I tried a food addiction program

Growing up, I always felt like food was forbidden. My size-zero mom, who had the self-control of a monk, did not stock our pantry with a lot of “junk.” Everything was low-fat, low-calorie, and low on taste. A splurge was an extra piece of fruit; enjoying a second (or third) helping was a bigger disappointment than failing a test at school; being “still hungry” after a meal was a considered a success.

When I started to get a little thicker as I hit puberty, I was put on my first diet. I would find myself so ravenous post-bedtime that I’d sneak out to the kitchen and, Mission Impossible style, open the pantry, extract a bag of contraband pretzels, and tiptoe back to my room. The first time I got caught, my dad and I just stared at each other, not knowing what to say or what to do next. He went back to bed, and I continued to eat those pretzels one delicious stick at a time. I was starving.

And thus a “diet rebel” was born.

I was always looking for a way to beat the system. How could I lose weight but still eat whatever I wanted? Isn’t that the American dream?

When I was old enough to drive, I ate my mom’s lean dinner and then went out to study. Translation: I hit up a drive-through for my “real” dinner of the night. As I got older and tried every fad diet under the sun, it just got worse. I’d see that peanut butter was on the list of “fats” that I could have on Jenny Craig, so I’d eat an entire jar — with celery — and tell myself it was OK; it was a “good fat.” Once, after I aspired to hit the gym every morning, I read a study exalting the benefits of sleeping over working out. So when I hit snooze, clearly the extra shut-eye was the equivalent of training for a marathon. I believed these stories even though the scale was showing otherwise.

But after a lifetime of fighting with my mom over food (we’re talking screaming matches that ended with me throwing a hot dog at her head), rationalizing that it wasn’t my weight but the demanding hours of my career affecting my pitiful dating life, and buying full-length mirrors every few months, desperate to find one with a reflection that I could live with, it was time to silence the voices in my head and stop the bullshit.

The turning point came when I was maid of honor for a childhood friend. The day of the wedding, I tried on my blue satin dress and saw Violet — in big, fat blueberry form — from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory staring back at me. I spent most of the night crying (and hiding) in the bathroom. But, it was in the bathroom that a wedding guest revealed that she had recently lost 40 pounds through a program called Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous.

Intrigued by the idea that perhaps I was a food addict, too, I found a meeting near me for the following Sunday. I also promptly ate a cookie.

The day of the meeting, my brain worked overtime on excuses. I had a vacation planned in a few weeks — did I really want to worry about dietary restrictions on a cruise ship? I had a work dinner at one of the top restaurants in the city coming up — didn’t I want to savor everything I ordered? But, I also wanted to stop the constant battle in my head over what I should eat versus what I wanted to eat. Something told me getting my fat ass to this meeting was my last hope.

I walked into the meeting room and the first thing that struck me was how normal everyone looked. Some barely looked me in the eye, and I realized later that, for those struggling, there’s a lot of shame involved. But those who had been successful circled around me, proudly showing off jaw-dropping pictures of what they looked like before — many 150 to 200 pounds heavier. They all wanted to know if I was in any other “programs.”

Programs? Wait, was this a 12-step group — for food? I felt dizzy when I spotted copies of The Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous for sale. How did I get here? Why was I here? I barely ever smoked pot, and now I was in a 12-step program?

Something compelled me to stay. Despite all my doubt, I felt like I was supposed to be there. At least for now.

A young girl led the meeting. She introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Sara*, and I’m a food addict.”

We all replied, “Hi, Sara!”

I felt like I was in a movie.

Sara shared her story of turning the power food had over her to a higher power, taking 50 pounds off her small frame that she had now kept off for years. The meeting concluded with anyone who had achieved “abstinence” (the FAA equivalent of sobriety) sharing their achievements and “aha moments” of the week.

While sharing in front of the group, no food was allowed to be mentioned by name as it could trigger cravings. Most of the stories were about chronic binge-eating episodes everywhere from the bedroom during sex to their work bathroom and even out of garbage cans.

I never really thought of myself as a binge eater; I just considered myself lazy. It was easier to order a pizza than chop up the ingredients for a salad. Put a plate of fries in front of me and I was powerless. And I always thought of my weight as a temporary problem. I’m just fat right now only because I’m not using my membership to Weight Watchers and the gym. I took comfort in believing I could wake up thin if I got serious.

So why was nothing — especially the direction of the scale — changing? Was I a food addict? Could you even be addicted to something you needed to live? Sure, I came back for seconds and thirds whenever food was put out at the office. And so what if I had a talent for turning healthy salads into a heaping pile of calories and carbs? I was lazy — not an addict.

That was my story and I was sticking to it. Besides, I was at the mercy of my career and personal life. Things were down? I deserved a treat. Things were up? I deserved a treat. That was just my life — not an addiction. Right?

Those thoughts bounced through my head after the meeting ended. I sat there, nearly in tears, feeling the pain of each realization as it hit me. I didn’t even know that someone was sitting next to me.

“Hi, I’m Marion.* Would you like for me to be your sponsor?” asked a woman who looked about my mom’s age. I didn’t even fully comprehend what she was asking and what having a sponsor even meant. My knowledge of AA and 12-step programs pretty much started and ended with Dylan McKay on 90210. But I nodded without asking any other questions.

She explained what “we” eat and what “we” do. The use of the word “we” made me wonder if this was going to end with my parents on Dateline, begging for me to come back to them. The rules were simple but brutal: no flour or sugar; there was no such thing as a cheat day; eat three weighed and measured-out meals every day. I had to call Marion every morning to check in and commit to my meals for the day.

If I changed my mind and decided I wanted salmon for dinner after committing to chicken, I had to call Marion to discuss. Owning a digital food scale was mandatory — everything had to be exact; using your fist to figure out a portion did not fly here. I needed to start my morning and end my day by getting on my knees and praying.

I needed to read from the The Big Book daily and recite the Serenity Prayer often. I was not to consume any alcohol or caffeine — in fact, diet soda was considered a “gateway to bad habits.” Dating was forbidden the first year, which was fine because I was like Harry Potter in an invisibility cloak around the opposite sex. I needed to attend three meetings a week — an AA meeting would suffice if I couldn’t get to an FA one.

After I went 90 days without flour and sugar and basically not cheating or even eating an ounce over the portion size, I would have my “abstinence” and could participate in meetings. Until then, I just had to sit there and listen. Oh, and when I was ready, there were extra meetings I could attend that focused on working the steps.

“Forgiving those you wronged over food will really keep you on track,” Marion said as she gave me a limp hug goodbye. But something didn’t sit right with me. Who had I wronged besides myself?

I was numb and overwhelmed. A very strong message had been sent: I was there because nothing else had worked. But come on — these people never ate more than eight ounces of salad? Those who had been abstinent for years hadn’t had a bite of pizza, let alone a snack or even a sip of alcohol in that time?

I was dubious and couldn’t stop myself from saying goodbye before committing to abstinent meals. I inhaled a gluttonous last supper of pepperoni pizza, cheesy garlic bread, and a regular Coke. It was a sendoff to the carbs that kept me fat, kissing my old way of doing things goodbye.

I tossed and turned all night until it was finally time for my first 6 a.m. call with Marion.

“Good morning, Lauren. How did the meals go for you yesterday?” And without missing a beat, I started that first call with a lie.

“Great,” I said. With no mention of my last supper, I committed to my food for the day and hung up, already dreading our next call. I cried in the bathroom after my lunch of hard boiled eggs, broccoli, and salad.

The emptiness and the hunger pangs erupted into an emotional volcano; I cried the rest of the day and cried myself to sleep. Why hadn’t I just stuck to one of the dozens of diet plans I tried over the years? Why had my mother been so interested in every bite of food I put in my mouth? What had I done that was so terrible that I deserved this? How could I ever go out to dinner with my friends again? When I eventually have someone sleeping in my bed, how would I explain my 6 a.m. calls with Marion?

I pushed those concerns aside that first brutal week. I had a constant, dull headache and felt like I was talking underwater as I detoxed from caffeine, flour, and sugar. I hated being the new girl at the meetings. There were cliques, and there was jealousy among those who had their abstinence and those who did not. Most were in multiple 12-step programs — namely AA and others connected to drugs, sex and gambling. I didn’t feel like I was one of them, but there was some invisible force around me that made me feel like I’d be swallowed into a dark pit of hell if I didn’t measure out exactly four ounces of protein every day.

The weighing and measuring of my food gave me a sense of calm that I hadn’t expected — and knowing exactly what my meals were each day actually shut up the voices in my head — the same voices that previously debated for hours over whether or not pizza was really that fattening.

I went to my meetings and called Marion every morning, and at the end of the first month, not only was I down 20 pounds, but the fog in my brain had lifted and I felt sharper and healthier than ever before. I got used to eating dinner before I went out to restaurants with my friends.

I enjoyed focusing on them, not the bread basket. I started writing more and picked up projects I thought I’d given up on. Not thinking about food all the time cleared so much space in my life that I didn’t even know was missing.

But there were a lot of aspects to the program that I was flat-out ignoring. I was finding loopholes and rebelling against things that made me uncomfortable, which were exactly the things I probably should have forced myself to do. I wasn’t praying or reading from the book. I was doing fine; I was abstinent in my eating, losing weight — why rock the boat and do things I didn’t believe in?

It was that attitude that started a cold war with Marion. She loved scolding me on our morning calls.

“Lauren, you sound like you just woke up, so I know you didn’t pray before our call. Why not?” Like a defiant child, I told her that I prayed in my own way on my own time and it was none of her business.

Another day, I left my lunch at home, so I had to call Marion and let her know I was changing what I committed to that morning.

“What’s really going on here? What do you think it means that you left your lunch behind?” I hung up on her, accusing her of trying to create an issue that wasn’t there. We battled almost every morning about everything she perceived I was doing wrong or could be doing better.

I had lost almost 35 pounds in three months and achieved my abstinence with no relapses, yet every compliment was followed up with a “gentle suggestion” for how I could still improve my program. We morphed into the roles of mother and insolent teenager, which was not that different from the relationship I had with with my own mother when it came to food.

As the weight continued to fly off and my confidence grew, I started getting asked out on dates. A few members had told me that waiting a year to date was actually just a suggestion, not a hard rule. I was about five months into the program and ready to start accepting dates from all these new suitors, so why wait another seven months when such a big roadblock in my dating life was gone?

I didn’t even discuss it with Marion. I was careful about what I ate, I was able to decline alcohol, and I was having fun. When I finally told Marion I was dating, she seemed OK with it until I let my guard down and cried hysterically on one of our 6 a.m. calls because a guy I really liked had ended things. “

“This is why we wait,” she said. “You don’t want old habits to come back.”

Her words stung because food was actually the furthest thing from my mind. I hated how upset I was over a guy I’d only gone out with three times, but I was shocked that I was allowing myself to feel grief without eating.

I journaled about it, I cried in the shower, I treated myself to a massage during my manicure. Without the food to stuff my feelings down, I was learning more about myself and my needs. Food was no longer one of them. How dare Marion think otherwise?

A few weeks and many other dates later, Marion told me she had prayed on it and that if I was going to keep dating, she could no longer be my sponsor. I was surprisingly devastated. Was she dumping me? I was creeping up on a 60-pound weight loss. Who cared if I was dating? I threw a fit and told her if she was so into G-d, he was going to punish her for this hypocrisy. She quietly hung up the phone.

I found a new sponsor, but I realized there was something about fighting with Marion every morning that was a release, it helped get anxiety and self-doubt out of my system so I could stay focused the rest of the day on my abstinence. My new sponsor had too many of her own problems and was teetering too close to the edge of breaking her abstinence that she really couldn’t be present for me.

I stayed in the program for another six months, but I slowly started making my own rules. For example, I decided that since vodka was clear and sugar-free that enjoying one (or two) on the weekends wouldn’t hurt me. I started eating out more — ordering only what was considered abstinent — but the portions were definitely skewed without my digital food scale.

And since I technically had been abstinent for over six months, I was expected to take on more responsibility in the program and become a sponsor and an officer. I had zero interest in either, especially because no one knew about my extra rules. I knew it was considered a relapse and my abstinence was technically broken but I wasn’t ready to admit it or ask for help. I thought I had it all under control.

At one of my last meetings, I ran into Marion in the bathroom and she marveled over my weight loss. “You’re one of us now,” she said. But I wasn’t. I just couldn’t be. I didn’t want to just take my weight loss and run, but I felt ready to start a new chapter in my life using all the tools the program gave me.

That was nine years ago. Today, I’m happily married with a 16-month-old daughter. I’m human, so the road to any recovery is filled with major successes and major relapses. Laziness still sometimes takes over when it comes to my food choices because that’s just what happens when you have a child who hasn’t napped and wants to watch the same episode of Sesame Street for the umpteenth time.

My weight isn’t where I want it to be; I wasn’t able to maintain my abstinence or my 60-pound weight loss. I never did think the program was realistic for the long term. I still eat as little flour and sugar as possible, but I need to be able to go out for dinner or have a cheat meal without feeling like I committed a crime.

And I’m still always searching for that loophole, which I know means that I can’t deny it: I’m Lauren and I’m a food addict.