I Am A Food Addict - Part 1

I am a food addict.  Period.  Plain and not so simple.  I never thought of myself in that light when I was obese.  I always thought, “Why can’t you JUST pull it together? Why can’t you JUST eat better food?  Why can’t you JUST stop eating food you know you shouldn’t?”  Have you ever said that to yourself?  Have you ever thought that about someone you know?

If so, there is good chance you or the person you know is a food addict.  It’s not an easy pill to swallow.  I always just saw myself as someone who wasn’t taking time to take care of myself, not as a food addict.  During one of the first meetings we, the cast of Season 4 of Extreme Weight Loss, had with Chris Powell, our trainer, he told us “You are all food addicts.  You may not realize it yet.  And you may be scoffing at me saying that.  But, you are all food addicts”.  I remember sitting there thinking that maybe he was right.  Maybe it was time to admit that I was a food addict.

Over the course of the year since I finished filming the show, it has become more apparent than ever to me that I am a food addict.  Doing the show was amazing.  It let me reclaim my health. I appreciate re-learning how to push myself and how to exercise.  I appreciate being given a food plan to keep me on track, but I look back and realize those were short-term solutions to get the results we needed for the show.  I never had any counseling to tackle the underlying issue of food addiction.  One year of following a food plan and exercising did not undo 20 years of bad habits. 

And now that the long-term task of maintenance is upon me, I realize I need to do more work.  I need to tackle the work to maintain my “sobriety” from treating my body badly.  Being in the trenches of maintenance, having my struggles really opened my eyes to the fact that I am still a work in progress.  Losing weight was really just the first step in a lifelong journey of being healthy.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Kelly Cassidy, a food disorders therapist. He was formerly the Primary Therapist at Remuda Ranch in Phoenix, AZ.  Remuda is a Christian based in-patient facility.  Kelly is now in private practice.  I have known Kelly since high school and reached out to him to understand and hopefully share what I’ve learned to help others with food issues. Speaking with Kelly helped me immensely.  On the most basic level, just having someone confirm to me that what I am feeling is normal, that the issues I am dealing with are not mine alone. 

 For me, the real wake up call was realizing I see in myself the same behaviors that I see in drug addicts on television.  I watch “Intervention” and hear addicts talking about needing to get their fix as soon as they wake up.  Every day when I wake up, I have to commit to eating clean.  If I didn’t, I would wake up every day and think about “What do I get to eat today?” That is my reality.  Just as an alcoholic takes it one day at a time, I take eating clean one day at a time.  Some days I do great, some days I struggle.  It really is a daily battle. 

I don’t drink any alcohol.  I don’t smoke.  Not to say that I never did back in the day, but I don’t now at all.  I truly believe that if I had not stopped drinking or if I allowed myself to drink, that I could easily be an alcoholic if food weren’t my issue.  It’s a slippery slope of addiction that I can’t risk.  My family has a history of alcoholism, so I am very aware that the addictive behaviors I have could have manifested with alcohol. 

One of the difficulties of food addiction is the fact that there is no hard black and white line of where to stop.  Drugs and alcohol, it’s a harsh line.  Don’t drink, don’t do drugs.  For food addicts is a murky gray area.  We can’t say to ourselves “don’t eat”.  We have to figure out what our triggers are, where our food behaviors get us in trouble and try to manage those. 

I am sure some of you reading this just don’t get it.  You may be thinking the same thing I did, “why don’t you JUST stop eating?” Kelly said when he hears a client or their family member say the phrase “why don’t you just….” It is a huge red flag to him.  It is an instant indicator that the family member or patient has not really come to terms with the fact that food addiction is real.

So, what causes it?  Is there always a traumatic event that precedes it? Or is it just a lifetime of finding comfort in food?  Is it the fact that I’m from Kentucky and just enjoyed the good southern cooking too much?  Let’s look at the steps it takes to identify food addiction, and how you can begin to shed some light on why you may have developed an unhealthy dependence on food.

Identifying food addiction-

1- Are you obese?  Are you an unhealthy weight?  Kelly confirmed to me that nearly every person who is obese is a food addict.  There are also medical reasons for obesity, but in general, most obese people are food addicts.  At 315 pounds, I was in the “morbidly obese” category.

2- Do you have food rituals?  Do you have food habits that you hide from your friends and family?  I did.  I was a manager at a retail store in our mall.  I was always the first employee at work, and spent the first few hours of the day alone.  A couple of days a week, I would drive through and get two donuts to enjoy by myself.  I loved having that sugary rush and enjoy the quiet time before the day got busy. 

3- Do you have an obsession with food?  I do.  Still.  I have worked to turn it into a positive.  As I said before, I wake up thinking about food, about what I will eat that day.  Now, I use it in a positive way to make a healthy food plan for the day.  But, when I was obese, it was thinking about those early morning donuts.  It was thinking about what I would get at the food court for lunch.  It was thinking about eating out for dinner with Scott and what we would eat.  Do you find yourself thinking about food often?  When and what you get to eat next?

If you recognize yourself in these behaviors, you are likely a food addict.  So, what now?  How do we begin to recover?  How do we understand where our unhealthy relationship with food began? How do we begin to make sense of our behaviors and move forward?

Kelly Cassidy, the food disorders specialist, gave me some insight into how he begins treatments with food addicts.  Following his suggestions, I followed these steps to gain some insight into my relationship with food:

1- Make a timeline of your life.  Write out milestones, events that stand out to you, moments that may have fueled you to find comfort in food.

2- Look at the timeline.  What events coincide with your weight gain?  Are there events that you can remember when you turned to food to help you get through?

3- Is there a theme that ties these events together?  Maybe it’s perfectionism.  Pressure you felt to be a certain way for others.  Is it security, control, or loneliness?  Try to pinpoint a theme, a feeling you have when you are turning to food.   Is it stress reliever?  Finding that theme will help you understand why you are leaning on food and help you begin to change those behaviors.

I’ve given this much thought.  I think I have pinpointed my “theme”.  For me, it’s control.  The end of high school, college and, the beginning of my marriage, there were huge changes going on and I felt like my life was a out of my control.  My parents divorced my junior year in high school.  When I did move away to go to college, life was very dysfunctional.  I was learning to live with divorced parents. I made a terrible choice in a relationship prior to meeting Scott, and eventually left the University of Kentucky to detach from that relationship.  I met Scott soon after I moved back to my hometown, I got pregnant and we married.

Those years were tumultuous.  When Scott and I married, I was ecstatic to be his wife, but it was also stressful.  We had a baby on the way, I was not working and we were barely making ends meet.  It was during those times that I look back and see that eating was becoming a stress reliever for me.  Finally relaxing at night with a bowl of ice cream (it’s ok, right? I’m pregnant!) made me feel comfortable and it was good!

I gained quite a bit of weight in the years right after Chelsea was born.  Money was tight, like it is for so many newlyweds. I was learning to be a mom, learning to be a wife, and felt pulled in so many directions.  I think that eating what I wanted, when I wanted gave me a sense of control that I didn’t feel in other areas of my life. 

It sounds kind of crazy to me now, but upon much reflection, I’ve realized it’s just the truth of my life.  It’s what has haunted me for so many years.  The years prior to leaving to film the show were probably the busiest of my life.  I was managing a retail store at the mall, running to my girls’ volleyball matches, trying to be a good wife, volunteer at church and many times felt like my life was not my own.  I couldn’t change or control so many of those commitments, so I controlled my food.  I got to dictate when I ate, what I ate.  Good or bad, I felt in control.

So, what now?  How do we move forward?  Kelly said that finding balance is key.  Finding a way to enjoy food, but not obsess over it.  I’m learning to feel in control of my food, but in a positive way.  How can you find balance?  How can you learn to love yourself, and trust yourself with food?

Looking at my timeline, seeing how I want to control things, learning to trust myself has been huge for me.  It has been such an eye opener.  If you see yourself in the food addiction behaviors, please take the time to do the work.  Next week, I am so excited to share the details of how I am applying this to real life.  I’ll share my steps to tackling cravings, the nitty gritty of day-to-day living and conquering food addiction. Take this week to make your timeline, find your theme.  It has helped me immensely.  These are the first steps toward recovery, toward a healthier, more aware you.