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If I Just Keep Looking… January 17, 2014

Posted by J. in Genius.
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I was surfing around the Internet this morning in an uncharacteristic bout of morning procrastination…I mean, I was looking around for some inspiring things to post…oh, hell. Okay, I kind of fell down a rabbit hole and as cabinets and pianos went drifting past me, I found this in a list of non-scale victories that a dieter on sparkpeople had posted:

I have reached the point where I’m not eating healthy because I’m on a “diet”. I truly feel better when I eat “clean” and that is motivation enough.

And it struck me that I could have written this, had it occurred to me. And then the fact that it’s true but hadn’t occurred to me seemed like a non-scale victory as well. A victory within a victory. Meta-victory. Victception.

I’d say 99% of the time, I don’t give a second thought to my diet. And I say “diet” in the meaning of the word that describes what and how an individual eats, not the way that means it’s a specific plan for losing weight or increasing health. Mindful eating has become my nature. Most of the time now, food is merely how I fuel my body. I don’t obsess over points or calories or grams of fat or any of that.

I believe that part of my past failures have been due to me never getting to this point. I’ve never put food in its appropriate place. It’s always been an obsession in one way or another, and neither is healthy. And obsessing about it in terms of eating Just the Right Things is harder and more exhausting than just eating All the Things. I know the main reason I’ve quit in the past is that it got to the point where living with that obsession just got too hard. It was exhausting in a way that obsessing about obtaining food just is not. And it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had to follow a prescribed diet. And it’s hard to describe to someone who doesn’t obsess about food to begin with.

So for most of my life, I’ve been swapping one compulsion for another. I came to that realization in Overeaters Anonymous. There were people in the group who were consumed by the Twelve Steps and the OA lifestyle. They were obsessed by it. And in a moment of clarity, I realized that I’ve done the same thing with Weight Watchers, and really all the diets and plans and programs I’ve tried. Granted, obsessing about counting calories, or points, or carbs is healthier physically than looking forward to eating lunch while you’re still eating breakfast, but it’s still an obsession.

The problem is two-fold. First, you’re not really overcoming the obsession with food. You’re changing the outer behavior, but not the inner, underlying issue. Which is not entirely bad. Those behaviors have to change. But if the reason for your overeating in the first place is obsessive, or compulsive–you can’t not eat–then you’re only tackling half the problem. Making permanent changes means changing everything, not just how you eat, but why.

When you don’t overcome that obsession, you are still under the thumb of it. Food still owns you. It still rules your life and determines how you are going to live it. And that is the second part of the problem. When you’re fat and eating everything you want, giving your body everything your obsession tells you you need, the outcome is you continue to get fatter. It’s why so many fat people don’t even start. When we say things to the effect of “I’m powerless over food” or “I can’t imagine never eating {insert junk food here} again” or anything of that ilk, it comes across as a lack of willpower. But it’s not that. It’s more than that. It’s worse than that. Telling a fat person the solution to their eating issues is to put the fork down and step away from the table is not helpful. Because even if we can do it, we leave the table thinking about the food we left. We obsess over what we didn’t eat. We long for and even mourn the food we can no longer enjoy because it’s bad for us. We figure out how to get that bit of ice cream, or piece of chocolate, or fast food burger into our day or our week because without it, life isn’t worth living.

That’s obsession.

So you pick up a diet plan you can live with, and you work it. You do the things you need to do. You work hard at changing your behaviors. And because you have this obsession with food, you get to keep focusing on it. You can plan menus, search for and try new recipes, buy new products that fit within your plan. When it’s new and exciting, there’s a challenge to it, like a hard puzzle and you’re up for it! You get to pay careful attention to your food, and it’s okay with everyone. You’re taking charge of your life! You’re doing something healthy!

But over time, logging your calories gets tiring. The old obsessions come back because they never really went away. They just took a different shape. And the new shape is harder than the old shape. You become a slave to your food journal. You stop looking forward to eating out because you know trying to find something on the menu that fits into your plan is going to be a pain in the ass. You get sick of the same foods because you eat them so often, since figuring out how to incorporate new foods that fit is no longer new and novel, but a tiresome chore. You crave the bread you gave up, or the sugar, or even just the freedom of ordering whatever the hell you feel like eating whenever you feel like eating it.

You become a prisoner to your food in a far less satisfying way than you were before. You’re healthier, and stronger, and fitter, but the obsession that used to keep you fat is still making you unhappy.

And then the Mean Voice comes in. It’s says, “Fuck it. You are who you are. You were fat and happy. You were a size 28, but you were confident, and confidence is sexy! Your health is fine, and wouldn’t you rather be a happy, chubby girl instead of a skinny, crabby, sad old bitch?”

Yeah, you would. I did. Over and over. I lost weight, it got hard, and tiresome, and the old face of the obsession, the one I was comfortable with, would win.

So what’s different this time?

Well, this time I have someone to talk to who understands the kind of feelings that food obsessions bring on. I don’t have to explain what a binge feels like when it’s coming on, or what it feels like to eat everything that’s not nailed down, and what the aftermath is like. He knows. When I say I threw out chocolate cake so that I wouldn’t eat it, and the act of doing so made me tear up because I was so sad, he understood. These are feelings I’ve never addressed before, mostly because to say them out loud sounds SO fucked up. Well, I suppose it is. It’s not normal behavior, and it’s not a healthy relationship with food. It’s embarrassing to have to admit a loss of control, and having a safe, soft place to talk about it with no judgement is a godsend. And getting encouragement from someone who struggles with the same issues in the same way has more of an impact than hearing it from someone who doesn’t understand exactly how hard it is some days to put one foot in front of the other.

I think blogging has helped just as much. I have a place to spew out all the shit that rolls around in my head about this. My readership is far from vast, and I’m not so full of myself to believe that I’m writing this for the betterment of the Fat World at Large so much as it’s for and about me as I wrestle with my demons. But to hear in the comments that something I’ve said has resonated, or that I’ve inspired anyone to tackle their own personal demons…it feels good, but not in an ego-stroke kind of way. It helps me to hear that I’m not alone. I’m not crazy.

Well, maybe that’s overstating it, but at least my crazy has company, and that is comforting. It’s strengthening. Never underestimate the power of a simple, “Me too.”

I wish I knew if there was a series of steps you go through to overcome eating issues like the ones I struggle with. Like the stages of grief, you know? I know that for me, it didn’t lie in the Twelve Steps as they pertain to addiction and recovery, so labeling myself as a food addict seems inappropriate. I would stand up and introduce myself as a compulsive overeater, but that never seemed entirely accurate either. Because by the standards of OA, sobriety is measured in sticking to your food plan. Well, for me, that wasn’t really sobriety, because it was my compulsive overeating putting on a costume and walking around as compulsive dieting. It might look different, but it’s not.

I think figuring out that I have the food obsession/compulsion in the first place was part of getting out from under it. Truly, admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming anything. If you live in denial that you’re fat, you’re unhealthy, and the way that you live comes with a high cost, even getting started is going to be so much harder. You have to look yourself in the metaphorical eye and admit, no matter how much it hurts, that you have a problem. I put that part off for a long time, because I knew what I was undertaking, and I knew I was probably going to fail again. You have to be willing to shake that off and set it aside and brace yourself for the fight you know is coming.

That’s some hard enough shit to handle right there.

Figuring out that compulsive dieting was the flip side of this particular O/C coin is another piece. When you’re aware of your behavior, you start to be able to see it for what it really is. Once I realized what I was doing, it made perfect sense. So asking myself why I was acting that way, and sorting out the answers, that made it easier to curb the behavior. I imagine everyone’s answers to the “why” of it are different. Sort of like figuring out why you eat compulsively in the first place, and the reasons for it are legion, how you handle dieting is just more of the same self-examination.

Like the first part, it requires honesty. You can lie to yourself about why you behave the way you do, but I think getting things in control comes only with true self-awareness. You have to face your demons, and that means looking at your dieting behavior and really deciding if it’s healthy, or if you are giving into unhealthy, obsessive behavior. And only you know the answer. What makes a behavior normal for one person and abnormal for another is the motivation behind the action. In the same way I have a binge eating disorder, the flip side of that (I’ve discovered) is that I am prone to bulimic tendencies. Bulimia is primarily bingeing and purging, and it doesn’t always mean puking after you eat, or taking laxatives. But I’ve been known to toss back some water pills before my weigh in, and that’s not healthy. It won’t hurt me, but it’s bad for my brain. Working out excessively so that you can eat more food is bulimic behavior, as is eating something not on your plan and then working out to burn those calories. That’s purging, and while extra exercise isn’t harmful in the way puking is, it’s still unhealthy behavior.

Those are the kinds of things I have to check myself on. I have to curb both bingeing and purging, and doing both of those things are easier now because I am able to get inside my own head and evaluate why I do them in the first place.

Facing my own fears and anxieties has certainly been a step, as has sorting through the emotional fallout of having to reject old thought patterns and feeling lost and adrift in my own life. But I still feel like there’s a piece missing somewhere and it nags at me so I keep searching for it. Like there’s some sort of Rosetta Stone of fat out there that will unravel the whole mystery for me. I imagine before all is said and done that I’ll hit on it. It’s like it’s right there, if I could just get to it.

So often, things happen without me realizing it until later, hindsight being so clear and all. Last night I went to the gym and had a good 650 calorie workout. I had a hankering for ice cream, and I hit the grocery, still sweaty and red in my ridiculous running tights and neon sneakers, and I stood there for a good 10 minutes reading labels. Maybe fifteen. I left without ice cream. Ultimately, I realized I didn’t want it that much. I had the calories for it, and I knew it would be tasty, but in that moment, I didn’t want to spend the calories on something that wasn’t good fuel for me.

Now, I know that won’t always be my decision. Sometimes I’ll eat the ice cream. Or something else with little nutritional value, and it’ll be fine. It would have been fine last night. I might have some tonight, who the hell knows? But the fact that I didn’t regret not getting it was big. Not mourning the loss of tasty frozen treats was a victory. Walking away feeling good about the decision and not vaguely angry that I can’t eat like “normal” people was new and different, and I went home and made a healthy dinner without giving it another thought.

Then this morning, I read that wonderful quote about not eating healthy because she’s on a diet, but because eating clean makes her feel good. And I realized that for me, that is very true. I eat well because…I eat well. Not to stay within some tricky puzzle of numbers, though I do still write down everything I eat so that I don’t over eat, or under eat for that matter, but because food is fuel, and the better I fuel it, the better I feel. I don’t remember the last time I felt despair at the idea that this was how I was going to have to live for the rest of my life because honestly, it’s no longer hard. It’s not bad. I like the way I eat now.

Letting go of the compulsive dieting and changing those behaviors has meant that I feel as good mentally with my weight loss as I do physically. I’m not kidding when I say I eat well. I am seldom hungry. I have occasional treats, and sometimes the obsessions creep in and old habits come back for a visit, but most of the time, I’m happy and content with how my life is going, food wise. I don’t feel like I’m “dieting” or “on a diet” but that I’ve changed my diet, and I don’t really pay it much mind anymore because I don’t have to. More important, the compulsions that drove me to  it are under my control, not the other way around. And that, my friends, is something totally new.

I feel like the Ferdinand Magellan of weight loss.

I know now that when they tell you as part of dieting advice, “You can’t just go on a diet, you have to change your lifestyle,” that they’re talking about changing the actions that you do. But it’s not enough, and it’s why I think so many of us fail over and over again. If you change your actions and not your relationship with food, your actions have no foundation under them. If you look at the role food plays in your life and work to change that, then your lifestyle changes will match what is going on in your head.

As to how exactly you do that…I don’t know. Like I said, there’s some key I think I’m missing that will unlock it for me. I’m not sure how I got to this point. No one told me a lot of this stuff, it’s just what I figured out on my own, and it got me to a good place by dragging me through some shitty ones, and I’m sure it’s not over by a long shot. I guess if I had to make a rough draft for the steps it would look something like this:

  1. Admit that you have a weight problem and be honest about how serious it is. Evaluate how you feel, and have a doctor talk to you about your weight-related health issues. Find out exactly how much you weigh, and how much you should weigh. And take some time to come to terms with what might not be very good news. Allow yourself time to be upset about it, but don’t deny it. Don’t make excuses for it.
  2. Consider the behaviors that got you to where you are. You’re not fat by accident. You’re fat because you made yourself that way, and you’re the only one who can make you thin. The percentage of people who are fat through no fault of their own is very, very tiny. Everyone else got there by choice. You have to figure out what bad habits have contributed to your weight gain, and what good habits are missing from your life and resolve to change them.
  3. When you look at your behaviors, think about them. Talk about them. Write about them. And get some help with this if you need to. Whether that’s a friend who can relate to your particular set of struggles, a support group, or a professional therapist, find someone to talk to. There is a reason you eat the way you do. Everyone has a reason behind the way they act, including how they relate to food. You have to look at the role food plays in your life, and if the answer is anything other than “fuel”, it’s time to stop and look at why that’s so. This takes a long time, is an ongoing process, and won’t happen overnight, so get right on to step 4.
  4. Change some shit. You know how you got fat, if not exactly why, so you have to change the things that made you fat. And I’m no expert, but I think the answer is going to lie in the realm of eating less and moving more. Again, don’t make excuses and don’t accept them. While the changes are easy and new and exciting, start building good habits that root out the bad ones and get them established. Because the day is coming when Step 3 is going to come back around to bite you in the ass, and you’re going to want to have some good experience under your belt before you tackle it.
  5. Repeat Step 3 and 4 as often as necessary for the rest of your life. Continue to poke around in your own head and figure out who you are. The more honest you are with yourself, the more easily the changes happen. I find that every time I go into a period of time where I’m introspective and am dealing with a lot of the mental processes of losing weight, shit goes off the rails with my eating plan. I have trouble with keeping on track. The obsessions and compulsions go nuts and take over when I’m at my most vulnerable, and sometimes it’s only digging my heels in and refusing to go quietly that keeps me from quitting.

What’s missing is not so much a step as it is the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s the HOW of all of step 3 that makes 4 possible. I don’t know how you change the way you look at things. I don’t know how you change the way you think about food. It just seems to happen for me, and then when it’s done, I’m all HEY, LOOK AT THAT, WOULD YOU? Check out what I did!

Which is less than helpful.

I know that when I got to step three and started talking about the things in my life that have added to my obesity, and worked on trying to figure them out, I gained a lot of insight. I don’t think my insights are universal, since I suspect that every one of us is different, even if some of our struggles are the same. I learned about me, and knowing who I am and what makes me tick has let me make the mental changes I needed to, and that’s lead to the physical changes sticking and those reinforce the mental changes and…well, repeat step 3 and 4 as necessary forever.

I’ll keep looking for that missing piece though. Man, it’s like it’s just out of the grasp of my fingertips, or on the tip of my tongue.

Don’t you hate that?