In the April issue of Recovery Today magazine, p.46 Confessions of a down and dirty, rock bottom food addict. Their title not mine. But it says what it needs to say.
I got sober on June 1, 1998. I was an alcoholic, but alcohol wasn’t my bottom line addiction. Food was. I was a down and dirty, rock bottom food addict who couldn’t ingest sugar and grains in either liquid or hard form. I first went to AA in an effort to learn what the 12-step programs were all about, after coming from Overeaters Anonymous where I had been dazed and confused.
I was so ashamed of my food addiction that I never spoke of it to my sponsor or friends. In private, I tried to make AA solve my food issues. Such an irony: I knew that AA was a WE program, that connectedness was the antithesis to addiction. I knew that telling like-minded people how I’d used and abused my drugs of choice brought it all out in the open, gave me another 24 hours to keep the disease at bay. But my shame of eating, of my body, was so huge that I found it impossible to share with others. In my memoir, Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction, I once and for all detail how my food addiction progressed and became more unmanageable over the years. I found OA in 1979 but was too arrogant to let go and try it someone else’s way. Then I was introduced to GreySheeters Anonymous in 1983. I knew immediately it was the solution I had been looking for. But being a hard core addict, hard- wired to do self-destructive things, I felt sure that I could fix myself on my own.
It took me another twenty-six years to crawl back to a GSA meeting, broken and beaten up. I was seven years sober at that time. I had been sitting in AA meetings wondering why I wasn’t happy, joyous and free. I had done the steps a number of times. But I always kept my dirty secret to myself: I couldn’t stop binge eating. Now, fifteen years later, I have been abstaining from sugar, grains and refined carbs. It helped to accept that I could only deal with food addiction with other food addicts. No matter how much my AA friends loved me, since they didn’t eat like I did, I felt they couldn’t understand. On top of community, what GreySheeters Anonymous gave to me was structure. If I did what my sponsor said, I had a good chance of arresting the bingeing. I weighed my food at every meal and ate the same amounts as the day before. GSA knew I had a life and death disease and that was what the GSA boundaries treated. Since food addiction isn’t discussed as often in our society, I hope Saving Sara will open the door for much needed conversations to arise.
A reader asked me, “What was it like when you first gave up sugar and grains?” For me, as a food addict, I stopped putting poison in my system. I didn’t completely understand what was happening, but it certainly was very disruptive to my physical being and my life. I’d say I was detoxing which can be both emotionally and physically painful. I was (sometimes still am) an instant gratification person so the desire to stop the pain was intense. All my life I’d used sugar and grains to numb myself from pain. The people I now had to turn to for guidance said, “you are very, very vulnerable right now. Take good care. Protect yourself.” I really didn’t want to be living in hell anymore so I said ‘No’ to most invitations. I wanted the support and encouragement of my friends but, truthfully, it’s very difficult to understand why anyone would go to the lengths I was going unless they also were a food addict and had lived in the hell I had lived in.
It was not so different from learning a new language and the best way to do that is total immersion. I didn’t have the money to put myself into a treatment center and, in the end, it was me who was responsible for my own health and sanity. I had to create a similar atmosphere of immersion so that most of my days would be surrounded by the love and encouragement of the people who had gone before me. That included meetings, phone calls, walks with other recovering food addicts, going to others’ homes and weighing my food with them. Being around others who would love me until I learned to love myself.
Each thing I contemplated doing outside of this initial time of detoxing and learning the ins and outs of eating healthily without sugar and grains, I had to consider carefully. It wasn’t in my nature to think ahead and to be totally honest how I would respond to certain situations. An example of this was a cruise I had signed up for. A group of friends and I were going to fly to Russia and take a cruise up the Volga to St. Petersburg. It was fun planning it and I was looking forward to it. Then my sponsor asked me how I was going to deal with the food. Well, I hadn’t even thought about it. Not one member of our group was in a Twelve Step program. No one was sure if we would have any WiFi and I probably couldn’t make any phone calls so it was certain I would be out of contact with all my support. Because it was a Russian cruise line, it took me almost two months to get through to someone who could tell me about the food. By that time, there was only about three weeks until we were to leave. I was told that there was one seating an evening and only one choice for a meal. If I cancelled I’d lose my deposit. I started going back and forth in my head. On the one hand, I was trying to rationalise why it would be ok if I went, I’d be fine–even though left alone without support, it had never been fine before. My GSA program was urging caution and “when in doubt, leave it out.” No one said ‘Don’t go’. I made myself crazy trying to fit something I really wanted to do into a hole that it wouldn’t fit in. I didn’t want to lose the deposit. Finally my sponsor said, “What if you lost your abstinence and ate sugar and grains. You likely would binge because that is your history. How much money do you think you would spend on bingeing before you were able to get home?” That was pretty convincing. I could easily see myself terrified and desolate and paying top dollar for an early flight back to California. In the end, it would cost many times more than the $500 deposit. So I cancelled and have never regretted that decision.
My friends didn’t really understand. The average person thinks it’s a matter of will power and knowledge. I had tons of knowledge about food, nutrition, psychology, behavior and I was very wilful. None of that helped me deal with my food addiction.
I have a spiritual disease, an emptiness, that only a spiritual solution can heal. What I had to do during those first days and months of abstaining from sugar and grains, my friends in recovery call Radical Self-Care. Many people grow into adulthood knowing these caretaking things. Addicts don’t. In the quest to feed the habit, many important skills do not develop.
Next week: What are these new friends like, the people I had to depend on for my life and sanity?
In new memoir, Sara Somers reflects on her hard-won battle with food addiction
Steven Winn July 8, 2020Updated: July 8, 2020, 8:24 pm
Friday was her favorite day when Sara Somers worked at the American Red Cross in Alameda. It had nothing to do with the weekend coming up and everything to do with sugar and grains.
When the weekly donation from Mother’s Cookies arrived, Somers would help herself to a plateful. And then another. And another after that. Finally, as she writes in “Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction,” she’d steal the cookies that were left and smuggle them home for more bingeing.
Today, 43 years later and 11 years “abstinent” from the addiction that dominated her life for decades, Somers regards herself as a “walking miracle.”
“The percentage of the food addicted who can stay abstinent over the years is pretty small,” she told The Chronicle by phone. “It’s very hard.”
Scores of books, a dizzying array of therapies and diets that propose everything from the Christian faith to a potato-only regimen testify to the extent — and difficulty — of the problem and sufferers’ desperate search for help. Somers, 72, a longtime Bay Area resident who now lives in Paris, tried one approach after another: hypnosis, encounter groups, Weight Watchers, amphetamines, promises to friends, the Atkins diet, a macrobiotic diet, SlimFast and many more.
Even when she was introduced to a system that would ultimately work for her — GreySheeters Anonymous, which involves weighing everything one eats — it took Somers another 14 years before her recovery took hold.
“Saving Sara” was released in May, and Somers is scheduled to have an online conversation about the book with Jacquelyn Ekern, founder of the organization Eating Disorders Hope, on Saturday, July 11. In her frank and forthright memoir, Somers recounts not only the dashed hopes and doomed follies along the way, but also what she sees as the tormenting question behind them. “What,” she kept asking herself, “is wrong with me?”
Twenty pounds overweight at age 9, she was an angry, quick-tempered child and young adult. “I always wanted more,” she writes. And when she didn’t get something she craved, whether it was food or clothing, her longing was intense. It could be ice cream or a pair of Frye boots worn by a svelte stranger. “Deep in the recesses of my crazy mind, I thought if I had those boots, I would be attractive like her.”
The daughter of a caring but doctrinaire father and a “perfectionist” mother, Somers had attended 13 schools by the time she graduated from high school. (Her father’s hopscotch career as a college professor accounted for the moves.) After her own college years, Somers traveled in Europe, moved to Berkeley in 1971 and eventually found her way to graduate school at Cal State Hayward (now East Bay) and became a therapist.
Through it all, her relationships with men kept imploding. Related in unsparing detail, the stories of boyfriends coming and going from her life are touchstones of flailing need and self-sabotage. There’s Eddie, the earnest Dutchman who has another girlfriend. And Dmitri, a handsome Greek who “changed his mind.” For Coop, an unrequited college crush she met again in Berkeley, Somers fell hard. But even as she got control of her eating for a while and started grad school, Somers flirted with other men, took drugs and failed to recognize her partner’s depression. The unhappy end was inevitable.
“I was mostly interested in being loved,” Somers said. “That’s why I wanted a boyfriend. But that I was to be a good girlfriend — that never occurred to me.” What’s true about addicts of all sorts, she believes, is that “we are self-centered, self-pitying, and we blame other people for our problems.”
Somers assesses her own experience, both in the book and in conversation, with honesty, modesty and a sense of purpose. Her own story isn’t important, she said. Her goal in writing the book was to demonstrate by example that recovery is possible and to help others find the way.
While Somers found professional fulfillment as a therapist and enjoyed the work, she has some cautionary notes about therapy and addiction: “I think therapy can be a good companion to 12-step programs, but that can be limited.”
Treating addiction is about behavior modification, she explained, “and then the feelings will follow. Often in therapy, you have the insight first and then make the changes. That can end up discouraging addiction recovery. People think, ‘If the therapy didn’t work, what am I going to do now? It’s all about addressing the behavior first.’”
Somers, whose life never lacked for drama, lost her home in the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm. She rebuilt a house she loved but spent the next six-plus years addicted to alcohol. It led to a bottoming-out, including a stay at the Hazelden recovery center in Minnesota. A chance meeting with an old friend from Overeaters Anonymous reopened the door to GreySheeters Anonymous, the program Somers has followed ever since.
Somers retired from therapy in 2008. Struck with the idea of learning French, she started making periodic visits to Paris and moved there full time in 2014. While the French think it’s “sad” that she can’t enjoy alcohol or the bounty of a boulangerie, Somers says Parisian waiters don’t bat an eye when she pulls out a scale to weigh her portions.
Another discovery is public transportation, which Somers rarely used in the Bay Area. In Paris she rides the Metro all the time.
“I think I’m a more interesting person over here,” she said with a laugh. “Who knew a subway could be so much fun?”
“Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction” By Sara Somers She Writes Press (235 pages; $16.95)
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“This is a riveting and deeply human memoir about one woman’s crazily disordered eating, and the path to freedom she discovered. But it is also the story of Sara Somers’s fight to save her soul, spirit and life.” ―Anne Lamott, New York Times best-selling author and past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship
“Read Saving Sara to see how bad it can get before it gets great―and find out just how [Sara Somers] did, so you can do it too.” ―Judy Collins, New York Times best-selling author of Cravings, Grammy-nominated singer, and Academy Award-nominated director
“Saving Sara is a mental anguish page turner, depicting the relentless drive to eat that can dominate and destroy life’s opportunities, just like any other addiction . . . ideal reading for someone who is struggling with compulsive eating or who is suffering with complications from obesity. It is essential reading for someone working in the addiction field. A critical book for anyone who really wants to walk in the shoes of a food addict, who lives in the disease, and finally finds her recovery.” ―Dr. Vera Tarman, MD, FCFP, ABAM, medical specialist in food addiction, author of Food Junkies: Recovery from Food Addiction
“When it comes to eating disorders, both professionals and the public have a great deal of understanding of anorexia and bulimia. There is very little understanding, however, of Binge Eating Disorder. In this wrenching book, Sara describes in detail―sometimes painful detail―what her disease of food addiction was like and the depths to which it took her. But this is also a volume about hope. Her journey to finding her solution is only one person’s story, but as we know from the long history of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, one person telling their story can transform lives. I hope that mental health providers will read this, learn from it, and share it with those who might benefit from knowing they’re not alone with their eating behaviors.” ―Dr. Kristi Webb, PsyD, Licensed Psychologist, Raleigh, North Carolina
“I found Saving Sara to be well written and an interesting and compelling read. I appreciated its honesty and Somers’s willingness to take responsibility for her part in conflict… Somers’s honesty and compassion for all involved is clear throughout…. even for someone without an eating disorder, Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction is a compelling read in its own right.”
“I am a big fan of memoirs, especially the ones with a lot of vulnerability. To be honest about addiction, you have to reveal a lot of yourself and Sara Somers did an excellent job of digging deep and sharing her story of food (and substance) addiction. I loved this book so much that I read it in one sitting.”@readalotwritealot
Author Sara Somers on Writing Her Story of Food Addiction
In December of 2005, I walked into the rooms of Greysheeters Anonymous, and this time I stayed. I was fifty-eight years old. My life, up to that point, had been one of a food addict, abusing food and my body by bingeing uncontrollably, going on diets both sensible and crazy, having ‘who knows what’ shot into my butt, losing and gaining hundreds of pounds.
I made obtaining sugar and grains the focal point of my life. Then I’d do an about-face by denying myself food altogether. I had stolen food from friends, from families that I babysat for, and from grocery stores – and I lied if I was caught.
In complete sincerity, I had made countless promises to myself in the morning, throwing out binge foods, covering them with coffee grounds. By mid-afternoon, I was diving into the garbage to retrieve and eat it.
I called myself names for being so weak. I felt deep shame. I thought I was the only one who did these things. There was little doubt in my mind that I was a down and dirty, compulsive bottom of the barrel eater.
But I didn’t have the words to say that. In my view, I was despicable, defective, and only when I lost weight, could I show my face to the world.
I knew about GreySheeters Anonymous, but I didn’t want to go to their meetings. I didn’t want to be the kind of food addict that needed GSA. I refused to accept that I was exactly the kind of food addict that needed their ‘no matter what’ structure. I had been in AA for years and knew that message of ‘you either are, or you aren’t’ worked for me.
In 2005, I was at the crossroads of desperation and hope. I shut my mouth and opened my ears. I learned there is no easy fix for someone who is a true food addict. I heard people describing the insane things they did in the pursuit of beauty and normalcy. I learned I was not alone. People said to me, “raise your hand and share whenever you can. Your story is your most valuable asset.”
After I moved to Paris, I started taking writing classes. I found myself remembering specific incidents of food abuse. I wrote vignettes. After three years, it occurred to me that I could write down my story.
I was told over and over that, as a person abstaining from sugar, grains, and refined carbs, my primary purpose is to stay abstinent and help the suffering compulsive eater who didn’t know there is a solution. I wrote it all down, and it became the book, Saving Sara.
Writing my story showed me in black and white that I had a progressive disease that could only end in insanity, death, or recovery. By the grace of a Higher Power, I chose recovery.
Do I have any insights about food addiction? What I know is that it is real, and it is deadly. It only gets worse as a person ages. It is a disease that tells me I don’t have a disease. It is a disease that tells me, “go ahead, have one bite, it’s okay.” It is a disease that tells me I don’t need the black and white structure even though I’ve seen it work in AA. I’ve learned to recognize the voice of the disease.
I wrote my story so that food addicts who identify with my journey might find hope. Addicts of my type do not want to be told what to do by anyone. Addicts of my type only listen if they know someone else has experienced the exact same thing. My hope is that food addicts will recognize themselves and say, “if she can do it, I can too.” That they will come to a GSA meeting with an open mind.
I hope that families, educators, and medical professionals read Saving Sara and rethink their attitudes about this disease. I have written my story in the hope that it will shine a little more light on the very serious problems of obesity and loneliness as a result of food addiction.
About the Author:
Sara Somers suffered from food addiction from age nine to age fifty-eight; she has been in food recovery since 2005. In a double life of sorts, Somers worked as a licensed psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area for thirty-four years. After finding recovery, Somers moved to Paris, France, where she currently lives. She writes a blog called Out My Window: My Life in Paris. When she’s not writing, Somers volunteers at the American Library in Paris, enjoys the cinema, reads prolifically and follows her favorite baseball team, the Oakland Athletics. Most importantly, Somers devotes time each day to getting the word out about food addiction and helping other food addicts. “Saving Sara” is her first book. To learn more about Sara and her work, visit www.saving-sara.org.
Personal stories of food addiction in ‘Saving Sara’ help readers better understand addiction
“A riveting and deeply human memoir.”
– Anne Lamott, California Hall of Fame inductee, novelist, and nonfiction writer
PARIS – For nearly fifty years, Sara Somers suffered from untreated food addiction. In “Saving Sara” (She Writes Press, May 12, 2020) Somers’ intimate memoir, she offers readers an inside view of a food addict’s mind, showcasing her experiences with obsessive cravings, compulsivity, and powerlessness regarding food, with the hopes of educating her readers and promoting life-saving conversations between loved ones and those suffering with addiction.
“Saving Sara” chronicles Somers’s addiction from childhood to adulthood, beginning with abnormal eating as a nine-year-old. As her addiction progresses in young adulthood, she becomes isolated, masking her shame and self-hatred with drugs and alcohol. Time and again, she rationalizes why this time will be different, only to have her physical cravings lead to ever-worse binges, to see her promises of doing things differently next time broken, and to experience the amnesia that she –like every addict– experiences when her obsession sets in again.
Even after Somers is introduced to the solution that will eventually end up saving her, the strength of her addiction won’t allow her to accept her disease. Twenty-six more years pass until she finally finds her way back to that solution.
A raw account of Somers’ decades-long journey, “Saving Sara” underscores the challenges faced by food addicts of any age – and the hope that exists for them all.
“Read Saving Sara to see how bad [addiction] can get before it gets great – and find out just how she did it, so you can do it too. What a great read!”
– Judy Collins, New York Times bestselling author of Cravings
Thank you for traveling with me. I am taking the next two weeks off for a much needed vacation. Stay safe and stay prudent. We aren’t out of the woods yet.
Your addiction started at the age of 9. Do you remember if you realized something was wrong as a young child?
I can confidently say that my problems with food started much earlier than nine years of age. By the age of nine, I knew, without a doubt, that something was seriously wrong with me and my life. But my non-cognitive brain was unable to make use of any information. I was extremely lonely, I was getting angrier and angrier at what I thought of as the injustice in my life and thought it was all my parents’ fault. My father had given me a small, blue diary because I was so taken with the movie The Diary of Anne Frank. In it, I wrote “Sara, what is wrong with you?” over and over digging in the pen so deep, it went through ten pages. Inwardly, I thought I must be defective or adopted or….Outwardly, I raged at my parents for being so “mean” to me.
It was only as a middle-aged adult and the discovery of the 12 Step programs that I was able to see that I was probably born with the addictive gene. I can’t say for sure when I crossed the line with food, but I was young. I was stealing, lying, and cheating by the time I was 14 in order to buy items with sugar and grains in them. I had become very defiant in order to numb myself from the loneliness, fear, and rage. It was only in moments of “quiet desperation,” like falling asleep, that I would think it was me that was the problem, but I was powerless to do anything. The rest of the time, I was raging at the world, at my family, at authority. I played the blame game for a very long time.
Toward the end of the book you write, “I believed I would feel deprived. What actually happened was that I felt a huge sense of relief and freedom.” Could you explain a bit?
I started dieting at 15, and, by the time I came into the rooms of GreySheeters Anonymous (GSA), I had probably tried every diet available. Most diets will tell you to hang in there, once you reach your goal weight, you can add back foods that were taboo during the diet. So there was something to look forward to. The “doing without” was short-term. Over the many years of dieting, I gained and lost hundreds of pounds by reaching goal weight and then gaining back all the pounds with the foods I “got back.” But it never once occurred to me that the foods I got back might be the problem.
By the time, I got to GSA, I thought ice cream should be one of the four main food groups. The disease was so entrenched in me that the thought of never eating ice cream again caused me many years of anguish and resistance to what I knew was the solution. When I finally reached ’the last house on the block’ and there was nowhere to go but dying, insanity or GSA, the future and the unknown seemed less terrifying than the hell I was living in. Plus, the members of GSA kept telling me I only had to do it one day at a time. It took a while for me to see the big picture but this is what happened: the black and white boundaries of GSA gave me a structure. The acceptance that I couldn’t have sugar or grains in either liquid or hard form finally made sense to me. I realized my body was like a distillery. If I put those ingredients in me, it all turned into alcohol and set off the cravings. I am completely powerless over cravings. With the structure of the GSA program and my acknowledgment that I had a severe allergy to sugar and grains, I dropped the struggle with the food, my weight and the 24-hour obsession for the first time in my life. That gave me hours of time to have a life, to learn new things, develop new hobbies, travel, to find out who I am and what I love. For many, many years now, I have believed and felt that what I gave up to get this amazing life is minuscule. But the nature of the disease informs me I can’t live without those things that I am allergic to.
The relief I felt was enormous. I never had to work so hard again to deny who I am. Yes, it was work to acknowledge the behaviors that would lead me back into food obsession, but I would have walked on my hands for a mile if you told me that was building a defense against the first bite. The freedom was genuinely freedom. I was locked in a prison of my own making – my life was a 10 x 10 cell. Being in GSA gave me the key to get out of prison and have a life beyond my wildest dreams. I know we often hear addicts in recovery say that but it is true. If I had dreamed up a life for myself, I could never have allowed myself to come up with something this rich and this rewarding.
Even today, with the Coronavirus raging throughout the world and most of us in some kind of lockdown or sheltering-at-home, I feel completely free. The program taught me to plan ahead, to build structure in my life, to feel gratitude for what I’ve been given every day, and to reach out to someone still suffering. I don’t have time to be anxious or scared. The program taught me that this too shall pass, and I believe it. I don’t know what the world will look like when we all emerge from our various states of stay-at-home, but I am sure that if I keep forging forward on my path, I will not overeat, drink or start any other self-abusive behaviors. I’ve been given the gift of self-care.
To get a copy of Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction, go to http://www.bookshop.org. This site supports indépendant bookstores. You can place your order, find you local bookstore and either have it sent to you or pick up curbside. Thank you
IF you have any questions or thoughts for topics, please write in the comment section. See you next week,
“My first sponsor told me that food and eating addiction is the strongest of all the addictions yet other addicts are hospitalized to sit around in their bedroom slippers for thirty days before they graduate to a half-way house. New (Greysheeters) think they can continue doing their (usually) crazy lives while detoxing, learning to be abstinent from sugar, grains and refined carbos, and establishing a new way of living. Wear your figurative bedroom slippers for at least the first thirty days” —-member of GSA
I asked this woman if I could share what her sponsor told her with my readers. It underscores what I want to tell everyone who is detoxing from sugar and grains. As a population, we do not take seriously enough the deadly power of those substances on food addicts. We have grown up thinking that we can just make up our minds to lose weight, find a diet that we think we can stick to and then go on with our lives changing nothing. Even after years of losing and gaining wight over and over, it still doesn’t occur to most of us that in order to kick the dependency on these substances, we have to do what every other addict has to do: cut out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary for our daily life and focus on getting through the detox and withdrawal time.
There are those in the substance abuse field who think that sugar is as hard or harder to kick than heroin. Just the fact that they think this should be important information for us. My own experience is that for me to get through this difficult part of recovery, I had to find a group of other food addicts and place myself right in the middle. I had to call on them for help and advice and just to talk to me on a daily basis. I had to commit out loud to another person (in my case, my sponsor) exactly what I was going to eat that day. Experience and my history showed that unless I did that, I could not be trusted to follow through on my intention even though it was helping ME that I was doing this for. I joined them in group meetings as often as I could. I had a friend at the time who told me “you need your brain washed! Everything you thought you knew about weight, food and how to deal with the accompanying shame is wrong. You are a food addict, you need to start thinking like a food addict.”
There are care units for compulsive eaters and food addicts. They are expensive. I didn’t have health insurance that would cover that kind of treatment. I had to create the CARE unit myself. I capitalized the word CARE because self-care is not something I was familiar with. I focused on others and assumed they would do the same—care for me. Then someone said ‘You have to do this for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. YOU are your own responsibility.’
After many, many years of trying to breeze through withdrawal, of not being willing to go 100% in total acceptance that I had a disease that would kill me, that wanted me dead, I let go of all my preconceived notions and followed the examples of those that went before me. Now 15 years later and 11 years of back to back uninterrupted abstinence from sugar and grains and MORE, I believe these words more than ever. The further I am from that last binge, the clearer my head gets on how insanely I binged, how crazily I tried to run my life, how distorted my thinking was in order to rationalize eating foods I thought nurtured me (and, in fact, were killing me). They say the disease of addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful. I say ‘and sneaky, and cruel and viscous and always just one bite away from jumping back into your thinking and doing.’
Most of us cannot kick this addiction alone but together, helping each other, reminding each other, we can move on and have lives worth living.
“Withdrawal occurs once a person stops eating any addictive food. Though abstaining from foods is a contentious subject in the scientific literature, there is no question that it will cause a level of discomfort that often drives addicts back to eating… Feelings of deprivation, obsessions about food, and anxiety arising from unresolved trauma that was being ‘medicated’ by the addictive foods may appear like spectres that linger, worsening before they get better… It may seem that life without one’s comfort foods is simply not worth living. Even problematic eating is seen as better than feeling bereft to the point of suicidal thoughts. But others might find the symptoms so common they are not even recognizable as withdrawal… The good news is that detoxification is not a long process; it only lasts for a relatively short period – between one week and four weeks… Cheating by having a bite here or a spoonful there is also an excellent way to suffer withdrawal in perpetuity. Withdrawal will not end if the substance is constantly being reintroduced back into the brain reward pathway.” ― Vera Tarman, Food Junkies: Recovery from Food Addiction
Some people who believe they are food addicts and let go of the substances that make us sick: sugar, grains and refined carbos, are completely surprised and shocked by how bad the detoxing and withdrawal process is. Even smart, well educated people with knowledge of food addiction, seem taken by surprise at the discomfort. The discomfort can be great. The physical detoxing can last anywhere from three to twenty-one days. But the emotional withdrawal can last a long time. We know that drug addicts and alcoholics go through bad times. Withdrawal symptoms can include severe anxiety, headaches, sadness, anger, sweating, shaking, disorientation and depression. Why are we so surprised that sugar and grains do the same thing. I think it’s because most of us come from a diet mentality. It’s just food and we go without until we reach our goal weight. Then we are told we can have all those foods back. After all, we’ve earned it! So clearly, they aren’t bad, just give them up for awhile until we get down to a weight we like.
WRONG! That might be true for non-food addicts. They can give up those sugary foods, using willpower, and then not abuse them once they lose the weight. But not us food addicts. Those ingredients are like putting poison in our system. Enough of it for a long time and they will kill us. Strong words I know. The truth is it’s so much easier never to eat those substances than give them up, take them back, give them up, take them back. As Dr. Tarman says “Withdrawal will not end if the substance is constantly being re-introduced back into the brain reward pathway.”
I believe this is why addicts cannot get sober or abstinent on their own. The opposite of addiction is connection. We take away something from our bodies that it is habituated to and it leaves a big hole. We have to fill it with something or we won’t last through the withdrawal. The best (and cheapest) way to fill that hole is to find other recovering food addicts. Talk to them, find out how they got through painful times. They will tell you. They will also tell you to make wonderful meals, to love your food. There is no deprivation in letting go of sugar and grains. When was the last time you felt joyously happy after bingeing on sugar? What’s left without those foods? An abundance of fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, fish, chicken, beef or, if you are vegan, other proteins.
Look into the Twelve-Step programs. There are a number of food programs. The worse the food addiction, the more structure one needs. Find out what the community of people are like. Are they happy, in recovery and can tell you about it? Do they reach out to you because they know how you are suffering? Because they’ve been there and know what you are going through? Those are the people you want to surround yourself with. People who can say “I did and you can to.” Yes, sometimes the pain gets worse before it gets better. Do you remember pulling a splinter out of your foot? It always hurts more for a short time. There is a hole there and the air is getting in. Soon it will close up and the body, our magnificent bodies, will heal the wound.
Getting rid of the poison we put in our bodies is worth the short time pain. Then you have the possibility for a life full of other things than obsessing about food. And you get to have different problems just like normal people and not the same problem over and over and over–how to stop eating?
Have you been through withdrawal? Write me and let me know how it was for you.
In the April issue of Recovery Today magazine, p.46 “Confessions of a down and dirty, rock bottom food addict.” Their title not mine. But it says what it needs to say.
I got sober on June 1, 1998. I was an alcoholic, but alcohol wasn’t my bottom line addiction. Food was. I was a down and dirty, rock bottom food addict who couldn’t ingest sugar and grains in either liquid or hard form. I first went to AA in an effort to learn what the 12-step programs were all about, after coming from Overeaters Anonymous where I had been dazed and confused.
I was so ashamed of my food addiction that I never spoke of it to my sponsor or friends. In private,I tried to make AA solve my food issues. Such an irony: I knew that AA was a WE program, that connectedness was the antithesis to addiction. I knew that telling like-minded people how I’d used and abused my drugs of choice brought it all out in the open, gave me another 24 hours to keep the disease at bay. But my shame of eating, of my body, was so huge that I found it impossible to share with others. In my memoir, Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction, I once and for all detail how my food addiction progressed and became more unmanageable over the years. I found OA in 1979 but was too arrogant to let go and try it someone else’s way. Then I was introduced to GreySheeters Anonymous in 1983. I knew immediately it was the solution I had been looking for. But being a hard core addict, hard- wired to do self-destructive things, I felt sure that I could fix myself on my own.
It took me another twenty-six years to crawl back to a GSA meeting, broken and beaten up.I was seven years sober at that time. I had been sitting in AA meetings wondering why I wasn’t happy, joyous and free. I had done the steps a number of times. But I always kept my dirty secret to myself: I couldn’t stop binge eating. Now, fifteen years later, I have been abstaining from sugar, grains and refined carbs. It helped to accept that I could only deal with food addiction with other food addicts. No matter how much my AA friends loved me, since they didn’t eat like I did, I felt they couldn’t understand. On top of community, what GreySheeters Anonymous gave to me was structure. If I did what my sponsor said, I had a good chance of arresting the bingeing. I weighed my food at every meal and ate the same amounts as the day before. GSA knew I had a life and death disease and that was what the GSA boundaries treated. Since food addiction isn’t discussed as often in our society, I hope Saving Sara will open the door for much needed conversations to arise.