Alcoholism, Compulsive Overeating, and Craving

mardisgrasI preface this post by saying, I am not a medical doctor, nor do I play one on TV.  


Also, below I talk about specific foods which in some ED circles is a definite no-no because of possible trigger effects.

I have been food sober since December 20, 2015 – which also means I have not had any refined sugar – or sugary dessert stuff.  I am pleased that today I am not craving sugar.

But I had an interesting sugar experience the other day that got me to thinking.  My eating plan is three meals a day and a couple of “snacks” if I want them.  At night a snack might consist of Sugar free jello or pudding.  The Sugar-Free stuff also gets a bad rap from some in the ED world – I think because of the chemical additives, and that Sugar-Free might be the alcoholics equivalent of near-beer and set-up craving the real thing.  I have not found that is the case for me, at all.

For breakfast I often have a farina type something or the other with raisins – we had that every Thursday morning when I was kid – along with a piece of fruit.  In my food sober life I actually enjoy, cook, and taste food, as opposed to just shoveling it in. When I was at the store, I notice some dried blueberries and thought that might be a nice switch from the raisins in my farina.  So I bought some, and a couple of mornings later, dutifully measured out the 1/4 cup of dried blueberries for my farina.

With the first bite, that familiar taste hit me.  I looked at the package and sure enough, the third ingredient listed for these dried blueberries is sugar.  I looked at the ingredient list for the raisins – no sugar.  Now, I was a bit put off, but certainly was not in the least bit tempted to go over to the sugar bowl that still sits on the counter and shovel it in.

But I got to thinking – I thought back to the mid-1980s when I was sober for one year or so, while taking my mother to Joplin, Missouri to visit her aunt.  At dinner the first night we had some stew dish that tasted so familiar, but I could not put my finger on it – turns out it was beef bourguignon.  The aunt assured me all the wine was cooked out.  The taste did not set-up a craving in me to head to the liquor store for a half-gallon of my favorite burgundy gut rot stuff – but there was just a real familiarity in the tasting.  In the same way, I was in a store one time and could not get over how much I liked the smell of the lime after shave and again, could not put my finger on it until the clerk commented “Yeah, it has a really strong alcohol smell but that goes away after a while.”  Or the factory loading dock with the barrels of distilled alcohol I walked through when newly sober.

And that got me to thinking about how 25 years ago, if the spring breeze was blowing and the temperature was just right, the bar across the street would be calling my name, and not for going in and having a coke either.

Today, I don’t knowingly eat any food cooked with alcohol regardless of the actual content when consumed – I just am not interested.  Today too, as I wrote before, I am blown away how mangos taste so sweet yet do not set me up to want to get the sugar desserty thing that I know will set me on a binge.

Today, I choose to error on the side of caution with food in the same way I did when newly sober from alcohol and drugs.  The only thing I truly miss is not having sugar in my hot tea.  I find it interesting that my refusal to consume any alcohol related stuff has only gotten stronger over the past 30 years.  I used to do a drop of communion wine in the distant past, but have not done so for five or more years.  I am curious where the sugar issue will go.  I am comfortable, one day-at-a-time, of not consuming sugar in the form of desserts, candy, and so forth – not even any King Cake for me this Mardis Gras!!  And that just got me to thinking about pralines – but I’ll deal with that another day.

Since this past December 20, I have not had a craving for any food, and have had what I think is a reasonably easy time with my eating plan.  In the next 30 days or so I will hit my goal weight and then the real work begins – maintenance.  I have lost weight before – multiple times – it is not really that hard.  But this time, I am extremely grateful that for the first time, I am working a 12-Step program and not dieting away the weight.  The 12-Step program approach has allowed me for the first time to deal with my compulsive overeating beyond the food and weight issue.  Instead, through a 12-Step program I understand how I use sugar the same way as alcohol and drugs to not live life on life’s terms.

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.

Recovery to Purity of Heart

roadI have taken the plunge to deal with my compulsive overeating addiction.  The decision flowed from my continual yo-yo weight gain and loss over the last few years, coupled with restlessness and feeling at loss.  I know simply losing weight is not the answer.  In the past 7 or 8 years, I recognized my eating disorder, and with varying degrees of success, dealt with the addiction via attending AA meetings and substituting food for alcohol in the recovery message.  To a certain extent this is the approach of Overeaters Anonymous.  Within the AA context that approach did not jibe.  So, I have begun attending OA meetings, reading the OA Twelve Step and Twelve Traditions book, and have a temporary OA sponsor I met at an OA Skype meeting.  Most importantly, I have begun working the 12 Steps in OA directly with my compulsive overeating.  In so doing, I use my eating disorder as a frame of reference . . .  or perhaps not really . . . let me explain . . .

The experience attending my first OA meeting was similar to my first AA meeting over three decades ago.  I found the discussion somewhat difficult to integrate as relevant to my eating disorder, but felt a very strong sense of being “home” or in the right place.  I was fortunate as well that the person who I asked to be my temporary sponsor introduced themself as both an alcoholic and compulsive overeater.  I reached out to ask for the help I knew I needed.  So we had back and forth discussions over the past week that proved absolutely critical in redirecting my thinking on recovery.

Besides a like-minded approach that addiction is addiction, the sponsor also suggested a lack of a distinction between abstinence from compulsive overeating and sobriety from alcohol – noting that both led to a purity of the heart. That made a lot of sense to me.  In my past week of reasonably intense reflection, I have come to believe that being successfully “sober” or “abstinent” in the conventional terms, allows me plenty of room to practice addictive behavior.  Early in my sobriety I often heard “Hey I came to AA to get sober, not holy” as an out for not dealing with other addictions.

I occasionally bemoan that I wish my 30-day rehab in 1984 had included all addictions and not just alcohol – but too, perhaps, I was not prepared to deal with the all of those issues at that time.  I realize today I am able to practice all of my addictive behaviors or isms with food and claim sobriety in AA.

From my one week in OA I realize that I must come back to the Step One and begin completely anew. (We admitted we were powerless over food and our lives had become unmanageable.)  If I do so, then I have a shot at recovery from my eating disorder.  Today that recovery has less to do with what and how much I eat, but more of living life on life’s terms – being accountable and sharing responsibility for my existence and contributing positively to the luminous web of humanity by getting out of self.  The food will naturally flow from doing so.  That seems a step toward the purity of the heart.

So after 30 years of continuous sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous, I am back at Step One with a broader more holistic and renewed passion.

That is what I have today.


Justifiable Anger in Recovery

recovery-scrollI was at an AA Step meeting the other day where we read Step 10.  As we went around the room each person reading one paragraph from the Twelve and Twelve, the portion that dealt with justifiable anger was mine to read.  For the previous two days I had nursed a growing resentment over an issue – the details are unimportant – but I can say with confidence that 99 out of 100 folks would say – “yeah, you got screwed.”  So the circumstance will cause me to spend an extra 10 work hours each week over the course of the spring.  I was immediately anxious to figure out how to somehow respond to or proclaim to the world the wrongdoing.

Coming out of the AA meeting, I processed some different views on the issue:

  • Yes, the circumstance was not good, involved someone going back on their commitment for their own self-serving reasons, completely at odds with governing policy.  However, I worked in this situation for the past nine years and the pattern of self-serving behavior was consistent, I knew that given the right circumstances the person would do what they did – so no surprise there.  It’s like the old story of picking up a snake and getting bitten, then complaining to the snake.  The snake correctly responds “I am a snake. That is what I do.  Why would you expect less?”  So, like with my years of trying to drink alcohol successfully and always failing, I did the same thing with this situation.
  • But, should I not be allowed justifiable anger over the circumstance?  Proclaim to the world the wrong doing that violated all established policy?  I had also learned over the years that the governing authority in this situation really does not want to hear about it and will do nothing to resolve the circumstance.  I can spend a lot of time and energy attempting to right the wrong, but in the scheme of things, my resources are best put elsewhere.  The world is better served by my focusing my energy on more important matters.  This situation will resolve itself by April and I will then have gained the experience not to put myself in a similar position in the future.
  • So once again, the situation comes back to being my responsibility.  I made a choice to put trust in a situation that on multiple occasions had proven illusory in the past.  In the same way, in the more distant past, I would keep picking up the bottle of alcohol expecting different results.

As an activist from the 60s and 70s, when I first got sober, I was concerned that the anger I had toward the “system” would be withered away in recovery because justifiable anger is something that recovering alcoholics cannot afford, so sayeth the Big Book.  Today I don’t see that type of activism – around issues of poverty, gun violence, war etc. etc. – as a matter of justifiable anger.  Rather these are issues I must be responsive to as a social responsibility for being a human being on this planet.  In fact, I suggest that by getting past my petty squabbles I note above, I am more able to focus on issues that really matter.

Today, the issue that brought me so much anxiety and anger one week ago is resolved in my head, regardless that the issue remains.  Or as mule trader Ray Lumm was quoted as saying “You live and learn and then you die and forget it all.”