Addiction in a nutshell: The emptiness demands to be filled. Insatiable longing meets instant gratification. Indulgence. Regret. Shame. Repeat.
While every journey out of hell is unique, to a certain extent, addiction is addiction is addiction. We move away from the substance that’s killing us and develop healthier lives. There is one notable exception. It’s the one substance that’s both easily abused and yet cannot be abstained from: food.
Food is sustaining and comforting. It’s something we associate with family, traditions, and most of the best things in life. Many of us are sufficiently passionate as to be dubbed “foodies.” We are a nation obsessed with food.
Even in the midst of our longstanding obesity epidemic, we remain unclear clinically: Is food addiction simply an eating disorder? Can people become addicted to certain sugary and/or high fat foods? It’s actually quite simple. Ask any recovering addict – anything that fills the emptiness can become an addiction.
I’ve had the honor of talking with friend and fellow blogger Robin Follette this week about her journey into recovery. She confirmed that like most of us, the emptiness began in her earliest years. “There were a lot of things missing and a lot of complications in my extended family that overshadowed my childhood. Food absolutely filled an emotional emptiness.”
She shared with me that, “(Food) has been my best friend since early childhood.” Her story connects me to hundreds I’ve heard (and my own) about the compelling need for more: “I asked for food I wanted and got some. I asked for more and got more. If I asked for thirds. I sometimes got thirds. I always wanted more. Food made me happy, kept me entertained and made me feel better.”
I asked Robin the two rhetorical questions I ask every person in early recovery: How much is enough? and What does “no” feel like? Her candor is striking: “I hid so I could eat as much as I wanted. I sometimes grabbed a handful of something and hid in my tent fort or favorite spot in the woods behind our house. I hid because I didn’t want to be told “no.” No more food? No more best friend?”
The things that takes away pain start out as our salvation and quickly become our damnation. From the age of 10, Robin describes understanding from the reactions of others that what brought her comfort was something to be ashamed of:
“I don’t remember what (was) said but I remember the tone in the person’s voice. She knew me well enough to know food was what made me happy and she wanted me to be happy. Clearly, she was unhappy with me and my eating habits. I knew then, in that instant, in that tone of voice, I knew. My love of food was shameful. That was the beginning of embarrassment and shame that would last nearly four decades.”
Robin developed serious health complications by age 40
I started having symptoms of colon cancer at age 40. My mother had colon cancer and died at 56. I was *devastated* when I couldn’t eat the entire day before my first colonoscopy. Once again my best friend was ripped away. I was working on my food issues with a counselor at the time. The look on (my counselor’s) face when I told her the following week about my devastation was unforgettable. That was the session that started changing the way I view food.
Robin had vertical gastric sleeve surgery in February of 2014. Her description of the process is an inspiration:
“I had to jump through hoops for health care professionals and the insurance company. In giving up that control, in being told what I was going to do, when I was going to do it, and how many times it had to be done, I started to gain control. It’s very clear from the first informational meeting you attend in EMMC’s surgical weight loss program – do not gain weight. If you can’t get some self control you’re going to need more time getting to surgery. It doesn’t mean you won’t get there, but it’s going to take more work. I didn’t do it gracefully in the beginning. I complained and sulked but I got with the program. I’m not completely in control but when I slip I don’t fall as far and I get myself together much sooner.”
Today Robin sees food differently, “Food is not anyone’s friend. It’s food. Plainly, simply, food.” As the adage goes, “We eat to live, not live to eat.” Today Robin’s focus is on nutrition and taking optimal care of her body. As is true for so many of us, she finds that even well meaning folks can undermine her goals:
“People are my biggest struggle. Generally, supportive people don’t get drunk in front of alcoholics. I’ve stopped seeing several people socially because they push me. “Just a bite.” “A little won’t hurt you.” “I’m a little insulted that you won’t take this batch of cookies home with you.” Nutrition is key, and there’s no nutrition in fried mozzarella sticks and cookies. I have to pack as much nutrition into three cups of food a day as possible.”
The untold story that often follows recovery from food addiction is the attention it brings to we who are accustomed to being invisible socially. Robin has handled this with grace and laughs that she’s been married forever and scarcely gives it a thought. I’m just getting to know her, but a woman who bags large game seems like someone not to be trifled with!