Actually, I Am Not Sober
My identity as a sober person, has just been rocked. Today I finished reading the book, Bright Lines Eating by Susan Pierce Thompson, Ph.D., and I was confronted with the cold, hard truth: I am still an addict.
This is hard for me to accept because addiction has become a major focus of my life. I am an Addiction Counsellor, a Recovery Coach and a Counselling Psychology Master’s student. I talk about, read about, and learn about addiction every day. Also, I have been “sober” for 3.5 years, or at least I thought I was.
Today I must officially declare that I am not sober; I have been in denial. The truth is, although I am abstinent from alcohol, I have harboring a secret addiction. I can not believe I did not recognize it fully, until today. I have been lying to myself! But this is what addicts do; I know this. I have been through this.
Fortunately, because I know a lot about addiction, I am actually quite excited to tackle this one. I am confident, that addiction is indeed a solvable problem. For this I am grateful. Before we go into the “how” to overcome this addiction, let’s get back to the discovery of its existence.
Last summer, both of my sisters (on different occasions) suggested I try fasting. They had tried it out and found it to be beneficial on may levels including: hormone regulation, weight loss, improved vitality and much more. As someone who has suffered with depression, this seemed like a possible solution. Prior to this I had tried a LOT of different approaches to managing my dark dog, with wavering success. So, without doing much reading up on it, I gave it a try. I chose the 16/8 method, as it seemed to be the easiest approach, and it promised to yield all the benefits. I lasted a few weeks. Indeed I felt somewhat better physically, but I was hungry in the morning (particularly after long runs) and I began to resent it. I lost some weight, which inspired me a bit, but not enough to keep trying.
At various times over the year I have revisited fasting, each time having read another book (or three) describing the benefits of autophagy, insulin regulation, alleviation of depression and weight loss. It all made good sense to me, and I was hopeful that if I could just do it right, I would reap the benefits and start feeling happy, thin, and free. I found myself reading book after book, trying to find just the right formula for fasting to meet my specific needs. In retrospect I can see I was searching for a plan that promised me the benefits without having to give up my secret drug — specifically chocolate. The crazy thing is I did actually find books that met my addictive needs. The OMAD diet (or the One Meal a Day Diet) promised to deliver all the benefits, without having to give up treats, desserts, or chocolate. And so I ate one meal a day (most days) and continued to eat junk. I lost a few pounds, which at first was inspiring because it gave me some physical tangible proof that something was changing, but what was in fact happening was the reinforcement of a very bad habit. The hunger and restriction I put on myself for 23 hours a day, made me crave the chocolate more than ever before — and I did not hold back. My craving officially became a compulsion. I ate chocolate every day, after my big, singular meal. My depression continued to fluctuate; I got headaches and felt lethargic after every meal. Yet still, I did not acknowledge chocolate as the offender. I can actually recall thinking this was just a symptom of my body detoxing — ha!
I was not detoxing by any means. In fact, by eating the sugar, I was flooding my brain with dopamine, as I did with my previous drug of choice — alcohol. The influx of dopamine causes a response in the brain to down-regulate for dopamine, in attempt to tame the chemical overwhelm. This down-regulation of dopamine restricts the effectiveness of the neurotransmitter, thus dulling its capacity to produce a pleasure response. Alas we have the thing that really sucks about addiction — the dopamine hole. You desperately desire more dopamine to feel good and motivated, but once addicted, the most dopamine can do for you, is make a measly attempt to take you from a state of withdrawal, back to some sense of normal. Pleasure, as we once knew it, is lost.
What Susan Pierce Thompson made clear for me, is that my problem is not depression. Depression is a side-effect. My problem is addiction. Often with concurrent disorders, it can be difficult to determine which came first. In my self-diagnosis, I have been leaning toward depression as coming first, because it made me feel better to think there was a reason I became so hooked on drugs. I was less likely to self-stigmatize thinking I was not responsible for my problem. Despite my learning, there is a part of me who still thinks, addiction is a life-style disease that is self-induced — a poor coping mechanism. I feel guilty about having an addiction, but not so guilty about having depression. I think this way because addiction seems to be so obvious, so confrontable, so solvable. Turns out, it is just as sneaky and elusive as other mental illnesses, and it is not my fault.
Food, especially junk food, has been marketed to us by the only marketers better than big pharma. Food messaging is ingrained in our culture, on every level, particularly the subconscious. I won’t go into the details on the brainwashing around food and junk food, but a good place to learn more is www.foodmatters.com
The thing is, I knew this. I knew that junk food was bad for me, and I knew it was addictive. I just did not want to admit that I was actually susceptible to it. I wanted to believe I was someone who could take it or leave it. I wanted to have chocolate, because I could no longer have booze. Like many of my addict friends, I justified my sugar addiction as the ‘lesser of two evils’. Unfortunately, I can no longer call it that. Sugar, may not kill you in one dose, but no doubt about it, sugar kills. I will not go on to describe diabetes, heart-disease and eating disorders, but the evidence is there.
Evidence of my addiction is hard to see by looking at me. I have hidden it well from myself and others. I am not overweight, I run every day, and I am known to eat healthy food. My whole identity revolves around health. But I have not been feeling healthy. I have been riding the sugar roller coaster. My insides are riddled with addiction.
Let’s take a look at the reality of my situation. Just a few days ago (before reading Bright Line Eating) I found myself shoveling spoon fulls of nut-butter and chocolate chips into my mouth after my ‘one meal’. Eventually I ditched the peanut butter and kept eating the chocolate chips. I ate an entire bag of chocolate chips in that binge. I would have kept at it, had I not run out of chocolate. I even considered going out for more chocolate while I was still in my ‘eating window’ but started feeling too sick to go out. I had to go to bed. Surely, this scenario is not what the One Meal A Day dieters call ‘a treat’. Moderation is clearly not my jam. I am an addict.
Now, you might be thinking the notion of junk food abstinence is a bit extreme. Maybe this is a cognitive distortion arising? Am I taking a perfectionist approach to my sugar problem? Do I really need to quit entirely or is moderation an option? After all, what fun would life be without treats, snacks, cake? Oh the familiarity of this notion to the voice in my head. I used to tell myself life would be no fun without alcohol. I had paired alcohol with relaxing, reward, celebration, grief… Tuesdays. I thought alcohol was my everything — but it was not. After several months of sobriety (from booze), I learned to unpair drinking with all of life’s experiences and realized I do not need alcohol. It does nothing good for me. And now, I will embark on the same ritual with sugar: the unlearning.
I am continuing to draw more comparisons between my alcohol and sugar addictions. I have rationalized sugar as I did alcohol, made attempts to control it (under the guise of other diets) and relapsed, many times. I have lied about it and made countless efforts to manage the side effects of it — anti-depressants, exercise, health food. I now think the incredible focus I have kept on my recovery from alcohol may have served as a distraction from my junk food addiction. But now I know — and now you know.
I think I distracted myself because I simply was not ready. A friend once told me that books ‘pick you’ when you are ready. Perhaps Bright Lines Eating found me at exactly the time I became ready and willing to put the lines of abstinence in place and open the door to what I truly desire — to be happy, healthy and free from addiction. Thin is good too, but as we all know, thin does not equal healthy.
I now believe my honesty with myself and others about my lingering addictions, marks the beginning of the change I have needed to break through a big life-barrier. I know perfect health is unattainable, but some aspects of poor health can be prevented. I do not want something I do not need, to stop me from living my best life.