Audrey Hepburn once remarked that she resented food because it controls us; that, unlike other substances one might abuse, food isn’t something you can completely cut out of your life. Those who abuse alcohol or drugs can seek help from places specializing in adult addiction treatment where they’ll learn through counseling that, for an addict, there’s no such thing as “just a little bit”. You want to break an addiction, you have to go whole hog and never touch the stuff again.
With food, that’s simply not possible. Hepburn, after all, tried that approach and wound up suffering from bulimia and anorexia for much of her adult life. So, too, do many people who share her resentment of our bodies’ need to eat, a drive that for many of us has become less about necessity and more about gratifying pleasures or insulating against pain. In that sense, overweight people share a trait in common with those who abuse other substances: we use food to comfort or anesthetize us, giving it an added power over our lives beyond mere fuel for our bodies.
Like people suffering other forms of addiction, many overeaters refuse to see their addiction to food as a substance abuse problem. They claim to be “big boned” or to be baffled why they can’t lose weight (while secretly binging, as if those calories don’t count). Others blame thyroid or hormonal problems which, so they rationalize, means they aren’t personally responsible for being fat. I know: I’ve cited those same reasons myself.
And, as with a drug addict or alcoholic, people with food addictions often fail to see the dire impact their problems are having on their lives or the lives of those around them. I’ve been there, too. I’ve come up with one excuse after another to avoid taking my son to the water park, to the playground, to activities that would inevitably force me to confront how out of shape and overweight I’ve let myself become. The impact doesn’t stop there: it’s affected my marriage since I no longer feel comfortable allowing my spouse to see me undressed, no matter how much he assures me that I’m beautiful.
One thing I’ve recently learned about dealing with food as an addiction is that it can be treated in many of the same ways as other substance abuse problems, starting with a form of family intervention. With many substance abuse problems, that’s really the first step toward recovery but it’s best performed by counselors trained in drug intervention, people who know how to navigate around defense mechanisms, denial and cycles of co-dependency. When conducted by a professional, interventions have over a 95% success rate of prompting the addict to seek treatment.
Ours was less formal: over the Mother’s Day weekend my husband wanted to take me to a swanky restaurant in town. (See the co-dependency there? Feed the addict.) I refused to go, however, and I came up with all sorts of reasons: it was too expensive, I didn’t want to leave our son with the sitter, I was tired, etc. The truth? None of my pretty clothes fit, and I didn’t like the way I looked in the stuff that did. Fortunately, my husband saw through my rationalizations and pointed out how much I’ve been missing out on due to my self-consciousness about my weight.
“Do something,” he said. “You can’t get this time back that you’re missing out on. Yes, it might be boring to exercise. Yes, you might feel deprived going without chips or burgers for a while. But it will be worth it to you once you’re back to a point where you can feel good about yourself again.”
That hit home. Hard.
Hence my decision to streamline my life in a number of areas to reduce the stress which prompts me to turn to food as a source of comfort. Likewise, by reducing the number of demands on my time, I’m eliminating excuses to avoid exercising, the most important key to weight loss.
I’m using another tactic that’s important to other forms of substance abuse treatment, too: I’m cutting out the stuff that I know is harmful to me. Were I in a trained facility with licensed professionals, they’d call it drug detox, a period of time in which the body cleanses itself of toxins and breaks its physiological dependency on harmful substances while the addict works on understanding their emotional and situational triggers.
For me, that’s involved tossing out all forms of temptation in our house. Out went the chips, the crackers and candy. I even cleared out my secret stash of gummi bears. I’m letting my husband do the grocery shopping for a while so I’m not tempted to buy replacements and hide them for “just in case”, and I’ve informed my family that, while they’re welcome to have a burger or fries, they’ll have to do it when I’m not around. And, meanwhile, I’m exercising. A lot. In fact, I’m turning to that now for my source of stress relief and comfort, and the results are already beginning to show.
Why am I sharing all of this with you? Well, because that’s yet another thing that recovering from a food addiction has in common with other forms of substance abuse: the first step is admitting that you have a problem.
My name is Kate, and I’m a food addict.
Now, let the healing begin.