We started watching The West Wing on Netflix last year because we ran out of episodes of The Good Wife. We enjoyed it from the start… real characters, funny and moving in turns, great writing. When we came across the part of the story where Leo McGarry, White House Chief of Staff, has to admit that he is a recovering alcoholic, I was deeply moved by the vulnerable writing and impeccable acting of John Spencer. More than that, however, I was a little frightened by how much a particular scene resonated deep within me.
Give it a watch. It’s less than 30 seconds.
“I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer? My brain works differently.”
If you’ve been following me on Instagram or Facebook, you know that I’ve been working with a coach since the beginning of December. Jennifer has lost over 120 pounds, found balance and healing in her relationship with food and maintained that lost for over a year. She is frank, ballsy and gentle in turns. She has little interest in my reaching some ideal number on a scale. She wants me to be free.
It’s always a little dicey to talk about food addiction; to compare the addictive, compulsive properties of obesity to alcoholism. But I’m going to do it. I’m going to put myself out there and invite the entire range of reader responses in order to maybe help ONE person understand that when you see me on a ‘health kick’… what I’m really trying to do is save my life.
I am trying to save my life.
Food has, in many many ways, become the good girl drug. We have our lives together, are intelligent, successful women, but we are killing ourselves with food.
We don’t understand people who can eat one cookie, one donut, one French fry. We don’t understand people who can eat half a burger, push aside their plate and say they’re stuffed. We don’t understand how you can keep chocolate and candy and cookies and chips and pizza in the house and not eat it ALL the time.
Let me illustrate.
A few weeks after we saw the episode this clip is from, I came into the kitchen one morning and saw a snack bowl on the counter that Len had used the night before. He had eaten a few cookies and there, in the bottom of that blue bowl, were cookie crumbs and a few chocolate chips. I stood over that bowl for a few minutes, and every second of that clip came rushing back to me. With slow and deliberate motions, I reached out and took that bowl into my hands. I shook it slightly, so that the crumbs settled down beneath the three chocolate chips that my husband had left there.
I carried the bowl over to Len and sat down beside him. He looked at me in surprise.
“This is what it is for me,” I said softly. “I don’t understand why you didn’t eat these. Just like you don’t understand what the big deal is.” It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for both of us.
Those of us fighting food addiction do not use food to satisfy hunger because we don’t know how. We don’t use food to fuel our bodies because that isn’t the relationship we have with it. Food is our drug. It is our bottle of vodka, our line of coke, our shot of heroine. And it will kill us if we don’t figure out how to heal this most essential of relationships.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that only ‘fat’ people carry this burden. There are people who are my ideal weight who struggle daily with their bondage to food. And it is bondage. I’m not overdramatizing here. It is literal slavery to the one thing we cannot do without: food.
We know it, too. We know how powerless we are. What we don’t show you is the shame that is carved into every curve of our bodies. We know you think that we just need to never touch a cookie again, go for a walk, eat less. We know that high blood pressure and heart failure and diabetes are real and present dangers. We are so bound up in a cycle of shame and failure that we literally hate ourselves for it. If you could hear the way we speak to ourselves, you would be appalled and horrified. We can extend love, gentleness and kindness to everyone but ourselves.
I’m not trying to lose weight. I am trying to save my life.
Why am I writing this? It’s a fair question. I can assure you I’m not looking for sympathy. None of us are. We know what got us here. We know (perhaps more than ever) what we need to do to crawl out of this pit. We are learning that health doesn’t mean never eating a cookie again but healing ourselves enough so we can eat just one. We are learning that we are stronger than we have ever given ourselves credit for because in pushing and challenging ourselves, we are seeing who we are for (quite possibly) the first time. And that glimpse of who we really are, beneath the layers of fat and shame and self-loathing? It’s incredible and terrifying at the same time.
Maybe I’d just like to help you see a small piece of what this is like for me. For us. For men and women everywhere who watch the clip from The West Wing and wonder how it can possibly be true that this concise description of alcoholism sums up their entire relationship to food.
Food was designed to do solve one problem: hunger. In the words of Jennifer, my coach, until I learn to eat only from hunger, anything else is self-abuse.
People approach me and comment on my activity on Instagram, where I freely share pictures of my workouts, milestones and transformations. I am learning to accept a compliment. And when they ask me what my goal is, my heart of hearts whispers: to be free. To see food as fuel and not a drug. To not spiral out of control because I ate a cookie. To not scar my heart with further shame and self-loathing.
For the first time in my life, my goal is not a number on a scale.
I want to save my life. I want to be free.
And for the first time, I believe I can.