in healthy relationships outside of ourselves. When I take care of my needs, I don’t feel so exhausted and worn out when someone around me needs me. I also don’t feel resentful and frustrated when someone else needs my support -- and that’s a pretty big deal for a mom.

Self-care is important for so many reasons.  It gives us confidence that our needs can and will be met and that we don’t have to wait for someone else to do that for us. When we take care of ourselves, there is a lot of peace in knowing we can do that for ourselves. We don't need to wait for someone else to meet our needs - which is often a futile hope anyway.

Our own self-care also sends important signals to others.

 When I started treating myself better and taking my needs more seriously, the people around me changed how they treated me. It wasn’t some mega, overnight success story, but over time, my kids began showing more respect, especially when I took time for a run or to prep healthy meals or to take a break. They ceased taking it for granted that every minute of my day was theirs to demand. When I stopped acting like their beck-and-call girl, they stopped treating me like one. (For the most part. They're still teens, after all, and it's in their nature to see what they can get.)

When I no longer volunteered for school functions and other tasks, my friends adapted. When I took an hour out for a run, the world did not end. When I began eating better, going to bed earlier, taking naps and treating myself to a vacation, people didn't stop loving me.

Self-care teaches us how to treat ourselves better, and when we do that, we teach other people how to treat us better.

Isn’t that a nice little psychological circle?

I’ve come full circle with this whole idea of self-care and neglect and selfishness and woe-is-me. I’ve come from a place of being neglected, gone through a phase of neglecting myself, and am finally comfortable with taking care of myself. I’ve learned to identify my own needs and to meet them, not because I’m selfish and narcissistic, but because my health and happiness depend on regularly scheduled maintenance and attention.

A car will only go so long without an oil change or new tires or engine service. A human being is the same, Heifers. We need the same upkeep, so that we don’t break down in the middle of the highway, shoved off to the shoulder of the road, abandoned in the dead of summer.

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Okay, that image is dramatic.

Seriously, though.  Self-care is real. It’s important. And it’s totally within our reach.  I’ll blog more about how to identify your own needs, how to start including self-care in your life and what to do when the people around you sit up and take notice.

Until then….be good to yourselves and keep mooooooving.

Tell us: what do you do for self-care? Do you have little self-care rituals? What symptoms have you experienced that were your body's (or mind's) warning signals? Post a comment to share your experiences and tips. Thanks!


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White Chocolate...a Guest Post by Rayne Hall

I just LOVE when we have a guest blogger….this one is close to my heart…. if you don’t know Rayne Hall… you will want to check her out on twitter at @RayneHall … she’s kind of a big deal. She was kind enough to write this article for the heiferhood!

Why I Craved White Chocolate - and How I Overcame This Need

Chocolate cravings are normal, aren’t they? Scientists tell us that cocoa contains a miraculous mix of chemicals that work on the brain and improve our mood. Chocolate lovers all over the world confirm that it works.

Except... this theory did little to explain my own cravings. When I felt low, common brown chocolate full of mood-boosting cocoa wouldn’t do. I needed the white stuff.

Whenever I felt lonely, neglected, ignored, rejected, the only thing that could soothe away my soul’s hurts as well as a bar of white chocolate (or two, or three).

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I should have been yearning for chocolate’s darkest offerings (which contain the blessed blend of brain chemicals), but instead I yearned for the squares of innocent ivory.

Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I lay tucked up in my bed, soothing myself after disappointing day, feeling unappreciated. Sucking on a white chocolate bar (with further supplies stacked on the bedside table) and letting the sweet creaminess soothe my pain, I pondered where this weird preference came from.

As far as I could recall, I had always liked white best. But white chocolate was not a common treat in my childhood in 1960s Germany. Our village grocer sold only normal and dark versions. It was not until I reached my twenties that I was able to indulge in my cravings regularly.

The first time I saw white chocolate was when I was five years old. Suddenly, the memory came into focus, and I re-experienced the moment.

Clutching the icy railing with my mittened hands, I stared through metal bars at a waterfall. Masses of water hugged a steep rock, then fell into a cauldron below where they swirled, steamed and sprayed. It was just like the water in Mum's wash-kettle, only much bigger. The air smelled cold and clean.

"Look, there are people in a boat!"  I cried, excited by their daring.

But Pa didn't hear me. I sneaked my hand into his coat pocket, to clasp his hand. "Won't they fall in the water and drown?"

"Don't be silly. They're doing regular boat trips out there, one every hour."

Thick foamy waves lashed the boat and made it dance. "Can we go on a boat trip? Please, Pa?"

But he didn't hear me. He let go of my hand and lifted my younger sister. "Can you see that?" he asked her. "That's the waterfall, the biggest in Switzerland, the biggest in the whole of Europe."

"Is it the biggest in the world?" I wanted to know.  He didn't reply.

I clenched my lips together, trying not to feel left out, and stamped my feet against the cold. I was wearing white knitted tights, mended at the knees, a knitted hat and mittens. The dress was handed down to me from my elder sister, and the cardigan also. Lilli was wearing a new winter dress and white cape of fake fur that looked fluffy and cute. I would have liked a cape like that.

When my little sister grew bored watching water, Pa took us to a souvenir stall where merry red flags fluttered. Sparrows hopped around, begging for crumbs, but nobody fed them.  

The goods on display lured and frightened me with their strangeness: dolls, postcards, flags and sweets, vaguely sinful things. And yet, there was something wonderful about chocolates, their warm tenderness as they melted softly on the tongue.

Pa said to Lilli, "There's something special for you. Very special. You've never heard of it."  He and the vendor smiled at each other as if sharing a secret, making my heart race with excitement. "One bar of white chocolate for my little gold-treasure."

"And the sister?" the woman asked, shoving the bar into a rustling plastic bag. "What would she like?"

He turned to me.  "You don't care about that sort of thing, do you?" His tone forbade my longing. I looked at my feet.

Without waiting for my reply, he took Lilli by the hand and  walked on, between the metal railings and the weeping willows. My heart contracted with envy, and I followed in silence.

When we were far away from the souvenir stalls, with their alien flags and alien goods, Pa suddenly paused and turned to me. "Did you want white chocolate as well?"  

Yes-yes-yes, I wanted to say, but couldn’t find the courage.

Lilli wailed, tired from the outing already.

"If you want some, we can go back." But he made no move to change his direction. "But it's cold and we should go home. You're quite a sensible girl for your age, aren't you? You don't care for such things."

My mind still reeled at the thought of white chocolate, and what it might be like. Would it taste like the chocolate I knew, or strange? Would that milky whiteness melt, creamy and sweet, on the tongue?  Would it be a taste of heaven, or of sin?

"No." I said, forcing out the words with as much calm as a five-year old could muster. "No, I don't want chocolate. I don't care about such things at all."

Pa lifted Lilli on his shoulders. "Come, my little gold-treasure, lets go home."  He whistled his favourite military march.

My heart hurt with longing for white chocolate, that alien thing that was bestowed with love.

This yearning must have remained with me as I grew up. Once I earned my own money and could buy my own treats, I satisfied it – many times over... with predictable effects on my waistline.


Whenever I craved to be loved, noticed, appreciated, my subconscious returned to that buried memory of the day by the waterfall, and suggested the symbolic remedies that were within reach:  maybe a boat trip.... and certainly a big bar of white chocolate.

This insight hit me like a cold, clear waterfall.

Suddenly I understood why I had been stuffing myself with this supreme comfort food for decades.

With this understanding, my need for white chocolate shrank. In the almost fifteen years since, I've rarely even desired this treat.

Very occasionally, when I've been feeling seriously depressed and in need of soothing comfort, I went and bought white chocolate.  But I no longer quickly buy several bars and gobble them up.

Instead, I take my time to select a bar. Then I make eye contact with the sales assistant, and tell her that this is a special treat for myself.

I take it home, unwrap it, and tell myself that I'm special, that this is just for me and no one else.  Then I break off a piece and let the creamy sweetness melt on my tongue. I talk to myself about how wonderful it tastes, about how I deserve this special treat because I'm special.

Guess what? After half a bar, I'm contented, and the craving is gone and doesn't return for many months.

Food cravings can be more psychological rather than physical. Understanding their cause allows us to satisfy the underlying emotional need.

After successfully solving the 'white chocolate mystery' I was able to identify the cause of my lust for glace cherries... but that's a topic for another time, another post.

How about you? Do you experience specific food cravings when you feel low? What is it you yearn for on those days? Can you remember the incident that started the cravings?

Post a comment to tell us about your cravings. Let's see whose is the weirdest.

Rayne

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About Rayne Hall

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Rayne is an author who writers ghost stories, fantasy novels and non-fiction books. She lives in Bulgaria where she enjoys gardening, training her cats, visiting archaeological sites and going for long walks in the green hills and pine forests.

You can read some of her short stories free on her website here: https://www.raynehall.com/fantasy-story-a-feline-familiar


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