The Devil’s Food Made Me Do It!

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Overheard exultation, uttered by a rather large woman, at the Chinese restaurant: “Woo hoo: I’m 0-for-sugar!”

Is there anything more vexing, more trying, more frustrating, more humbling, let’s face it, more (neologism alert!) failurious, than trying to lose weight? Yes, I know, Americans are the fattest people on earth: we’re gross, we’re out of shape, we’re tub-meisters altogether, we’re earth-whales, waddling along the sidewalks with our thighs shaking and our butts bouncing. But dude, how many Congolese, or Eritreans, or Nepalese have to soldier abstemiously past huge and affordable displays of Little Debbie’s Honey Buns, or Triple-Stuff-Mint-Almond Oreos, or Haagen-Dazs Rocky Road Extra, every day at the store, like we do? Let’s see an Iraqi kid go 0-for-sugar when he could dive into a German chocolate cake just by flipping it into his shopping cart! Hey, a little help here: can’t we get some “degree of difficulty” points for doing as well as we do, in an environment where every fattening thing on earth is not only available to us all day every day, but shoved in our faces 24/7 by the best advertising that money can buy?

Not to go all baseball on you, but Mike Mussina, a former Major League pitcher, didn’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame recently, because he ‘only’ won 270 games, but for god’s sake, he pitched in the American League East, the toughest division in baseball, his whole career: give me a break! That’s called Difficulty – and it counts!

Remember in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, when Howard, the old, wizened prospector, whom Humphrey Bogart said was “part mountain goat,” ended up being revered as a living god by a group of local Indians, living the life of Riley, lying in a hammock all day, brought food and libation by rotating shifts of beautiful native maidens? Every time I see that movie I think, “Yeah – how wizened would he be after a year of that kind of life? Would he be a mountain goat or a bloated old porker?”

Are people in other countries leaner and more fit because they have more will power, and healthier diets by choice, or just because they don’t have the opportunity to stuff themselves with white bread, macaroni and cheese and barbecue potato chips? Americans are like that old joke about why male dogs lick themselves: because they can!

So please, God, can’t we please get some ‘points’ for what we DON’T eat every day? I mean, yesterday I turned down an ‘artisanal’ moon pie at the coffee place, some Cheetos left behind by my son’s friend, and a whole jar of marshmallow ‘fluff’ I happened to spy in the pantry, late at night. God damn, I want some CREDIT for those turn-downs: they were hard!

See, in baseball, if you’re batting, and the pitcher throws one, but you decide it’s bad for you and you don’t take it, it’s called a ball! It counts ‘against’ the pitcher, and puts you in a better position in the at-bat, going forward. So when I decide something’s bad for me and I don’t take it, why can’t I get a ball called against the gods of eating?

Look, its simple, here’s how it should work: I bypass the entire bakery section at Safeway while I’m shopping for an apple and a salad, then later on, at home, when I want a piece of cherry pie, the gods go,

“Well, my boy, you racked up at least five thousand NEGATIVE calories by manning up and strolling past an entire food section there, including eclairs, cakes, bear claws and apricot Danishes, so sure, go ahead and pig out on that cherry pie, and it won’t ‘count’: no harm, no foul.”

Right? Now that would be fair! That would be equitable! But no – no such luck for those of us who, when Life give us lemons, we eat lemon tarts, lemon meringue pies, and lemon bars.

Now, let’s talk about trying to help people with eating disorders. Just the other day, my Linked In site sent me a job offering at a local hospital with an Eating Disorders Clinic. The job description must have repeated the following at least ten times:

“Must be skilled and knowledgeable in research-proven, evidence-based methods of treatment; CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) and DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy).”

In other words, if you have a heart, an original thought, or even don’t know shit, but are willing to let the patients teach you what you need to know, don’t apply, sport!

But, my dear Eating Clinic, aren’t you leaving out a few high-level areas of expertise? How about FBT: Fat Banishment Therapy? Or SOW: Systematic Oreo Weaning? Or PSAT: Pastrami Sandwich Abatement Therapy? Now those might actually help real people!

But, all kidding aside (well not completely, because that would be cruel and unusual), what does actually help real people? Well, Surprise: it can’t be scripted, or reduced to a formula, or force-fed to every mental health graduate student in the land.

What actually does help people is taking them, and their individuality, seriously: not giving them “tools,” but helping them create a life worth living. After all, it’s not all that mysterious why people get hooked on heroin, or get drunk every day, or stuff themselves with raw cookie dough in the middle of the night: in some way, their life SUCKS, and it feels better to get ‘out of it’ with some substance or other, than it does to ‘be there’ for life.

Sure, there are physiological and biochemical factors that we don’t fully understand yet, and maybe never will, that might tell us why some people who are miserable don’t get hooked on anything, or why someone who actually has a pretty good life throws it all away by becoming an addict of some kind – but overall, it’s pretty clear, when you work with addicts, why they are longing to check out: they can’t bear their life ‘straight.’ It’s not tools or behaviors they are lacking – it’s capacities: the capacity to care and love, to take in the love of others, to be involved without feeling overwhelmed, the capacity to know who they are and who they are not, to take care of themselves without feeling guilty, to care for others without feeling drained, to find their passions in life, and to avoid toxic environments and people.

To find out why you are here on earth, and to pursue that ‘calling’ (and that means much more than just your job): that’s what makes a life worth living. People who have fallen into addictions either never had, or don’t currently have, the capacity to ‘use’ other people to support them in finding their place in life.

I’ve said it before in this space, but it bears repeating: a big part of why the Anonymous programs work is that they force people to tell their story to others, to hear that others have similar stories, to accept help, and ultimately to give back help. In other words, it HUMANIZES people, it welcomes them into (or back into) the human race, in a way they were denied before. It forces people (as does psychotherapy) into realizing that there ARE people who care, who are rooting for them, who are walking the same road; and man, this helps – it helps a lot!

The Anonymous programs are NOT intended as a way to ‘just quit’, because ‘just quitting’ is a doomed proposition – it doesn’t take into account that a life, even a ‘sober’ life, lived in isolation and secrecy, in an attempt at total self-sufficiency and self-reliance, is not worth living.

And this brings up yet another issue that traditional therapists often do not realize: ‘just’ psychotherapy is not enough, either. An addict needs more than just someone to talk to once a week. Sure, you can do amazing things to help people recognize, and claim, who they are, to give them an experience (sometimes, their first experience) in trusting another human being, in feeling cared about, in being understood, but it is not enough. They need to engage with, to be involved with, others who are fellow-travelers on the path of addiction, to compare notes and see their similarities with others of their ‘kind.’ They need the cross-fertilization of both therapy and a ‘program’ – to work on their therapy issues with others, and to bring their issues in the program back to the therapist.

In this way, the program serves almost as a halfway-house family experience, and it is very clear that people will often re-experience in the program the same things they felt in their families: being left out, not being understood, being abandoned, being ‘told what to do,’ feeling different in a way that hurts, and unique in a way that isolates.

It is the job of the therapist to push back against these forces, to put them in historical context, to provide insight and perspective, so that the person can go back ‘in the trenches’ and work them out with others, in a way they never could with their families, instead of resorting to non-interactive means (drink, or drugs, or food), as they have before.

And it is this back-and-forth work (therapist>group>therapist>group) that is so powerful and helpful in working towards a real and meaningful life that is worth being there for.

So, even though I am still mad that we don’t get credit for what we don’t eat (You know what I mean God – stop ducking behind that cloud!), and that we (i.e. fat Americans) are unfairly compared to other, more food-deprived countries, and thus I am playing this game (a.k.a. Life) ‘under protest,’ I still feel that if we all work together, give a damn about each other and tell the truth, we stand a pretty good chance of ignoring the siren call of that apricot Danish that’s wiggling its hips at us in the Bad Boy aisle.

Hang tough, people, and hang together, for together we all have a chance to be 0-for-sugar.

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.