Am I a food addict if I can’t stop eating?

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.

“Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction” by Sara Somers.Photo: She Writes Press

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)

Sara Somers: Read the author’s blog at www.savingsara.home.blog.

GreySheeters Anonymous: Learn more about the weight-loss therapy program by visiting www.greysheet.org

Education is always a good idea

Someone e-mailed me at the beginning of the week and told me, “It’s a good thing I’m not compulsively eating. I’d eat everything I had stored for the entire time we are in lockdown. I wouldn’t be able to get away from myself. It would really truly be living hell.” I’ve had similar thoughts of deep gratitude that my disease is not active. Many people are frightened. For food addicts, being frightened or not knowing what is coming around the corner is a reason for bingeing. Bingeing eventually numbs us, pushes the fear and anxiety way down under temporarily. It can seem like a solution. In fact, it is part of the problem. We food addicts do not know how to live with discomfort, any kind of discomfort. So we try to escape into the food. It didn’t work for me. Does it work for you?

My friend I haven’t met yet, Dr. Vera Tarman, wrote to remind me that there is a second edition of her wonderful book: Food Junkies, Recovery from Food Addiction. Dr. Tarman has been a huge supporter of Saving Sara the book. She read it cover to cover and pointed out some inaccuracies. So I need to amend what I have posted. Her first book is the Food Addiction: Truth about Food Addiction. Dr. Tarman works with food addicts on a daily basis. “As founder and spokesperson for Addictions Unplugged, she’s has focused her medical practice over the past 7 years on addiction treatment and recovery. Along with serving the addiction community through her own private practice, she has been the Medical Director at Renascent since 2006 and the Staff physician with Salvation Army Homestead since 2004.”–Linkd In. Of course I want you to buy my book Saving Sara when it comes out May 12, 2020, but educating yourself about food addiction is always a good idea. My book is my story. My story is one of hundreds of stories, all very similar. My story ends with hope and recovery. Dr. Tarman’s book gives you facts from the medical perspective, from her experience of working in the field. Dr. Tarman’s book is a good read.

Last week, I had the honour of being interviewed by Public Radio in Santa, Fe, New Mexico. http://healthywoman.libsyn.com/healthy-woman-march-28-2020-sara-somers-on-food-addiction

Stay inside. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face,

Obesity

The other night, the channel OCS in France, showed the February 28th episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. One of his guests was Nicholas Kristof who is one of my favorite columnists at the NYTimes and anywhere. I subscribe to his column and pay attention to the issues he writes about. I find that he is thoughtful, kind and extremely intelligent. He and Bill were talking about drugs, alcohol and obesity. Maher said “The Chan School of Public Health at Harvard says that in 10 years, half the country will be obese, 1/4 of the country will be severely obese and 40,000 people will die of obesity every week”. Kristof didn’t disagree with him. He said that it was all “part of the miasma of depression.” When things feel hopeless, “people self-medicate with soda and potato chips”. I could have jumped through the TV screen and kissed the man. I don’t think I have ever heard a public figure as famous and as well-respected as Kristof is talking about self-medicating with food.

One of the comments on the show in YouTube read: “Obesity is on the rise due to stress we have to deal with.” Kristof says much of this is the lack of education made available to people. I could hear Melinda Gates, in my head, saying that much of the inequality in the world is due to lack of education. I wrote my book Saving Sara in part to educate people. In my opinion to say that one is obese because of the stress we have to deal with is a lack of education. In this day and age, we have to learn to deal with stress without turning to soda and potato chips. Sugar and grains, the ingredients in alcohol and many of the foods we binge on, are depressants when taken in vast quantities. In our world where so much is unfair, where hopelessness is on the rise and depression seems to be a companion to many people, those ingredients only make a bad situation worse. There is so much we cannot control in our lives. We are in the midst of a pandemic and the majority of us are self-isolating in our apartments or homes. What happens tomorrow is out of our control. Speaking personally, what is within my control is what I put in my mouth, how I prepare to spend maybe up to two months alone in my apartment and how I chose to face my small world each morning.

I was obese. I am 5’6″ tall and weighed almost 200 hundred pounds. One of the ways I stayed in denial about that figure is by only looking in the mirror from my neck up. The rest of my body was deep in the sand just as if I was an ostrich. I was miserable, I felt hopeless, abandoned by the world and very, very sorry for myself. When I finally asked for help, the solution was not what I wanted it to be. It was not easy. I was told I would be unable to do it alone, that I needed all the support I could get and the best support would be from recovering food addicts. I was ashamed and didn’t want other people to see me so I resisted the group idea. Sure enough, I couldn’t do it alone. My solution was joining a 12 step group that treated food addiction like alcoholics treat alcoholism: it is a serious disease and you can’t be half-way committed. In order for me to turn my life around, I had to change my behaviors 180o, accept the black and white nature of the solution, the no matter what of the solution. Then I could learn how to live in the grey areas of life.

I thought depression was in my DNA. By the time I found the 12 step program, I had accepted that I would be on anti-depressants for the rest of my life (I am one of the fortunates who has health insurance). I can honestly say that since I have stopped putting sugar, grains and refined carbohydrates, in liquid or hard form, into my body, I have not had a long depression. I have felt blue. I have felt down when something didn’t go my way. When my Aunt died, whom I was very close to, in 2011, I got depressed for 4 days. It was NOT the depression that used to send me under the covers for days on end, praying that I would die but too scared to kill myself. I felt really, really awful. My friends in recovery said “You don’t have to binge over this. You can feel your feelings and grieve your loss and in two weeks, a month, you will still be abstaining from sugar and grains. If you use this as an excuse to binge, you will be back facing the only problem you have ever known–How to stop bingeing. You’ll have no room to find solutions for your everyday problems.

Today, here in France, we are on Day 10 of Lockdown or as the French so quaintly call it “our confinement.” I used every tool I learned in my recovery program to plan ahead, to make sure I had enough food in my apartment to last two months if needed. I started a Zoom meditation group in the morning of every single day of our confinement. This gave me a reason to get out of bed and to get dressed. I have reached out to my friends and started using Zoom to connect. I even threw a birthday party on Zoom. Someone said to me “we shouldn’t be calling this social distancing. In reality, it is physical distancing and doing whatever we can to socially reach out to each other.” We need each other now more than ever. We will get through this. Yes, it is stressful but it is not a reason to drink, take drugs or binge.

Thank you for your precious time in reading this. If you go to http://www.sarasomers.com, I have put up a long and, I hope, comprehensive list of things to do at home right now.

Until next week,

Sara

Saving Sara

I am a compulsive eater, a food addict. What does that mean? That means that, similar to an alcoholic who cannot stop drinking once booze is in their system, I start bingeing once certain foods are in my system. Bingeing is the same. Bingeing is doing something excessively, having no on/off button, completely unable to slow a speeding train down even though you know it will end in tears, self-hatred and recriminations. I’m that kind of compulsive eater. The foods that set off the bingeing are sugar, grains and refined carbohydrates.

I have compulsively eaten since I was a young girl. I didn’t know what was wrong. I knew I was different than other people and it seemed a very bad thing. I didn’t seem to fit in with girls my age. I would watch them and not understand how they knew to get along. I was often in trouble with my parents usually for disobedience, daydreaming, not trying hard to be a part of the family unit. I stole food out of the fridge all the time. I say stole because I was always sneaky about it. I knew even at that young age, it was wrong for me in my family to eat all the ice cream and not leave any for anyone else.

By the time I was in my fifties, I had spent my life trying to get thin, trying to understand what was wrong with me, trying to be happy, trying to be loved and, in my judgement, failing at everything. When I was fifty-eight, I gave up the fight. I discovered a solution for me, for my kind of compulsive eating. After fifteen years of recovery in that solution, I wrote a book: Saving Sara; A Memoir of Food Addiction. It will be published by She Writes Press May 12, 2020.

I wrote the book to tell other food addicts like me that there is hope. I had spent thousands of dollars on therapists. I had tried every diet under the sun except stapling my stomach. I had joined encounter groups and therapy groups, taken dangerous medications because they were advertised as reducing my appetite, bought over the counter medications that did nothing but they had pretty people in their ads. I had had shots in my butt and I don’t even want to know what was in that cocktail. I had tried hypnosis and religion. All in the hopes that I could get thin. Getting thin to me was the promise of happiness, that all my problems would go away, that people would like or love me. By the age of fifty-eight, I was running out of hope that there was a solution for someone like me. Thank goodness, I persisted.

This is a blog about food addiction. This is a blog written by a recovering food addict to give hope and inspiration to people like me. People who can’t stop bingeing. People who can’t stop self-destructing with food. It is also for their families who don’t understand what is happening to the people they love. Why they are so angry all the time? Why they feel criticised if someone makes the simplest suggestion. This blog will be a work in progress. There are a lot of blogs out there dealing with the same issues. Most are sincere and helpful. I hope that by adding my blog, people will benefit from the wealth of information accessible to them so they can take an action towards Hope.

Each week, I will pick a theme to discuss. I invite feedback and suggestions. I have found that on my own I never could have succeeded at most of my life goals. I have found that together, bringing out the best in each other, we can achieve what we thought was impossible. I invite you along for the ride.

Sara