A Few Degrees South Of A Relapse

My recovery program for compulsive binge eating hasn’t been right lately. This is where I come clean about something many go through after extended periods of abstinance and sobriety.

Mood music:

I haven’t been to many OA meetings lately.

I haven’t called my sponsor in awhile.

I was getting to a point a couple weeks ago where I realized I was also getting sloppy with the food. It’s always the little things you get reckless about: Instead of the 4 ounces of protein I should be having during a meal, I’d let the scale go to 5. I’d slack on the vegetables and sneak in more grain. This is where the relapse starts.

For some of you this isn’t easy to understand. An out-of-control relationship with food still isn’t accepted as a legitimate addictive behavior in many quarters, and one of my goals in this blog has been to raise awareness and understanding.

A lot of my earliest posts preached the Gospel of the 12 Steps and Overeater’s Anonymous. I had reason to be so fanatical: OA helped me break a horrible binge cycle that I hadn’t been able to stop before.

It owned me until I started going to OA meetings, got a sponsor and started to live the 12 Steps OA and AA use to give addicts the spiritual fortitude needed to break free.

I still depend on the program today, but a big problem has gotten in the way: I’ve started to rebel against a lot of the rules. That’s typical addict behavior. When life gets a little rough, we start looking for excuses to fall back to old, self-destructive patterns. My family has experienced difficulties this past year (my father’s stroke, etc.), and that has made it difficult for me to stay squeaky clean.

At one point I started smoking again. My wife caught me and I stopped. But I was pissed, because I felt entitled to do something bad for me. People like me are stupid but common: When we want comfort, we do the things we know will kill us in the end. Stuffing cocaine up your nostrils will eventually give you cardiac arrest. Weeks-long binges, centered around $40-a-day purchases in the McDonald’s drive-thru, will do the same. The latter may just take longer.

I also started to give the halls of OA the stink eye because I was starting to find a lot of people too fanatical about it. There are people in the program who will tell you that you’re not really abstinent if your program doesn’t look exactly like theirs. One person told me the program comes before everything and anyone else. I bristled over that, because in my mind my family comes before everything else.

True, without abstinence and sobriety I can’t be a good husband and father. But I can’t be those things if I’m running off to four meetings a week and making six phone calls a day to others in the program, either.

I’ve also had the sense that people in these meetings love to hear themselves talk too much and too often.

I’m ashamed to say that, because I think these people are doing exactly what they should be doing. I’m just tired of hearing it is all.

I don’t think I’m rotten for feeling this way. I’m trying to figure out where this program truly fits in my life, and I think these are honest reflections on my part.

If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that you can’t do the same exact thing forever and expect the process to stay fresh and helpful. Like a tire that’s rolled thousands of miles, a recovery program can wear down until you get a blowout.

I do have a few things to cheer about: I haven’t suffered a full-blown binge relapse and my weight has remained steady. Clothes still fit. I still climb hills without spitting out a lung halfway up. I have absolutely no interest in hitting the McDonald’s drive-thru or stuffing my coat pockets with candy bars and cake in the gas station snack aisles.

I haven’t caved to alcohol either, and believe me, there are times I’ve wanted to. Alcohol was never the monkey on my back that food is. But I used it heavily as a crutch at one point.

I brought all this up with my therapist at last week’s appointment. I lamented that I can’t spend all week in 12-Step meetings and still have a life. I complained that people simply trade their first addiction in for a new one — the program itself.

My therapist noted that some people have to do that, otherwise they will certainly binge and drink again. It’s not a choice for them.

So here I am, plotting my next move.

I already tightened up the food plan. I’m being strict in weighing out the food. I’ve all but eliminated dairy from my diet, because I was starting to use it as a crutch. I’m walking regularly again. I’m hitting at least one meeting a week.

Today, I’m calling my sponsor to come clean with him and see if he is still in fact my sponsor. It’ll be a good conversation whatever happens, because I relate to this guy on many levels.

It’s time to look at the rest of my program and honestly assess what I need to be doing. A “program before everything” approach isn’t what I want right now. My life is too busy for that. I need my program, but I need it in its proper place.

I need to go to more meetings, though three or four a week ain’t gonna happen.

I need to talk to my sponsor a lot more often, though not daily like some people do. In the very beginning I needed that. Now it just irritates me, because I usually have work to do right after a call, and some mornings I simply don’t have anything to say to people on the phone.

I know I still need the 12 Steps, meetings, a sponsor and a rock-solid food plan. But my needs aren’t the same as the next person, and that should be ok.

Some in the program will read this and suggest I’m pining for the easier, softer way that doesn’t really exist in an addict’s world.

I don’t feel I am.

I consider this my search for the more realistic, honest way.

Crude But True

This pic, making the Facebook rounds, is crude. I’ve always hated the “T” word. But the overall message is the truth.

McDonald’s is where I binged again and again when my compulsive overeating was at its zenith. But I’ve never blamed the fast-food chain. Buying their food — my heroin — was my choice and responsibility.

When you have young children, you have far more control over what they put in their bodies. If you’re an over-eater yourself and you’re always stressed and on the run, you probably let your child eat this stuff all the time. If your child is fat as a result, that’s your fault, not McDonald’s.

We all have choices. When we make the bad calls, we have to own it.

McDonald’s has put a lot of effort into adding healthier, low-fat selections to its menu. You can get salads, fruit, yogurt and other healthy foods.

But I still won’t go in there.

If I do, I know I’ll order all the bad, high-fat stuff on the menu. When I want to binge, I want the baddest of the bad. Who the hell binges on apple sticks and celery? If yours is an addictive personality and food is your drug, the fruit and veggies will be passed over every time.

And so I stay away.

That’s my choice.

Depressed? Remember To Sleep, Eat And See A Doctor

In my response to the reader who claimed wanting to die 5 out of seven days a week, I forgot something critical: It’s not always “in your head.”

In other words, withering depression is also the result of physical trouble.

Mood music:

A friend reminded me of that after she read this morning’s post. She wrote to me:

May I also suggest to said young man to seek an MD’s opinion. There are numerous physical conditions that can cause lack of sleep and changes in appetite which in turn cause depression which in turn… well, I’m sure you’re able to continue the vicious cycle there. 

One of the things I’ve learned since being diagnosed with Celiac’s is the incredibly intimate relationship between physical and mental well-being. The psychological impact of an auto-immune reaction to gluten, for example, is far more long-lasting for some than the physical impact – causing depression, lack of sleep, utter despair, even suicidal thoughts. I get in these cycles when I’m reacting to gluten, and they are ugly – I have actually pondered driving into a tree more than once. Post-partum depression too, is most often caused by physical factors, for example, that can go away in time. I found the key to even a short period of PPD to be recognizing that it was physical, not mental, and that it would eventually “go away.” It didn’t make me cry less, but not heaping concern that I was “losing it” on top of the depression did help me manage more effectively until it dissipated. 

I’m sure there are other physical conditions as well that might be a cause, and I would encourage said young man (and anyone else) to take a two-pronged attack to the problem – seek a therapist or someone trusted to help with the traumatizing psychological impact now while simultaneously seeking an MD’s opinion. It may be all psychological, it may not – but if it is an underlying medical condition that is the root cause it can be managed. 

Too often people consider issues “in their heads” to be “all in their heads” and sometimes, that’s not the case, leaving them never truly able to be healed. Both avenues should be explored – just in case it’s something physically simple (and unrecognized) behind it…

Very wise words.

I know for a fact that physical problems have fueled much of my depression over the years: Violent Crohn’s Disease attacks during childhood, migraines, severe back trouble. It all wears you down to the point of feeling hopeless.

I finally found a good chiropractor and the back pain went away. I got lucky with the Crohn’s Disease because it hasn’t stabbed me hard enough to make Prednisone necessary since 1986. Those things have improved my mental health considerably.

It goes to show just how interconnected everything is.

So please see a doctor. A change in diet, increase in sleep and discovery of hidden medical ailments may be all it takes to feel the craving for life again.

Was ‘Hunger Games’ Star Too Fat For The Role?

There’s a controversy swirling around online regarding “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence. With one critic suggesting she was too curvy to play the role of emaciated heroine Katness Everdeen, the anger is on.

What is making some people bristle is that this smacks of the bullshit talk that sends girls into the hell of eating disorders.

Mood music:

I’m not a girl. But I’ve dealt with an eating disorder for much of my life. So, naturally, I have some thoughts on the matter.

First, let’s look at what people are saying, starting with the movie review by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times that set people off. In the review, she makes a point that the character Lawrence plays is a starved teen with bones sticking out everywhere. Specifically, she wrote:

A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.

The L.A. Times “Ministry of Gossip” column ran with that single comment, calling it a “bold indictment” of a 21-year-old star “who currently captivates the attention of impressionable young females and her same-aged peers in show business.”

Are the critical sentiments — Vulture has a comprehensive roundup — correct? On the one hand, the content adapted from Suzanne Collins’ dark novels dictates that these oppressed citizens are in fact emaciated. But by all standards Lawrence is hardly overweight, though widely attributed with that dread celeb magazine buffer of “curvy.” 

My colleague at CSO Magazine, Joan Goodchild, expressed her outrage in a Facebook post, which is where I saw all this for the first time. She wrote:

This is the kind of b*llsh*t story that pisses me off. I haven’t seen the film, or read the book. But if it is a “Hollywood interpretation” of the book, then this is hardly the first time the film deviates from the book. Yet here we have an article about how a thin, yet healthy, young actress was “too well fed” to play the part she had. And we wonder why so many young women have issues with food and eating disorders in this country? This is ridiculous!

I agree in the sense that there is a lot of this bullshit in Hollywood. How “curves” got to be synonymous in Hollywood with overweight is beyond me. Media in general has perpetuated the myth for years that stars need to be super thin. That warped view is especially glaring in the case of women.

There’s a certain evil to how Hollywood carries on this way, because filmmakers know their work influences young people and instills them with the idea that they have to look a certain way to fit in and be loved.

Did Hollywood influence my own eating disorder? Absolutely, though my relationship with food was corrupted long before by growing up in a family of compulsive over-eaters.

For me, the Hollywood part stemmed from my love of Heavy Metal music and the culture built up around it. The heroes in this world of musicians were the skinny guys with long hair. To be emaciated was to look good. Wanting to be like my heroes, I did a lot of things I covered in a recent post called “Skinny Like A Fool.”

I think, to a certain extent, I abandoned my earlier goal of being a musician and got into journalism because in the latter profession, you could be fat and cool at the same time. Of course, I took that to the other extreme and became a 280-pound pile of waste before it was over. While I’m some 80 pounds lighter than that today, I’m still a big, stocky guy who had to drop flour and sugar and start weighing all my food to regain some sanity.

I was never trying to make it in Hollywood, and, being a guy, there were certain pressures I never felt. But what I did and why still left a lot of scars.

Having been down that road, I share Joan’s anger. But I also think some of the rage over calling Lawrence well-fed has been blown out of proportion.

In the original New York Times review, the words “too well fed” are never used. “Seductive” and “womanly” are over the top, but not the same as calling someone fat. The L.A. Times gossip column is where the “too well fed” came into play. Of course, that’s the newspaper of Hollywood, so spin that as you will.

Maybe someday we’ll move beyond looks and start judging each other by what’s in our heads and hearts. But not today, apparently.

What Else Is There?

When I’m wallowing in self-pity, I like to ask that question. It always goes back to those moments when I’m not particularly enjoying the clean and sober life.

Mood music:

For the most part, it’s gotten easier. When you don’t spend all your time thinking about how to pull off a binge, you get to experience a much fuller life. You enjoy the company of people more. You pack a lot more living into your travels. Best of all, you don’t go through the day under a foggy shroud that follows a drinking, eating or drugging binge.

But I won’t lie. Sometimes, when everyone around me is enjoying a glass of wine, a few beers, some cake and a smoke, I feel like the spoiled child who sits with his arms folded, pouting, because he lost dessert for leaving vegetables on the plate.

Saturday night kind of left me feeling that way. Erin and I had a fabulous evening at an auction to benefit our kids’ school and afterwards we went to the home of friends. The kitchen was packed with people whose company we’ve come to treasure. We didn’t go home until around 2 a.m., which for us is almost unheard of.

It was St. Patrick’s Day. Part of me would have loved indulging in the whiskey and wine on the table, and I would have enjoyed a cigar even more. But I can’t do that stuff anymore. Luckily, our hosts had Red Bull on hand. That’s my go-to beverage when the temptation for alcohol becomes too much.

I’m starting to realize something about these “what else is there” moments. It’s the dark side of my soul trying to trap me in old behavior. The devil whispers something in my ear about how I should be able to enjoy some of the finer things in life; that I shouldn’t be living the clean life if it’s going to make me a miserable bastard.

And yet I still weigh out every meal I eat. I avoid flour and sugar as if it were lethal poison. And whenever I have the opportunity to drink alcohol or smoke — particularly during travel — I don’t follow through.

I suppose I have a strong enough memory of all the pain that followed indulgence and I remember how hard I’ve worked to clean myself up. I guess the thought of falling backwards pisses me off and sparks worry more than the self-pity I feel when I can’t party.

Strangely enough — particularly where the smoking is concerned — I think the Wellbutrin I take along with Prozac to keep depression at bay has eased the craving for smoke. I’d heard about Wellbutrin having this effect on people, but I quit smoking several months before taking it and I didn’t really connect the dots.

What I’ve discovered, I told Erin Saturday night, is that I stopped being pissed about the no smoking when the Wellbutrin took hold. Until then, though I had quit, I was pissed about it. I wanted to smoke and only stopped because I got caught.

The clean and sober life is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.

But when I look at the things I’ve gained in life, I know it’s worth every deprived minute.

Chain Smoking In Bickford’s Was The Best

Though I no longer smoke or eat the kind of food they served, I’m feeling nostalgic about the days of old when you could sit in any of the dim, dank coffee shops in the local Bickford’s chain for hours, hanging out, chain smoking and drinking those awful, bottomless cups of black coffee.

I blame The Doors for this trip down memory lane. I’ve been listening to their first album this morning and when “Soul Kitchen” came on, the lyrics transported me back.

Well, your fingers weave quick minarets 
Speak in secret alphabets 
I light another cigarette 
Learn to forget, learn to forget 
Learn to forget, learn to forget 

Let me sleep all night in your soul kitchen 
Warm my mind near your gentle stove 
Turn me out and I’ll wander baby 
Stumblin’ in the neon groves 

Well the clock says it’s time to close now 
I know I have to go now 
I really want to stay here 
All night, all night, all night

It makes sense that I was going through the Jim Morrison phase in those days. I used to sit at the table for hours and hours, with friends or alone, tearing through a pack of Marlboro Reds and filling notebooks with song lyrics, bad poetry and, occasionally, an essay I had to write for school.

I had two favorites: A Bickford’s in Swampscott and another in Lynnfield, right off Route 1 North at the Peabody line. The latter location is now a pretty good Greek restaurant. The former is now an Uno’s Pizza restaurant.

The food at Bickford’s was pretty bad, too. But it always hit the spot for a 20-something kid who had just spent the night drinking, smoking marijuana or both. I would often end up at one of these places at 5 in the morning after a late night. We would order the junkiest breakfast food they had, drink the coffee, smoke and be generally obnoxious. But everyone else was usually there under the same circumstances, so we fit right in.

On Tuesday afternoons, me and a couple friends would sit in the Swampscott shop laughing at how we were the only people there under the age of 76. Tuesday afternoons was when they had the senior citizen dinner specials.

It always puzzled me that they would eat there, since the food quality was no better than what you would find in any given nursing home. I felt the same way about the old-timers who would flock to a place on Route 1, Saugus called the Hilltop Steakhouse. The food there was a little better than Bickford’s, but not too much better.

Here’s where we get to the big point of this post.

When we’re in our 30s, 40s and 50s, I think we go through a long phase of food snobbery where only the more sophisticated bistros will do. But when your very young or up there in age, all that really matters is the change of scenery and hanging out with friends and significant others.

Of course, we live in a much different world now. Smoking is almost universally banned. Restaurants kick you out if you don’t buy something.

True, you can sit in Starbucks for hours nursing the same coffee and not be bothered, but that’s different. Starbucks has a cleaner, more comfortable environment, and the food and drinks cost more than it used to cost at Bickford’s.

Meanwhile, the food is usually steeped in some “artisan” concept. The quality ain’t much better, but the packaging is a lot more slick than, say, Bickford’s corned beef hash.

I love that Starbucks has so many blends and roasts to choose from, though I sometimes laugh over how they over do it with their seasonal and holiday blends.

You have the Christmas Blend, Thanksgiving Blend, etc. They could go on with this shtick indefinitely, with a “Good Friday Blend” that has no taste or color, in keeping with the Christian obligation to fast. Or they could do a “Back To School Blend” with traces of speed in the mix to jolt students back into the studious frame of mind.

I’ll tell you what, though: It was far cheaper and efficient to get back into studying when you could make pennies for bottomless coffee and smoke your way through assignments.

Those are happy memories, but today’s scenario is a better fit for who I am.

I don’t smoke anymore. I’m sober. I don’t eat flour or sugar. I sleep at night and work by day.

It’s good to have the memories, though.

In Defense Of Wolfgang Van Halen

With a new Van Halen album out, everyone has an opinion. Fine by me, because I have mine. But one writer has taken his displeasure over bassist Wolfgang Van Halen to levels that earn him a smack to the back of the head.

Mood music:

When you question quality of the songwriting and musicianship, it’s all well and good. If you’re a music critic, that’s your job.

But Martin Cizmar, former music critic at Phoenix New Times (he’s now at the Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon) makes personal attacks, specifically against Wolfgang, son of Edward Van Halen. Maybe I shouldn’t care because Cizmar wrote this article in 2010. His argument was that Wolfgang represents everything wrong with Millennials. Sarcasm is Cizmar’s thing, and I get that when reading this. But good sarcasm need not look like this:

First, let me say that, like most right-thinking people who’ve successfully avoided consuming any Chernobly Energy Drink in the vicinity of a hot tub, I don’t really give a shit whether the Van Halen brothers team up with their old singer David Lee Roth or not. I mean, seriously, is anyone expecting this to rock at all? The dudes are too old for Spandex and too proud to reinvent themselves as a bluegrass-y acoustic outfit, a la Robert Plant. So whatevs.

However, as both a taxpaying American citizen and professional critic of popular music, I am outraged by the band’s decision to fire original bassist Michael Anthony so that Eddie’s 19-year-old son, Wolfgang, can take his spot in the lineup.

Okay, look, I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I won’t try: “Wolfie,” the son of Eddie and his ex-wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli, is a fat little pig with bad skin who has no business being on stage with Van Halen. Letting him “play rock star” on huge stages is a travesty of embarrassing proportions. If VH wasn’t already in rock’s hall of fame I’d suggest they be banned, Pete Rose-style.

Can Wolfie play bass? Who cares? I’m sure he’s competent. Because, really, who can’t play bass? Fact: There are several trained apes playing bass in circus bands touring the country. They get way more chicks than Wolfie and they party way harder.

So why is Wolfie taking the place of a guy who was in the band for nearly 40 years? Because his daddy wants to pretend his special little son is talented or gifted or cool or whatever. Like those parents who sued their kids’ school for suspending them after they were busted with booze, Eddie wants to teach his son to have no respect for anyone or anything.

They call this the Age of Entitlement. I’m not sure The Bubonic Plague II would be worse. It seems that when you’re a Baby Boomer with money or power, your goal is to teach your asshat children to show nothing but utter contempt for your fellow man and the rules and standards that govern polite society. It’s a horrible thing to see.

What a jerk.

I don’t know Wolfgang, but neither does this guy. I don’t care what he looks like, but it apparently means a lot to Cizmar, who has written a how-to-lose-weight book called “Chubster.”

I agree when he says a lot of parents today are out of control, spoiling their children and not teaching them responsibility and respect. But that’s always been a problem.  He writes about this like it’s some new crack in America’s superior armor. There are good parents and bad parents. It’s always been that way and always will be.

I haven’t seen much from Wolfgang in terms of quotes in articles. Since he comes across as quiet, how would Cizmar know if Wolfgang lacked respect for his fellow man? And how could he possibly know what Edward Van Halen’s parental motivations are?

My uninformed opinion is that Wolfgang’s addition to the band is what probably saved it — the younger Van Halen inspiring his dad to put the bottle down and get back to work.

Whatever the case may be, I think Cizmar is the real “asshat” of this tale.