Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

oscar

This is a post about food, but it could so easily have been a post about alcohol.  The difference is that one cannot abstain from food, I suppose.

Coming up to the end of the Whole30, I made rules for myself that would apply afterwards.  No wheat, refined grains or sugar during the week, as well as minimal dairy and snacking.  During the weekend – defined as Friday night through to Sunday breakfast – I could eat whatever I wanted.

The Whole30 finished Sunday.  On Monday morning, I walked into playgroup and someone handed me a hot cross bun slathered with butter.  I ate it.

During the rest of the week, I ‘slipped’ maybe twice, and felt awful both times.  Not physically, but emotionally.  Here I was, failing again, no willpower, slipping back into old ways.  Even that weekend, when I ate sensibly, I hated myself.

And then came the second week, and I stuck to all of my rules.  I was triumphant!  Relieved!  See, I COULD do moderation after all.  I was a model of self denial and goodness me, were those my jeans, slipping on so easily, why yes they were.

Armed with self righteousness, and a large trolley, I set off on Thursday to do the week’s grocery shopping ahead of the Easter long weekend.  Into the trolley went children’s Easter eggs, lunchbox snacks, and an enormous Toblerone that was sixty per cent off.

“Why did you buy a Toblerone”, asked DH later.

“Because it was 60% off”

“But we never get Toblerone, and I thought you weren’t eating chocolate anyway, and also what’s Eastery about Toblerone?”

“IT WAS SIXTY PER CENT OFF”.

Without going into the dull minutiae of what I ate all weekend, suffice it to say that it was wheat.  And dairy.  And sugar, and chocolate, and Toblerone.  Which is fine, obviously.  It’s just food.

But then, it was a long weekend, so Monday counted, right?  And today is Tuesday but I have a deadline and it’s cold, so a muffin it is.  And here I am.  Eating exactly the way I ate two months ago.

Now, the thing is that the way I ate, and eat, is not threatening my health and my relationships.  It is on a completely different scale from the way I drank.   So you may be thinking well, so what if you’re eating a muffin? It’s just food.  And that’s true.

But it is also bringing back every single memory of all the miserable attempts at moderation I ever made. I know perfectly well that I am breaking my own rules when I eat a muffin on a Tuesday and yet I do it.  Why do I do it?  It isn’t just about will power.  Very few things are.   And it’s hardly an unusual experience, to try and go without a particularly treat-like food and fail in that task.

Which got me thinking about addiction.  If I can’t make myself forgo the muffin (which is not just about the muffin itself, it’s about the experience of sitting in a nice cosy cafe with excellent coffee and this particular warm, freshly baked muffin, and breaking small pieces off and buttering them) then am I addicted to the muffin?  Or is it the case that because I am drawn to that particular combination of sensory pleasures, but could happily forego the eating of Easter eggs, that it is not an addiction but just an indulgence (but surely indulgences are easier to give up?).  When I drank, I had a house full of liquor, sherry, port, things that had been bought for recipes or occasions and just sat there for years afterwards, and I didn’t drink them.   Beer, I would drink in certain circumstances but never sought out. What I craved was wine, and a book, and the slow sipping and refilling and mindless enjoyment of the experience.  But that was addiction, none the less for its specificity.

By its definition, addiction is present when the taking of the substance interferes with normal functioning.  If you’re too hungover to go to work regularly, or to work efficiently when you’re there; when it’s affecting your intimate relationships and yet you continue; when your finances are in trouble but you gamble; the list goes on.  It is easier to spot addiction when the substance of choice is illegal, because you have to jump through more hoops to get it, which makes it more likely that the using of that substance is going to interfere with your normal life.  You might not get fired if you show up to work hungover, but you will if you have THC in your blood, so the stoner who overindulges despite random drug testing policies is going to be diagnosed with a problem before the drinker who just ‘had a heavy night’ – only one risks their employment.

But, again, it’s a spectrum, isn’t it?  Was I addicted to alcohol when it was the only thing standing between me and fitting into a nice dress, or only when it started to stand between me and a fulfilling life?  But then again, don’t we all constantly question whether we are our best selves, alcohol problems or not, and don’t we all live with the nagging feeling that we could do better if only we were harder working, more virtuous, better disciplined?  What constitutes a problem that gets in the way of our functioning selves, and what is a normal weakness?  When I procrastinate on writing an article by tooling about on Facebook, am I addicted to the Internet?  Or just a writer, doing what writers do, which is mostly try and avoid writing?

I started this post intending to talk, lightly, about how crap I am at moderation.   And in the end, I guess it doesn’t matter what addiction is, or isn’t.  What matters is who we want to be, and whether our eating, our drinking, our gambling or our Candy Crush habits are getting in the way of that.   And as much as I want to be thin and healthy, I don’t want it as much as I want to be someone sitting in a cosy cafe, drinking full fat lattes and considering whether to eat a chocolate cake.

Hard as it is to acknowledge, I think that it is healthier for me to let go of the exhausting, tedious, mind-colonising attempts to make rules about my ingestion of food.  I used to manage bouts of moderation with alcohol as well, of course: a week when I’d stick to two glasses a night, and a couple of days alcohol-free, would fill me with a surge of triumph so loud that I wanted to declare my newfound discipline to the world.  Look at me, I’d think, I sipped a cider over a period of an hour and now I’m making a peppermint tea!  But it never lasted, and even when it did, well, there are better things to be proud of in life.

Sometimes I think about trying moderation again.  Drinking a glass of wine at special occasions, and that sort of thing.  And then I remember how boring moderation is.  I don’t want to spend my week being proud of how little I’ve drunk.  I don’t want to get through Wednesday by telling myself that I can drink on Friday.  I don’t want to count, I don’t want to keep track, I don’t want rules.

quicksand

I especially don’t want to live my life on the shifting quicksand that is moderation to a dependent drinker.  When a long weekend means four days of drinking instead of three.  I don’t want, ever again, to tell myself that this time will be different.

So, I guess, all my rambling about addiction aside: I’m not going to drink.  But I am going to eat the muffin.

So here is the post I should have written: Happy Soberversary to me!

A few weeks ago, I bought myself a present, and I saved it up in its little parcel until last weekend, and then I finally opened it today.  It was my gift to myself, because I am one year sober.

Why didn’t I open it earlier?  Because, oh, it’s not such a big deal, and oh, well, no need to make a fuss, and oh, look how cool and insouciant I am, I don’t need gifts or rewards or treats.  I’m happy here with my herbal tea (stupid Whole30) and my crafting and my virtue.

I’ve written before about my tendency to try and do everything better than anyone else, yes?

But I got here because I gave myself the licence to be kind to myself, and have treats here and there, and believe that I was worth the fuss and the trouble that getting sober can be.  So I took the present out of the cupboard.

My presentThe woman from whom I bought this is a friend, and I told her that it was a present to celebrate a year of sobriety, and so she said that she’d wrap it up for me.  Isn’t it pretty?

This was supposed to be a victorious post, full of the fact that sobriety has transformed my life.  It has done, beyond anything I could have imagined.  I said, a year ago, that I decided to get up drinking because otherwise, nothing would change in my life.  I would plod along, raising my children with less joy than I wanted to feel, hating my job but without the courage to try something new, narrowing my horizons more and more so that the only pleasure I had left was the same bottle of wine that was trapping me.

And then I stopped drinking, thinking well, if nothing else I’ll lose some weight.  In fact, I didn’t, but every single other thing got better instead.

At Easter last year, I moved house.  That doesn’t sound like much, perhaps, but I moved to the village I have been dreaming of for eleven years, to a dream home within that dream area, with enough shabby quirk that we could afford it, and which makes it far more lovable than a highly renovated version.  And in retrospect, we could have moved here years earlier, so why didn’t we?  Inertia, fear of debt, a lack of willingness to grasp the possibility?  In the end, I just opened myself up to the fact that I wanted to move, and a friend of mine sold me her family home.  Really.

I started running.

I ate food, without guilt or fear, and I learned to go to bed early with a good book, and I started taking long baths, and my skin shone and my hair shone and – without weight loss – the contours of my face returned.

My parenting experience transformed.  I have so much more love.  So much more joy, so much more gratitude.  And so much more faith in myself, so that even when I get exasperated and yell, I forgive myself because I love them and they love me and it’s alright.  It’s better than alright.  Children need to be allowed to love their parents, and I can accept that love now, in all its sticky physical glory.

I started writing.  And then I started getting published.  And then I was laid off, and with the financial cushion that gave me, I decided to do it for a living.  One year ago, I hadn’t written anything except Facebook comments since leaving university.  And now I make my living as a writer, and I do so successfully.

If, a year ago, you had asked me what my dream life looked like, it would look like this.  I’d like to live in a huge rambling house in Village, I’d have said, with a big garden that the girls can play in, and I’d work from home as a writer, and get up early to exercise, and I’d read more and take up a craft.  And then I’d laugh because it seemed so impossible.

Sobriety made it possible.

My whole life is a gift now, but I deserve one nonetheless, and so I opened my parcel.

towel

This is a Turkish towel, hand-loomed and fair trade.  The weave is beautiful and light as a feather.  I wanted something that would last, something lovely, something that would bring me comfort and pleasure in the everyday.  It’s no use buying myself lovely jewellery that I’ll save for a special occasion that never comes, or stationery too pretty to use.  Remember my scented candle?  I have never set it alight.  In eleven months.  So, something that I need every day, something to add luxury and comfort to a necessary ritual.   Something that would be mine, my special thing, that nobody else is allowed to use because it is Mum’s special thing.

But as I unwrapped it, this symbol of triumph that I so carefully thought through, I felt sad.  And lonely.  Because I wanted people to say well done, and to have noticed, and to share my pride in me, and it felt so anti-climactic, this present that I bought myself and unwrapped myself and hung in the shower.

And then I saw the card that my lovely friend had tucked in there.

cardHappy one year, from me to me.  Well done, me.

This is how I am feeling about this stupid Whole30 thing so far

Grumpy, mostly.  

That’s not true.  I am having all sorts of thoughts about self care and reward and food and emotion, some of which I am going to try and distil into more than an incoherent rambling. Aided only by black coffee because STUPID DIET.

Ahem.

Oh, also I hit a year sober a week or so ago, keep meaning to write a post about that.  It’s kind of so much not a big deal anymore that I haven’t done anything about it.  I have a little present waiting for myself that I will unwrap and show you all soon, but, you know.  I’ve been busy.

So, this diet.  I’m 21 days in.  Specific cravings have gone.  I am drinking black coffee without wincing, and the idea of a muffin seems impossibly luxurious.  I am rarely hungry and I have lost three kilos.  My mid day energy diphas  gone, I sleep well and as long as I have a coffee in the mornings I am in an excellent mood.  A resounding success, right?

Except that it’s brought up a lot of things about whether it is truly bad to retain some of one’s crutches.

I don’t miss any particular food.  I miss the oblivion.

The Whole30 people refer to certain foods as ‘food with no brakes’ – those foods which don’t send a proper satiety signal to the brain, and instead allow you to eat and eat and eat.  I miss those.  I miss the oblivion that they provide.  It could be salted pistachios or burnt fig ice cream or vinegar-drenched crisps; the texture and the flavour are less important than the mindlessness of it.   This, of course, is also how I used to drink.  Not for me the fast road to wipeout of hard liquor.  Doing shots always seemed singularly pointless, because I never wanted to get to drunk, I just wanted the journey.  What I craved is the mindless, repetitive sipping of wine.  Sip, down, sip, down, sip, down, refill.  Make sure there’s enough of a supply that you don’t have to think about quantities, and the thing about alcoholic liquid is that you can drink a lot of it because it doesn’t fill you up like ice cream, or quench your thirst like water, so you are only limited by your tolerance for intoxication.

So it was a red flag that I was eating the way I drank, and getting through the days waiting for that oblivion.

And this diet is designed to address that particular eating pattern:  It is all about eating three big meals with no snacking in between, paying attention to full signals, sitting down at the table and enjoying the food properly.  If you find yourself hungry, eat more at the next meal.

I said in the comments to my last post that the reason I wanted to address the snacking/reward cycle is that it was obliviating the real needs underneath it.  And not being able to snack has, in fact, meant that I am addressing those more.  I switch off the screens and read in bed.  I have started quilting.  I drink a lot of herbal tea because sometimes I want the warmth and comfort more than the calories.

Those are good things.  But none of them hit the right spot, not really.  That craving is still there.  There has been nothing transformative.

And you know what?  I’m starting to think that maybe that is okay, actually.  That sometimes, oblivion in the form of a bag of crisps and an excellent novel is just fine.  Maybe I don’t have to face my feelings all the time, or channel my energies into constructive things, or be responsible.  

I am so boring, you guys.  I am so respectable.  I send my children off with healthy packed lunches and clean uniforms and I pay my bills and I garden and quilt and read improving literature, and once in a while I go to a book group or have coffee with a friend, and I try and exercise and I budget carefully so my daughter can go to ballet and I have been with the same Lovely, Lovely Husband since I was twenty years old, and we forego overseas holidays in order to pay the mortgage and make sure there’s something left over for our eventual retirement.  

Maybe there’s nothing particularly transgressive about eating an entire pint of ice cream – indeed, Caitlin Moran talks about overeating being the addiction you have when you don’t want to inconvenience anyone with a more dramatic one.  But do I want to be as clean and virtuous an eater as I am in, let’s face it, pretty much every other area of my life?  I don’t know that I do.  I don’t know that this is a bargain I want to make.

I’m going to see this diet out, because I’m stubborn like that.  But I already know that I have willpower, and that I can conquer cravings, and that eating one way is better for me than eating another.  What I don’t know, and have failed to be convinced of so far, is whether I want to live without the messy, chaotic failings, and the temptations, and even the next-morning regrets.  

I have been doing this with a friend, and we keep joking ‘who even ARE we’ about asking for special meals in cafes and buying chia seed in bulk.  Who even are we.

But I think, actually, that I like my usual self, muffin top and all.