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.

The Space Between

Thursday night, returning home from my last taekwondo sparring class, I sank deeper into the dark mood that has been shadowing me the last couple of weeks. I’ve thought unhappily about how I tied so much of my sense of self to job titles, to atypical pursuits, to this idea that somehow I am only valuable for what I do and not who I am.

It’s been nearly 15 years since I’ve renegotiated a life for myself, making decisive changes and shifts towards a larger goal. I moved states, met and married my husband, had a child, stayed in a job, grew roots in a community. Standing still was a foreign idea to me, but somewhere in my mind, I could feel a larger plan at work.

I have a similar feeling now, understanding that I am making deliberate choices and changes toward a broader goal. It’s not a pretty process and I’ve felt dismayed at my self-absorption, grim determination, joyless introspection. Everything is churning, restless, irritable. It is this discomfort, this sense of me without merit, that I have avoided through the years.

Drinking, excessive eating, unneeded shopping, smoking, gambling, pointless relationships, working nonstop – I churned through one compulsive behavior after another until I had nowhere to run. I do none of those things now, thinking smugly that I had miraculously saved myself from an unhappy fate. I became an upstanding citizen, a responsible wife and parent, a generous volunteer, a loyal employee. I’ve been doing everything “right”. Haven’t I?

Yesterday, I searched the internet, looking at all the martial arts schools in my area. I flipped restlessly through the community ed brochure, seeing 50 different new things I’d like to try. I wrote up an advertisement to start a writer’s group, since the last group I applied to was unresponsive. I thought of volunteering for the school’s Valentine parties, repainting 1 room or 10 in the house. I thought about going for personal trainer certification, going back to school for an MFA, and on and on and on.

It struck me, as my mind squirmed and twisted, that this has been the addiction of choice over the last five years. I am not me if I am not committed, overbooked, obligated, in motion, helpful, useful – desperately busy. I am nothing if I am not needed, not relied on, praised and lauded. I am still a small child in search of approval and fighting the feeling of not being good enough. It’s a very damning realization, at 46, to see the facades pushed aside and to see her, still avoiding the space between, those primal feelings at the core of it all.canstockphoto11716486

Many of us grew up in less than happy homes. Mine is nearly a stereotype of domestic violence, alcoholism and poverty. I am not one of the kids who got hit and “turned out okay”, as comments on corporal punishment articles doth protest. I became an insecure, fearful liar – anything to avoid getting punished or criticized. As an adult, I rebelled by becoming rigidly dedicated to being truthful and good. Good is a subjective term. Piousness, in and of itself, is not always good. Selflessness is not always about generosity.

I feel like a jackass for being this far down the road of life and finally working up the courage to deal with scars. Out of the messy distractions, I was lucky. I married a good person who supports whatever I decide to do. I have a healthy, happy child. I have a warm, safe home. I have enough space to make choices. I’m in a safe place to unravel. And it scares the hell out of me. Who will I be when I let go?

So excuse the whiny depression, the restless irritability, the self-induced misery. It’s getting ugly in my head, but I know it’s time. There’s a better plan. I just have to sit long enough, in this uncomfortable space between, to figure it out.