Abstinent Despite the Turbulence
Fellow GreySheeters: I've been putting this off, and without even the excuse someone else has of being sick of her own story. It's not as if I get a chance to qualify very often. Anyway, without further ado, here it is. My name is [Anonymous] and I'm a food addict and compulsive overeater. (Hi.) I weigh and measure three meals off the GreySheet without exception, write them down, turn them over to my sponsor, don't eat between meals no matter what. Abstinence is the most important thing in my life, and a day at a time I work to put my program first. (Deep Breath)
There are a lot of you out there in cyberspace who haven't heard my story, so I'll start at the beginning. I'm pretty sure I was a food addict in the womb. Compulsive eating and other addictions run in my family. My father is dangerously obese; my mother's mother is now in a wheelchair because of a stroke brought on by obesity; my not-so-little brother, who was always the skinny kid when we were growing up, now checks in at 300 lbs. And is larger every time I see him. I don't come from high numbers myself, but as someone once said in a meeting, you don't have to go all the way to the dump to know where the garbage truck is headed. I'm told that when I was a baby I loved the starch paste which is fed to infants shortly before weaning. I believe it. My mother had a no-sweets rule when I was very young, but there was plenty of starch around. I remember both being encouraged to eat and threatened with being fat. There was "can you eat as much steak as Daddy?" at the dinner table - yet I also remember sitting down to dinner at the age of, oh, five or six, and lifting my thighs off the bench because if I let them rest on it they looked too fat. So I started thinking of myself as fat when I was very young. I knew that my grandmother was fat, because my mother said so - and I loved this grandmother because she would bake sugar-items and send them to us. Since becoming abstinent I've gone back and looked at photos of myself as a child. I was a cute kid, and not at all fat. I didn't start to be overweight until adolescence caught me. But I was lethargic and not very athletic and had a lot of shame about my body. Gym classes at school were mortifying. I believe now that the reason I lacked speed and energy was that my body was depressed by the carbohydrates. I tried to work as hard and run as fast as everyone else, but it never seemed to happen.
My relationship with food has been obsessive as far back as I can remember. I remember visiting a friend's house when I was about 5, and staring and staring at a glass jar full of sugar-items. I don't remember whether I managed to steal one or not, but I couldn't think of anything else. When I was a bit older I went on vacation with some friends of the family, and found myself shocked when I discovered that their daughter never sneaked food. My 'aunt' overheard me and told me off, and I was so ashamed. A year or so after that, I burned my hair on a kettle climbing onto a cupboard to get at something my mother had put away. My parents got divorced when I was 9, and both of them started keeping sugary foods around. My father's weight went up dramatically; I was too busy getting what I could of the food to pay much attention. More climbing into cupboards and lying through my teeth when Dad heard me from the other room. I remember eating the tops off an entire box full of round things, because that was the part I liked best, and trying to deny it later. I remember getting nearly hysterical when I thought my brother had eaten one of my food items. With my mother working, there was also a lot more opportunity to eat at her house. I'd come home from school and put the toaster on, and drink endless quantities of hot drinks which were half sugar, and bake things from mixes. A lot of our meals, such as they were, were basically starch with starch added, courtesy of Stouffer's. I hated vegetables, except for corn, and potatoes when they'd been deep-fried one way or another. At 15 I moved in with my father. When I came home from school I had a second lunch and then dinner with Dad when he came home. He ate so much that it didn't seem to me that I was overeating, but I was always about 10 or 20 pounds overweight. My mother harassed me about that pretty continually, but I never managed to stay on a diet more than about 10 minutes. Bribes were no more successful than threats. It's not as if I didn't want to lose weight, but it felt like a totally futile effort. I started describing myself as ‘voluptuous.'
After I learned to drive I was responsible for the grocery shopping - total freedom to buy my favorite binge foods! That's probably why I didn't immediately put on the Freshman 15 when I got to college. I was eating on the food plan and not buying extra food. On the other hand, six glasses of sugar cola at dinner, plus meals which were mostly starch, plus dessert, isn't exactly the way to get thinner. I got larger, slowly. I spend part of my sophomore year studying in Rome. Italy is the ideal place to binge. Overeating is encouraged. "Mangia! Mangia!" the cooks used to say to us. And right around the corner there was a "pasticceria." Not to mention the tubes of foil-wrapped Baci. Most people thought the stuff too rich to eat much of. Not me. I could get through several at once. "Too rich" was not even a concept. Guess what? I put on weight while in Europe. And I kept it on when I got back, even added to it. And then I spent a miserable 5 weeks with my parents (they live in the same town) over Christmas break, and by the end of the vacation I couldn't fit into the trousers I'd worn on the way home. My mother had duly come over and told me that I was fat and no one would love me and no men would want me. (Thanks, Mom.) I determined to do something about it, and it was at this point that I realized I had no idea of what a normal healthy amount of food was. I didn't know how much my body needed. I decided to eliminate the desserts and stop drinking sugar soda. I couldn't absolutely stay away from sugar, but I did manage to lose some weight. And once that happened I went right back to eating the way I had before, as if I was somehow cured. I started going to ACoA meetings at about this time. Afterwards some of us would go over to a local café, where they had decadently rich food items. I always got one, and tucked it rapidly away despite jokes about ‘boy you can sure stuff a lot of feelings with that.' At one meeting a woman spoke about food getting out of control and added that there was nothing more shaming than having to go to an OA meeting. This, of course, only reinforced my denial. I went to Germany in the summer of 1988, picked up an intestinal virus, and couldn't eat for a week. I lost several pounds. Naturally I didn't keep it off, and even I wasn't quite crazy enough to adopt that as a regular weight-loss strategy. (Breathe) (You can't tell from where you are, but I took a break to cook and eat dinner, and am now very full of lovely abstinent food.)
So there I was at university, about to graduate. I spent another week not eating when I was rejected by someone I'd been passionately in love with for years. My jeans were hanging on me. It felt wonderful. But I moved into a vegetarian household for the summer after I graduated. There might not be any meat to be found, but there was an abundance of starch. I took to baking. I took to baking even more when I got to graduate school. The first year in graduate school has been unfavorably compared to boot camp. It's not unlike being hazed while pledging a fraternity, from what I hear. Anyway, I was a codependent people-pleaser and I couldn't make anyone happy. So what did I do? I ate. I argued with my housemates about the ethics of sugar before noon. I baked often - sometimes the stuff even made it to the oven. I learned to cook ever more elaborate and decadent desserts. I was a binge-snob, disdaining the prepackaged stuff. As time went on I got emotionally worse - not surprising with the food interfering with any attempts to do any codependency recovery or therapy. It got to the point where I went to therapy, cried all the way home, skipped class, and ate instead. I was unable to ask for help. I would sit in bed tearing long gashes in my arms with my fingernails (the marks lasted several months) because I was so full of self-hatred and desperation, then go down stairs and stuff my face until I could sleep. I normally avoided scales, but when I went for my GYN exam the doctor weighed me, and I was horrified at my weight. I felt panicked about it - and I went home and ate. It wasn't long after that that I ended up in a treatment center in Arizona for a month, mostly because I couldn't stop thinking about killing myself.
I was also totally unable to function. I was very frightened when I was lucid, which wasn't often. Well, after about 2 weeks my final assessment and treatment plan arrived, and there it was in black and white: I was a compulsive overeater and needed to go to OA meetings. I went on one hell of an emotional binge about that. I was so ashamed. All those years of ‘no one will love you if you're fat.' Anything I'd ever heard about addiction not being a moral issue went right out the window. I didn't want to let go of my feeling of superiority that I wasn't an alcoholic. I went through remarkable mental gymnastics to convince myself that I was only a potential food addict. I looked at a graph they handed out in one session and said, "Well, I haven't done that, or that, or that..." I probably had, actually. My denial was very powerful. I did manage, by the time I got out of treatment, to accept that I was going to need OA and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. If something went wrong, the thing to do was get help. And for the first time in my life I was "sorry" not to be an alcoholic. Putting the plug in the jug is a clearly defined act. It's possible to go entirely without alcohol. But it's not possible to go entirely without food. They'd had us off sugar in treatment and I decided to keep that part up as a beginning. On the plane home I craved the nasty dessert item, and had to pull out my journal and write and write and write in order not to eat it. I believed that eating was a sort of side-effect of my emotions, that if I just got recovered enough around my codependency issues I wouldn't want to eat compulsively. If I hadn't found the GreySheet, I'd still be waiting to be spiritual enough.
I flew to Athens via Rome. I had only four days in Rome, but managed to visit my old eating haunts. "Well, I'll just pick 'one' item and have that." But it wasn't like that, of course. I had to have them all. I managed to stay away from sugar for a few weeks in Greece, but not for long. My father visited and insisted we try the local frozen carbohydrate. I kept making exceptions, often feeling terrible guilt about it. And the stuff I thought of as okay was mostly flour-based! I knew I was in trouble when I got back to the States at the end of the summer, but I wasn't quite willing enough to go to a meeting. I did ring the Alano club and ask whether they had an OA meeting, and they said there was one at 10 AM on Saturdays. But I found other things to do with my Saturday mornings. When it got to the point where I'd promised myself I'd go, then went somewhere else but promised myself I wouldn't eat there, then ate while I was there, I realized that this had to stop. So I went the next Saturday, after a last drunk during which I ate carbohydrates with carbohydrates added and felt virtuous for not ordering dessert.
I walked into a room whose occupants were mostly normal-sized and saw yellow signs all over which said things like "Weigh and Measure" on them. That seemed just too much, and things got even scarier when people started talking about no grains and sugars. I spent much of the meeting trying to think of ways around things. But when they asked whether anyone was available to sponsor and a woman raised her hand, I went up and asked her. Then I saw the GreySheet for the first time, and she said, "Why don't you start with your next meal?" I had a terrible time committing that food. I looked at the list and thought, "There's nothing on here I eat." I finally came up with something, and then had to go to the grocery store, and also had to go buy a scale. I was living with four male colleagues and thought I'd fall through the floor with shame when I told them. On the way home from the meeting, I cried as if I'd lost all joy in my life, while trying to think of things I could still do even when I wasn't eating grains and sugars. I felt deprived and resentful at first, but I also knew that my choices were recovery or death, and I wanted what those people in that room had. I vowed to give it an honest go for 90 days or until I reached my goal weight, whichever came first. My sponsor warned me that this was much more one day at a time than AA. I hated calling her - I had so much shame around my eating that it was an agony to tell her what I was going to eat. And I didn't quite get it that it had to be exactly 4 oz. or 2 TB or whatever. I put too much lettuce in the salad and couldn't finish it. My housemates didn't tease me or see me as a mutant, the way I did, but they ate binge-food all the time without gaining weight. It was the wrong environment. I went through terrible withdrawal. Moodwise it was like being pre-menstrual for 3 weeks. Physically, I had diarrhea and headaches. It was wretched and awful, but it convinced me that I really was an addict, physically, biologically an addict.
After about a month I moved into an apartment of my own and bought a car so I could go to meetings. I'd been very reluctant to go at first, but as another GreySheeter once said, "Go until you want to go." Soon I wanted to go, wanted to talk to my sponsor. I was losing weight and feeling healthier. I'd started exercising and was able to keep doing it on a regular basis. I'd never been able to do that before. And even while I was still detoxing I found that I had more energy, needed less sleep, and could think more quickly and clearly. I came to realize that weighing and measuring was no different from getting kidney dialysis or taking insulin - it was a treatment for a life-threatening illness, and a blessedly easy one. I learned to cook all over again, because I knew that if I didn't like my food I'd never be able to stick with this. My taste buds changed - I suddenly developed a passionate liking for squash, which I'd always hated. It's amazing how things taste when you haven't saturated yourself with sugar. (I admit I still have a sweet tooth and use quite a lot of saccharine.) Five years later I'm a GreySheet gourmet and a lot of you now have copies of my cookbook. It took about 6 months for me to reach my goal weight. Long before that I woke up one morning and realized that I didn't hate myself for being fat. The habit of abuse makes me feel I deserve to be abused; the habit of taking care of myself, absolutely without exception, gives me self-esteem, self-respect. I started to feel like I was enough for the first time in my life. They say we're only as old as our abstinence, and it was truly like being reborn. I gained a kind of wondering innocence and lost most of my cynicism. I started wearing pink instead of black. I gave away the clothes which were too big for me and replaced my wardrobe. I wore above-the-knee skirts just because I could, and bought a lot of sleeveless things to show off my muscle definition. I was happy all the time. I would walk down the street singing "Amazing Grace." I found I was starting to attract, and be attracted to, people who were much healthier and more wholesome than most of those I'd spent time with when in the food. I did a bit of dating, cautiously, no longer just plonking myself into the lap of a man I was attracted to. One guy I particularly liked ended up with someone else. I was very upset, but I didn't eat. I called a friend to talk, and I went to a meeting the next morning and got reminded that abstinence was life and death, and giving up a man wasn't nearly as hard as giving up the food. I had feelings, and got over them.
When I'd been abstinent about a year and a half and life was going swimmingly for the reliable person I'd become, I fell ill with what was later (much later) diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction, known in the UK as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. It's sort of like having mono forever, but worse. (I don't think people with mono have brain damage.) I was physically very weak and couldn't think clearly. I'd been extremely healthy since getting abstinent and I felt betrayed by the GreySheet at first. But it was only the GreySheet that got me through. Those three meals were the only structure in days where I sat and stared at the walls and nights when I woke sweating every hour. GreySheet people telephoned me, visited me, drove me to meetings where I sat like a zombie, even bought groceries for me when I was too sick to go out. (I was feverish and my reflexes were shot so it was dangerous to drive.) I was watching my graduate career evaporate, not knowing despite a battery of tests what was wrong with me, but I didn't eat. My health improved substantially, though I am still very ill. I've done a lot of traveling and eventually moved to the UK, where things are very different. For one thing, there are only about 10 abstinent people in the whole country. The nearest meeting is in London and I can rarely go. Telephone calls are quite expensive, ridiculously so. I haven't been well enough to start a meeting the way I planned to. (My going-away party from Ann Arbor was wonderful, and I was sent out fully equipped to start a meeting and to sponsor.) I do have sponsees, but not as many, and I've never met them. When I went back to the States for a couple of months last summer I felt a bit embarrassed to face the GS community because I hadn't gone out and done anything. I do often feel like I'm not doing enough. But I'm still weighing and measuring no matter what. Despite an often-desperate shortage of money, I get my GS groceries. I weigh and measure my food even on days when I don't have the strength to take a bath or get dressed. I've traveled to Ireland, Wales, Holland, and Italy, as well as back and forth to the States, and been abstinent. The turbulence of my personal life is very nearly the stuff of fiction, but I don't eat over it. My food is beautiful and I rejoice in it. And the bottom line is that if I weigh and measure three meals, it's a successful day. Thanks for listening - I've gone on much longer than I would have if I were speaking. It was about time I claimed my seat. DENMW.