Saturday, October 14, 2017

You don't see my addiction, but it defines me nonetheless.

I've never been a huge Oprah fan. I respect her success, certainly -- she's obviously talented and goal-oriented and all kinds of things one should aspire to be. But the "YOU get a car and YOU get a car and YOU get a car" stuff is cloying. I don't know why. She's just always seemed a little too much.

Until recently. I saw an ad in which Oprah, famous in small part for her weight struggles, was talking about the ways being on the Weight Watchers plan has changed her life. Mainly, she said, it allowed her to be in control of her eating. And as she elaborated, I thought, well, Oprah, maybe we have more in common than I'd assumed. It was clear as she talked of her challenges that the same The same monkey -- addiction -- is on each of our backs.

(A side note here: I'm a Weight Watchers member, but this post isn't about that. Weight Watchers isn't an MLM thing, for starters -- I don't profit in any way from endorsing it. It's worked for me, but I'm all for whatever makes and keeps anyone healthy.)

Food addiction is truly a thing -- as much a thing as is addiction to alcohol or Oxycontin or sex or anything else that provides immediate gratification so intense that it's difficult to see beyond the high. It's weirder in some ways, though, because it can hide in plain sight. If you're addicted to alcohol, chances are you're not going to allow yourself to get drunk at a work lunch. Me? I've been known to be elbow-deep into the contents of the bread basket five minutes into the conversation, becoming "inebriated" right before my co-workers' eyes.

My food addiction, when I'm not actively addressing it, looks like this. I wake, and immediately my thoughts turn to what I'll eat for breakfast. If I'm in the middle of a binge cycle, chances are I ended the previous day with something sugary, usually eaten in secret -- Pop-Tarts or a bunch of Jif straight out of the jar. Or maybe I binged in the middle of the night. So, like a lab rat who's become accustomed to pressing the sugar-water lever, I'm out the door and on my way to the convenience store. My bounty? Carbs and sugar. A biscuit, maybe, with cheese and egg. Some chips. A Clif bar for now, and maybe one for later.

I settle in at work, and by mid-morning, the second Clif bar is gone and I'm wondering what I can score for lunch. When I'm managing my addiction, I pack my food at night and pre-track my nourishment for the day. But when I'm in a binge cycle, I don't begin to pack anything; if I were to do that, how could I justify grabbing a couple of pizza slices or a giant burrito? After lunch, I obsess over what I can eat later in the afternoon, when my sugar cravings seem to be the worst. Dinner? That's at least two to three helpings of whatever, the more carb-laden the better. And on and on.

I have a wonderful job that I enjoy, a loving and supportive husband and children, and an abundance of material goods. Everyone I love is healthy, and for that, my life is charmed. But as any addict knows, sensibilities and gratitude fly out the window when you're using -- bingeing, in my case. When I'm not controlling my food issues, food is absolutely controlling me. It's demoralizing and exhausting.

Any accomplishments of which I'd normally be proud pale in the harsh light of the refrigerator's open door. When I'm bingeing, I hate myself.

What causes food addiction? Theories are mixed as to its origin; chances are it's a combination of biology and environment. People who suffer early and profound losses often repress pain, then use different behaviors or substances to stuff it down when it starts to surface. In my family -- and please understand I am NOT blaming anyone in my life for my behaviors -- food was medicine. Food was comfort and recreation and reward. That's not unusual, but the way some of us process and respond to that appears to be out of the ordinary; I'm really the only person in my family of origin who has a weight problem.

Addicts often deal with accompanying issues as well; I'm not sure I believe the "addictive personality" theory, as I've never had an interest in other substances or chemicals, but I do live with the "obsessive" side of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I manage it pretty well, and, like many people afflicted with it, I've figured out how to use it to my advantage; often, people with OCD are perfectionists who strive to be high achievers. But it does feed (no pun intended) into my tendency to hyper-focus on what I'm eating, or not eating.

Other things can become part of the addiction mix, too -- in the story "Craving an Ice-Cream Fix" in the September 20, 2012, New York Times, Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, notes that the human body is biologically adapted to deal with foods found in nature, not those that are processed.

"We don't abuse lettuce, turnips, and oranges," Dr. Brownell says. "But when a highly processed food is eaten, the body may go haywire. Nobody abuses corn as far as I know, but when you process that corn into Cheetos, what happens?"

What happened to me was this: After years of alternating bingeing with leveling off, I found myself, at 49, weighing 216 pounds on a 5'5" frame. My cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure were high. Walking up a flight of stairs taxed my lungs. I couldn't wear shorts because my legs rubbed together and chafed. I had heart palpitations and sore joints. I'd already had both knees replaced, but my weight likely would cause the prosthetics to fail sooner rather than later.

I was professionally accomplished -- but the self-hate was nearly unbearable. My children had reached adulthood, and I knew that unless I took control, I likely wouldn't be around to be part of their children's lives. I was tired of being defined by the way I looked, and by what I wasn't able to do. My doctor recommended Weight Watchers, and I committed.

As anyone who deals with addiction knows, though, the story didn't end there. Several months ago, I eased up on my program, then eased up some more, then stopped attending meetings altogether. As a result, I gained back a third of the weight I'd lost. Three weeks ago, I took control again, and my behaviors are back in check -- for now, anyway. I'm not "cured," and I take this day-by-day.

As a society, we're woefully ignorant about food addiction. As evolved as we are, we still see overweight people as lazy and undisciplined. Overcoming addiction takes discipline, to be sure. But just as an alcoholic may process alcohol differently from the way someone without a drinking problem may process it, food addicts eat and react to eating differently. And we know how others regard us, and that stress may manifest itself as a desire to eat an entire cheesecake while hiding in the pantry or -- my personal favorite -- driving.

And conversely, people around us can also behave in less-than-constructive ways when we're trying to get the addiction in check. We're accused of "dieting to get attention," for example. Of wanting to be thin because we're vain. Of being obsessed with eating healthily. (And that last one may be true -- but hyper-focus is necessary when a person is trying to make a huge lifestyle change.) People sometimes say snarky things about my being "selfish" in refusing to skip my Weight Watchers meetings, or for spending time at the gym. But just as therapy can make a difference, doctors tell us exercise can help "rewire" the brain in a way that can help us manage addiction.

When a drug or nicotine addict or alcoholic decides to seek treatment, those around him or her are usually supportive. Few people urge "just one drink" or "just one cigarette." But I can't tell you how many well-meaning people in my life still say such ridiculous-to-me things as, "Just have one cookie." "Just have one helping." Or -- my personal favorite -- "Just eat less." Oh, OK. Thanks.

If you love someone who's dealing with food addiction, don't say those things. Listen and offer support, but don't offer advice unless you've been there. Most importantly, don't judge. Recognize and and affirm that losing weight and keeping it off is challenging, and feel free to encourage. Most importantly, as in all things, just be kind, and understand that in the wrong hands, that bread basket on your dinner table can be just as destructive as a stiff drink on someone else's.

And if you're struggling with food addiction, read about it. Learn to stop blaming and hating yourself. Recognize what's happening, and talk to someone. Know you're by no means alone. And consider, when you're ready, finding a way to take control.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Self-confidence vs. the kickball field: Does that little voice ever really leave us?


Self-esteem is a funny thing. You think yours is in good shape, and then something floors you and you realize you still need to do some work.

I was at the gym tonight, trusting my trainer as he added weight to the bar on the rack in front of me. He'd slide plates on, clip them, unclip them, slide them off, and replace them with heavier ones. We'd talk a bit as I rested, and then I'd duck under the bar, settle it on my shoulders, and lift whatever he'd served up for me.

And I'd sit down and stand up, over and over, with the bar on my back. And then I'd put it down and swing a really heavy (to me) kettle bell 20 times, and then we'd repeat the cycle.

And in the midst of conversation, he said, "You know, if you trained for another year or so, you could totally compete."

And my first thought, despite the degree to which I like to think I've evolved, was, "What? I'm not athletic. And I'm too old."

And then: "I've gained some weight back. I'm too heavy to do this. If this fat weren't slowing me down, well, then, maybe. Really, though -- no way."

But like a shy little girl, I responded, "Really? You think I could do that?"

"Sure," he replied. "You're strong and you're competitive. And you have a great work ethic. You have a ways to go, and I'd need to look up what's going on and when, but, yeah. You could totally do it."

We have a history, my body and I. It's been sick and it's been healthy. It spent a lot of years carrying too much weight for its heart to handle, and then it spent a little while -- thanks to the physiological and emotional support of Weight Watchers -- pleasantly and healthily lean.

And then it became addicted to the leanness, which then became thinness, and then undernourishment as I obsessed over every calorie I put in my mouth. (Example: I wouldn't swallow a vitamin unless I could look it up and determine its calorie content.)

This body has forever sought to find its equilibrium. And a few months ago, as I found myself agonizing over every morsel, I thought, enough. I was just tired of it all. And I joined a class at the gym and decided I'd try to shift my focus from the size of my body to the strength of my body.

And I found I liked lifting heavy things. Running has always appealed to me, but I run a certain distance and then I stop; I can't seem to motivate myself past a certain point. Strength training, though, seemed to be different. I watched as my form improved. I recognized in the mirror the dancer's body I hadn't seen since I was 18; the lean shoulders. The strong legs. A body too stocky to have developed into a ballerina's body, to be sure, but sturdy and capable in its movements.

I developed definition in my biceps. My balance began to improve. My pesky, weaker left quadriceps muscle began to respond. And, lo and behold, I began to want to fuel this new body with the food it needed -- not withhold from it, but feed it good food. Not punish myself for being hungry, but listen and respond appropriately when my stomach growled.

I felt a connection with the trainer teaching the class; smart and kind, he reminded me somewhat of my son. He was knowledgeable and committed and knew how to push me to do just enough, but not too much. So when the gym offered a great personal-training deal, I signed up.

And that takes me to tonight. And Grant, whom I believe and trust, was telling me I could possibly do this amazing thing, and after the doubt passed, I thought: "Yes. Just say 'yes.' Pretend you're encouraging your children, who you know are capable of tackling any challenge. Don't worry about the potential for failure. Set a goal, and commit to working toward it."

I'm a capable mother, a capable employee, a capable friend. I'm confident in my talents and in my ability to contribute to all facets of life in which I'm involved. I love building others up, mentoring them, helping to develop their skills and their confidence. And yet sometimes when I look inward -- all too often when I look inward -- I see the girl who was awkward and shy and chosen last for kickball. I feel her sense of being "less than." And I hear the voice that says, "You can't."

But tonight reinforced that indeed I can. I can lift heavy weights -- not above my head, but on my shoulders. And much more importantly, I can share the weight of my own challenges, my own frailties. I can let go of the need for perfection and be proud of myself for trying so hard to be healthy.

"You alone are enough," Maya Angelou wrote. "You have nothing to prove to anybody." I can remind my children of that. Someday, God willing, I'll sit on the front porch with my grandson and remind him of that.

And tomorrow, I'll hoist that bar again. And I'll remind myself.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

There is no failure here.


My niece got married yesterday. I adore her, and I adore her sister. They're my nieces by marriage, and they've remained my nieces through divorce.

I'm a fairly quiet person. And when you're quiet, you tend to hear things. I was at the gym today, basking in the glow of last night's wedding festivities, when I overheard a couple of women in the locker room talking about upcoming nuptials, presumably those of the daughter of one of them. "It's a good thing (husband's name) and I have been married so long; on his side, there are just marriage failures," she said.

I walked away because my buzz was killed, and I didn't want to hear more. The comment made me so sad. But as I walked home, started to feel angry. It was the word "failure" that set me off.

My first marriage, to my nieces' uncle, didn't succeed. We were young and made mistakes, a great many of them mine. No offense intended to my husband or my ex-husband's wife, but the divorce is my greatest regret because of the toll it took on our children.

But no one can convince me divorce equals failure -- primarily because of those children, and the hope that's evident within them as they embark on their own marriages, and the strength we continue to demonstrate as a family unit -- a nontraditional one, but a unit nonetheless.

We weren't always this functional; it took a long time for us to get to this point, and in the process, the kids sustained a lot of hurt. My ex and I lashed out at one another, pushed buttons in any way we could, and behaved in some really immature and ridiculous ways. But I choose to focus on the fact that eventually, we figured out how to relate to one another as parents -- "for the kids" as they say, but also for the sake of our own emotional health. It's not good to hate someone, especially the other person with whom you created two wonderful and deeply loved humans.

Here's what I wish I had told the woman in the locker room today about children of "failed" marriages:

  • They don't know only failure, and they don't see their parents as failures. Of course, given the choice, I daresay every child of parents who split up wish their dads and moms had worked out their differences and found a way to stay together. But children of divorce often witness the strength of single parents and benefit later on from the tenacity that was being built while they weren't aware any "life lessons" were going on. They learn to be financially responsible because money is often tight. They learn to appreciate what they're given because chances are someone had to work like hell to give it to them.
  • They seek out and value honesty, and their emotional maturity is well developed because of it. By far, the most difficult conversations in my life were the ones my children and I had when they became young adults and questioned exactly why their dad and I divorced. You want your children to adore you, and it's a risk to allow them to see that you're capable of having been a pretty flawed human being. But in most cases, if they know they're not being lied to, they can evaluate, and they can -- thankfully -- forgive.
  • They can, and often do, go on to have solid marriages of their own -- precisely because they're determined to prevent the problems that took down their parents' unions. My son and daughter, married three and two years, respectively, insist on communication in their marriages, and on heading off small issues before the problems are allowed to become big ones. 

I wish the locker-room women could know my family. At niece Alli's wedding reception last night, I sat at a table with my ex, his wife, my son, and his ex's sons. (My nieces and their parents still welcome me as family and not an "outlaw" -- a something about which I'll always be grateful). We talked and laughed -- not to impress anyone with our "example," but because we like one another and enjoy spending time together. A funny thing happens when your divorce is several years in the past; the brain pushes the bad stuff to the back and highlights the attributes in that person that allowed you to want to marry him or her in the first place. My ex is kind and funny. He's a wonderful son and brother, and a loving father. That's all I see now.

I wish they could also have seen something else. Alli's parents are divorced as well, and as her dad, Bob, began his father-of-the-bride toast, the first person he credited was Alli's mom, Phyllis, for instilling the values in Alli that made her the lovely woman she is. He praised Phyliis in a way you'd expect to hear a man praise a woman whom he continues to value, admire, and respect. It was beautiful and spoke volumes not only about Bob as a person, but about the union that created my nieces -- a union that could in no way be regarded as a failure.

We all know of marriages that are simply toxic; the partners can't abide one another but remain together. One could call this admirable; there's much to be said for placing a value on commitment. But I also ask myself what's to be gained from the resentment and martyrdom that might exist in those marriages. In those cases, does "staying together for the kids" benefit those children, or does it adversely impact their views of what marriage can be? I can't pretend to know. Would staying with my ex have harmed the kids in the long run? Could we have worked things out? We'll never know; we can simply continue to move forward, doing the best we can.

But, please, gym ladies and everyone else: Don't automatically judge divorced parents, and don't automatically consider their children as somehow "less than." My children and my niece are extraordinary, if I do say so myself. In the case of my kids, I used to tell people they were fabulous "in spite of" their dad and me, but I've seen things differently for a while now. Their dad and I chose one another, and we chose to create them, and we're pretty decent individuals, so our son and daughter are pretty great people because of us, as well ... "failure" be damned.