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.
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?