My History of Compulsion

My life has been stripped down to bare essentials over the last year. It’s a luxury that is entirely uncomfortable. What are we without our distractions? It turns out that I am a melting pot of compulsive behaviors, twisted patterns of self-delusion and convenient rationalization. Smoking, drinking, gambling, casual sex, overeating, overexercising – I’ve run the gamut over the last 20 years and avoided looking seriously troubled, by switching compulsions so that everything just looks like a phase.

I think I've got BINGO!
I think I’ve got BINGO!

I stopped gambling at 20. I gave up smoking at 30. I traded in casual sex for a long term relationship at 32. I quit drinking at 35. I eased up on my body by quitting martial arts at 46. I quit repetitive jobs and volunteer roles at 47. I’m a lifelong learner without the community ed fees. So, at 48, I am preparing to face down the devils that have been along for the whole ride – money and food compulsions.

I started reading about compulsive behaviors in December to accompany a month-long online shopping fast. And now I’ve started to play Compulsion Whack-a-Mole. Stopping one compulsion only to have to confront another. My appetite became insatiable. I’ve kept it reined in over the years alternately through smoking or exercise or cycles of deprivation. But now I’m the monster who could eat Minneapolis.

To be clear, I have disordered eating behaviors. This is my caveat to say that this is only my situation and my perspective and this is how I choose to deal with it. There are people for whom compulsive eating disorders are a life and death issue and I would not want to conflate my situation with theirs, nor suggest that this is some personal, solo quest. I have support – a life coach, friends and family.

canstockphoto14409836The problem with any compulsion is that it is not a rational beast with which to reason. People get very high and mighty about weight loss and self-control and discipline and I’d like to drop kick their asses to the floor. Fantastic – it’s not an issue for you! Now, go away. This human has some work to do.

So I’m here – desolate, yet pragmatic and determined. Everyone has their own threshold for “hitting bottom”. If I express that I feel like I’ve hit bottom, inevitably someone will pop up and say “well, at least you haven’t blah, blah, blah…” Yes, there is always someone less fortunate, situations more serious, things more important to worry about. My head is not fully ensconced in my ass. However, this is where I’m at and the only perspective I can truly address.

Hitting bottom for me is a sense of hopelessness.  Bottom for me is discomfort in how I move and feel. Bottom for me is hitting numbers on a scale that I have not managed since being pregnant. Bottom for me is having shitty workouts because I’m too tired or breathless. Bottom for me is not being able to run as much. Bottom for me is feeling my body become an impediment rather than a functional part of my existence. Bottom is feeling out of control, with no end in sight.

And lately, bottom for me is the sense of exhaustion and exasperation about all the energy that I’ve expended in my life thinking about weight and food. I’m headed into the 3rd, possibly 4th quarter. Time is running out and I don’t want to keep wasting it.

Our stories all start somewhere and that is where I begin to untangle the stranglehold of compulsion. I’ve begun my first homework assignment, writing my history of eating and weight. It’s hard work, because it is often painful and cringe-inducing, but something else more important is emerging – a sense of compassion for this person who is me. Sometimes I sit back and think “who wouldn’t be completely messed up after that experience?”

I’m not turning this blog into some sort of self-help, weight loss journal. But I tend to write from where I’m at and this is a long-term project that I’m just starting. It’s not about food or numbers on a scale or the right workout for that roll just under my chin. It’s about addressing that gaping void that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to fill. This shit is getting real.

So, I’m going to share just a few of the notes that have emerged while writing about my history of eating and weight.

1975  There’s 4 kids now in my family. My stepfather is a construction worker and an alcoholic who works inconsistently due to the recession. We get government cheese and butter and welfare food coupons. I sneak bread at night because I’m hungry. I hope each morning, as the loaf gets smaller, that my mother won’t notice.

1986   I get flagged at an Army weigh-in. I spend the next few weeks running the flight line at Goodfellow Air Force Base and starving myself. I make weight. My platoon sergeant makes me squad leader for the “fat squad” to get everyone running more. Not the honor he imagined.

1991   I’m watching “Prince of Tides” in a movie theater in Iowa City. I have a massive panic attack during the family dinner scene. My heart is racing, I’m sweating, my stomach is turning. It occurs to me many years later that it felt like dinner with my family growing up – unpredictable, confrontational, critical, sometimes violent.

Eat me! Eat me!
Eat me! Eat me!

There is more. More that is too personal, too painful to reveal publicly, but you get the idea. Unearthing the most painful, crappy parts of one’s history is necessary work, but it makes me want to eat a house. I write about it here because part of any compulsion is secrecy and solitude. But some of you are house-eaters and maybe I just wanted to say hey – me too, friend, me too.


Some Resources that I’m perusing:

Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, MS , RD and Elyse Resch, MS, RD, FADA

Starting Monday: Seven Keys to a Permanent, Positive Relationship with Food by Karen Koenig

Spent: Breaking the Buying Obsession and Discover Your True Worth by Sally Palaian

Stop Eating Your Heart Out by Meryl Hershey Beck, MA, MEd, LPCC

50 Ways to Soothe Yourself without Food by Susan Albers, PSY.D.

49 thoughts on “My History of Compulsion

  1. I’ve done better the last year about compulsive shopping and pretty soon am going to post an article about getting rid of things you no longer need in order to start more of a capsule wardrobe. once you are down to minimums, you can really see that you do have all that you need (and then it help you control your wants more). trust me, I used to want and want and want! But I realized, I’m 34, I have 2 kids and I cannot just spend money to spend it. I have to be wise in my decisions. Do I really need new bath towels? It’s difficult and a hurdle to navigate through. You can do it! 🙂


    1. I found that I could break the shopping compulsion in December and am continuing to practice saying “I have everything I need”. It really boils down to trying to fix emotions with stuff and that drives most of my compulsive behaviors.
      Thanks for sharing your experience – it sounds like you are making great progress!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am guilty of compulsive shopping myself, as well as compulsive – alot of things- eating, exercising, cleaning. It’s a balance I suppose. Sometimes I literally just want to leave work early so I can go shop, by myself, sans kids! It’s tough but do-able. Keep up the good work! Forgive yourself too, as we all do these compulsive things (some more than others!) 🙂


  2. I quit smoking by shifting to another compulsive behavior – eating peanuts.

    Yup, I downed them by the pound because picking up a peanut and putting it into my mouth simulated the same motion as picking a cigarette and taking a drag.

    That is when I started running (to lose the peanut weight). A few years later, I was running from Minneapolis City Hall to the Ford bridge and back (10 miles) over the lunch hour. I ate so much to support that habit that I was banned from the pot-lucks at work.

    So to get back into the good graces of the crockpot crowd, I cut down my running and worked to excess.

    When people talk about balance in life, they rarely use the metaphor of a high-wire act – but that is what it is. Hitting bottom every time we fall off is not a problem. It is not how hard you hit – it is how well you bounce.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is also what I’ve found myself doing – shifting or juggling compulsive behaviors. Part of me likes to shrug and say “eh, it’s my personality type”, but there is something frustrating about the lack of control. It ends up being demoralizing and corrosive. My efforts are now to get at the root of the compulsion, because I’m running out of vices!
      Thanks for sharing your experience, Greg. And I definitely believe resiliency or “bounciness” is key!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Take this as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek humor but there is practical truth in it – rather than trying to control (throttle down) compulsive behavior, I have learned to trick it by giving into such a broad spectrum of vices that individually, each is worn too thin to be corrosive.


        1. Having a sense of humor about one’s own foibles is critical. For years, my only goal was to “minimize the damage” of any particular compulsive behavior until I moved on. I think I’m at the point where the only thing being worn thin is my morale!


  3. While I might not share your particular problems, I relate entirely.

    When discussing my problems, my rule of thumb is that I don’t do it. I find myself thinking of Catholic confession (not that I am a Catholic) and how I am glad I am not because confession is such a mixed blessing.

    I recall an episode of the Simpsons where Bart imagines his future life as a rock star that ends with his glassy eyed on drugs in the gutter. And in reflecting on this hypothetical future of rack and ruin, he only sees the romantic, and he says ‘Cool’.

    In Notes From Underground, Dostoyevsky pulls apart the rational and the utopian view of existence and says that sometimes we humans do the destructive thing because that is who we human beings are. You can’t isolate that part of us and take it out of the mix.

    I am a big believer in reflecting on my own reactions. And I see a fine line in myself between wanting to cry for help, or feeling grief or despair on the one hand, and and lolling in a pit of self indulgence on the other.

    It’s so hard to even see things straight. Getting to the bottom of things is hard. Society is hardly a shining example of how to manage things. And meanwhile life goes on.

    I wish you all the best.


    1. Your comment makes a clear point about human beings – we’re damned complicated and disentangling all those threads that create the tapestry of who we are is a challenge, if not near impossible.

      It’s a very Buddhist thing to observe your own emotions without judgment. I can do this to a point. When it turns from self-reflection to self-flagellation, that’s usually a tip-off that it’s time for a change.

      You mentioned confession and it reminded me of the expression that confession is good for the soul. I think it must be a wonderful thing to believe that you can tell your darkest secrets and be absolved/forgiven on the spot, walking away unburdened. At least that’s how I imagine it might be.

      I think you could unravel a whole post just from your comment, David!


  4. Really enjoyed reading your post. The notes towards the end are very powerful – I hardly dare go back to old diary entries of mine fearing what I might discover and what might rear a very ugly head… I have only just started writing a blog but I am already inspired to create more after reading some of your posts! Thank you for sharing.


    1. Thank you. I haven’t kept a journal for many years, so the act of writing down my history is very discomfiting. It’s interesting when you start to see the patterns of your own life emerge. There’s a lot of “aha!” moments to be had.
      Good luck with your blog!


  5. I have come to realize that life is continuous cycle of working on yourself, sort of like sanding and polishing and oiling a piece of furniture until you’ve really brought out the beauty of the wood. We all have work to do. And just when we think we’re done we realize we’re not — there’s some other imperfection or foible that needs our attention. I recently acknowledged I have hoarding tendencies — not to the extreme you see on reality shows. But it is far too difficult for me to part with things — from clothes that don’t fit to pots that are so old and worn no matter what I’m trying to cook it sticks to the bottom to tax returns that are almost as old as I am, etc. And for the first time in my life I recently spent about 3 months going through every single square inch of my home and got rid of all of it. What a fabulous feeling! And not only do I now live in order in my physical space, my brain is more ordered as well — an added benefit I’d never thought of. Look forward to reading more about your trials, tribulations and successes!


    1. You’re so right – I joke that by the time I have it all figured out, I’ll have one foot in the grave.

      I’m a great one to part with things since I apparently lack the sentimentality gene. Although pictures and letters are keepers for me.The tough part is inheriting other people’s estate stuff and feeling bad when you have to get rid of their things.

      I think it’s going to be a challenge for me, but I’m apparently ready for it. Thanks for the good wishes, Fransi!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes you’re right — the inherited stuff is the most difficult to part with. Challenges are good for us, I think. We come out the other side better or stronger or smarter for it. Lots of lessons to be had.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I can easily quit anything if I decide to or regulate it so that it’s not an issue in my life. The opposite of an addictive personality I guess. It sounds like a desirable trait to have but it works both ways. I don’t get addicted to the good things either.


    1. I can never decide if I feel envy when I meet people who are able to make those choices and stick with them. Because you’re right, the flip side of compulsion is often perseverance in other areas of one’s life. I’m fairly diligent about a lot of things that don’t feel self-destructive.


  7. Very glad you are writing about this stuff. It’s healthy. I started blogging because it’s cheaper than therapy. No joke. Hang in. It’s a great community here. Be where you are and be proud you’re working on your shit. Not everyone does. Take good care.


  8. Smart and intense and generous: “I write about it here because part of any compulsion is secrecy and solitude. But some of you are house-eaters and maybe I just wanted to say hey – me too, friend, me too.” Thank you for your courage.


    1. Thanks, Cate. I don’t know if it’s courage or just another compulsion to blab. But I believe that saying a thing out loud often deflates the power it has over a person. At this point in my life, most things seem pointless to keep secret. It turns out, with 7 billion plus people out there, few things are unique to any one individual!


  9. Definitely a house eater! Had issues with weight/food/exercise since I grew hips at 14. Now at 65 there is something of a relaxation with it all, but I’d still love to lose ten pounds. I’m just not prepared to beat myself up over it any more. It took a long time.


    1. I think if it were just about weight, I’d not be so determined to make a change. I resent the mental energy and emotional reserves that I’ve given up to this. I think a combination of deliberation, acceptance and behavioral modification will return to me some of the personal power I have given up to the beast. And I see it as a long term change, so I’m taking my time.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Long term change – a welcome observation in a world intent on quick fixes.

    My eldest daughter is on a quest for better balance in her life. She says, for her, successful change has come because she chooses just one change at a time. Last year was weight/fitness. Now that she has seen the initial results of better food choices and jogging, and incorporated the modifications into her lifestyle, she can move on to another item.


    1. Your daughter has the right idea. Last year, I implemented one small change at a time and am still amazed how well it worked – good habits that I’d struggled with in the past (although I still really hate flossing).

      So many of us were raised on the This Old House/Extreme Makeover/Biggest Loser stories. We see monumental changes that take place in a very short amount of time. But slow and steady is the only way I roll these days!


    1. I don’t imagine there will be much magic involved. My experience thus far with the writing of my history has been hard going, but has given me a few light bulb moments. I just thought of some really bad puns: I am finding a lot of food for thought, getting to the meat of the matter…some of my light bulb moments are better than others.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My experience was I was stuffing down pain. I didn’t know that was what I was doing, but once I started working on past painful events, I understood I was attempting to keep pain down. Tending to the fire in my belly, the pain in my brain, was the best thing I could have done. I learned that most of what I was feeling was shame that wasn’t mine, but I was carrying it around for others. I learned to be compassionate and gentle with myself. My weight problems went away and I’ve been living in peace for a long time. Sure there are ups and downs, but I know how to take care of me now. My hope is you will be able to do this, too. It takes courage and you can do it!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. For me, I think it tends to be about anesthetizing myself against a constant onslaught of emotion. I’ve dealt with so much of the past that I also think that a lot of it my behavior is habit. Hence the need for some behavior modification as well. I always remind myself that we take these steps when we’re ready and not a moment sooner.

    It sounds like you are in a very good place in your life. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I hope your sharing this helps you move forward Michelle — we’re incredibly complex boxes of synapses and impulses, which makes us so unusual and marvellous, and conflicted. We took a peak at an exhibit on cravings in the science museum here in London a couple days ago, and of course so much of it stems from our brains, little imbalances in salts and other things I don’t understand that can turn our worlds inside out…thank you for sharing yours with us and I’m wishing you well, this new year. – Bill


    1. Thanks, Bill. We are indeed, incredibly complicated beings. I find self-growth is a seasonal, metaphorical thing. There’s no time better for churning in one’s shit than when it’s -12F/-24C degrees outside, like it is this morning. In some ways I feel fortunate – this feels like a last barrier to being the kind of person I want to be and I have the luxury of applying myself fully to the issue. I look forward to the spring. Happy continuing travels, Bill!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Trying to stop one compulsive behavior from becoming another compulsive behaviors is crazy hard. I traded in repeatedly checking my weight on the scale to compulsively eating M&Ms (ironic, no?). I think the trick is to figure out what your compulsive behavior is doing for you, and find another alternative that suits you and your lifestyle (and not just what is deemed by society and healthcare professionals as “healthier”). I was a social smoker a few years back and wanted to quit. I figured out that I smoked because I was stressed, either from work or because the bar became too loud. (And because I wanted to look “cool,” killmeiknow.) To kick the habit, I used to go outside and pretend to smoke a golf pencil. I eventually figured out that the deep breathing was actually good enough for me. I wish you the best!


    1. It is definitely like playing Compulsion Whack-a-Mole – you tackle one, just to have another crop up. One of the things my life coach mentioned is to see if they are comforting behaviors that no longer fit the bill. When I re-frame it a little, it seems more manageable.

      Smoking was a weird one for me. I picked it up in the Army when “smoke ’em if you got ’em” meant a lot of breaks (the culture is different now), but then I hit a very stressful…decade. The funny thing was that it was my own sensory tics that made me quit.

      I could smell myself and others and despite all the health warnings, it was this smell that bugged the hell out of me. Although, I quit a zillion times until it stuck. This serves as a good reminder that whatever goal one might be working on, there might be a few trial runs!

      Thanks for sharing your experience – I wish you the best as well!


      1. Yep, re-framing things can sure help. I like what your life coach said. Getting rid of comforting habits that no longer serve a good purpose for you still takes mental and physical strength. Your story about smoking is interesting! It was your own sensory dislike of the smell that helped you quit – what a nice thing you nose did for you! 🙂 Thanks for the well wishes!


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