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?


Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.


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?”


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.

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.


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.