Losses and New Understandings in Recovery

St. LouisThis last week has been one of loss and new insights.  Our house in Memphis was broken into for the second time in three years.  Nothing was taken because we don’t have the electronics, jewelry and guns that the typical burglars are after.  Then, a couple of days later, my bicycle was stolen from the place I had locked it up in the French Quarter of New Orleans where I had ridden to take my regular couple hour stroll.  Nevermind the bike was 15 years old, been wrecked a couple of times and had definitely seen its better days.  I kept the bike specifically for urban transportation because I knew it would get stolen someday.

So, without my wheels, I then had (chose) to walk the 50 plus blocks home.  Besides just the physical exercise, there are lots of benefits to doing a long walk like that.  It gives you a lot of time to think and observe.  When I am walking along the same city streets I usually ride on my bike, I more notice and engage folks I pass by; I stop and look at the menus posted on the windows of restaurants and go into small shops I have only ridden past on my bike; more thoroughly enjoy sitting and having a coffee about 2/3 of the way home; and I was just truly grateful that at the age of 63, a five-mile unplanned walk is not a big deal, physically.

I thought too about what I have gotten out of these thefts.  I have been very pleased that in both instances, I very intentionally thought “and bingeing on food is not going to make this any better.”  On further reflection, I thought that perhaps some 30 years ago when I was new in sobriety, I would have thought “and going out and getting drunk is not going to make this any better.”

Food sobriety as a compulsive overeater is a new process for me.  I relate very much to the idea that bingeing on sugar, salt, grease as the answer to all life’s problems, celebrations, and anything in between.  I am pleased to be getting to the understanding that I have used food in the same way I used alcohol and drugs to escape living life on life’s terms.

Recovery is truly a process and not an event.

The Sweetness of Mangos & Yucca

elizAs a compulsive overeater, I have been food sober since December 20, 2015.  Today, what that means for me is I am eating three meals per day, one snack sort of thing in the evening, and fruit and vegetables during the day if biking/hiking and a commitment to no refined sugar.  I have relayed in the past how I have come to understand that I used sugar to escape long before I picked up my first drink and was off on my active career as an alcoholic.

Over the past several weeks, I had several “aha” experiences with foods I have eaten and not eaten:

  • I have been a bit nervous about the long-term abstinence from sugar.  But one day at a time, I have not had a craving for the substance in the past few weeks.  In fact, I am surprised at the incredible natural sweetness of other foods, like mangos.  When eating boiled yucca the other night, I had a similar experience.  I am pleased that to the extent “sweet” is a taste I am after, I can get it from something other than refined sugar.  In the same way, “thirst” can be addressed with liquids other than beer.
  • In general, over the past several weeks I have enjoyed the taste of foods like never before.  I attribute this largely to not simply eating till the food was gone.  I have enjoyed cooking and have taken care to do it right, and not just get the food cooked or fixed so I could eat.
  • For the first time in I don’t know when, at supper last night, despite being very intentional about the amount of food I was putting on my plate, I was struck that the amount was perhaps too much.  When in restaurants of late, I have not judged the wisdom of my order based on the volume on my plate compared to others at the table.

Here are a couple of other changes in the past few weeks:

  • In attending OA meetings online or listening to speaker podcasts, when folks qualify as “compulsive overeaters” there is a more visceral or gut recognition on my part – that yes, I am too.  I am not just a recovering alcoholic with food issues.  In fact, the overeating as early as I can remember came before my first experience with getting an alcoholic high at the age of 10.
  • Perhaps most significantly, although I would certainly describe myself as an adherent/member of Alcoholics Anonymous in the past 30 plus years of continuous sobriety, the Twelve-Step program have taken on a more profound and heartfelt meaning for me in recovery from my compulsive overeating.  A point of departure for me is moving from the intellectual to the visceral.




Emotional Sobriety in Recovery

three sistersA friend passed along a link to Tom B. speaking on emotional sobriety.  I preface this post by saying that I am also a big fan of the “take what you like and leave the rest” approach of AA.  In fact, on first listen I was rather put-off by the speaker’s good old boy, old-timer name dropping, somewhat sexist approach.  But about three-quarters of the way through I stopped listening because I realized I would need to come back and listen to the entire presentation again after putting my biases on the shelf.

Tom B. defines emotional sobriety as when my feelings and beliefs about myself match the facts about me.  Emotional unsobriety is when my feelings and beliefs about myself do not match the facts about me.  Instead I always look for an outside source of approval.  This emotional unsobriety approach allows others tell me about how I should feel about me.

Tom B also talked about the lingering feeling of uneasiness and self-hatred over which some people relapse on alcohol. Although I have remained alcohol sober, I have instead relapsed with food through compulsive overeating.  For me addiction is addiction is addiction and I can practice whatever addiction to avoid dealing with life on life’s terms. Although I have been in recovery from alcoholism for over 30 years, perhaps, in some respects for me food/sugar is the primary addiction and alcohol/sugar, more of a secondary. In fact, I used refined sugar to escape years before picking up the first drink.  I well recall as a five-year old, pushing the step stool to the kitchen counter, climbing onto the counter to get to the storage canister and shoveling scoops of sugar into my mouth.

Tom B. states that self hate is a primary cause of emotional unsobriety.  He suggests that self hate comes from perfectionism instilled early on.  This point was quite revealing to me. A couple of examples come to mind that I never would have thought of in this way before. In the past I would have only remembered them as examples of unreasonable paternal or academic expectations.  First, I struggled with basic writing and mathematical skills in elementary school. My difficulty in part was not understanding the relevance in practical application and I was also acting out in all sorts of ways. I recall well in the 5th grade when we had to diagram sentences for an exam. I did not understand the process at all. But I studied very hard for the exam, in part because I liked the teacher, and in part perhaps to prove that I was not stupid. I ended up getting a 99.5% on the exam and was thrilled. My father criticized me for making the one mistake and not being good enough.

I must admit that the same “not good enough” uneasiness plagued me for years.  I was tracked into general education in high school as not having the aptitude for college.  Although ultimately earning a PhD in Anthropology, in that process, I was intimidated and resentful of being dismissed by professors in favor of students from more prestigious backgrounds. At the same time, I did not believe my 4.0 GPA or professors who were very complimentary and supportive of my work were meaningful.  I was the highest funded student in the history of my graduate cohort at two different universities, but still filled with a sense of self-loathing for my academic abilities.

I have always had a very difficult time taking compliments, but also tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against any criticism. I will say that in the past five years, I have recognized and made tremendous strides in this area.

Tom B.’s noting that having a negative image of a higher power goes along with having a negative image of myself makes complete sense. If we conceptually believe we are made in the image of God, then that negativity is obviously shared.

The solutions posed by Tom B. include:

  • surrender to my condition of powerlessness and my need to address my character defects
  • sacrifice to my higher power my needs to escape, be right, and self-centered
  • examine our behavior patterns based on false beliefs and fears that are contrary to the self observation of facts.

Tom B.’s presentation was extremely insightful to me.  He talks about a path I started to venture down for the past few years.  I found his confirmation and elaboration of that process affirming.  He argues that purity of the heart is the goal of sobriety.  For me this takes on the challenge noted in the OA 12 and 12 that “First we grasp this knowledge intellectually, and then finally we come to believe it in our hearts.  When this happens, we have taken the first step and are ready to move ahead in our program of recovery” (p.6-7).

Sugar And My Sobriety

merrygoroundI have been thinking about long-term abstention from sugar as a compulsive overeater.  Intellectually, and on a gut-level, I understand that I made a decision today to not put sugar in my tea or eat sweet dessert type things like ice-cream and such.  But I also began thinking about the concept of abstinence and what is a trigger food for some is not a trigger food for others and how sugar fits into that.  Comparing this to my years in recovery from alcohol I consider:

  • For the last few years of my drinking, I searched for the magical alcohol mix that would not cause me to black out or drink to oblivion.  I went through the drinking only gin, then only beer, then at the end there were only two types of beer I would drink – one from Australia and a local beer in Ohio – the reason I thought these would work was because they did not have “additives” and were marketed as “natural” beers and that whatever was causing me to binge drink was the additives in all of those other beers – of course, never considering that the additive was alcohol.  By the way, I blacked out on less than a six-pack of the “natural” beer at the very end.
  • So I think today, if someone said  “aha! We have brewed the perfect alcoholic drink that we believe will keep you from bingeing, blacking out, etc. would you like to try it?”  My answer would be a very adamant “No, I am not interested.”  In fact, I realize that the only reason I drank alcohol was to escape, so why should I even want something that allowed me to do otherwise.
  • I then thought about that with the sugar.  So I am committing that I will not knowingly consume refined sugar, like in my tea – nor will I eat dessert things loaded with sugar today.  But then I considered I will have the Herculean task at some point to start thinking about long-term abstention from sugar and what that means – and that perhaps I can eat the ice cream and put the sugar in my tea and so forth and still deal with my compulsive overeating.  But then, I had some clarity –  should not knowing that I was climbing onto the kitchen counter as a toddler to shovel scoops of sugar into my mouth be convincing evidence that I was getting high on the sugar long before I picked up my first drink of alcohol.  So in the same way, today, you could not pay me to consume an experimental new alcohol drink to see if it “worked” for me, why should I treat refined sugar products differently?
  • The above is very important.  If I classify sugar in the same way as I do alcohol, why should my commitment to abstain from both substances be any different, if the result of consuming them is essentially the same?
  • Which then led me to the next thought – what about the sugar-free ice cream, or honey in the tea, or artificial sweetener and so forth.  Then I thought about how I don’t drink that sparkly non-alcoholic cider stuff they put in wine bottles to pretend it is like champagne or near beer because it is too close to the “real” thing  (and it tastes horrible) so I just stay away entirely.  I can see that putting some sort of artificial sweetener in tea would have the same impact – that it is not quite right, and that what I really crave is the sugar – so my sugar-less tea needs to become something different.
  • But I also know that when my wife and I go out, if she has a Bloody Mary, I will occasionally have a Virgin Mary – after repeated assurances by the wait staff that there is no alcohol in it – but I am comfortable with this because I never drank a Bloody Mary in my life, and don’t really think I ever drank Vodka enough such that I could ever remember buying a bottle.  So I am good with a Virgin Mary.  Perhaps honey or sugar-free something will work in the future for me, but that is not something I am interested in dealing with today.
  • Today, in the same way that I am totally comfortable that my life can continue well for the duration without alcohol, though a bit less enthusiastically, I can say the same about sugar.  I have to believe that the proof will be in the pudding as it were.  Meaning that I realize today that one shot of alcohol and the entire life I have come to know over the past 30 years is gone – very quickly.  I am leaning into the same realization with sugar too.