There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating or drinking. Even smoking isn’t criminal. The problem lies in motivation. Behavior becomes malfunction when the behavior represents a substitution. If playing electronic solitaire, watching TV or collecting stamps is a substitute for intimacy then there’s a problem, an addiction of sorts – a sensitive behavior going on. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. All successful quitters know the opposite of using is not “not-using.” Trust me on this, it’s not. Nature abhors a vacuum. Dry drunks may be technically sober, but they’re still full holes and cravings and ineffective behaviors.
The sober addicts may not be endangering others by driving drunk. Bravo! Unfortunately, dry-drunks still define themselves by their addiction. They look backwards not forwards. Tons of 12-steps meetings exist as platforms to regale one with tales of things I did when drunk. Story after story after story ensues. Ruefully admitting mistakes takes the sting out of shame. The select audience can relate in a way “normies” can not. Don’t get me wrong, I agree secrets keep us sick. If shame is keeping a person from facing facts that’s not a healthy shame. But let’s not replace crippling shame with shameless. That ain’t right. Many a freshly sober person swings from paralyzing secrecy to too-much-information-mode before settling into a happy medium.
There’s got to be more than two choices.
My sober addict friends suggest empathy. Hold space for the using addict. Feel their pain. As the pendulum swings between shameless behavior and wracked by guilt try to catch the addict at the sweet spot in the middle. Connect at the point of healthy shame. Take for example my recent eating malfunction. I’ve gained weight to the degree that two people in as many days, greet me with “Oh My what happened?” I’m in menopause. My hormone shift tracks with the inexplicable weight increase. I exercise and eat carefully, not the average eating disorder. I’m neither bulimic nor anorexic – but certainly fat, and obviously using food as substitution.
Stress eating as a habit began when I lived with my husband, the covertly using addict. I didn’t know why he was so touchy. In retrospect I’ll say: it was the pain-killers. (Narcotics make a normal person more sensitive, and a naturally sensitive person extremely sensitive.) I didn’t know what was making Howard so prickly. I dislike fighting. I chose to give him his space. ‘Cause isn’t that what ya do when you love a person? I.e., accept his (or her) quirks? He appreciates the opportunity to up his usage while I carry on, alone and in the dark. That was the genesis of my descent back into stress eating. Food was easily accessible, and nobody questioned. A girl’s gotta eat, right? Precisely because I wasn’t too fat, and I wasn’t too thin, no one noticed I was evoking the power of substitution.
Every time I had an urge to ask WTF was going on, I ate something instead. Not just anything – something soft and creamy and bland in my mouth. Fat needs a sugar to make it just right. This is not the way I eat when I’m unstressed. Lord knows I normally don’t have cake even on my birthday. The thing about ice cream is that I can go years without partaking, but once it rises on my horizon – it’s a hard thing to put away. Perhaps the milky sweetness is reminiscent of the earliest human comforts. Basically I had an eating malfunction. It is important to understand that ineffective eating is just as shaky a strategy as gambling or compulsive lying. In fact, stress eating is gambling, gambling with one’s health. In addition stress eating is lying, lying to myself. So there’s that.
Eating may be socially acceptable, but stress eating is still a dangerous habit. Stuffing one’s feelings is an insult to self, an insult which can lead to heart and blood pressure issues, depression, anxiety – a whole host of badness. That no one said then, “Oh My What’s wrong with you?” is ironic. ‘Cause all sorts of stuff was wrong. My husband was hiding his addiction from me. His addiction was destroying our finances. I was anxious with discomfort. I felt isolated and confused. I was married yet bereft of support. His increased drug use created increased side effects. The AMA happily prescribed Howard yet another drug to address each new side effect. And he, for his part, was only too happy to accept them as a “normal” part of aging. I can’t blame any one doctor, as he had three separate treating physicians and two pharmacies to cover his tracks.
When someone greets me now with “Oh My What Happened? You have gained some weight!” I experience immediate adrenaline rush. An inexplicable urge to self-soothe. I’ll take two of the three: fight, flight or freeze – to fix myself. First I’ll stumble, smile frozen on my face – as I mumble some lame excuse. Then I flee, as quickly as possible to the safety of my car, or my home or some place I can be alone and regroup. Recalibrate. Reabsorb that information. Like an addict hitting rock bottom I know I’m not fooling anyone anymore. Wearing black for the slimming appearance, or vertical stripes, just ain’t doing the trick. I’ve got to get a handle on the triggers to stress eating – which in irony of ironies is the fear of losing my job as a fitness instructor. Hard cheese. Right? How do I convince myself I’m ok in the face of nosy questions like “why are you fat?”
I try on the strategy of first strike. Introduce myself as the “fat teacher.” The big girl. Say it. Say it out loud. Make it my moniker before it becomes a slur. I combine that with going back for the students who like me, really like me. If I’ve got a letter, and email, or a text that is complimentary – I save it for the moments when I need a boost. The administrator wrote me, “I have to say that your instruction has received a lot of positive feedback and I feel like there is no need to change your class instruction. EMPOWER conducted a survey to participating school sites and found that the majority of staff want a way to relieve stress and relax. In reflection of your class, you are doing exactly what they would like. . . .” I jump-start a positive feedback loop by asking people who approve of me, and my yoga teaching, to remind me I’m not a bad person just because I am fat.
As with any malfunctioning behavior I have to attune myself to the vibration which is neither callous (who cares about my weight?!) nor depressed. I must resonate with a healthy amount of interest to reaching my optimum weight. And I must find a reasonable substitute. Rather than absorbing stress I must express it. Without freezing a smile on my face I must respond to the question honestly – what happened to me? I’ve gained weight. I’m bigger than I’d like to be. I don’t feel good about it.
Now Y’all play nice!