In my ongoing search for optimal health and fitness, I've been reading Geneen Roth's books on compulsive eating and weight loss. I'm now reading When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull up a Chair and I've begun a new way of eating. This is how it goes:
I eat whatever I want. No rules, restrictions, reading nutrition labels or checking if it's allowed on the [insert name here] diet.
How is this different from any Saturday binge or Christmastime free fall? Here's the difference: I eat whatever I want without guilt, self-criticism or regret and without restricting food later to make up for it.
This is extraordinarily hard for those of us who have lived our lives criticizing our every move. My self-loathing has driven me since I was a little girl. Believing I wasn't good enough unless my behavior were perfect, I focused on actions: good grades, following the rules, doing as my parents said. As an adult, I changed my focus to always looking attractive, obeying the boss, exercising regularly and eating "right."
The most problematic goal was the "eating right" one because food, unlike the rest of those things, was my substitute for contentment, happiness and feeling special. Treating myself to cookies, cake, frosting by the spoonful and candy was how I put the sweetness and love in my life that I didn't feel was there.
My self-loathing, however, did not allow me enjoy my sugar-love freely, so my indulgences were always accompanied by guilt. I ate entire cakes in secret. I helped myself to the office holiday goodies when no one was looking. I threw away empty paper bakery bags with chagrin and disappointment in myself. This eating felt shameful.
Eventually I could no longer deny the effects these habits were having on my body. A horrific case of candida at age 27 showed me how destructive sugar was for my whole system, and my genetic tendency toward slimness started to give out in my 30's. I had to change.
Thus began fifteen years of driving myself even harder to "be good." My health depended on it, so my indulgences became accompanied by asceticism. My meals and snacks became pristine combinations of lean protein, fresh vegetables, homemade bean/brown rice dishes, raw nuts and fruit. But there were still cookies and cupcakes in my kitchen cabinets and I still ordered dessert whenever I got the chance.
For years my beautifully healthy habits battled my raging need for sugar. It was hell on my self esteem. Friends and co-workers admired my clean habits as we sat at lunch together, but I knew I'd be hitting the chocolate before the day was over.
I began seeing a therapist in my early 20's for my general low self-esteem and problems with depression, and my drive to heal myself has never stopped. Decades of talk therapy, relationship workshops, nutrition seminars, 12-step meetings, self-help books, Oprah shows, religious/spiritual support and professional help gradually chipped away at my terrible self-image and drew me into the light. I began to value and respect myself. But the sugar addiction remained.
In 2010 I was lucky enough to meet therapist and practitioner Carol Moss, who led me through powerful techniques (Emotional Freedom Technique and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that moved a huge chunk of my negative beliefs out of my way. I finally stopped believing that at a fundamental level I sucked. I finally stopped believing that my life was more bad than good.
So I was ready for Geneen Roth's message when I picked up Women Food and God a couple of months ago. She cautions us to NOT DIET because dieting inevitably leads to binge-ing and greater weight than we started with. Her books aren't for everyone because there's a hell of a lot of work that many of us need to do before we're ready for her recommendations. Roth's approach to food requires that you trust yourself and this is an inconceivable concept to those of us who were told from birth that we couldn't be trusted, that we had no common sense and/or that if we weren't contained we'd eat the world.
But after decades of hard work on my self-loathing, I believe I'm ready for Roth's way of eating and I'm doing it. I'm letting myself have all the foods I've been saying no to for so long. I'm eating all the stuff I've been AFRAID of, even while I couldn't stop wanting it. I'm feeding the girl who has been deprived and shamed and punished with food for so long. I'm trusting that when that girl realizes she can have whatever she wants at any time without punishment or restriction or shaming, she'll stop needing it. And then I'll tune in to what I truly need at all times, physically, nutritionally and emotionally. That's when I'll reach my natural weight that's right for me. My natural weight will undoubtedly be many pounds more than the 120 I've fixated on for years (I'm 5'2"/157 cm), but it will be a weight I can maintain over the long term, without having to keep changing wardrobes.
Yesterday, for the whole day, I had a Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwich (croissant with egg, sausage and cheese), two pieces of pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread), a quart of Ben & Jerry's cake batter ice cream, three slices of American cheese, two hot dog wieners and some Ritz crackers. I also drank half a glass of white wine.
The day before I had fried eggs and ground flaxseed with fruit for breakfast, two donuts, a cheese-and-wiener sandwich for lunch, healthy chili for dinner, white wine, nuts and 1/3 of a box of Russell Stover's dark chocolate assortment.
Yes, I'm gaining weight. Yes, my clothes are getting tight, so you know what I'm doing? I'm buying new clothes! Roth strongly suggests getting rid of those clothes you've been holding on to for years with the intention of one day being thin enough to wear them again, so today I'll be clearing out my closet. No more skinny clothes making me feel bad whenever I push past them to the stuff that fits. And when I finally hit my natural weight, I'll go shopping again. So be it.
For the first time in my life, I believe I deserve to have whatever I want, without having to pay a price for it later. I deserve whatever I want because I'm lovable no matter what my size, paycheck, relationship state, tax status or anything else is. I'm worthy and lovable regardless of whether I follow the rules or look presentable or do good things. I reject my former belief that I'm only lovable if I'm thin and fit. I reject my former belief that I'm lovable only if I act in the appropriate way. (Those who know me personally might find it funny that my daily behavior has been me trying to act appropriately. Still, I've been trying to figure it out.)
It's incredibly hard to give up the self-punishing habit of criticizing my body at every chance, to give up telling myself I don't deserve what I want, to give up feeling fat and unworthy. These are ancient, stuck-on behaviors that I perfected decades ago, but they were based on the lie that I'm not a lovable person in my own right, just because I exist.
I am a lovable person in my own right, just because I exist. Eventually I won't need to swallow a tub of whipped frosting until my stomach cramps, an act which is me nurturing myself with what I want and punishing myself at the same time. How efficient!
I remember saying to a boyfriend when I was 26, "I'd give up all the cake in the world if I could just stop needing it." I still feel that way, but maybe my solution doesn't need to be that drastic. Here's a link to Geneen Roth's books (for those who are ready).
[P.S. On 17 October I hit 143 pounds and it just didn't feel important.]