Just when you thought I had wrapped up my series on sugar addiction, I am back with one last (well, who really knows?) post on the subject.
This series didn't feel complete unless I wrote a piece on where I am now (and this is ALWAYS changing) with my own personal journey of processed food addiction, compulsive overeating and recovery.
There are some pretty prominent voices in the plant based movement, folks who I really respect, who will argue that if you simply get the food "right" than all of your issues with food will magically disappear.
I wish to God that were true, but it hasn't been my experience and it hasn't been what I have observed out there in the plant based food addiction recovery communities that I am a part of.
I'm not saying that the food isn't REALLY, REALLY important. It sure is.
I'm just saying that there's another side of the coin, one that in my opinion is equally important.
Changing your diet to a whole food, plant based diet and eliminating food groups and/or food substances doesn't change a compulsive person into a completely healthy person.
Yes, you will probably lose weight. Yes, you will improve your physical health and improve if not eliminate unhealthy conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease.
But for many of us, the "diet" part might be a swap of one compulsion for another. Giving up one compulsion (let's say eating sugar and flour) very well might turn into other compulsions, like a game of Whack-a-mole. For example, maybe someone would start abstaining from food group after food group until their diet is severely and potentially dangerously limited. Or maybe you've given up eating all animal foods and now you are compulsively collecting Vegan cookbooks, searching the Internet for "healthy" recipes and trying out new dishes.
It's all a distraction from something.
Giving up one compulsion can make you aware of other compulsions that weren't really on your radar before, if you are paying attention. For example, I've witnessed friends give up sugar and flour or give up salting their food only to find that they overeat to uncomfortableness on sweet potatoes or brown rice.
There are no answers in the plant based communities for these conditions.
No magical cure from the produce section of Whole Foods.
In my own personal journey, after giving up salt, sugar and flour I realized that I had a totally different compulsion that was there all along--mindless eating--and it became my new struggle with food that I was now alarmingly aware of. So I was still overeating, it was just on whole plant foods as I read a book or watched TV and ate.
I'm also becoming aware that we can be addicted to struggling.
How's that for ya?
It's all an effort to make the pain of life go away. It doesn't even need to be pain from anything major. It can simply just be the uncomfortable feeling of being tired, fatigued, lonely or bored.
But don't despair, there is hope!
There are two books that have really positively influenced me lately. The first is a book on the science of brain structure and chemistry. It helped me to understand that my behaviors are completely normal and reasonable from a biological perspective. You see, the brain and body do not want us to be uncomfortable or in pain, and the moment we sense discomfort, our primal instincts take over and find a way to get rid of the pain a.s.a.p. Hence why so many of us become habitual users of food anytime we experience discomfort of any kind, including experiencing big emotions, even happiness.
That book is called Your Survival Instinct is Killing You by Dr. Marc Schoen and I can't recommend it enough. It's made me feel so much better about myself and what I had previously considered my flaws.
This second book that I am going to mention is potentially life changing for me. I haven't even read the whole thing but I feel that I must mention it to you immediately. It ties in perfectly with the first book, Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, but it explains the exact same behaviors from an emotional perspective rather than a biological one. Personally, I really appreciate both perspectives.
In The Gift of Our Compulsions, author Mary O'Malley explains that our compulsive behaviors are really our friends and until we begin to listen to them with an open mind and an open heart we will forever be in a battle with them that simply cannot be won.
Here's a particularly meaningful excerpt from p. 64-67 of the book:
I want to share a story about the monster of compulsion living in your house. It begins with your living in reaction to this unwanted guest and gradually moves to the healing of engagement. It honors management, but shows us that it only takes us so far into the healing that we long for. This story also shows that the shift from management into engagement is gradual. What we are exploring isn’t about getting rid of all of our management tools – it is about adding curiosity to the process. Over time managing your compulsion will become less and less interesting as engagement brings you the freedom you long for.
Imagine that you once had a friend called compulsion. This friend promised you surcease from all your pain. But, as we have all discovered, relationships can be challenging, and as this one deteriorated, this former friend turned into a monster, and you ordered him out of your house. You come home one evening after a long day at work and discover this monster still sitting in your living room.
“What are you doing here?” you ask with great indignation.
When you get no response you become irritated, and again you order him out of the house. He doesn’t move. Racing into the kitchen, you ask your family members why they let him in, and they say he just appeared. Returning to the living room, you announce that you are going to call the police, and he still does not respond.
Calling 911, you say, “There is an emergency. A monster has moved into my house, and I want you to take him away.”
Kindly but firmly they tell you that this is not their job. You call social services, moving companies, and even the zoo, hoping to get rid of this unwanted guest. Nothing works. In desperation, you even toy for a while with the idea of calling in a hit man (your Uncle Joey could probably arrange it), but the idea is too abhorrent to your tastes.
Believing that you are solely responsible for your reality, you decide that the monster continues to lurk in your living room because you are not doing something right. So off to counseling you go. You describe the monster in your living room, and the counselor takes you back into your childhood, discovering a trauma there. This understanding brings deeper layers of mercy, and you let go of a big chunk of self-judgment. You drive home with a lightness in your heart and a smile on your face. With great hope you enter the living room, fully expecting the monster to be gone.
In your frustration, you begin to listen to what the monster seems to be saying. You become convinced that you would feel a lot better if you got lost in your compulsion, and without a second thought, you go in search of its promise of peace and comfort. The relief you get from indulging in your compulsion is temporary, leaving discomfort, judgment, and maybe even despair in its wake. So you decide you will never do that again and claim that you will now be on top of these urges from the deep. You read books that show you how to be in control, and with great perseverance you cultivate these skills. And for a while it seems that the monster of compulsion is gone, for when you go into the living room you don’t see him there.
One evening, while watching television, the pile of blankets in the corner begins to move, and there, much to your dismay, is the monster. In a flash you realize that the whole time you thought you were in control again, he was taking a nap. Deep self-judgment and despair fill you, and you immediately get lost in a wave of compulsion.
After the wave moves through, you pick yourself up and say, with great determination, “This monster isn’t going to get the best of me!” When you go into the living room you sit on the couch, close your eyes, say powerful affirmations, repeating to yourself over and over again, “I am in control of myself, and this irritant is gone from my life.” You feel more empowered as you repeat these words, and you know that he is evaporating right now as you speak. In a very confident move, you take a peek through your closed eyes, only to discover that he is still there!
The more you go to your compulsion for relief, the deeper your self-judgment and despair grow. For you know that you are supposed to be in control of this monster. You are certain that everybody else can do this and that you have failed because you are weak-willed, stubborn, and rebellious. So you try program after program, each one promising that they will eliminate the compulsions, thus getting rid of the monster.
The sense that he would be gone if only you could figure it all out and understand how to “do” life right begins to eat at your heart. Despair floods your being, but with great strength you will just try harder and then it will work. One morning, after a particularly rigorous week of controlling your compulsion, along with all the counseling, affirming, and visualizing that promised to get rid of it, feelings of deep grief and rage begin to overwhelm you.
“Everybody else can get rid of their monster in their living room” (what you fail to notice is that most people can’t, and if they do, another monster of compulsion usually moves in). “And if I can’t get rid of mine, there must be something terribly wrong with me.” You collapse on the floor in a flood of tears, self-judgment, and hopelessness.
In the middle of the room you hear a very faint, melodious voice. “Ask me why I am here.”
In shock you look up at the monster. In this whole time he had never before spoken!
“What did you say?” you ask in amazement.
“Ask me why I am here,” he repeats.
“Well, I don’t want to talk to you. You are the enemy. I didn’t invite you into my home. You came unbidden and are deeply unwelcome,” you respond. In a huff you turn your back to him.
“What have you got to lose?” he asks. “Nothing else has worked. I haven’t gone away.”
In your desperation you realize that this is true. Picking yourself up out of the heap of self-failure, you slowly approach him. (This whole time you’ve never come closer than ten feet.) Your heart is racing wildly. “This is the enemy,” you say to yourself. “What am I doing? I must be crazy. I will be overwhelmed and lost if I get any closer.” But your desperation urges you on.
As you sit down on the chair across from him, the first thing you notice is that the monster has kind eyes! “Why, you have beautiful eyes,” you say. “And they are even twinkling with joy and laughter. Why have I never noticed before?”
“Because you made me the enemy,” he says in his melodious and healing voice. “I am not your enemy. In fact, from the depths of your being I came into your life to awaken you. I am not here to disturb you, even though I do evoke that in your mind. I am not here to harm you, even though I do bring up your fear. I am your ally, highlighting the old beliefs you have taken on about yourself that keep you separate from all that you yearn for. If you listen to that which is upsetting in your life, it will show you the way back to yourself.”
In some corner of your being you know that what he is saying is true. Rather than running away, you begin to listen, and your heart begins to melt. Joy surges through your body, and you become curious about the monster rather than reacting to him.
“You truly are my friend,” you say. His laughing eyes answer yes. “And you have been waiting a long time for me to pay attention and listen to what you have to say.”
With a big sigh, he affirms this truth.
You realize that every time he is present, he reveals another piece of your healing. Even with this connection, at moments your fear and confusion take over. But you notice the kindness in his eyes, and again you find yourself present for this former enemy.
Something he said finally becomes clear to you. Life is for you! Who you really are includes both the dark and the light; the dark is being used as a tool of awakening. When you understand this, it becomes evident that your life – all of it – is trustworthy. And the deep safety you long for comes when you learn how to be present for yourself in a curious and compassionate way.
I have found after reading these books is that I am becoming much kinder to myself. I've been trying to not beat myself up about food for many years now, and I've had a lot of success with that, but this is taking it all much further. I am taking my #selfcarewarrior intention to entirely new levels. I'm not sure where this is going to lead to, but it seems that I am at the beginning of making some fundamental shifts in my life and my opinions on diet and I honestly cannot say right now where this is all going to end.
I sincerely hope that if you are struggling with compulsions of any kind - food or shopping or drugs or anything - that you take the time to read both of these important books. And please feel free to reach out to me in the comments section or at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk more about how this all fits into a holistic view of health.