And it was magnificent aka how to kick sugar effortlessly and without tears

(As soon as I typed that title,  the Bon Iver song ‘Holocene’ filled my head, and now will for days.  Again.  But it’s such a gorgeous song, it’s worth it – and if you get the chance to watch the video, please do.  Let yourself be taken to Iceland for a little while. )

So I’ve been quiet lately, but that’s because I took a step back to unravel my head to figure out why I was developing a full-blown eating disorder, and how to prevent it.  I realised I needed to fix my relationship with food.  If you have a good relationship with food, you will be neither overweight nor underweight.  Fact.  Inescapable fact.  I’ve known that for a long time and I reminded myself of it.

So how to fix my relationship with food while still shedding the excess weight that is undeniably not good for my body?

Step 1:  be patient 

Blake Lively recently did something I admire – she put out there that she’d lost 61lbs in 14 months.  I liked her for that.  I have previously seen her berate the Yummy Mummy movement that pressured women into getting their bodies back within 6 weeks of birth.  I like her for holding out against it.  I like her for sticking to her guns and losing the weight over a reasonable timescale.  Weirdly 61lbs is what I’d like to lose (it was less when I began this blog, but then I kept on bingeing …).  So I’m doing a Blake Lively.  I’m planning to give myself 14 months to get back to myself.  That’s hard, because I so hate carrying this extra weight that I want it gone NOW, so I want to restrict, and ferociously!  But I recognise all that will do is keep me stuck at this weight, or indeed increasing.  After all in the last 8 months of restrictive dieting, I’ve lost precisely 0lbs.  In fact, I’ve gained.  So:

Step 2:  make peace with myself

I’m forgiving myself for getting fat.  And now I’m going to treat myself with tenderness and care.  No more berating myself for being fat, greedy, worthless.  No more war on myself.   The best thing about this is I now have mental energy to expend on more worthwhile projects than loathing myself.

Step 3:  eat for health, not weight

What does that mean in practise?  As I found, everything.

In the first place it meant that instead of punishing myself by dieting, I was embracing myself, saying I was worth caring for.

Secondly, It changed the foods I chose to eat.

It works like this – if I’m dieting, it’s quite possible to fit a bar of chocolate into my macroes/carb count/calorie count and still be on track.  Hell, I could have a cheat day and fill it with pizza, ice cream and Coke.  In fact, lots of diet gurus encourage me to.

But if I’m eating for health rather than weight, suddenly the perspective shifts, massively and profoundly.  If I’m eating for health, the only possible response to a bar of chocolate is ‘Why would I put that shit in my body?’

Job done.

I realised it would also be helpful to

Step 4:  Stop weighing myself and instead be guided by how well a food makes me feel

Not weighing myself can be tough – I worry that without the scales to chastise me, I won’t stay on the nutritional straight and narrow.  And without the scales to tell me how good I’ve been, how will I know when to celebrate?  But I also know that if the scales have bad news for me, that can lead to ‘F**k it!  I’ve tried really hard and got nothing back for it, so I’m gonna have that block of Dairy Milk!”;  and if they have good news for me, that can lead to ‘I’ve been really good and done really well, and everything’s under control so I’m gonna treat myself to that block of Dairy Milk!’

Aside from that of course, fat loss and weight loss are not the same thing and my scales are not sophisticated enough to tell them apart.

Step 5:  Stop binge eating

And then, suddenly at that moment, as so often happens, I stumbled across exactly what I needed – the website Eat Like A Normal Person, written by a former binge-eater, and specifically this page How anti-smoking guru Allen Carr saved me from obesity.  I didn’t read the whole site, I just fortuitously stumbled on this, about being in the midst of a binge:

We don’t stop eating, because our body never receives the signal that it has got what it needs, because it has not.

Often, nearing the end of a binge, when I’m already feeling bloated and sick and the sugar high has kicked in and my heart is pounding and the adrenaline’s flashing through my veins and I’m starting to genuinely worry for my heart, I’ve found myself thinking ‘I give up.  I’ve eaten everything bingeworthy in the house and I’m still not satisfied’.  And that makes me desperately upset, because I know I am going to pay a very high price for what I just did – and yet it never actually hit the target.

Reading that quote made me realise – my body is not recognising all that crap as food, because it is not food;  and therefore it is not sending me that ‘stop eating now, it’s all good and thanks for that dose of essential vitamins and minerals. I’m happy, go play now’.  I realised that if I can binge it, it’s a non-food.  Your body simply won’t let you binge proper food.  How much cheese could you actually eat in a sitting?

The only exception to that is nuts – I can eat my way through a 500g bag of nuts and at the end feel bloated, heavy and somehow still not satisfied.

I guess nuts do not have everything in that my body wants.  In fact, when I thought about it, very very few foods alone are capable of providing absolutely everything your body would require from a meal.  This led me to realise  –

Step 6:  no mono-meals

If I’m eating nuts, I must eat, say, raisins with them.  I mustn’t eat anything alone – every food must have at least one companion.  And it works.  I automatically reach satiation at a reasonable point of consumption.

Step 7:  Kick sugar to the kerb

And between realising that I wasn’t binge-eating sugar because of anything that was in sugar, but precisely because of what was not in sugar;  and that if I wanted to treat my body well and eat for my health, there was no way I would put sugar into it :  I just stopped eating sugar.  Just like that.

So here’s a thing I’ve learnt.  Sugar addiction is all in the head and you can give up all kinds of sugar effortlessly and without cravings.

I was reading an interview with Russell Brand – an ex-drug addict – and he said that occasionally, even though his life is immeasurably better now he’s off drugs, occasionally he’ll still envy himself when he was a junkie:  because then he had drugs.

I understand that regret, and that is all you will feel when you stop eating sugar.  That vague ‘But what will I do now when I want to comfort myself or celebrate?”  As I’m learning myself, you will find the ways – but every day that you wake up and don’t have to crawl out of that pit of food hangover+self loathing+despair is consolation enough.

I do very occasionally still eat a few squares of 85% dark chocolate with some almonds – but as there is distinctly no sugar rush to be had from that and that very dark chocolate has nutritional benefit, I’m fine with that.  I do now also always keep big, juicy oranges in the house – although I only feel a desire for one every few days.

Step 8:  welcome fruit back into my life

Over a decade of low carbing led me to a terror of fruit.  And yes, I realise now, how weird it was I’d made a decision I could allow some chocolate into my life but not fruit.

That was partly because if I ate fruit alone, after about 15 minutes I’d get so faint and unable to focus I felt ready to fall over.  I don’t know why, I only know it’s so – I know my eldest son responds to fruit the same, and I know we’re not alone.

However, we can both eat a bar of chocolate alone and instead get a sugar rush which gave us energy for a while.

Somehow rather than taking the decision I should therefore eat fruit but only with meals, my rather tortured thinking led me to exclude fruit.

Contributing to that decision was the argument against modern fruit – that it has been bred to be bigger, juicier, sweeter than anything our ancestors ate.  It is indeed nature’s candy and far sweeter than nature intended.  So I accept that I shouldn’t over eat it, after all sugar is sugar – but fruit undeniably has nutritional benefits, so it stays. And anyway, it is a part of

Step 9:  eat as wide a variety of foods as possible

And so I’ve kicked sugar and stopped bingeing.  Just like that.  It wasn’t difficult, it wasn’t protracted.  It didn’t require counselling, it didn’t require a programme and I’m no different from you.  I believed I was powerless against it, I believed I was trapped in it.  Turns out it wasn’t.  I had the keys all along.

I’m still a bit greedy sometimes – but as anyone who has binge-eaten knows, there is a world of difference between going back for seconds and binge eating.  I don’t always go back for seconds anyway;  partly it’s that I’m having such a fabulous time experimenting with new recipes as part of my intention to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible, that sometimes when a new recipe is freshly out of the oven and turns out to be lipsmackingly, groaningly fabulous I scoff the lot.  That’s human.

So I think I have some work to do on the greedy – but as a woman who now no longer smokes, drinks, takes drugs or eats sugar I think I’m gonna be a bit kind to myself about that, and …

Step 10:  Never punish myself by restricting if I’ve been greedy

And I trust myself that as I acclimatise to this new world of mine, even the greediness will subside and even though I still have bouts of greediness, my cupboard currently holds every kind of nut – because I love nuts – and raisins, dried apricots and dessicated coconut for cooking; and of course, some very fine 85% dark chocolate.  And I am allowed to dip into them for snacks.  Occasionally I still over-eat them – and when I do, the very next day I go out and stock back up on them.  I absolutely refuse to keep anything out of the house that is pleasurable and nutritionally valuable as if I’m a naughty, greedy child who can’t be trusted around food.  It’s important that I learn to have these foods in my life as a matter of course, as a part of my normal daily world.  Only then will I stop investing them – as I have, and still to an extent do – with a power and danger they do not inherently possess.  I love these foods and they are good for me and so they are now a part of my life and will remain so.

For the record, I am losing weight – but I know that because of the way, and which of, my clothes now fit; and because I move more easily.  Occasionally I look at my scales and think ‘weigh yourself’ – but I don’t, because I know that way madness lies.

And I have to tell you this, because I will never forget this moment –

Having realised all the above, I went nervously out and bought myself a bag of extra special, huge, juicy oranges.  I brought them wonderingly home.  I selected the most beautiful and I peeled it, sliced it into bite-sized pieces and lay them into my loveliest white porcelain dish, as if they were jewels.  And they were.  They glistened vibrant, bright and delectable.  I took them into the sitting room and then, alone and without distraction, I took a fork and one by one ate all of the pieces, my first guilt-free fruit in a decade.  And I have to tell you.

It was fucking magnificent.

The death of bingeing?

I don’t know what happened precisely, but something did.  Something went off in my head, and I was suddenly able to step outside of that uncontrolleably bingeing version of myself – like a snake shedding  its skin – back into my own body and breathe the fresh air of relative sanity.

It was good to be back.

I think what did the trick was realising that I needed to focus not on the bingeing but on the why I was bingeing.

A few days ago I was watching Queen Victoria’s Children on iplayer (it’s surprisingly interesting) and the observation was made that Bertie, King Edward to be – who had a hopelessly bad relationship with his mother, who blamed him for the death of his father – had rapacious appetites for all things physical including food, and that

“he looked for emotional satisfaction from physical appetites”.

I so recognised myself in that description.

Since last May I’ve been off work, because of my problems with my jaw joint and the trigeminal nerve.  These prevent me doing a great deal of talking and as I talk for a living (I work in the English Department of a high school, working with students with Special Educational Needs either leading interventions, taking groups or working one-to-one) it became impossible to do my job.

I’m single and aside from my very wonderful 18 year old live alone;  and wonderful though he is, and very close though we are, he does of course not spend a great deal of time with me, which is as it should be.  I have no family (aside from my children) within a hundred miles and I couldn’t be social with friends as initially I couldn’t even hold a conversation, and still now have to restrict the amount of talking I do.

What’s more, the heavy medication I was put on (and have significantly reduced on my own initiative, in collaboration with my GP) meant I was off my head for hours a day.

Just when I was suddenly so much alone and so isolated, so frightened about what my medical condition might mean, off my head half the time and in considerable discomfort, I had also to give up nicotine and caffeine.  What else was I going to do but comfort eat?

I already, of course, knew all that.

What I didn’t know, what hadn’t occurred to me, was that due to my extreme isolation (imagine being unable to talk or use sign language;  it’s made me realise how fundamental the ability to express oneself is to being a human being) I wasn’t just confort eating, I had turned to food so passionately as it was now the only thing I could  connect to.  What alerted me to this was recently watching the TED Talk,  Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong as a follow on from a recommendation made by Julie Ramage.  In it Johann Hari puts forward the theory that people develop addictions when they feel disconnected from the world around them, and their drug of choice (recreational, nicotine, caffeine, food) is the only thing they feel able to connect to.  I instantly recognised that in the behaviour of people around me whose addictions had got the better of them, and I recognised it in myself.

A few days later I noticed Russell Brand discussing the premise of his latest book, Recovery, which is pretty similar;  and while Russell Brand isn’t someone I’d choose to spend more than 5 minutes watching I do think he’s a phenomenally intelligent man who has a great capacity for analysis and self-analysis;  and I think he’s right. People form addictions when they cannot connect – for whatever reason – with the world around them;  meaning the only real connection, the only real relationship, they can have is with their drug of choice;  which makes it the most important thing in their lives, even when it’s destroying their lives.

Incidentally, I am not the only one who has been in that kind of romantic relationship either, I’m sure.

And when I understood, the spell broke.  I realised I need to find new, positive, healthy things to connect to (How interesting I said ‘things’ and not ‘people’ to connect to – but I’m not going to censor that comment because I think it’s very telling and I want to remember it) to and to strengthen existing connections.

Incidentally, one thing the last nine months of isolation have taught me is how very good I am with my own company, although even I can have a little too much of it.  That’s one good thing that has come out of this episode in my life – I cannot imagine having the level of contact with other people I used to, I don’t think I could tolerate that much interaction with other people anymore, confusing and unsettling as even the best of people can be;  I’ve learned peace in my own company,  which I guess makes me more self-sufficient than I was.

But deprived so brutally of work, routine, other people, my health and plans for the future, and my usual drugs of choice – well, there wasn’t anything left to connect to other than food, was there?

PS.  my most recent scans have revealed that I have a lipoma, a benign tumour,  in my shoulder mere inches away from my jaw joint, and it is that which has been causing my medical problems.  Hopefully it will soon be surgically removed and my jaw and nerve can heal.

Poisons & Plan B

I’ve long noticed that everybody has their poison, their thing that will kill them if they don’t keep it in check – be it alcohol, nicotine, drugs or food.  I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t – except, curiously, my father.  He gave up smoking 40 a day the first time of trying, cold turkey.  I’ve rarely seen him drink, the idea of him on drugs is like Donald Trump doing Modern Dance and he was an astonishingly healthy eater way before there was such a thing.

I was born in 1964 and throughout my childhood we were not allowed fizzy drinks, chips, white bread or sugar.  WTF?  I grew up in the UK into the 1970s.  Those things were the national diet!  Believe me, I felt it keenly.  Occasionally when he was absent, my mother would bring a sliced white loaf home and we five children would each squirrel away a few slices.  I used to hide mine under my pillow and steal mouthfuls of bliss over the next couple of days.  The only exception to the no-junk rule were birthdays, Easter and Christmas;   and I looked forward far more to the opening of the solitary tin of Quality Street than to my present.  To this day, Christmas to me is a tin of Quality Street.

It might or might not be that being forbidden these foods is the reason why all his children have become overeaters;  except for me, who didn’t struggle with my weight – until now that is.

It is almost certainly the reason that I have never had a filling;  but I don’t think the consolation of never having had a filling is sufficient prize to make up for a childhood devoid of  pleasure.

My Dad would always keep a packet of digestive biscuits in the cupboard and we knew never, ever to touch them.  For his birthday, we were allowed to buy him a bar of dark chocolate, which it would take him a fortnight or so to consume in disinterested squares.

A few years ago I commented in passing that he didn’t have a sweet tooth.  He erupted, not with anger but with feeling.  He had a terrible sweet tooth.  That’s why he never touched sugar, except to allow himself 2 digestive biscuits every day;   and what’s more, he savoured every square of that delicious dark chocolate to make it last as long as possible.  He didn’t start with the sugar because he knew if he did, he’d never stop.

So it turns out that even my father has his poison.

My mother was a huge overeater, and consequently obese, though not morbidly.  She was on a permanent diet but never lost a pound.  She would deprive herself and then binge.  Sound familiar?  She was addicted particularly to sugar, and consistent with her genetic inheritance (her family is riddled with Type 2 Diabetes) she developed the T2D that killed her at the age of 64.  She didn’t really drink and she never smoked a cigarette in her life.  Her poison was food.

My eldest brother was killed by his alcoholism.  He was quite ludicrously beloved by the Gods, 6.2″ tall with blue-grey eyes and sunkissed blonde hair.  He fufilled his ambition of being a navy pilot (he flew jets off aircraft carriers) by coming top of his intake at training college in 3 out of 4 areas, and so at his passing out was invited to sit at the top table with Princess Anne.  He was married to a beautiful solicitor.  And then he began drinking.  Fifteen years later he died alone, single, unemployed in a council flat and it was a few weeks before anyone realised.  Alcohol was his poison.

It broke my heart in a way that it will never unbreak, and I have been teetotal ever since.  If I’m being honest though, I was never a big drinker and it was no particular hardship to walk away from alcohol.  That was not my poison.

Despite being a student in Manchester from 1984 – 1987 (UK readers will remember that as Madchester, which makes what I’m about to say all the more astonishing) I never touched drugs.  I had absolutely no interest in them, not then, not now, not never.  I moved in the same circles as people whose names you’d know and drugs were all around me.  I was offered them continually and continually refused them.  I just didn’t want to know.   Drugs were simply not my poison either.

And yet from a very young age, I fell in love with nicotine and – except for when I was pregnant – smoked heavily and continuously.  I’ll be honest.  I loved smoking.  I loved every mouthful of every cigarette.  Never was a cigarette smoked unloved.  I loved the ritual, the taste, the sensation, the action.  But, recognising that I’d had a good run with my beloved tobacco but it couldn’t last for ever, I gave up cigarettes for an ecigarette 3 years ago with minimal discomfort and actually came to prefer it.  It was, it turned out, not the delivery vehicle that was important to me;  I didn’t care how I got my nicotine, so long as I got it.  Nicotine was my poison.

However, when I injured my jaw joint and trigeminal nerve last year, taking in nicotine caused the nerve to jolt and send my scalp and facial muscles into spasm;  which was both painful and frightening.  It was as if someone had applied a very powerful hoover to my head and was trying to suck my face off.  Under the circumstances, giving up nicotine was not so hard.

I am now realising though that while nicotine was my poison of choice, I always had a back up plan, a Plan B.  Another available poison.  Another way to kill myself.