by Melissa Hartwig
“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves.” –Edith Lovejoy Pierce
Today’s post was both terrifying to write, and a gigantic relief. I’ve been wanting to talk about some of my personal experiences and history on the blog for years now, but was afraid to be judged. Afraid that my past would hurt my credibility. Afraid that people would look at me differently.
But I’ve swallowed my fear, and Dallas and I are both ready to handle any repercussions, because we both think this is an important step for me to take. So here goes… You know that now-famous line in the Whole30 that says, “Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard?” I know this to be true firsthand.
My name is Melissa, and I am an addict.
In 2012, I will have been clean for 12 years. I spent six years in my early 20’s hustling for every powder, pill and chemical substance I could get my hands on. I lied. I stole. I was fired from my job. I broke family members’ hearts several times a week. I was a terrible person, because when you are an addict, being a terrible person is your full-time job.
I’ve discovered that it’s hard for most people to reconcile this person (Addict Melissa) with the person you know today (Whole9 Melissa). It’s even hard for Dallas, who knows all my secrets, but did not know me back then. (For that, I am eternally grateful.) It’s okay if you find it hard to believe, or think perhaps I am exaggerating. I’ll take that as a compliment. I have come a very long way.
The day I got out of rehab was the day I first set foot in a gym. For a while, exercise was my new addiction, because trading one for another is all too easy. Eventually, I settled into a healthy, reasonable training routine. I quit smoking. I started eating better. The rest is history.
Why am I sharing this with you now? A few reasons. First, I’ve never tried to keep it a secret. When appropriate, I’ve always been open with gym owners, workshop attendees and consulting clients about my addiction and recovery. At some point, I figured my history might make its way to the public eye, and I didn’t want it to come from someone else. I am not ashamed of my past, nor have I ever tried to cover this up.
But more importantly, I’ve learned (and taught myself) a lot about addiction and recovery in the last 12 years. Thanks to my rehabilitation center and years of addiction counseling, I discovered and created recovery and maintenance strategies that worked very well. I also tried more than a few that backfired.
Why does this matter?
Because theoretically, food addiction isn’t that different from drug addiction.
I’m not saying it’s the same, because technically, it’s not. According to the The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV, addiction is classified by three factors:
- Desire, even in the face of negative consequences
- Tolerance to the effect of the substance
- Withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or stopped
Food – particularly sugar – clearly satisfies the first two conditions. The jury is still out as to the third, and I’m simply not comfortable putting sugar or bread in the same category as heroin.
But the term is also applied to behaviors that are not substance-related, such as shopping, gambling or overeating. In this common usage, “addiction” describes a recurring compulsion to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences (as deemed by the user themselves) to their individual health, mental state, or social life.
We will use the term “addiction” in this context going forward, because we think it’s a fair description. We suspect that those of you who consider your behaviors around food “compulsive,” whose use food (or lack of food) as a coping mechanism, who are locked in an endless cycle of insatiable desire and crippling self-hatred, would agree.
So while our addictions may not be exactly the same, the recovery strategies are, in my opinion, strikingly similar. Conceptually, hopefully, the things I’ve learned in the last 12 years would prove useful to those of you who struggle with giving up certain foods; who use healthy programs like “Paleo” or “CrossFit” to mask their disordered behaviors; who eat compulsively, despite the negative consequences to your body, your self-esteem and your relationships.
But it would be hard for me to draw those parallels in any credible fashion without first sharing my history with you.
If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times in rehab – “It takes one to know one.” When I was struggling to get clean, the best advice came from other addicts. Unless you’ve been there, you really just don’t know. So I wasn’t about to start sharing my “recovery” strategies with you without letting you know that yes, I’ve been there too.
I know your struggle. I know the cycle of relentless hunger, fleeting satisfaction and long-term guilt, shame and remorse. I know what it’s like to disgust yourself with your behaviors, but to be stuck in this pattern because at this point, you simply cannot stop. I know what it’s like to use the very behaviors that caused you pain to numb that pain. I know how much it hurts, and I know how heavy a burden you carry.
Please, take note: I’m not a psychologist, an addiction specialist, or a social worker. I’m just an addict who got clean – and who has managed to stay clean for the last 12 years without relapsing. And I am grateful on a daily basis for the support, guidance and teachings of every single person who has helped me get to and stay in this place.
So I’ll be writing a series of posts – strategies and concepts I learned while getting (and staying) clean – that you may find helpful in changing your own relationship with food.
As I have a close and intimate relationship with addiction, I sincerely hope the lessons I’ve learned will prove useful to those of you currently struggling with your own food-related issues. You don’t have to be a sugar or carb “addict” to struggle with cravings, so I hope those of you who simply have a hard time saying no from time to time can develop strategies from these lessons, too.
If you are struggling with true food addiction, I encourage you first and foremost to seek professional help. Nothing I could tell you will prove as valuable as the guidance of a trained mental health counselor or experienced support group, and ultimately those are the resources that will help you maintain your new habits long-term. But perhaps as you work hard with your chosen professional to overcome your own addictions, some of the techniques I learned and developed along the way will prove just as helpful to you as they were to me.
So there you have it. I’m the same person I was yesterday, you just know a little more about me. If this makes me less credible in your eyes, Dallas and I are both prepared to handle the fallout. But every saint has a past, and every sinner a future – and without my past, I’d never be where I am today.
And I am very, very blessed to be exactly where I am today.
I invite your comments and polite discussion. And as always, we thank you for reading.