On trying again

Yes, this is another post in which I compare food and alcohol.  It’s about moderation and the idea that your addiction gets stronger even in your sobriety, and why you should try again anyway.  There – no one can accuse me of burying THAT lede.

Let’s recap.

After I finished the Whole30 diet, five or so weeks ago, I managed a single week of ‘moderation’ before slipping.  An exception to the rules here, a fuck it moment there, and two weeks in I was eating just like I did before.  Or, arguably, worse.  You guys, I regained 3kg (7lbs) in five weeks.  Irrespective of how much one weighs or should weigh, I think we can all agree that is not normal behaviour, especially since my weight was stable prior to the diet.  I wasn’t, like, hiding in the kitchen and eating pounds of butter, or anything.  But all bets were off in the high calorie snack department; I ricocheted from treat to sugar to comfort food, and somehow, here we are again.

So I’m back on the diet, in a modified sort of way, and I paused before typing that because I know that some of my very lovely commenters are very concerned that I have a tendency towards eating disorders, and I do appreciate that concern but I promise that I am merely a common-or-garden slightly plump person who likes crisps.  However, I hope that this time around some of the habits involved (specifically, around eating until I am full and not embracing hunger as if it’s an old friend and not snacking mindlessly) will stick.  Maybe they won’t, and then maybe I’ll try again.

Let me tell you about the one time that I ever ‘quit’ alcohol for any length of time, prior to this time.  I was pregnant with Little Girl.  Prior to the pregnancy, I was drinking a lot, and for the first time I really, without a doubt, knew that I was drinking problematically. I no longer believed that I could just stop any time I wanted, because every day I hated myself and every day I drank.  And drank.  I was putting on weight at a rate of knots, I had lost my job, and I hid bottles of wine in my chest of drawers and then went to bed early so I could drink them without Lovely Husband seeing.  Do you know, I’ve only just remembered that.  Anyway, I knew I needed to stop, and I started seeking out sober resources online, but I couldn’t take the plunge.

During my first pregnancy, I didn’t want to drink.  At all.  It wasn’t a moral decision based on the wellbeing of the foetus; I just didn’t want to drink until late in the third trimester, when a light beer once a week became a possibility.  So I knew that a second pregnancy would give me the break that I thought I needed.  My logic was fairly sound; get pregnant, use it as rehab, come out the other end with nine months of sobriety already under my belt and never go back to drinking.

I clutched at the chance like I was drowning.  I nagged Lovely Husband to bring forward the timing of the second pregnancy, but without telling him why.  I was desperate to stop drinking, and it seemed to me that getting pregnant was the way to freedom.  And, of course, I drank with abandon in those last months; my last hurrah, I said to myself, not meeting myself in the eye.

Anyone want to guess what happened, pretty much as soon as the labour was over?

Of course, I went straight back to drinking, not just a light beer here and there but exactly as much as I had been before.  Maybe a little less for a short while, because I was at least trying not to breastfeed a newborn while shit faced, but once that logistical barrier was lifted, it was all bets off.

This comes as no surprise at all to anyone who’s been to AA, because it’s part of the received wisdom.  Your addiction is out there getting stronger, and if you lower your guard, it’ll come back stronger than it ever did before.  Don’t fuck with your sobriety.


So why am I surprised that my dietary habits have done exactly the same thing?  We already know that pretty much everyone puts all the weight back on every time they diet (seriously.  It’s like 95% or more, and that has been backed up in about a million studies, over decades of research, so don’t go telling me that it used to be the case until we discovered The Latest Amazing Diet, because it’s always going to be true and that is why the whole diet industry is evil and immoral and should be very ashamed of itself, and it is possible that I have deviated slightly from the point now).  So there’s that, in the first instance.

And THEN there’s the fact that our relationship to food is not purely physiological, so whether or not you want to call yourself ‘addicted’ to food, or merely prone to emotional eating, there’s always going to be some sort of parallel between the things we use to comfort or treat ourselves.

(Side note: you have NO IDEA how hard I am trying to not go into a What Is Addiction Anyway side alley, right about now, but please go and read this amazing post of Primrose’s, if you haven’t already, which encapsulates in one dinky little diagram a lot of the stuff I wrestle with around what is rewarding self-care and what is avoidant or self-harming in the guise of indulgence)

So of course then I start wondering about the correlation running backwards.  If I use food in a similar way to alcohol, and everyone who loses weight goes on to regain it, then is the whole “my addiction is doing press ups and getting stronger” thing so unique?  Either everybody who diets (so that would be pretty much every single woman ever, and a fair proportion of men) is addicted to food in a clinical sense, or the fact that we regain our old habits immediately we attempt moderation is not unique to addiction.  Or I guess it could be that the two things are just coincidence, and if I applied this to a third habit – say, my habit of not getting out of bed to go for a run – it would be different.

I’m wondering about this because I’m wondering whether incremental change is possible.  If I try and go running, but give up after three weeks and go back to slothful habits, and then I try again in six months, and again, and again, will I one day create a habit that endures?  If I go back to clean eating, no snacking, again and again and again, will I one day eat like that without trying?


If someone who relapses again and again, who drinks and stops and drinks and stops, if that person keeps trying and keeps stopping, will they one day stay stopped?

I think that the answer has to be yes.  Even if, every time we relapse, we go straight back into exactly the bad habits that we tried to leave behind, or worse, I wonder if those habits aren’t the only thing that get stronger.  If our addiction is doing push ups, waiting for us to slip, ready to greet us with the worst binge we’ve ever experienced, then surely it must work in reverse as well.  Our sober muscles are getting stronger in rest as well.

This time around, with this way of eating, I already know that I absolutely have to make a big breakfast or I’m doomed.  I know which condiments have sugar in them, I know how to stave off sugar cravings.  It’s easier.  Likewise, if you’re getting sober for the second time, or the third, or the fourth, you already know that socialising sober is no big deal, that you like sparkling elderflower but non-alcohol beer is triggering, that you won’t be able to sleep for the first few days and then you’ll sleep like people were designed to sleep, deep and long and rich.

The block, though, is self belief.  And it’s a big block: it is definitely, certainly, harder to try again once you’ve relapsed, because you have more doubt and more self hatred to work through.  But it’s not impossible.  It’s not even improbable.

There are a bunch of sober bloggers, the ones I admire above all, who have picked themselves up and tried again and again, repeating the things that worked and changing the things that didn’t.  If any of them still read me and want to comment, I’d be very grateful to hear from you.  Am I right?  Was it easier in some ways to try again, even as it was harder?  What did you do?


20 thoughts on “On trying again

  1. Food and alcohol are only the same if you are eating compulsively and secretly. If it’s that you aren’t sticking to rules that you have created, it’s something else.
    I’ve had to step back and ask myself what I want. I want to be happy. I want to not think about what I can and can’t eat. I want to feel good.

    I’ve found eating mindfully works. It’s not a quick fix, but it means I can eat anything I want,but I need to put it on a plate, bowl, etc. I try not to eat in the car or out of the bag.

    Dieting research shows most dieter again back the weight they lose plus some quite quickly. Restriction and deprivation is not the solution. That’s the fear based advertising we’ve all been brainwashed into.
    Finding peace with our bodies and then paying attention to what works for it is the answer.

    It’s all experimentation! Don’t let it consume your time! You have better things to think about than the scale. I threw mine away a year ago. Best decision ever (after sobriety).

  2. Allie there is a theory in addiction called kindling which is where the doing press ups AA wisdom comes from : By continually going through active periods of substance abuse and then periods of sobriety, a person can become overly sensitive to living with – or without – their drug of choice. Relapse becomes more likely because stimuli that would cause little reaction in most people causes an extreme and compelling need to seek solace in substance abuse in the addicted individual. I’m not saying this is the answer to the question for you but might be worth exploring 🙂 PS My chocolate consumption is slowly ramping up too so you are not alone!!

  3. Definitely get rid of the scale! Weight is a huge issue for me. I’ve found that when I exercise, even lightly, on a regular basis, it keeps me focused on staying healthy. I try NOT to do too much cardio because that just ramps up my appetite and I always feel hungry. My weakness is carbs. Potatoes, rice, pasta, bread…YUMMY. Of course, the more carbs I eat, the more carbs I crave…just like booze. grrrrr

  4. I’m a habitual starter and stopper on the sobriety train and I tend to agree. Though some would probably disagree I think with every lapse I am getting better and learning and the each round of sobriety is more mindful and peaceful as a result. And I have noticed that when I relapse I drink a little bit more than when I left off. And then I taper down as I start to think about – yes, I do need another period of sobriety – and I hope you’re right. I hope one day I will just stop. And it won’t be as headstrong and stressful and angry as if I had stopped with the first day 1. Obviously that works for a lot of people. One day 1 and done. And I’m a little jealous of them. But it hasn’t worked for me. So something else has to.

  5. glad you liked my chart, Allie 🙂 and thank you for the link!

    in answer to your question on the stop/start thing – my no. 2 thing after alcohol, as I’ve said on my blog, is being paperwork avoidant. and I’ve gone through many stages and systems trying to get through that barrier. it’s more like food than alcohol, because it’s not something one can completely give up, it’s something I have to do some of on a regular basis, even if not every day.

    so where have I got to with that? the answer right now is probably ‘less avoidant, but could still do better.’ which doesn’t mean I am where I want to be with it, but I am more comfortable operating at a higher level than I was previously.

    and I have set non-ridiculous parameters for myself which I (mostly) observe. the equivalent for food would probably be that 80:20 ration of eating sensibly:non-sensibly. not that I’m suggesting that’s what you need to do with food – not going there! – but to answer your question about whether it is possible to come to some peace with a behaviour that has previously troubled you IF you just keep bloody trying – yes, I believe, based on my own experience, that it is.

  6. What a fascinating post.
    My mind is all over the place on this one. I think there is some truth to what you write, but in terms of alcohol there are far bigger stakes than food, right? I do know people who were chronic relapsers and now have long term sobriety. The majority of them, in telling their story, will ALWAYS add in the idea that, thankfully, they didn’t do real harm to themselves or to anyone else. Except of course, those who did do real harm, got DUI’s, destroyed marriages, killed people in accidents, lost the respect of their children and friends,.all that nasty stuff that does happen in alcohol and drug addiction and that is part of their stories.

    Food addiction can hurt our own bodies, our self-esteem, but that’s about it.

    Yet I do see the correlation that you are positing…i do believe that we can learn to not drink, or overeat, or clean up our paperwork (I need help with that prim!), and setbacks often are motivating, making it clearer to us how important those changes are and how good they can be.

    Now, I hope you don’t mind my whole 30 comment…I have done it a couple of times. I found the single most motivating thing I did, in the first whole 30 i did, january 2013 (or was it 2012? i can’t remember) was to throw out the scale. GONE!! I have only been weighed a few times since then on my doctor’s scale for a check up. I admit to looking a couple times, and my weight has basically not changed in all that time.
    80/20 works so well for me, mindful eating works well too. I never returned to gluten after the first whole 30, but everything else has come and gone and come and gone and come and….you get the idea. I read packaging, and try to avoid packaging all together. I JERF, which is an acronym I love standing for just eat real food….now, I also just finished a handful of potato chips (crisps?) so there’s my 20. I definitely have a sweets problem and I’m slowly working on that
    And that big breakfast is mandatory for me…i learned that on the 30 and it was the best idea ever.
    The only exercise i do is yoga. And I have completely forgiven myself for all the crazy diets and ides I have had around food my entire life which was probably the key, right? That forgiving allowed me to love myself just as i am, love my body just as it is and things just fell into place, for the first time ever.

    And I could never have done any of that without sobriety….
    (sorry this was so long..yikes!)

    • Thanks Mish; I completely agree, of course, that the stakes are higher with alcohol. And also one cannot give up food. But I’m fascinated by the behavioural parallels, because of course the brain doesn’t think oh, this is a thing with bigger consequences, and react differently accordingly: the brain pathway that goes ‘craving, pleasure, satiety, repeat’ is the same.

      I actually began that post intending to talk about the counting-days thing and what Augusten Burroughs calls the problem of sober days as currency, because I was thinking that with food, there’s no shame for me in saying well, my eating habits have slipped again, better go back to food rehab. With alcohol I imagine that the despair I’d feel in having “wasted” 400 days of sobriety and having to start the count again would make it much harder to try again, does that make sense? And I wonder whether this whole thing about the addiction getting stronger in our absence, that’s a simple reaction to that shame. As in, I’ve thrown away ten days of sobriety, might as well drink a bottle of wine; oh, crap, I’ve thrown away two years and made a mockery of my life, might as well drink a bottle of whiskey to acknowledge how much bigger my screw up is. Whereas if we didn’t count days or feel as if relapse was so awful…? But then again, I don’t want to overlook the fact that it does get harder and harder to quit, and that relapse isn’t something to play around with or take lightly. So. I don’t know.

      • That is a much bigger question isn’t it?
        and a great one.
        I think you should write that post and a very lovely discussion will definitely ensue.
        I am just jumping in here, checking emails before i head off to my group tonite, but i am going to be thinking about this a lot….
        just one quick thought, is the addict/alcoholic which lots of recovery time who dies after a relapse…often times by their own hand. I’m not going anywhere with that but will think about it.
        Write that post!

  7. The counting-days thing has been on my mind. I’ve never been one to set goals or count days because I prefer to just quietly make changes without recording them. Even though I long to be able to say I’ve been 100 days sober or whatever, I’m wondering if having a finish line, as we do when we diet for 30 days, can backfire. A finish line suggests the goal is over. You would think that doing a habit for 30 days would entrench it in our daily lives, and therefore easier to stick with long term, but having a finish line seems to do the opposite. When you reach the finish line you breathe a sigh of relief and go back to your old ways. I want to find a way to eat, and drink, that i can live with for the rest of my life, not just for the next few weeks. I am resisting setting a date for my last drink because it seems to set me up for failure. I’m curious for my own recovery “research”, did you set a date for you last drink and if so, was it a significant day or just a random day? Do you still count the days you have been sober? I know you had your one year anniversary recently, but do you still count the days even now? Long post- sorry!

    • I never counted days past the first 100, and only that because I signed up to Belles 100 day challenge. I had to come back to my first posts on this blog to find out when my sober anniversary was, back in March, because I only remembered to the month, not the day. Honestly in year two, I so rarely think about alcohol at all that I don’t count days or even think of myself in recovery much. I mean I guess I always am, but the difference in year two is astounding in its increased freedom from those thoughts.

    • Oh, and no, I was just reading yet another book about sobriety (the sober revolution, Lucy Rocca) one night and thought this is ridiculous, let’s just do it. No significance: in fact I was drinking a G&T at the time! I just decided it was my last, drank it slowly and then stopped.

      • Thanks for your reply Allie. I really like the fact you didn’t know the exact date of your last drink and had to go back and check. I’m not sure why. I think it’s because it seems so low key, yet it was obviously successful because here you are over a year later! I just know that for me, counting days without alcohol seems to be backfiring. I seem to do better when I’m relaxed about it, and don’t get all tense about the number of days since my last drink. As soon as I fill in the little orange counter on Living Sober, which seems to work for everyone else on there, I seem to sabotage it. I’m still trying to figure out why this is the case. I’m curious how you felt at the end of 100 days, and what prompted you to keep going forever. I’ll have a look back through your posts now to find out. Thanks for listening. xx

  8. This post, and all the fantastic, thoughtful comments, was like attending a meeting on food for me. So much good stuff, I need to reread it several times. You ladies are awesome.

  9. Great post! I too suffer from this problem. I am an addict through and through no matter what it is. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, food, sex, etc. I will over do it. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  10. I woke up one morning almost a year ago after drinking well into the wee hours of the morning and had to get up and go to my job, in finance, still buzzing. I realized at that moment that it was no longer the life I wanted to lead. As such, I made a New Year’s Resolution to live 2015 without alcohol, and it has, literally, changed my life. We are almost into 2016 and not only have I accomplished my goal thus far but I have no desire to pick up drinking again even in social situations and I could not be happier that I made the decision to finally cut it out of my life.

    Thank you for the good read and come check out hat shedding alcohol has allowed me to do physically: http://www.TravelWithMitch.com

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