Friday, April 30, 2010

Discipline and freedom

Several weeks ago, I came across this quote: You don't impose discipline for the sake of itself, you impose it for the sake of a greater freedom.

I've been thinking about this a lot. That and the relationship between will power and discipline. Will power in abstinence seems to me to be what 12-steppers call "white knuckling" it. You don't use (or eat sugar) but you are miserable while you abstain. And that doesn't interest me at all. I want the desire to eat sugar and to overeat in general to leave me. I want to not want to do it. And I think it takes discipline.

The last two nights I've been eating too much (no sugar though). I've done okay during the day but I'm overworking and that makes me tired and stressed and I want to relax with food, which is my fall back for relaxing. The first night I didn't even stop to notice I was overeating until I was done. Last night, I did notice but didn't find the discipline to stop. What I didn't do was take the thought about discipline to the next level: what do I really want?

This is a complex question. In the moment, I don't want to feel the way I feel (stressed, restless, too tired, overwhelmed). I want something that will make that go away and, so far, anything I can think that might do that is too complex for the moment, e.g., get a massage, be with friends, lie on the beach in the sun. None of that can happen in that moment. And because that's where my thinking stops, I just eat.

What I'd like to be able to do, and that brings me back to the quote, is to remember what I want in the long term, beyond this moment. That is the greater freedom. I want to have other responses to stress, or live with less of it, or see it coming sooner and plan some alternatives. I want the greater freedom of not being run by food.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sizing myself up Part 2

For the last ten years, I've been fat. I would never have imagined when I was 40 that I would say that about myself. While, at 40 I had been gaining weight bit by bit over the years as many of us do in middle age, it always seemed reversible, that with a couple of months of dieting, I'd take it off. But I never did, or rather I did take it off, over and over, and each time I put it back on, a few pounds joined the others.

A number of things made that so. A shift somehow in the perception of myself, a desire to pad myself in self-protection to keep my demons at bay, a loss of confidence in myself as an attractive woman, a desire to stay numb from my feelings that was stronger than a desire to be thin. Food, especially ice cream, became really important in my life, a kind of savior. As Geneeth Roth says in her new book, "Weight is what happens when you use food to flatten your life." She could have said "fatten your life."

Sugar and fat gave me relief from loneliness, boredom, anxiety, self-doubt, any of the many forms of wretchedness that can come upon us.

When my nephew Miles was 7 or 8, he said to me one day, "You're fat." He meant nothing cruel by it, he was into labelling what he saw, but those words etched themselves into my memory. Me, who'd always been thin, me who took pride in having a nice body. Me.

And over the years, I've become conscious of my size in a way that I would never have imagined. Will an airplane seatbelt fit? Will a movie theater seat be comfortable? Can I get past someone in a small space? Basically, can I fit? Can I fit in? I never thought about those issues that face the obese every day. It gave me empathy in a way that I'd never had sympathy.

I don't know what people see when they look at me. I don't know if they see the fat first or look into my eyes. I don't know if they think less of me for having eaten myself into this place. I suspect they never think of the emotional issues involved. I certainly didn't before I became fat myself.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sizing myself up Part 1

I wasn't always overweight. I was a thin kid, a thin teenager, a thin young adult. I could eat anything and everything and not gain weight. I learned to overeat and drink with no consequences. It wasn't until well into my 30s that weight began to be an issue and even then the gain was so slow as to be almost imperceptible.

Nonetheless, in my late 20s I started dieting. I'm 5 ft 10 and my boyfriend at the time thought my 145 pounds was too heavy so he convinced me to lose 20 pounds. I was stick thin for about a few weeks after a rigorous diet and exercise program but I couldn't sustain the weight loss. Eventually I couldn't sustain the relationship either.

I went back to eating what I wanted and it took a good while to put that 20 pounds back on, about 4 years. By the next long-term boyfriend, I was at 150 and still looking good. I was nervous, anxious much of the time and that burned off the calories. My boyfriend cheated on me for the next 10 years and jealousy and anxiety was a powerful diet, but I still slowly gained weight and when I got sober, I weighed 180. I quickly lost about 20 pounds of bloat but over the next 4 years on a steady diet of sweets, I put on pound after pound after pound after pound until I got fat, really fat.

I've dieted off and on in sobriety. Cleanses, weight watchers, overeaters anonymous. I never did weird fad diets, just cut calories, ate little, but it was all a temporary fix. I never dealt with the emotional and spiritual issues behind it all, and I never wanted to give up my sedative, sugar.

Not until now.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Being with what is

One of my new friends from the conference last weekend, a lovely woman from Nashville named Beth, commented in an email on my blog post about all the obstacles I encountered on my way to the podium. I emailed back that years of study as a Buddhist have made me better able to be with what is, to take a deep breath and to look for a solution rather than sink into frustration.

Wednesday morning before leaving I woke up with those little symptoms of an incipient cold. You know the ones...the sore nose, the scratchy throat, the too quickly too warm feeling. I did all my wellness stuff on Wednesday but by Thursday morning as I finished packing, it was clear I was headed for a cold. And the timing was awful. A fairly long flight, a strange hotel, many people to meet and greet, a big presentation to give on Saturday. But again, I just relaxed into what was. I packed cold stuff--cough syrup, softy kleenex, throat lozenges. And I worked to stay relaxed on the plane, slept, drank a lot of water, and kept on taking my wellness stuff. And while I had a few symptoms and was a little bit off, the big cold never arrived and I never used any of the cough syrup or throat stuff.

I would have dealt with it, if it had. I just didn't stress over it. There wasn't anything that stressing about it or cursing the timing was going to do. Staying in the moment (how am I in this moment? Not too bad) made a big difference. And I conserved my energy and took good care of myself and it worked out fine.

Letting go of "why me?" and stepping into "what now?" is a philosophy that I'm finding serves me well.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Still riding high

I'm still jazzed about my experience at the Women Healing conference last weekend in Minneapolis. My presentation didn't just go well; it was fabulous. They laughed, they cried, they cheered when I finished. I was hilarious (who'd have thunk) and just kind of fell into a zone of story and ideas and telling my reality that worked.

One of the things I think that made it work was that I was not a professional in the recovery field, not a therapist or a treatment counselor. I was just me, a recovering woman sharing my experience, strength, and hope. I told about my early addiction to chocolate, about how I got sober in 1989, about how I transformed my relationship with my dad. I talked about how I wrote my memoir and why it's important that we write our stories.

Story is really important in 12-step programs, it's a huge part of the way that we communicate suggestions and learnings to each other. Twelve-step programs all practice "no crosstalk," meaning that each person's sharing is self-contained, without referencing other people's sharing or giving advice or commentary in any way. Each of each shares our own experience or challenges. So we tell stories about our lives, past and present. There aren't lots of places left in our culture for story so I'm proud to be part of that tradition.

And while I did have a PowerPoint presentation with suggestions for how to thrive in long-term sobriety, I mostly told stories. And it was fun for us all.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A test of my flexibility

Yesterday at the conference started off a bit dicey. For two nights, I hadn't had very good sleep and that always makes me feel hungover--I had a headache and my stomach felt off. I couldn't face the continental breakfast (sweet rolls and bananas) so I got a real breakfast, which helped, and went to the first session. It was really good and I realized that I needed to read a different part of my story during my presentation than the one I had printed out at home.

I'd already discovered late Friday afternoon that the PowerPoint I'd sent to the conference administrator had arrived corrupted and none of my slides had been printed out. So I went to the hotel business center (two computers and two printers, much in demand) and printed them out. It took me about 45 minutes to print 15 pages because I had to wait for a free computer, then realized I had copied the wrong document onto my thumbdrive, went back to the room, got the right one, and then couldn't sort out how to get the printer to do 2 slides per page landscape. (I'm a techno-wienie.) Finally, I asked the desk clerk who helped me sort it out (she was young and it took her 43 seconds).

So there I was Friday morning, trying to figure out yet another thing and waiting in line and feeling pressured by 10 others waiting in line.

Then I attended the second session and the microphone battery back fell off the speaker because she didn't have a good waistband on her dress. Well, my snazzy outfit to speak in had no good waistband either so I went back to the room trying to sort out what I might wear. I had another outfit, more casual than we were supposed to wear, but it had the right kind of waistband so I put it on.

Then I discovered I'd left my makeup bag at home. I never wear makeup anymore but I know one looks better at the podium if the face is lit up. So I gave that up.

It was time for lunch and instead of a buffet, as there'd been on Friday (convenient), it was a sitdown meal and I'd missed it. So I grabbed one of the safe nut bars I'd brought and ate it. I felt rushed and scattered and very nervous. Then as I listened to the moderator introduce me, half the info was wrong.

And so when I got to the podium at 1:15, I thought, well hell, I'm just going to talk about all these things and the audience laughed with me and it was all okay. My worrying wasn't helpful, although it did give me something to occupy my mind.

I have three more of these conferences and now I know how to solve all those issues. That feels more comfortable. And it's good to be home.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Let them eat cake

Marie Antoinette probably never said this and it has given her a lot of bad press over the centuries but it was a stance I had to take last night. I'm in Minneapolis this weekend at a Women Healing Conference for women in recovery and professionals who work with them. I'm a speaker this afternoon and last night all the speakers went to dinner.

It was quite an experience on several levels. First we went to the Mall of America, the world's biggest. It has an amusement park in the center and it was about a quarter mile from the entrance on the north side to the restaurant. The restaurant was upscale but noisy but we managed to have a lot of good conversation in various group configurations. All 12 of us are in recovery; 11 of them were in treatment at Hazelden, the sponsor of the conference.

The food was excellent and we had choices but it was a bit prescribed so we didn't have to work our way through the menu. Included in our dinners were gargantuan pieces of German chocolate cake. The dinners were huge and lavish before the cake came. Most people left half the food on the plate, but everyone took cake, everyone except me and one woman who is diabetic.

Curiously, I felt nothing watching them eat cake. I was full, satisfied with dinner, and much more interested in getting up from the table and walking off the dinner. The cake looked good at first but then it didn't look so good--too rich, too heavy, and I thought about how it wouldn't do what I wanted it to do--make me less nervous about speaking in front of 275 people to do, so what was the point? I'd already had enough good tastes and I wasn't hungry. Maybe not a big thing but it felt like a victory,

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Traveling today

I've just unpacked my bag in the Minneapolis Airport Marriott Hotel across the road from the Mall of America, the biggest mall in the world, I hear. I had a fairly easy flight though sitting for close to four hours is no longer my idea of a good time. I lead a reasonably sedentary life and work at a desk, but I'm up and down several times an hour to stretch, let the cats out, make tea, check the weather, get the mail. I don't sit in a small seat with little leg room between two other people with barely the room to move. So I'm glad to be in a space where I can move, walk around, and who knows? Maybe I'll log a mile or two over at the mall tomorrow.

I'm here for the Hazelden Treatment Centers Women Healing conference. I'm part of the speaker line-up (Saturday at 1:15) and I will be speaking to nearly 300 recovering women and treatment professionals. Yikes! I've got my PowerPoint presentation and I've been practicing my talk and will do so some more before Saturday but I'm both excited and nervous. It doesn't make me nervous to speak in front of people normally. I was a teacher for many years and can get up and talk. But it's my first time on the national stage and I'm hoping something wonderful can happen here for my memoir, which is on sale at the conference bookstore.

I don't do hotels much anymore. I usually travel and stay with someone I know or in a rented beach house or retreat center cabin. The room is nice enough though I'd have preferred a room on the other side of the hall with a view of the grassy courtyard instead of the parking lot and one with one bed, instead of two (the room is really full of furniture) but there's a nice writing desk here and a comfy chair for reading and all that I need. In service to my increasing commitment to ask for what I want, I did ask if there was a courtyard room available but they are full this weekend between our conference with people here from all over the Midwest and a girls volleyball tournament,.

In my academic years, I went to quite a few conferences and got drunk or ate a lot of sugar. None of that is going to happen this weekend. And that will be fine.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Inspired today

I spent the afternoon leading a workshop on writing a better artist's statement for a group of women in a small town near Portland. They were all painters, though with very diverse styles. They work out of an old storefront that has been converted into a dozen studios and some common spaces plus a gallery and a used bookstore.

We worked through a series of exercises designed to give them words and phrases to use in writing about themselves as artists and writing about their work. What really moved me were their reasons (I asked for 10) about why they paint. To a woman, painting and creating gave them joy, gave them meaning, was aligned with their spiritual beliefs, and for four of them, it helped them relate more closely to nature.

I've been thinking about ways to satisfy the restlessness, the emptiness I feel at times without food. I didn't ask any of these women about their relationships with food or other substances, for that matter, but I wanted a lot more of their enthusiasm and connection to art and whatever Higher Power they connect with. I also envied the connection they have with each other (we're like family, one woman said). I have that with writing friends, for which I'm very grateful, and I'd like to have it with painters too.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Needing to be bad

Another good session with my spiritual director today. I talked about Friday night's mindless consumption of semi-satisfying low-fat, low-sugar granola bars and feeling possessed by my evil twin, who made me eat 6 in a row with barely a breath between them. (That's not actually true as I did take them one at a time to my TV chair to eat and then had to get up and get another one 4.5 minutes later, but who's counting?)

My evil twin has obviously been sleeping for the past 9 weeks while I've been virtuously off sugar and trying to learn to eat like someone who isn't obsessed. And I was really unable to trace back to what woke her up. Sure, I've been working like a maniac (I'm in the feast phase of feast or famine freelancing) 6 days a week. Sure, I have only a nodding acquaintance with fun. Sure, I'm a hypervigilant whose own constant attention to detail is exhausting, but hey!

My spiritual director and I have had the "learn to be bad in other ways" conversation before. I made a list of 16 ways I could be bad but all of them involved serious harm to myself or others or breaking the law. Things like risky sex or running a red light or shoplifting. It's hard to be bad when you're an enneagram One (we love rules and regulations and take life very seriously). I did try dropping a used tissue on the sidewalk about a year ago but I felt so guilty I had to go back and get it. I guess I could toss an empty plastic bottle in the garbage but I'm not sure that would satisfy anything.

So today we agreed that my goal is probably not being bad, but rather figuring out what I really do want instead, in having what's good be even "gooder." I'll let you know what happens.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Carrying the weight of the world

I was talking with some friends this afternoon about my sugar adventure. At 9 weeks into this, I think about my old sugar friends not so often. I was uncomfortable when one of the women at this afternoon's gathering talked enthusiastically about a creative cupcake project she'd done with a friend. Kathie and I have often eaten cupcakes together and I fantasized about my favorite: vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting from the cupcake store in my neighborhood. But then she moved on in her conversation and I moved on too.

What I'm finding is far more difficult to release is my desire to be numb, to not feel, to not carry the weight of the world. After our meeting Kathie stopped to talk with me a little more about it, how she has found ways to put up defensive barriers so the world's suffering doesn't penetrate unless she wants it to. That sounded wonderful to me, some kind of defense against the suffering I feel when I hear about puppy mills and starving children, lost pets, and starving polar bears. All of that helplessness triggers into some of my own helplessness.

Maybe that's what makes some of us highly sensitive, that we don't have any automatic defenses against what we see and hear and learn, that it just penetrates right to the heart and leaves us in tatters.

I know that some of us eat to become big enough to carry the weight of the world. Now I need to learn to put some of that down, my own weight and the world's weight as well.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Black and white vs. shades of gray

Yesterday and today have been much more reasonable in both eating and feelings. I felt calmer, more centered, recommitted to my abstinence and my efforts at being in the moment and with my feelings.

I've been afraid of relapsing, and in a sense I did just that Friday night. I fell back into old ways of feeling and responding. I didn't eat a lot of sugar, I didn't go out and buy what I really wanted (ice cream), but I overate to a version of numbness ( and a not very satisfying version) instead of bravely buckling down and doing what I am committed to doing.

Like many alcoholics, I have a real tendency towards black and white thinking. With alcohol, nothing or everything is very real. We can't just drink a little; it sets off something in our brains that makes moderation impossible and even stopping again terribly difficult. People who "go back out" into the drinking world are often gone for years at a time and sometimes forever, dying from the consequences of the disease.

In some ways, the effects of food are more insidious. One meal, one piece of pie, isn't going to kill me or even necessarily set me to bingeing regularly again. But I do know that one piece of pie leads to two, leads to one every day, leads to two every day, leads me back into not caring about how much I weigh, how I feel, or what I'm putting into my body.

It was interesting to welcome back Friday night my old friend Who Gives A Shit, to feel again those feelings of fed-up-ness that make me want to eat. Exactly what I'm fed up with is harder to discern and may hold the answer.

There didn't seem to be anything special about Friday night. I'd had a good day, written two good chapters on my novel, spent the day with friends I love dearly and had lots of interaction as well as quiet time. Maybe it had been building all week or for the last 9 weeks of abstinence, or maybe some chemical in my brain just went off, the way it does when I have an occasional real desire to drink even after 20+ years of total abstinence from alcohol.

Maybe there is no understanding what happens, just a gentle acceptance that some times there'll be shades of all right and some shades of not so good.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fessing up

No, I didn't eat sugar but I came close and I did binge. Last night my old demons just took me over. After the Writing Friday gang left, I went to run a couple of errands and talked myself into going to Whole Foods, which was just up the block. I bought the oranges and apples that I said I would and then I went over to the snack bar/granola bar section, which is right by the candy bars.

I didn't buy any of those but in the breakfast cereal section, there were other granola bar-like items and I bought a box of 6 organic bars that had peanut butter and low sugar. So they met my criteria for safe foods. I came home, fixed a good dinner, finished it off with one of the oranges I'd bought, turned on Netflix (Life, Season 2, Disc 1) and proceeded to eat all 6 of the granola bars.

Interestingly, it was not about the bars themselves, though they were tasty, but it was about having all I want and nobody to say no (including my Wise Self) and just doing what I damn well pleased. I was tired of being good, being sane, being conscientious.

I didn't have a sugar or fat hangover this morning. That was a blessing and I didn't feel too ashamed or too guilty. After all, I can choose what I want to put in my body. But I felt possessed and not only didn't know how to help myself, I didn't care that I didn't know. Something sad about that.

Friday, April 16, 2010

One simple thing

At a group I facilitate called Wednesday Women, we talked this month about simple things we could do to make ourselves happier and more at ease. We looked at the domains in our lives (home, health, finances, relationships, spirituality, creativity, and rest) and each made a list of some of the simple things we could do that would make a difference. Then towards the end of the session, we each committed to one or two off the list (no more).

I chose two things: hanging up my coat when I come home and pushing harder on the treadmill when I'm at the gym. The first one seemed pretty simple. Instead of throwing my coat down on the trunk that sits just inside my front door, I could take two steps to the coat closet and hang it up. I'm a very tidy person and things lying around make me nuts, even though it's always me who puts them there. Hanging up my coat is also a metaphor for all those other little things I could do immediately that take very little time and yield a great return in peace of mind.

The second, pushing harder on the treadmill, is something I've been meaning to do for a while. I don't like exercise. I don't like sweating and I don't like being out of breath. It makes me nervous. I know, I know. So I stay at the top of my comfort level on the treadmill rather than pushing myself. But I could be in better shape, probably a lot better shape, so I'm making a little faster speed my baseline and then pushing each time I go for a little more. I'm smart enough (and lazy enough) not to push too much and get miserable but I want to up the average, the okay level bit by bit.

Here's what else was on my list:
Get rid of half my clothes
Move my journals to the basement and spread out my cramped books
Buy nothing online for a month
Grocery shop with a list
Speak my feelings to my friends
Spend more time with a couple of good friends
Meditate more consistently
Spend time each communicating with my spirit guides
Put color on paper most days
Keep a spacious calendar.

What would be on your list?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Being in the damn present moment

Food recovery guru Geneen Roth says there are only two rules to food addiction recovery. Eat what your body (not your mind) wants when you're hungry. Don't eat when you're not hungry. In order to get there, you need to spend most of all your time in the present moment. It's in the present moment that we know if we're hungry or not, in the present moment that we can tune in to our bodies and what they really need.

I don't want to do this. I want to eat whenever I think I might be hungry or might be getting hungry, when I have room for food. That isn't the same thing. And I don't want to stop eating when I'm no longer hungry. I want to stop eating when I'm sated. That isn't the same thing either.

Last night after dinner I tried to be in the present moment and not eat any more. It was excruciating. I thought about working some more or watching a DVD but that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to eat more, yet, again, still. I did not want to sit with my feelings or be in tune with my body.

I could not convince myself that being present with my restlessness was actually more fulfilling than being numb, even if Roth makes an argument that it is. Finally I drank three glasses of water and went to bed. It was the best I could do.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Missing my old friend

Looking at the title of this, you may think I'm missing old Jake the cat tonight. And I am. But that's not the old friend I'm referring to. I'm talking about sugar. I'm missing ice cream, having 2 half-gallons of Dreyer's Slow Churn Caramel Delight in the freezer so that I can have as much as I want. And maybe a couple of big chocolate caramel bars in the snack drawer. And maybe some tapioca pudding with whipped cream for a little variety, just in case.

I miss the relief in knowing that it's there, the pleasure in looking forward to it, and I'm especially missing the numbness that would come from eating a lot of it.

I've been restless the last couple of days. After three days of long work hours, I have a bit of a break before more comes in, and I'm trying to rest, relax, take it easy--something I don't do well. And I'm trying very hard not to eat when I'm not hungry. Like right now. I'm not hungry. I had pasta and spinach and a big orange and I'm full. But I want something to eat. I want the process of eating, I want the taste, I want the activity of it. I don't want to do something else. I don't want to sit with it. I want it--whatever the "it" is--to go away and I know if I eat, it will.

Last night, I watched myself eat. A good dinner, a big orange, and two snack bars. I hesitated briefly after the orange but then I went from zero to f--k it in a nanosecond and scarfed down the two bars. The only redeeming thing probably was the two huge glasses of water I drank with them.

I'm 8 weeks abstinent from sugar but I'm not cured. My old escapist relationship with food hovers in the background and I miss it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rest ethic

In one of the monthly groups for women that I facilitate, we've been talking for some months about cultivating a rest ethic in addition to our work ethic. I'd noticed in the groups I lead, whether it's a writing group or a chakra group or an intentions group, that whenever I talked about rest and the need to rest and encouraged them to rest, there was a visible sense of relaxation, a letting go of tight shoulders and jaws, a sitting back into the sofa, a sense of ease, as if they were all waiting for permission.

Our culture doesn't support rest. Instead we're all about doing. We support "blowing off steam" with exercise (more doing) or partying (more doing). Vacations are a time of travel, sightseeing, recreational activities like whitewater rafting or scuba diving, or taking a class somewhere. Or we stay at home and make house repairs or paint the garage or put in the garden.

We take days off and we run errands. We keep lengthy to-do lists and work our way through them. I'm no exception. I love lists and checking things off. I love accomplishment, completion, product.

But this new life of abstinence from sugar calls for rest. For when I'm not rested and I'm doing too much for too long, I want to eat even though I'm not hungry. I want a reward, I want fuel for all that remains to be done.

I just came off of three long days of editing for clients. By last evening, my brain was really tired. It was more than just difficult to concentrate anymore. I could actually feel the inside of my head as tired. Yet today, I've had a hard time resting, relaxing, doing little. Instead, I've remained here pretty steadily at the computer, checking things off my to-do list. Another hard habit to break but one that seems equally necessary.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Battling happiness

I've been feeling happy the last several days and that's a real problem. I'm not one who is accustomed to happiness. Buddhists encourage us to accept and acknowledge the impermanence of things, that all objects, relationships, sensations will pass away, if not soon, then at the time of our death.

I have no difficulty believing this. Growing up with a mother whose moods were quixotic, I learned you don't trust anything to stick around very long, not joy, not peace, not calm. The only stable force is self-imposed misery, because you can control that. It is always possible to make yourself miserable.

For more decades than I like to count, I lived under the shadow of self-imposed misery. I had several long-running, emotionally abusive relationships in my younger days, full of jealousy and drama. They provided lots of misery. Then I moved fully into my life as a practicing alcoholic. While many good things happened to me during those years, everything was overshadowed by my guilt and shame at being a drunk.

Then in 1989, I went to treatment and got sober. I lived on the pink cloud of happiness for a few weeks, so much relief at not being sick and at not being ashamed and for a number of years, I refused to see that my eating was out of control. But the last 10 years of yoyo dieting and struggle and fears about my health and hating the way I looked, wow, that's self-imposed misery in spades.

Now I don't do any of that shaming or guilt-ridden stuff. And with that freedom comes occasional bursts of good feeling, just out of the blue. It takes me a while to recognize them and I find myself suspicious. What's wrong with me that I feel so good? The irony of all this does not escape me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Working and food

After a few weeks of a very light work schedule (one of the bedeviling aspects of the freelance life is the feast-or-famine nature of how work comes), things have picked up again. This is both good and not so good. It's good because like most of us, I'm dependent on working to pay my bills and put money away for the future. It's not so good because I have less time to sit and reflect and be with the changes and emotions that are occurring in this new life of abstinence.

Work can easily be a major distractor for me from the things that are most important. I really enjoy the work I do, I like the feeling of being needed and appreciated by my clients, the feeling of satisfaction I get from doing a good job, and I get a buzz off of task completion. In and of itself, none of that is bad. But it can lead to me doing too much work, too many hours and then days and then weeks in a row. It's an odd kind of bingeing but I can numb out on work too.

And when I work a lot, I tend to eat more. I need a break, I deserve a treat, I need a change that will only take a very few minutes, I need more energy. I've got a list of reasons for why I should be standing in front of the refrigerator or the cupboard or the snack drawer. There aren't any sugar treats here so I'm safe from that but there is certainly food and I really have to find some other kinds of breaks as I move into a busier work season.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A spiritual experience

Last night, I attended an amazing performance of a spiritual dance troop called U-Theatre. This group, from Taiwan, did a powerful performance with Taicho drums, tai chi, martial arts, and choreography entitled "Meeting with a Bodhisattva."

I enjoy dance performances and watching people move their bodies to music and I firmly believe that creative efforts are either a conscious or unconscious spiritual practice. But this particular performance, based on the Buddha's teachings and on the dance troop's commitment to meditation, was something at a whole other level.

Set in six scenes, it told the story in rhythm and movement of one man's journey into understanding. The chanting and few spoken words were in Chinese with no translation but it was so clear what was happening to him. The drumming was hypnotic, fascinating, inspiring, and transcendent. I want some place inside myself that doesn't happen very often. It became clear that his journey was my journey, his search for understanding my search for understanding.

It's hard to describe what happened. My reaction was visceral and emotional, not verbal. But it is a performance I will not soon forget.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Safety in disclosure

When I first came into AA in 1989, there was a lot of controversy about anonymity and what it was. There was still a lot of paradoxical shame about being an alcoholic, paradoxical in that it didn't seem to be a shame to be an active drunk who didn't admit it but considerable shame in going to AA meetings, admitting you had a problem, and doing something about it.

Anonymity is considered the foundation of AA although I would argue that the 12 steps and the honest spiritual program it entails are far more crucial for long-term sobriety. Like many newcomers, I didn't know who to tell I was in recovery and who not to tell. My sponsor made it simple for me. You don't "out" anybody else, and you tell anyone who needs to know so that your sobriety is protected. For me that meant telling a lot of people that I was in recovery so that I would be safe, so that they wouldn't offer me drinks the way they had before.

As the years have gone by, I've become quite open about my recovery. It's not so much to protect me from drinking any more. I very seldom am in a situation where there's alcohol and I feel completely comfortable with just saying "no thanks." But I speak openly and freely of my recovery because I want anyone who's concerned about their own drinking to feel that I am a safe person to talk to about those concerns.

When I first started abstaining from sugar, I wasn't sure how public I wanted to be with it. I did feel some of the same need for protection, in fact, perhaps even more. Most people honor your choice not to drink. They're aware, and more and more so, about the lethal consequences of alcoholism. But people aren't so clear about how dangerous sugar is for some of us and the lethal consequences that it can have. They think you're dieting and don't understand that one piece of cake or a cookie can be the start of a binge just like a glass of wine.

But once I decided to start this blog, I knew there was safety in disclosure. I knew that the more people around me who knew, the stronger my commitment would become. The more support I would have. The more opportunity to explore the whole issue. That I could move from shame about it to curiosity. And so it has been.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Being our whole selves

I've seen several old friends over the last two weeks, people coming to Portland to visit. Some I've known more than 30 years. I've been paying attention to how I talk about my life, what's up for me, including sugar abstinence. My friend Kathie was talking today about living as an old liberal in a very conservative community (she lives there to be near her son and granddaughters) and about the importance of finding venues where we can be ourselves openly and completely.

I've been thinking about that since she left. Do I take all occasions to be myself openly and completely? Do I speak my truth, including the truth about my feelings? In my childhood home, my mother insisted that we keep our negative feelings to ourselves. If we were sad or angry, we were told to go to our rooms and come back when we could be pleasant. I don't know what that might have reflected from her own growing-up family, but what I took from that was the fact that no one wanted to know if I was unhappy. That I should keep such feelings to myself.

Stuffing feelings is a huge part of my seductive relationship with sugar (and alcohol before it). If I felt bad, lots of sugar and fat could make me feel better (brain chemistry) and I didn't have to be with my anger or resentment or grief or sorrow or fear. I could get sedated and not care. Now that I'm not doing that anymore, I'm at a loss as to what to do with these feelings. I'm so tempted to throw myself into work or other busy-ness, which is an adult equivalent of going to my room and keeping it to myself. I'm not wanting to do that but I'm not yet sure what to do instead.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Slowing down to do the work

I'm a woman in recovery, and I'm in recovery from several things. I'm a recovering alcoholic, a recovering sugar addict, a recovering cynic, a recovering academic, and I'm coming to see that I'm a recovering overachiever. I tend to do things to excess when they make me feel good. Moderation is my challenge and sometimes abstinence is the only way, paradoxical as that may seem.

Last night I had dinner with a very close friend. We had spent the later part of the afternoon together quite happily and had dinner early at a place in my neighborhood. Good food, good conversation. But after I took her home, I was restless. I turned on a new series I've been watching on Netflix and it was interesting but I was still restless. I ate an orange. I ate the rest of a bag of Cheetos. I ate two rather tasteless, low-calorie snack bars. To combat the restlessness, I stayed busy getting up and down and checking out the fridge and the drawers and the cupboards for something that would take the edge off, settle me down, sedate me. Nothing really did but finally I got full and called a halt to the behavior. It never occurred to me to sit still long enough to figure out what was really going on and let the feelings pass through me.

When I saw my spiritual director today, we talked about the need to slow down and open up space for the feelings to come through. I feel the feelings when I'm talking to her but that's once a week. If I do the work for an hour a week, it will take forever to cry all the tears and bring up all the anger. She assured me that the feelings are wanting to come out; I've had plenty of emotional and physical evidence over the last 7 weeks I've been off sugar that I'm ready to do this. But I can also see how easy it would be to just get busy--take on extra work projects in the guise of needing the money, or organize a couple of workshops to teach, or commit with my creativity group to a few new projects. They would all keep me too busy to feel.

Or I can commit to feeling my feelings. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, commitment means doing whatever it takes, even if it means doing little or nothing and just being available.
So I'm committing to being available, to slowing down to do the work.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Doing our Work

In the conversations I've been having with Anna, my spiritual director, over the last months, one of her comments has really stuck with me. That giving up sugar and learning to be with and befriend my feelings is my Work. I know she means Work with a capital W.

I believe that each of us comes into this life with some Work to do, some aspect of life to explore and come to understand. Clearly in my life, part of my Work, or perhaps all of it, has to do with addiction. Addiction to work, to sex and unhealthy relationships, to alcohol, to sugar, to anything that can put a buffer between me and my feelings, me and life.

When I stopped drinking in 1989, I didn't have much difficulty accepting responsibility for my alcoholism. While I could have railed at my mother for passing along the genetics or my unfaithful boyfriends for making me jealous and heartsick so that I drank more, none of that rang true with me. I'd had an unnatural relationship with alcohol (and with sugar) nearly all my life. Whatever switch in people says "I've had enough," I didn't get one. Add to that my fears and insecurities, my perhaps limited sense of what was available to me, and full-blown alcoholism was pretty inevitable.

So if I accept that alcoholism is part of my path, then recovery from addiction, from using buffers to not experience life, is my Work. Learning how to befriend my feelings, my fears, my inadequacies, my misperceptions and fully engage in life, how to come into alignment with my true self, not the one that I've pretended was true all this time. This kind of inner work is important work, perhaps the most important. That's what Anna is helping me to see.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Safety at AA meetings

For over two decades, I've been going to AA meetings. In the early months of my sobriety, an AA meeting was often the only place I felt safe. I could be honest there about my feelings and no one would offer me a drink or drug. It's little wonder that I went to three and four meetings a day for a long time. I still lived in the town where I'd been perpetually drunk for almost 7 years and every street corner reminded me of drinking and jealousy and hangovers and wretchedness. But in those meetings I was safe.

Today I went to my regular home group meeting and for the first time, I didn't feel safe there. Oh, there was no alcohol and not even much talk of drinking. Unless you go to a specifically beginner meeting, many AA meetings are about living sober, not quitting alcohol, and today's meeting was no exception.

No, alcohol wasn't the problem. Sugar was. This particular women's meeting was celebrating 29 years of existence with a potluck after the meeting. I noticed the table of food when I came in, then took the only open seat (there were nearly 50 women there). It turned out to be a chair about 36" from a large bakery cake, 2 dozen iced cookies, and a plate full of homemade cupcakes.

For an hour I sat there in the deep smell of vanilla and sugar and fat and kept trying to refocus on the speakers and on the discussion and my own sobriety, including my sobriety from sugar. And then when the meeting was over, I got the hell out of there as quick as I could. There were plenty of non-sweet foods but I didn't feel safe and years ago, I learned that it's okay, more than okay, to leave when you don't feel safe. Next time I'll find a different chair.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sugar and brain chemistry

I was doing some reading on sugar and brain chemistry and came across an interesting article by Marcelle Pick, an OB/GYN NP in Maine, who specializes in women's issues. This is one of the more concise explanations I've heard for sugar cravings and I thought I'd share it with you. Thanks to Dr. Pick!

"Positive associations [with sugar] are deeply ingrained in our brains. Our brains “reward” us by releasing serotonin and beta-endorphins [neurotransmitters] when we eat sugar or other refined carbohydrates that are easily converted to glucose (the simplest sugar).

Serotonin is best known as the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Neurotransmitters act by sending messages from the nervous system to the rest of the body, and serotonin levels are what several antidepressants manipulate to improve mood and anxiety. Made from the essential amino acid tryptophan, serotonin’s roots are in protein.

So what does sugar have to do with it? Sugar consumption leads to increased serotonin in the brain bia its impact on insulin. The bottom line is that we need insulin to help tryptophan get into the brain so it can produce serotonin. And sugar — or any carbohydrate for that matter — causes us to release insulin. Refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, white bread, pasta, and white rice, lead to a more intense insulin surge than do complex carbohydrates like vegetables and whole grains.

Beta-endorphin is another neurotransmitter we release when eating sweets or refined carbohydrates. This is the neurotransmitter typically associated with a “runner’s high” because it acts as a natural painkiller, produces a sense of well-being, increases self-esteem, and settles anxiety. Our brains naturally release beta-endorphin when we are in any kind of physical pain — and when we eat sugar.

It’s no wonder sugar feels so good! Physiologically, sugar “feeds” our brains with two neurotransmitters that send positive messages to the rest of the body. The problem is that the lift we experience after a can of soda, a bowl of noodles, or a chocolate chip cookie doesn’t last very long, and eating these foods, especially without combining them with some protein, can set us up for cyclical cravings. We will find ourselves wanting more and more."

For more information:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Writing your stories for healing

I led a workshop today on writing personal stories. Eight of us (seven women and one brave fellow) spent three hours sharing stories and ideas on how to heal with story-telling. There are lots of reasons to write our personal stories, not the least of which is to leave a record of information and impressions to accompany the hundreds of photographs most of us have that record the last decades. But there is also a healing aspect of storytelling, and in particular, story-writing, that is equally valuable.

When I set out to write my memoir, I did so to heal my past. In AA, one of the 12 promises for a new life is that we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. Writing about the trajectory of my alcoholism, my not-very-healthy relationships, my myriad poor choices, my forays into sugar as sedative helped me see the patterns and the possibilities for different actions. Drafting the stories and then crafting them into well-written scenes helped me get the stories out of me, down on paper, and completed. In essence, I was able to declare those parts of my life story complete and to not have to tell them any more.

Many of us have had the experience of telling the same stories over and over in therapy. I no longer feel the need to do that with those stories. They're done, I've learned what I can from them, and I've moved on. There may be other childhood beliefs to deal with--in fact there are--but I don't have to deal with these particular stories anymore. That makes all the writing and rewriting well worth it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Spirit guides

Several times in my life, I've been part of the death of an animal. Two of them died of natural causes but with difficulty. In neither case, did I know enough to get them to a vet. In the second of those cases, I was at the end of my drinking and too out of it to realize the kitten was in trouble. The memory of that causes me great sorrow.

In more recent times, I've participated in the death of two beloved pets, Maury with cancer and Jake two weeks ago of complications of old age. In all cases, except with Jake, the experience of the death itself has been similar. The animal has died and the spirit has flown. It has evaporated; it has disappeared. But Jake's spirit seemed to linger. There was not that sense of sudden emptiness, a sudden void in the energy. Rather his body moved on (the vet took it with her) but something of Jake remained behind. I felt it all that first evening, I felt it when I came back from being away a week later, I feel it still.

It isn't ghoulish or frightening. It's more that Jake's spirit has taken on another form. And this week I realized that Jake has become a spirit helper for me. In the Native American tradition, we all have totem animals, animals whose wisdom and strengths are ours to call upon in times of need. The bear is such a totem for me and I have several images of bears that are important to me. I also have a spirit guide made of smoke who is associated with a large wild cat. One of the two, the ssmoke being or the cat, is named Roger. I don't know how I know this, I just do.

And now I think Jake has joined this group, that he is watching over me, lending me support and love and devotion. That he's there for me in some essential way. That makes me smile.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Staying away from bars

Wait a minute, you're thinking! This blog is about getting sugar. Why is she advising us to stay away from bars? They don't serve sugar in bars, not the last time I went to one.

Well, they do serve sugar in bars. They serve it in candy bars and maple bars, undisguised. They also serve it in energy bars and granola bars, more deviously.

I'm on the hunt for a snack bar that will be a good, healthy snack to carry with me. My friend Bob Wilson, who weighed nearly 400 pounds in high school, has been height-weight appropriate for decades. One of his tricks is always carrying a food bag with him that has healthy meals and treats. He takes the bag even on a short errand; he doesn't want to be caught without it. I haven't developed that habit yet but I do want something I can carry in the glove compartment that will tide me over if I end up too far from a meal. I'm discovering that too long between meals brings an impetus to eat too much.

So I've been investigating snack bars. Some are pretty decent. They have a small amount of agave syrup or brown rice syrup and total out at 3-4 g of sugar per bar. They're flavorful, usually have some nuts for protein and some fiber, and don't taste scrumptious. I'm abstaining from scrumptious and sugars in the same food unless it's a raw fruit.

Many others are candy bars in disguise. They'll have agave syrup AND brown rice syrup AND evaporated cane juice (sugar) AND honey and then they'll lace the bar with carob or other "chips" and these too have a lot of sugar. I bought one that was heavy on peanut butter, which I like, but I didn't read far enough to see the 10 g of sugars. No wonder it's great! So great, that I started thinking about one early in the day and then couldn't stop thinking about it after lunch until I ate one. It passes the eat-a-second-right-away taste (I didn't want another) but that much sugar in a snack seems a slippery slope. It was also a puffed-grain bar and it seemed a whole lot like a rice krispies treat. Not a good idea. Not a good idea at all.