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.
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.