Thursday, November 4, 2010

Food Sobriety is an Exquisitely Delicate Balancing Act

I gave myself quite a scare last evening.

First, a little history: on November 27th, it will be two years that I’ve been doing stunningly well on the GenoType Diet. It is about so much more than weight loss for me, it is all about the totality of my health, yet weight loss is a very important component of that for me, as I started at 238 pounds. I’m now at about 157 pounds, which is below my original goal of 165, and I’m now trying to hit 148, and then I’ll reassess again. I may be done with the weight loss portion of my journey at that point, as I’ll then be at the tippy-top of what the “experts” (if one considers NIH the experts, as I’m going by their BMI calculator) consider a healthy weight for someone my height. That said, I’m THRILLED to be where I am, 81 pounds lighter than I was at my heaviest, and if I never lose another speck, I can handle that, as long as I don’t gain the weight back.

Gaining the weight back is my not-so-secret terror. I don’t think I will, but I’m scared I will. Intellectually, I know that I’ve come a long way and that I now have the tools I need in terms of knowledge, experience and insight, to not only keep myself on the right track, in a state of what I call “food sobriety” (feeling in balance, steady and centered, with no cravings or desire to eat things that aren't good for me) most of the time, but very importantly also to get myself back on track if I slide off the axis of balance. Emotionally, however, since I'm keenly aware of how easy it is to slip off track, out of food sobriety, and into that dreaded place of imbalance and feeling out of control with food, I have a fear that it could happen and I somehow wouldn’t be able to find my way back to that place of balance. It wouldn’t be the first time that I lost weight, only to gain it all back plus more. This time feels different in so many ways, and I’ve never lost this much weight before, but I’ll say it again: the fear of it all coming back is real and ever-present. I try to be aware of it, and counter it with telling myself it is different this time, I’m different, I’ve learned and grown. I’ve changed. And those self reminders do get through and help, as they ring true. Yet does the fear go away? Never.

I think a little realistic fear, to the tune of knowing that it (slipping off balance, out of food sobriety, and feeling out of control around food) can happen and happen fairly easily, is actually a healthy thing.  I also think, though, that I'm starting to learn something empowering, important, and equally as true:  if and when I do slip out of dietary balance, out of food sobriety, it doesn't have to be for long, and it certainly doesn't have to be permanent!  I can't stop it from ever happening, but I CAN get back in balance, back into food sobriety, fairly quickly and reliably.  This is profoundly empowering for me.  Being not only usually able to prevent slipping out of balance in the first place, but also to get back into balance if it happens, is the key to sustaining my weight loss and health for a lifetime.

Last night, for the first time in almost two full years, I did indeed have a “slip”, a sudden jolt out of balance. I knew it was happening while it was happening, I realized why it was happening, I of course didn’t want it to be happening, yet, in that moment, I had very little if any control over it happening, and that last bit is what scares me so. It was a brilliant reminder of just how delicate being in balance, biochemically, brain-chemistry-wise, truly is for me, even when I’ve been strong in a place of balance for almost two full years. In those two years, not only have I not been ruled by food cravings, which was once a sad reality of my life, I didn’t even have ANY cravings. With one mild exception about a year ago, when I felt shaky for one evening and ate a little bit too much (as with this time, it was around a holiday and I had some sugary trigger foods in the house that I don’t normally have around), I have felt absolutely steady, strong, calm, and in balance. I feel deeply nourished, satisfied, centered, energetic and just generally HEALTHY. Two straight years of balance.  This balance is amazing and was certainly not always the case for me.

I’m exactly like an alcoholic or drug addict in that my “sobriety”, in my case with food, is something I am aware of 24/7, deeply grateful for and appreciative of 24/7, and exquisitely aware 24/7 that I can’t take for granted. I have to protect it, be mindful of it, or it could be shot to hell with “just one drink”, to stick with the alcoholic metaphor. Of course, in my case, it isn’t a drink that could throw me out of food sobriety (although a corn-syrup-laden soda could do the trick, seriously), it is eating a trigger food.

As an important aside, my dad was an alcoholic and virtually his entire side of the family struggles with “the gene”. I myself don’t even drink because I’m too scared to find out for sure if I do or don’t have it. Why play with fire? I know what alcoholism does to an individual and to a family and it isn’t worth it to me to find out if I have the gene. I suspect that I do, as I’m a non-secretor, and Dr. Peter D’Adamo, who wrote the blood type diet (Eat Right for Your Type) and the GenoType Diet books that have been so important to my health, discusses the possible connection between non-secretors and alcoholism in several of his books (see the classic Eat Right for Your Type and also Live Right for Your Type, which goes into further detail on secretor status). When I took the test and learned that I'm a non-secretor, it just affirmed my decision not to drink.

Dr. Christiane Northrup, a brilliant, insightful MD who blends her classic, impressive western medicine training with alternative influences, giving her a wonderfully wise, holistic perspective, talks about how, in her medical practice, she has observed something among her patients: those patients who are children of alcoholics are ALWAYS, without exception, either alcoholics themselves, or they are carbohydrate addicts. When I heard her say that on a PBS special a few years back, I thought, yes, that is so true.  So while I may or may not have inherited the gene for alcoholism (and, by the way, it is on my mom’s side, too--on my dad’s side of the family, it has been striking in its devastating omnipresence, but I have a risk factor for it from both sides), I very strongly believe that I have a genetic sensitivity to carbohydrates, which I believe is related to alcoholism: it could be a variation on that theme, I think.

Bottom line: more than most folks in the general population, I have a very fragile biochemical balance and I’m sensitive to certain trigger foods throwing me out of wack if I ingest them. If I am already out of wack/balance and I eat a trigger food (high-glycemic carbs, basically, particularly those from certain grains or starchy, highly-refined carbs like potato chips), God help me I’m very likely to go “on a bender”. This is why, when well-meaning people at an office party or wherever ask me “Come on, you can’t just have one piece of cake? Just a small one?”, I say, basically, no, I can’t. Because even though cake isn’t my drug of choice, it’s still a drug to me, and one piece would not be one piece. It would be one TRIGGER that sets me off like the gunshot at the start of a horse race. I’d be out of the shoot and on to “harder drugs” (ones I like, such as potato chips and dip), and faster than you can say “obesity”, I’d be completely off the rails and, my great fear is, unable to find my way back.

Wait a minute, you may be thinking, why wouldn’t you be able to find your way back to the main, lighted path? It would be RIGHT THERE if you just went off the thing, you wouldn't be anywhere near far enough away not to be able to clearly see the light and walk back to it, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, if I get off the trail, I could still see where it is and see the way back to it. But no, I might not actually be able to get back to it, because the thing with addicts is: all the knowledge, experience and insight in the world, like I was saying earlier I now possess, can’t really help you much when you are in the actual strong grip of the addiction gone active. In other words: when you most need to pull out your well-equipped tool box is when you are least able to do so. Oh, you want to. You desperately want to. But you can’t. You’re not running the show at that moment, your addiction is. And getting to that point, the point at which something or some confluence of things triggers your addiction to move from the dormant state to the ACTIVE/ON state, is the precise thing that scares me. Once I’m there, it can and historically has taken me as long as years to wrest myself free enough from the strong-arm tactics of my “carb monsta” (as I often refer to my carb addiction), grab the reigns once again and somehow get back on track. By then, historically, I have gained all my weight back plus more, and the damage is done (cue Neil Young). It’s like a bunch of drunk people in a bar tore up the joint and then, in the cold light of day, in comes the bar owner (moi) and has to pay for and clean up the utter mess left in their rampaging wake.

I have such a palpable, ever-present fear that this could happen and it is based on reality, that’s the really scary part: it isn’t illogical. I wish it were. The only thing I have going for me, and it’s a biggie, is that I really have changed.

I really have now internalized all those tools I need in such a situation—namely, in a situation in which my food sobriety is threatened by the carbohydrate addiction getting switched ACTIVE/ON--so that I don’t even have to try to wrest free enough from the carb monsta, should he rise up and assume control, to grab the tool box, I just have to know what I’m doing and put one foot in front of the other. In other words, if I were a computer, I wouldn’t need to install the “Help, Monsta Out Da Cage!” software during all the chaos of said monsta rampaging around the room smashing stuff, all I’d have to do is click on the icon because the program is already installed. This is what I need to remember to help me stay calm about the now blessedly rare times my carb monsta is roused from his usual peaceful, resting state and starts rampaging around the house like he did last night. All I have to do is click the correct program icon, and I will be safely and reliably rebooted. The gratitude I feel with that realization is beyond description.

For a normal person, one without a carbohydrate addiction or whatever you want to call my hypersensitivity to certain foods that can trigger an all out cravings/binge cycle, what actually happened last night wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t the end of the world. It was one relatively minor candy binge. What’s funny is, I’m not even a candy person and I virtually never have candy in my house. Halloween would be the ONLY time I do, and mainstream Halloween candy would NOT be something I would even touch, even if I did go on an eating binge/bender (unless it was a really bad, off the reservation one, and I had nothing but mainstream candy in the house). Indeed I didn’t touch mainstream candy, as I didn’t have mainstream candy. I unfortunately had organic, corn-syrup-free, junk-free candy. I also had several other factors have an unusual convergence that resulted in me suddenly crashing and burning in regard to my ability to make good choices. In other words, I’m human and for the first time in two years, I went a hair crazy and off the rails. And it scared the dickens outta me.

Hopefully, it was a learning experience, it scared me straight, AND, if I really can get right back on track today, which so far I am and I think I can continue to do, it may even be a positive thing in that I will know that, okay, IF I get off track, indeed I CAN get right back on track now, I don’t have to spin out so far that I can’t find my “food sobriety” again for months to years. I don’t have to gain the weight back. I don’t have to lose my balance for any significant length of time. Hopefully, this experience will teach me: if I fall off the balance beam, which even Olympians do, I know where the beam is, it’s right there, for goodness sakes, and I can get right back on. Sounds so simple doesn’t it? So obvious? Yet it has taken me so long to get here. There has been nothing simple or obvious about it for me. That balance beam, once I fall off, is now my singular focus, everything else fades to black. Just get back on the beam, PT, get back on, everything else takes a back seat to that. Taking care of yourself is Priority One, you are Priority One, pay no attention to anything the carb monsta is doing or saying to try to distract you, get. back. on. that. beam. Food sobriety is Job One, period.

Here are the five factors I’ve identified that went into my carb monsta waking up after a good, long, almost-two-year rest and fielding his wild oats last night. Me knowing what those factors are is a sure indicator that indeed I really have changed, I really do have the tools on board to, one, almost always prevent this from happening in the first place, and, two, if it happens, right the ship swiftly. If you struggle with food sobriety, too, maybe one or more of these things will resonate with your experiences and help you know what to be aware of:

1. I was sleep-deprived. My bad. This is a factor I could and should have prevented from happening. I stayed up late on Tuesday, election night, to watch the returns. Late, as in after midnight. Mind you, I have to be at work by 7:30 a.m.. Enough said.

2. I had gone too long between meals. My bad again. So far, I’m two for two in factors that I have the power to neutralize, yet didn’t. So this is a teachable moment for myself in that I need to take away the message, yet again, that I’m human, I have limits, and it is of the utmost importance that I make taking care of myself a priority. I have to be mindful of the basics, and of the truth that I deserve to make taking good care of myself a priority. The simple basics of getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising, are THE keys to balance and health for me. I have to keep them a top priority at all times. Yesterday, I didn’t arrive home to even start preparing dinner until 6:45 p.m., and I had not eaten anything since about 9:00 a.m. BAD.

3. I didn’t have good food choices ready that were either already prepared to eat or that I could prepare quickly to eat. I cannot emphasize strenuously enough how absolutely vital, how KEY, it is to my diet sobriety for me to keep good food choices at the ready. Since most of my diet is highly perishable, if I don’t get to the store approximately twice per week (which I almost always do), I tend to run out of perishable veggies and fruits. I have tons of frozen veggies and fruits, but I was so overly hungry and tired and, as my mom would phrase it, “far gone” last night, that I wanted something I could eat RIGHT NOW. So I had leftover roasted chicken, which is great, but there were no veggies with it, as I had already eaten them the night before and had planned to add more yesterday and heat the whole thing up for about 45 minutes before eating. That was before I decided instead to take my dog to the dog park directly after work, to carpe some diem in the last waning week of Daylight Savings Time. By the time I got home, there it was 6:45 p.m. and I wasn’t going to wait until 7:30 p.m. to eat, when I had gone since 9:00 a.m. without a bite. Plus...

4. I was feeling a tad under the weather. At the dog park, my throat was feeling sore and I just felt like, whoa, am I coming down with something? Or is this just the change in seasons/pressure systems/whatever? It never dawned on me until I got home that, DUH, what it mostly was (although I do think I’m fighting something off, successfully I hope), was that I was EXHAUSTED and STARVING. That’s why my head was so fuzzy and I felt so run down. Hello: I WAS run down! And I did it to myself by my CHOICES to stay up late Tuesday, to not go shopping earlier in the week, and to not defrost and/or prepare something the night before for last night. To top it all off...

5. Not only did I NOT have the right food choices at the ready, I had some bad food choices RIGHT THERE, in the form of the earlier-blogged-about organic Halloween candy. In fairness to myself, I must state for the record that I almost NEVER have candy, or anything that isn't a good choice for my diet sobriety in my house, not that candy was ever my thing, but it is certainly a trigger if I choose to indulge in it. And there it was:  organic, corn-syrup-free, fruity lollipops and hard candies and there I was with a raw, sore throat, exhausted (which results in seratonin level undoubtedly low and cortisol level undoubtedly elevated--a bad hormonal combo, blood sugar and biochemical balance-wise), fridge bare of veggies or fruit, still hungry as a roasted chicken alone just wasn’t cutting it...so FIRST I had some roasted, shelled, salted pumpkin seeds with a little dark-sesame oil, a dash of lime juice, garlic powder, sea salt and nutritional yeast added. But then I realized, omg, monsta out da cage! I went for the CANDY. And I ate way too much of it. Oh dear.

End of story, except for the good part:

The lessons of this experience are basic, important and wonderful ones.  First of all, I can’t remind myself often enough to do the basics of getting enough sleep, eating right (including the critical importance of both having good, healthy choices in the house at all times and not having trigger foods in the house at any time), and exercising, AND, furthermore, that I deserve to do those things.  I deserve to take good care of myself. Those are the lessons I relearned today, and will no doubt need to remind myself of from time to time, rebooting my priorities as necessary.  The other lesson that I’m learning anew as we speak, is that, HEY: if I do get off track, it doesn’t have to be for long!  It doesn't have to be the end of the world, food sobriety-wise!  I'm human and, while blessedly rare now, there will still be times when I get off track.  The empowering fact is, though, that I CAN reliably turn things around and I CAN do so much faster than I used to!  When the carb monsta stirs, and grabs the reigns, I usually can't stop him at that time, but I can almost always prevent it from happening and on those rare occasions when it happens, I am so grateful to be able to report to you that I've now become the carb monsta whisperer, and I can calm him back down and reclaim the reigns in record time, every time.

So how, specifically, did I calm the carb monsta back down and reclaim the reigns?  The first thing I was able to do once the carb monsta released his grip a smidge--because, obviously, in the throes of the carb monsta grabbing the reigns, I could not stop myself at the time from going for the organic candy and overeating same, as it's so true what they say about addiction being "like making love to a gorilla:  it isn't over 'til the gorilla's done"--was to GO TO BED AT 9:35 P.M. last night. I never usually go to bed that early, so this was a very good, healthy choice that I was grateful I was able to make last night. Then, this morning, I got up and took the few remaining things I did have in the fridge and did a fry-up of sweet potato, onion, and organic beef frankfurter, which I then brought to work to have from my breakfast/lunch combo (otherwise known as “brunch”, which I usually eat sometime between 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., depending). So far, we have getting some much-needed sleep and packing a homemade lunch, as tactics I used as "the carb monsta whisperer" to calm said monsta back down. Next thing I did, even though it was raining during my lunch break today, was to ask my dear co-worker, Kay, to borrow her umbrella, and to WALK ANYWAY. Damn the torpedoes, after last night, I wasn’t about to let a few raindrops stop me from getting some much needed exercise!

So far today, instead of further self-destructing after initially slipping off track, as the old PT would have done, I made better choices. I made choices that are about valuing, respecting and taking good care of myself. So I’m human, so I slipped off track once in almost two years.  That is a pretty great record for someone who is challenged by a somewhat fragile biochemical balance. I know the factors that came together and led to my fall from the balance beam, and I know the absolute priority of getting back on the beam. I also know that I don’t have to spend any time beating myself up for falling off, for not being perfect. I simply need to realize, hey, I’m human, and a pretty damn wonderful one at that. I made some less than ideal choices in this case which contributed to my slip off the balance beam. Sometimes it can happen no matter how ideal my choices are, but in this case, I made some self-destructive choices recently that led to what happened. Okay, again we come back to: I’m human. That doesn’t mean I have to beat myself up over it, which would only continue the self-destructiveness. Instead, I need to reboot. To click my little internal “Monsta out da cage!” icon and go back to square one, back to my home page, where the wallpaper should be: PT, you have to make taking care of yourself a priority, and you deserve to do so. You got off track but it’s okay. Simply reboot and reset your priorities. You’re worth it, and you know exactly what to do.

I remain humble in the knowledge that being thrown off balance, out of my food sobriety, is something that can and no doubt will happen rarely. When it does, though, I don't have to, or want to, try to man-handle the carb monsta anymore. I don't want to crack the whip and scare him back into a cage.  I don't want to be that kind of "trainer"!  Instead, I've taken the time to get to know him.  I've learned to respect him.  I've made friends with him, gained his trust, and all I have to do now when he gets upset is to comfort him, to calm him down. He's not so scary, after all, once you get to know him.  Instead of fighting him, I now try to give him what he needs.  In return, he isn't just merely locked in a cage, pent-up and seething, just looking for any opportunity to break out.  He's not in a cage at all, as he is calm and at peace, and rarely gets riled up enough to make a grab for the reigns anymore.  When he does, I have learned to try to stay calm myself, and simply coax him gently into giving me back the reigns.