Sunday, July 25, 2010

Standing up to Stigmas

It's a little embarrassing to admit to the world that I have an eating disorder; I participate in a 12-step fellowship to deal with that eating disorder, and that I'm not cured yet. I'm still a work in progress.

But not to mention this aspect of my life as I blog about my career transition would seem to me like a major omission. Dealing with my eating disorder is a significant part of my life and the attention I pay to this area of my life has quite an effect on everything else I do.

Mind you, I was fat and not at all in any sort of twelve-step recovery during my most successful years as a journalist -- when my stories were being picked up by the Associated Press and Gannett News Service wires on a weekly and sometimes almost daily basis. During those years of my life I vacillated between 220 and 264 pounds. When I found the twelve-step recovery way of life for dealing with my weight, eating and dieting issues in 2001 I was thinner than I had been in years, weighing in at about 205. I am 5'10" tall and my figure is shaped like an hour-glass, not an apple or a pear, so I carry my weight well. Even during these years when I was morbidly obese and at risk for all sorts of major health catastrophes, I didn't exactly look like someone who was a heart-attack waiting to happen.

Even though I was much less healthy emotionally and physically when I was morbidly obese, I felt less stigmatized professionally than I do today when I admit I work the 12-steps to deal with this problem. Even though millions of people throughout the world work 12-step programs today for alcoholism, drug abuse,debting, gambling, eating, codependency, smoking cessation, family relationships and other issues, there are still some stigmas attached to the fellowships. Out of respect for our tradition of anonymity, I don't mention which 12-step eating program I participate in (there are several -- graysheet, overeaters anonymous, food addicts in recovery, food addicts anonymous, to name a few).

The fact is, 12-step recovery is pretty normal nowadays. I speculate there may be more American families today who have members who work 12-step recovery programs than there are families who have no members in 12-step recovery programs.

Before I came into the fold of the 12-step food recovery community I tried just about everything except stomach stapling to lose weight and keep it off. I was in and out of diet clubs and gyms like nobodies business. But nothing worked. I haven't found perfect serenity with 12-step recovery but I can tell you that my eating life today is drastically improved from what it was ten years ago. Sometimes I feel as vulnerable as Oprah, though, with the whispers. After losing more than 100 pounds slowly over a period of about four years I have gained and lost about thirty pounds five or six times in the past five years.

I am not sharing this information about my eating and dieting recovery as a means to recruit others into the 12-step fold. Not at all. One of the keys to the program is attraction rather than promotion. We don't believe it's effective at all to try to recruit people to join 12-step fellowships. They must come to the solution on their own.

Rather, I just felt like defending the 12-step way of life a bit because I felt like I was a bit vulnerable in my post yesterday when I admitted about my Friday night problem with cookies and potato chips. But omitting that personal detail about my week would have felt somehow like a let down to my readers. I promised to report the good and bad of getting back on my feet again financially. Dealing with the eating issues are part of it.

Sometimes when I mention this 12-step lifestyle choice I have made I feel like I hear whispers. I do hope those whispers are mostly in my imagination. Certainly, though, there have been a few mummers within my own family -- and some interesting comments. People tend to wonder when I will grow out of this 12-step thing -- or at least when I might have greater and more consistent success. I mention I participate in the 12-step recovery not just because of a desire to be brutally honest. Also, I have found it's pretty hard to avoid questions. People see me eating specific amounts of specific foods and invariably have questions. Avoiding the questions is an art in itself and can be more exhausting than just telling the truth. People these days are obsessed with what others are eating or not eating. They see me using my scale. They see me fitting into size eight jeans -- and then six months later having trouble zipping my size 14s. Other types of 12-steppers can keep their business to themselves more easily than those of us with eating and dieting problems. Our problems and our behaviors related to our solution are pretty visible and attract fascination and inquisition.

It does seem a bit funny to people who don't have this condition, I know. It seems a little bit strange that I weigh and measure my food -- even at restaurants. It seems a little bit funny that I make all these phone calls to other people in the program and that I attend about three meetings a week. It seems a little bit funny that I read from the 12-step recovery literature every day, write on a topic of recovery and call my sponsor to read to her what I wrote about AND specifically commit every single ounce of food I will be eating in the next twenty-four hours.

It seems like so much work. It seems like so much trouble. But honestly, it is nothing like the troubles than happen when this condition goes untreated. Binging on foods such as Oreos and Pringles is no party. The first few bites are yummy. But the next few bites are horrible because true compulsive eaters such as me know there will be no closing up the packages. There is no end in site. The compulsive overeater won't be able to stop eating a package of cookies or snacks until the package is empty. The idea of eating a few cookies or chips is just a fantasy for us. We're not able to stop. We feel sick inside emotionally and physically but we just can't stop eating those goodies once we start.

Are we crazy people, we 12-step-food program participants? Are we people about whom society should be suspicious? Not at all. We are facing our problems and actively working to overcome them.

Many Americans will not face the problem of compulsive overeating and will eat themselves into early graves -- some of them will manage their households and businesses quite effectively even as they eat themselves to death. They will be less present emotionally, professionally and physically for the challenges that unfold each day than they would be if they were not eating compulsively -- but many of them will get by quite well with the day-to-day.

According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control, in 2008 Colorado was the ONLY state in the nation with less than 20 percent of its population stricken by obesity. In 2008 32 states (including Michigan) had more than 25 percent obesity and six states in the U.S. had more than 30 percent obesity.

These figures alone are startling. What's even more disturbing to me is the alarming rate at which the obesity trend is increasing. In 1998 just seven states in the nation had more than 20-percent obesity (Michigan among them). In 1998 no states had an obesity rate of 25-percent or above.

So who are we to worry about most -- those of us who participate in the 12-step eating fellowships or those who don't? I am not suggesting the 12-step way of life is the only way to deal with compulsive overeating, bulimia and anorexia -- or that every person who is overweight is a compulsive overeater. There may be other methods that are effective for some people. And I accept that there probably are some fat and happy people in the world who have no desire to change their eating habits. The 12-step fellowships are designed for people who have a desire to modify their behaviors but cannot do so by themselves no matter how hard they try various diets and methods. The twelve-step way of life is for people who need a solution that is spiritual, physical and emotional.

The twelve-step way of life affords me a treasury of tools for dealing with everyday challenges -- some related to eating and others not at all related to eating. This way of life helps me to become more honest, more bold and more responsible. I think it's great. I'm extremely grateful for it.

No comments:

Post a Comment