Thursday, September 29, 2011

Attachment disorder and overeating

Over the last several months, I've become interested in disordered attachment. This happens when the primary parent/caregiver is unable to develop a healthy relationship with the very young child. While there are many reasons for this inability, in the end what matters is that the child perceives that the parent is unreliable or unsafe or unloving and that the child is on her own to take care of herself, most commonly in an emotional way, though sometimes in a physical way as well.

In the physical realm, children who are abused learn to hide while children who aren't provided with enough to eat learn to stuff themselves when food is available or they hoard food. This is not uncommon among foster children, for example, whose parents are addicts or alcoholics. These children don't trust that food will be there for them, even when the circumstances change. This is the case for one of my friends.

In the emotional realm, children with disordered attachment learn to soothe themselves in any way possible since many experiences seem unsafe and they do not have a steady adult to rely on. Life in my family seemed very unsafe to me; I perceived, quite probably mistakenly, that my parents weren't paying attention and that I had to be responsible for everyone, including myself. I also did not feel safe in the presence of my mother. I could not count on her to be loving or kind, though she often was. But there was another cold, unhappy side of her that I also felt responsible for. Her fluctuating emotions caused constant anxiety and fear in me, that I dealt with by self-soothing with food and later with alcohol. With enough sugar or drink in me, I could relax, not care that things weren't safe.

In the readings about disordered attachment, I learned that some children become afraid of their mothers. And that happened to me. It was an immense relief to read that this happens to children, for I have always felt ashamed that I feared my mother, who never hit me or physically abused me. But I was afraid of her, nonetheless. I also transferred that fear of powerful people to the men I got involved with, afraid they would hurt me, leave me, betray me. And the ones I picked did. It set up a sad pattern of relationships and a lot of difficulty with intimacy that I just kept at bay with sugar and then with booze and then with sugar again.

My abstinence from sugar is bringing all this up for healing. It's quite the ride.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

12 desserts a day, ice cream 16/7, and HP

Life on a cruise ship is not for the faint of resolution. I got home yesterday from our week cruise from Seattle to Juneau and Ketchikan. We had lovely accommodations, excellent service, and great food. In fact, on our ship, there were five places to eat. There were three formal dining areas and a "grill" with burgers and hot dogs, and a 16-hour buffet with non-stop entrees, snacks, desserts, and ice cream, both hard and soft. It was an extravaganza of edibles.

The food in the buffet was pretty good. The food in the dining rooms was terrific. We ate most of our meals in the Vista Dining Room with elegant table settings and formal service and a view of the water. The breakfast menu was substantial; the lunch and dinner menus each offered four courses of gourmet food, including a choice of 12, count 'em 12, different desserts at both lunch and dinner.

After an appetizer, soup, and an entree, I was never hungry for dessert but that didn't mean I didn't want one. The first couple of meals were okay. I ordered the fruit plate and watched the 5-6 other people at the table eat their warm fruit crisp with ice cream, or the chocolate mousse cake, or the special combination of creamy sauce and caramel and pound cake, or the baked alaskan, and I felt virtuous.

Then it got tougher. My commitment began to waver and I started to feel immensely sorry for myself. I'd go up to the Lido to the buffet to get hot water for tea and watch people strolling with waffle cones of chocolate or mango ice cream, licking their lips and talking about how fabulous it was. At lunch one day in the dining room, a woman went on and on about the bread pudding with whipped cream that showed up at lunch each day at the buffet and you could eat all you wanted. I wanted to push her overboard.

My commitment wavered a bit more. "Maybe tonight I'll have dessert," I said to Melanie, the friend I was travelling with. It was day 3 and I was really tired of the fruit plate.

"Well, you could," she said. "How would you feel about that afterward?"

"I don't know," I wanted to say, but it was a lie. The dessert would go down and I would want another. And so I told her about the waffle. On day 2, I ate breakfast in the buffet by myself. I ate eggs and bacon and toast and then decided I could have a waffle (hot, fresh) with fruit on it. There was hot maple syrup to go on it, and hot chocolate syrup, and hot caramel syrup but I'd have fruit. So I did. And it was delicious and that wasn't the end of it. For the next 48 hours, that waffle was in my thoughts. Or rather another one like it was in my thoughts, maybe two this time, maybe with caramel. I do love caramel. And I was right back into craving. I didn't eat another waffle.

The last indecision occured at dinner on Day 5. We'd opted to eat in the very fanciest dining room (it cost extra) and the food was fabulous. And I decided that I could have dessert. Just this once, on this special occasion. I was all set to do it. And when the dessert menu came, there were 6 choices: 5 had alcohol and the 6th was cheesecake, which I don't like. And I realized my higher power was intervening for me. And so I ordered the fruit plate.

There's a PS to the story. Other than no dessert, I ate what I wanted. And from the deliciousness of the dishes, I would guess I consumed enough butter for most of Portland. But when I got on the scale this morning, prepared to have gained some weight, I had lost 5 pounds. Go figure!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Duelling voices

I leave today on vacation. My neighbor and gym buddy Melanie and I are sailing up the Inland Passage to Alaska, something that's been on both our dream lists for a long time. I talked with a friend last February about her trip, who raved about the experience, and mentioned it to Melanie,and we looked at each other and said, "Let's go." So we board the ship tomorrow and cruise for a week. I've very excited.

And the last two days there've been duelling voices in my head. One voice says, "The food is going to be fantastic. You can eat dessert this week. You've been really good, and remember you're not worrying about weight loss. You're in recovery from that chronic concern." The other says, "If you could eat dessert in moderation, if you could pick and choose when to indulge, you'd already been doing that. Abstinence works best for you. Hang in there!" So I find myself in that scene from Animal House when Tom Hulce has the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other.

What makes the decision easy is knowing myself so well. I might, maybe, perhaps could eat a dessert or three on the trip and not get hooked by sugar again. But I've done this dance of maybe so many times and I am so happy not to be living in shame and guilt around what I eat that it just isn't worth it.

If I lived in the outback of British Columbia and might never see a great dessert again, maybe I'd consider it. But I live in Portland with desserts galore and ice cream anytime I want to buy 6 gallons for my freezer. I also know there will be other wonderful food to eat and so I'm staying in alignment with my commitment.

PS I asked Melanie if she'd keep the pillow chocolates to herself and she suggested we just tell the steward not to leave us any. Nice to have a smart friend along.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Feminism didn't save me from the culture

When I was in my early 20s, I read a lot of feminist literature, including Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. I became angry at the patriarchy in many ways. At home, my father had pressured my mother to give up the job she loved at the junior high library because she wasn't home when he needed her there (which was rarely). More potent was his need to provide for her in the eyes of his peers and that overrode her need to have something to do with her considerable intelligence. I stayed angry with my father over that for a long time, though of course my mother could have insisted. But the acculturated mother I had couldn't have insisted. She hadn't wanted to marry in the first place. She hadn't wanted children. She had wanted a career and to put her college education to good use. But she succumbed to social and cultural pressure and married and had 5 kids and worried about ring around the collar and waxy build-up in her kitchen corners.

I was determined to have a different life and so I have never married, I've not had kids, I've had two different careers and a slew of jobs and been well paid and respected for my mind and my abilities. I have had many lovers, traveled alone, lived alone, created my own business in a field that was long dominated by men. But in one essential thing, feminism did not save me from the culture. And that is in how I view my body.

No matter what I believe rationally and intellectually, I have bought hook, line, and sinker into thin is beautiful, fat is not. While I've been able to fully embrace the fact that alcoholism is a disease, not a matter of will power, I can't get there with my own obesity. I want to. I really do. I want to love my body no matter its size or shape. I want to feel strong and healthy and proud.

But I feel ashamed. I know that feeling comes from absorbing thousands of images of what men (and women) have been selling in advertising since the 1950s. When I was young, I had one of those lovely bodies. For the last 20 years, I have not. And I have suffered because I have not. Self-induced suffering?
Perhaps. But I think it is more culturally induced.

I find it very sad that women's liberation has not extended to freedom from cultural pressure on one of the most precious parts of our existence. And I feel quite baffled as to how I can liberate myself.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Unsolicited advice

Yesterday I set a boundary with a friend around unsolicited advice. She had responded (privately) to a recent blog post and offered an interpretation of my dilemma that made suggestions as to how I could resolve the issue. "If you were..." I guess it never occurred to her that I might already know what she was proposing, or that I might have considered that idea and rejected it, or that the issue might be more complex than what I had revealed in the blog. I chafed at her advice and then wrote and asked her not to do that in the future.

As a chronic fixer, I know how tempting it is to see the solution for someone else and want to offer it to them, even when we can't do anything about our own stuck places. Been there, done that, over and over. In fact, over the decades of my life, I have doled out probably thousands if not more pieces of advice to friends, to students, to clients, much of it unsolicited and probably a lot of it unwelcome.

Going to thousands of AA meetings and working as a sponsor has helped cure me of most of that. At meetings, there is no crosstalk. You don't give advice, you don't even comment on what someone else says. You share your own experience, strength, and hope instead. And as a sponsor, you learn pretty quickly that your advice, especially unsolicited, will not keep you or the the sponsee sober. Only actions make a difference.

Last year, I had a very painful experience around this with someone close to me. I was going through a rough growing-up patch and needed support and understanding. I got taken to task by two women I considered friends and mentors and a lot of unsolicited advice about my behavior that didn't take my feelings into account. I really saw in those two incidences how damaging my own attempts to fix others have probably been and how killing it is to a relationship.

Now, I do my best to ask if the person is open to suggestions before I offer advice although I do even that very sparingly. Most of the time I just keep such advice to myself.

I think this is especially important as concerns blog posts. Most of us who write intimate blogs do it to share our feelings. We aren't looking for external solutions or the advice of someone else, we're looking for our own inner knowings. And we welcome the shared experiences of others.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Not wanting to be who I was

This morning I received a very insightful comment on a recent post from a reader named Vicki, who said that in a discussion with her therapist about her yo-yo weight gain and loss, she came to the realization that weight loss brought up fear that she would return to the person she had been at 28, when she started to put the weight on. That resonated with something deep inside me.

In my 20s, I had a great body. I was tall, slim, had good legs, nice breasts, long hair. Men found me attractive, some found me sexy and I used my looks to get what I thought I could get: sex and attention, and to a certain extent relief from chronic fear, anxiety, and sometimes boredom. Of course, I wanted true love but that seemed impossible. The truth was that I looked pretty great on the outside, but emotionally it was another story.

By my 20s, I had suffered from chronic anxiety, low self-esteem, and co-dependency for a lot of years already. I know these are buzz words that a lot of people deride, but for me they were, and still are to an extent, very real experiences. While I knew I was attractive and I knew I was smart, I also believed that no man would really ever care for me in the way I wanted. And much as I tried to make that their fault, I believed deep down that it was a failing in me. I was too sensitive, too shy, too clever, too demanding, too needy, too something.

For a while, I tried to be someone else. Someone less smart, more fragile, more independent, less clever, and always thinner, that somehow that would make the difference. But eventually I gave that up until I started to really drink. Alcohol made relationships possible for me. I didn't drink to become more social, I drank to become less afraid. If I drank enough, I could pretend to be somebody else, somebody who didn't care that men abandoned her when she got too needy. Pretend that one-night stands were my idea. Pretend that fighting and jealousy were a given in a relationship. Pretend that monogamy was passe.

I was also spiritually bereft in those thin years. I became an intellectual cynic, a perfect stance for a college professor in the 1970s and 1980s. I had a cruel wit and I used it. I was more and more clever, and more and more unhappy.

So when Vicki talked about her fear of weight loss bringing that earlier person back, I was right there with my own miserable thin self. For being thin and sexy and attractive are completely enmeshed in my body and feelings with misery. No wonder I feel ambivalent about weight loss.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A challenge to my recovery from chronic concerns

If you've been following this blog, you know that I've given up, at least temporarily, my chronic concerns, including weight loss. I've felt quite happy about this. Just letting those thoughts or ideas pass through my mind when they arise, as in meditation, has been a great relief.

But then this week, I noticed that my clothes weren't fitting quite so well, my shirts were a little tighter. Not much, but just a little. So I got on the scale and I had gained 4 pounds. I don't do the scale very often and I know that weight fluctuates so I got on the next two days as well. The 4 pounds were still there. So now I'm tempted to diet, to think about what I'm eating, to worry again. I don't want more weight, I'd love less weight, and I don't know how to change that without obsession.

I thought about my friend Angela, who has been eating differently both to be good to her body, which has been unhappy with some of the foods she's been consuming, and to develop a different relationship with food. Then this week, she blogged about the fact that she had only lost 15 pounds over the course of changing her diet. Weight loss wasn't part of her quest, not ostensibly, but she was disappointed to not be thinner than that. And my heart sank for her and for me both. We can't shake off the culture by saying that our weight isn't an issue. We're conditioned to equate body size with worth. Thin is right, fat is wrong. More fat is wronger.

This is a big conundrum. And I want very much to stay in recovery from weight loss as a chronic issue. So more investigation is clearly called for.