“This desire to switch the witch for the bitch was always there. Just because I was making inroads to recovery didn’t mean I didn’t have a deep desire to numb my feelings. Drinking alcohol often took the place of my disordered eating in times when my food was under control. It became the thing I used to numb myself so as not to feel my emotions. So I had to say no to that, too.” — Making Peace with Your Plate
I tried for years to overcome my eating disorder. I went in and out of recovery as if it were a revolving door. I lived in seven countries in five years searching for the perfect recovery combination that would end my eating disorder, make me look good and enable me to drink like a “lady,” too.
During my travels I found many people in eating disorder recovery who had broken free from their food issues and were able to drink normally. Unfortunately for me, when I drank I got outright drunk and it ultimately led me back to eating disordered behavior. So when I finally decided to delve head-first into my recovery and give it all I had, I knew that alcohol would have to go, too.
I never liked being labeled. I hate it in fact. So to be faced with two possible labels (substance abuser and eating disordered) was not something I found myself easily admitting. What I could admit, however, was that every time I put down the food, the craving for alcohol came up, and every time I put down the alcohol, the food obsession returned. This kept me in a perpetual cycle of discomfort, coupled with a sense of lack of control and constant emotional distress.
I was not alone. A recent study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs reports, “We found that some of the genes that influence alcohol dependence also influence binge eating in men and women.” The researchers urge awareness of the links between alcohol dependence and eating disorders to find ways to treat them at the same time.
One woman told me, “As a recovering meth addict and alcoholic, of course there was going to be weight gain when I first stopped using. But it seemed like the weight came on so fast and just stayed. With that weight gain came depression and I continued overeating. I was replacing one addiction with another. I didn’t even realize I was doing this until getting further into my recovery. I gained nearly 50 pounds.”
Still another woman in recovery said, “It just happened. I stopped drinking alcohol and all of a sudden I found myself throwing up. I had never done that before. It lasted about a year.”
It doesn’t really matter what came first, the eating disorder or substance abuse. (It’s kind of like the “chicken or egg” question.) What matters is that we find a way to address how we look at food in order to best support a more full and free recovery. The way I see it is if we spend a great amount of effort putting down one addiction, why not work hard to ensure that nothing interferes with that?
The problem: We can stop drinking or drugging completely in recovery from addiction. However, we cannot stop nourishing our bodies with food when in recovery from an eating disorder. We have to eat to think clearly; eat to support our body’s functions; eat to survive.
“Switching the witch for the bitch” is a catchy phrase I use to jolt me into remembering the serious risk of putting down one addiction and automatically gravitating toward another to put in its place. After getting substantial recovery of my own, I created Nutritional Healing: A 3-Tier Approach™ as a tool to empower other people to protect themselves as I have learned to.
If we are struggling in recovery due to food and body issues or if our nutrition is inconsistent and out of balance, there are steps we can take to stabilize ourselves and safeguard against switching addictions.
Within my Nutritional Healing: A 3-Tier Approach, the first tier is the Structured Approach and is the foundation of food recovery. Within a contained structure we learn to regulate nutrition while allowing room to explore and get in touch with our body’s needs.
A structure provides safety and freedom in eating to maximize physical, mental and emotional healing, as well as appeasing some of our fear that if we eat whatever we want, we will “eat the whole world,” or end up being “the size of a house.” The structure allows us to see that this simply is not true, while also stabilizing our nutritional intake.
Here’s some suggestions to build a structure:
1. Commit to three meals and three snacks per day at regular intervals.
2. Think of each meal being served on a 10-inch circumference plate.
3. Remove all “good” or “bad” labeling of food
4. At each meal include protein, grains, fruit and vegetables.
5. Be sure to include a wide variety of food choices. Variety is key.
It is essential we put nutritional structure in place to stabilize our eating until our body’s signals can be sorted out and heard. Of course many of us want to skip this and go straight to mindful eating (eating only when hungry, stopping when full) and self-care eating (eating only the foods that are for optimum health). Without restoring our body and mind, however, we have little or no chance of sticking to anything that feels limiting. Only after learning our body’s cues can we be in tune with it in a way that allows us figure out how to best support it.
The truth? It’s possible to be free of body and food obsession, reach optimum health and feel good in recovery. But there are no quick fixes and diets don’t work. Instead, we make our recovery worth it by moving beyond obsession and into freedom and putting food in its rightful place.