Monday, December 26, 2016

Clean Change (Part 2)

1. Desperation
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I am by no means an expert on addiction, just as I have never claimed to be an expert on cancer. I have nothing more than my own experiences to share, and if I ever sound like I'm writing about anything more than those, I hope that someone tries to shut me up. Nevertheless, in my own humble experience, I believe that real change begins with desperation. 

This time last year, I was desperate. While my weight had fallen to 129 pounds when I was first diagnosed (sick-to-my-stomach fear was a real appetite blocker), it had steadily climbed up to 140, 150, and 160 in the few years after. I was terrified, not so much by the number on the scale, but by the reality that I had no choice but to face -- that something inside me had broken. 

I don't mean that metaphorically so much as I mean it literally -- I felt as if there was a switch in my head, even a floodgate if you will, that had broken, no longer giving me the ability to stop. After dinner every night, I would tell myself, One bowl of ice cream, no going back for seconds, but before I had even swallowed that last bite I would be planning my trip back into the freezer for more. I wouldn't scoop it into the bowl that second time around, I would just stand at the counter and eat it out of the container, usually until the container was empty. I loved that food at the very same time that I hated it. If I'm not sitting down, it doesn't count, I told myself. Only it counted. It counted as I started to hate myself more and more. It counted as my clothes grew tighter. It counted as I tortured myself about exercising the next day enough to erase the mistakes I had made the day prior. It counted in pounds and pounds of pain. 

If it stopped at the standing-up-ice-cream, that may have been okay. But it never stopped there. Some sort of salty cracker (Cheez-Its, Goldfish, you name it), provided the yang to the yin of the sweets. So every single night, I would eat those by the handful and ultimately, the box-ful. I'd return to the sofa or to my computer "done," but then I'd be back in the cabinet for more. I wanted to stop. So so badly I wanted to stop. But I couldn't. As I've heard people say in FA, my "enough switch" was broken. Turns out that sanity requires that switch to be functioning. Happiness does, too. 

I know that Twelve Step programs scare away some people and I swear to you, I am not promoting the program through this post. Truthfully, Twelve Step programs scared me, too. I didn't understand (and thus feared) "the God part." Growing up in a family of mostly atheists and agnostics, God wasn't ever part of my life. So when I first heard people talking about God helping them with their food (or booze, or drugs) and asking me to get down on my knees, I was completely freaked. But I was desperate enough to stay and listen. That's why I think that real change, for me at least, began with desperation. 

Desperation for me was, ultimately, a voice in my head January of last year that announced, "If I get cancer again, at least I'll die thin." And God, for me, was the voice that came right after that. God was the voice that said, "That thought is so sick, so wrong, so sad, that you better get yourself some real help, and fast." I learned about FA shortly thereafter. 

The truth is that while cancer introduced me to the idea of a higher power, FA has connected me to it. I use the term "God" because it makes it easier to converse, although I have no clue what He (or She/We/They/Me/It) is. Today, I simply believe something is there -- something bigger than myself, bigger than all of us. Surprisingly, I find comfort in that. And so the thing that freaked me out most about a Twelve Step program for food addiction (besides the "food addiction" part) is precisely the gift I have found most valuable. I know that there is something so much bigger than me at play here. There must be, because I haven't had a bowl of ice cream or a Cheez-It since last January. 

In the end, I'm not proud of anything I have admitted here. I'm not brave nor selfless. Today, I'm just desperate. Desperate because food is literally everywhere I turn. And once you take the food away from a food addict, she has to figure out what else there is to do in the week between Christmas and New Years. God, if you're not too busy, please help me with that. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Clean Change (Part 1)

We celebrated Annabel's 5th birthday nearly one year ago, on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend. To be honest, I don't remember much about the party. Of course I remember where it was (at the place she does gymnastics) and I know that family and friends were there. But the only thing I remember in detail about that party was the food. We had pizza from Papa Gino's and cake from Wegman's. Both were extraordinarily delicious. And just like they had always been since I was a pre-teen, both were almost simultaneously my very best friend and my worst mortal enemy.

While others ate lunch with seeming nonchalance, I tried with all my might to cap myself at two pieces of pizza and one piece of cake. That was always my goal, although I never achieved it. I tried so hard to, but I failed every time. I always had different reasons, excuses, justifications, or whatever you want to call them, but no matter what, one piece of pizza would become two, three, four and the only thing that would stop me was an empty box (and sometimes shame). Cake (and pasta and crackers and, well, pretty much anything) was the same deal -- once I started, I couldn't stop. I did stop, because people were around, but once they were gone, I was a disgusting animal. I knew something was wrong and had known it for a long time. But when my daughter turned 5 years old, I hit rock bottom. 

While I don't remember anything Annabel said or did at her party, I remember that my mother threw out the cake box while it still had an outline of frosting on the cardboard bottom. I had planned to take that box home and in the privacy of my own kitchen, lick it clean. When my mom put it in the pile of trash for the gym's outdoor dumpster, I felt like she had thrown away a treasure. I was mad but I love my mom so I made the best of it. "Now I'll be 'good,'" I thought to myself. But once I was home, I considered going back to the gym, fishing the box out of the dumpster, and sitting in my car to finish that frosting. I never did it, but had the wind blown the other way, I would have. 

The next day, I went to my first meeting of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous ("FA"). There, I found a miracle. 

*   *   *

Since January 18, 2016, I have not eaten flour or sugar (save natural sugar in plain yogurt and fruit). I type that without even believing myself that it is true. But it is. And that's the first part of the miracle. 

The truth is, however, that I didn't sit down tonight to write about FA. According to the traditions of the organization, I'm not even certain I should be writing about it (I will ask my sponsor tomorrow). What drew me to my computer tonight, however, is my students. 

Tomorrow, as part of a larger team effort, I will deliver to several dozen Boston high schoolers a 90-second to 120-second pep talk about how they can change if they want to. It's likely that only a handful of students will actually be listening, but I still take those 90 seconds seriously.  I love that handful, even if I don't ever know exactly who they are. So I have thought about what I will say for 100 times longer than it will take me to say it. 

In order to deliver this message tomorrow, I had to sort out in my head the answer to a question I have danced around for quite a while now -- Can people ever really change? Before January 18, 2016, I would have said, No. But FA has shown me otherwise. FA has taken a dumpster-diving young woman who couldn't stop eating, exercising, and obsessing about both and changed her. Because of FA, I believe that people can change. I'm not sure they can change their initial instinct -- I still grieve, if only for a second, food I can't have. I still dream of swimming in a sea of brownie batter or living in a magical world where calories don't count. Food can still be my best friend and my worst enemy. But because of what I have learned in FA and because of actions I have taken as part of the program, I believe that if certain factors exist, people can change the action they take next. In FA terms, people can do the "next right thing," even if they have done 200 wrong things just prior. One day and one meal at a time, I have done just that for 324 days.  

Sometime soon, I plan to write about those factors that I believe led me to change something about myself that I thought would remain a problem forever.  In no particular order, they look something like this: 

1. Desperation  
2. Hope
3. Action steps
4. Support 
5. Faith
6. Gratitude
7. Gratitude
8. Gratitude

To be continued...