How Much Is Good Enough? Work’s Role in My Relapse

One of the first things I learned when I joined my Twelve Step program back in 1999 was that when it comes to figuring out how to live my life, I have to consider my recovery first, my family second, and my job third.

When I’m in the grip of addictive eating, I’d way rather hang out on the couch with a pile of food than with my friends or family. (Eating in isolation was so easy; hanging out with people when I was feeling crummy about myself was so much work.)

When I’m eating addictively, I’m too distracted at work to do a good job. And I can bet you good money that, as I did through high school and half of college, I’d be spending a lot of time in a toilet stall, stuffing down candy bars before throwing them back up.

So for a long time, for five and a half years, I put my recovery first. But once I entered the work world in 2004, keeping that order of priorities became a bit more difficult.

*****

I hated my first job after graduate school (lowest rung on the ladder at a public relations agency for high tech firms), but it was also full of smart young women who worked late and partied hard. I wanted to be one of them, so I let some of my Twelve Step disciplines—the phone calls, the meetings, the meditation time—slide. I’d been doing the program for a long time, and I figured I didn’t need to be as vigilant anymore.

Slowly, over the course of several months, the cravings started coming back. I’d be standing in line at the video store, waiting to rent a DVD, and the chocolate-covered raisins would start calling to me, making me imagine how they’d taste bursting on my tongue.

I didn’t talk about these urges, though, because I knew if I did, I’d have to change my behavior, and I didn’t want to make more phone calls, didn’t want to meditate every morning, didn’t want to leave work by 6:00 pm so that I could make it to my meetings on time.

I wanted to be normal, I wanted to be high functioning, I wanted to be a super star on the job. I thought I could control the cravings on my own.

But as it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, “The delusion that we [addicts] are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.” And smashed it soon was.

*****

One cold January afternoon I was scheduled to meet a journalist at a coffee shop for a “meet-and-greet” type of deal, but she stood me up. I sat there for an hour feeling nervous, then disappointed, then depressed. Although I’d recently been awarded a double promotion at work, the missed meeting felt like confirmation of the fact that I wasn’t really cut out for PR, that I’d never be good enough, and that it was only a matter of time before more people found out.

A recent post on A Storied Mind actually gave me a name for how I was feeling, which seems to be pretty common for people who’ve struggled, at one time or another, with being depressed. A Storied Mind actually frames a story around the feeling, titling it “The Con Artist.” It goes like this:

I’m a fraud and deceive people into thinking I’m smarter and more accomplished than I really am. I’m ashamed, anxious, depressed much of the time, but everyone thinks I’m on top of the world, relaxed and calm, sure to succeed at whatever I do. I’ve tricked them all.

Without realizing that this profound sense of lacking was what lay beneath the disappointment I was feeling in that moment, as well as my desire to be a super star at work, I popped a piece of sugarless gum into my mouth. Before I knew it, I’d chewed the whole pack.

Now, some people in my program would argue that sugarless gum isn’t a big deal. Sugarless gum doesn’t contain flour or sugar, which are the two main substances from which food addicts need to abstain. However, the program’s definition of “abstinence” includes flour, sugar, and personal binge foods. In other words, if something makes me compulsive, I simply cut it out.

Or, to be more precise, I do now. Back then, I decided it would be okay to get more. I stopped into a CVS on my way back to the office and bought eight more packs of gum. “I’ll put them in my desk at work,” I told myself. “They’ll last for weeks.”

Of course, over the next two hours, I proceeded to chew through every single stick of that gum. I chewed until I couldn’t taste it anymore, until I was gassy and bloated and feeling like crap.

Because that’s how it always was with me and food: If it was there, I had to eat it, and I had to eat it until it was gone, no matter how bad it made me feel, otherwise I would think about it and think about it and think about it, a nasty obsession that would torment me for days.

The pressure I’d put on myself to prove that I was “good enough” by being a rock star on the job, and the fear that I could never quite get there, had driven me right back to my obsessive, compulsive ways.

*****

For three days, I didn’t tell anyone about the incident with gum. But fortunately for me, over the weekend, God gave me the awareness that this was exactly the kind of shameful secret that sends people, full force, back into the destructive cycle of addictive eating.

On Monday morning, I confessed what had happened to my sponsor and started over. I rededicated myself to my program, stopped chewing sugarless gum, and got my abstinence back. I let go of the idea of being like everyone else and realized that I don’t have to hurt myself to prove that I’m not a fraud.

For me, choosing to leave work at 6:00 pm to get to my meetings is normal. It is good enough. Inviting the cravings to take hold again is not.

****

Today, six years later, I have a fantastic career that I enjoy, where I earn more than twice the money I was bringing in on that first job. And it’s not because I’m a rock star who works all hours of the day and night.

I work forty hours a week. I don’t check my email from home. I don’t, as Clay Christensen puts it, overinvest in my career at the expense of my personal life.

And yet, believe it or not, I still get praise from my boss almost every single day.

From time to time, I do still struggle with thinking I’m not good enough, but I know that negativity is just a feeling that springs from my illness—it’s not a fact. To combat it, I ask God every morning to help me remember how to prioritize so that the most powerful and enduring sources of happiness in my life remain at the top of my list: my recovery first, my family second, and then—and only then—my career.

8 Responses to How Much Is Good Enough? Work’s Role in My Relapse

  1. Chris Wells says:

    Wow. This post just made me realize something I was doing that I didn’t even think anything of at the time. I haven’t worked in nearly a year, but at my last job (as a DHS caseworker) I used to chew packs of gum at work. My drawer was full of packs of gum. As you know, I’ve also struggled with an eating disorder. It never occurred to me it was odd that I’d chew piece after piece of gum there at my desk.

    My coworker in the cubicle next to me would hear me, and say, “Did you just unwrap another piece of gum?” So I started trying to be quiet with it.

    The stress of that job was killing me. And until just now, I’d never thought too much of the gum thing. But it wasn’t normal. I don’t even chew gum anymore.

    I’m so glad you got yourself back on track, that you were honest about what was happening and stopped.

    Thanks for sharing. You always give me something to really think about!

    • One of the best things about being in a Twelve Step program, and now about having a blog, is that I keep getting reminded that I’m not “terminally unique.” Somebody, somewhere, has always had a similar experience, and I love that it keeps being you!

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Hi! I have read your blog a few times before and I really enjoy it. I discovered your blog from your comments on Therese Borchard’s blog.

    I can relate to so much of what you say about food. I am a compulsive over eater and I blog about it too :-) But not as much as I blog about my OCD which is such a part of my disordered eating.

    I find blogging to be such an important part of my recovery … it really is a form of therapy.

    Elizabeth

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      It’s so interesting how many of us try to cope with mental illness by using alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, etc., isn’t it? I saw a NAMI stat showing that approximately 29% of the people who are diagnosed with mental illness abuse drugs or alcohol. I wonder how high that number would be if they took food, sex, shopping, etc. into account.

      For me, using food to numb my feelings worked until it stopped working. Then I had to find healthier ways to cope.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by — I’m looking forward to checking out your blog!

  3. teri says:

    I’m glad that I’m not alone in feeling like a fraud for trying to keep up appearances. I don’t suffer from an eating disorder but suffer from major depression, attention deficit disorder and try to be a highly functioning person which leaves me drained and unsatisfied at the end of the day. I pray but feel that God is mad at me for trying to take my life a few years earlier. I’ve realized that it is not God who has not forgiven me, I haven’t forgiven myself! I desperatly want to be a happy person again and from where I sit right now it seems an impossible task. Don’t know how to forgive myself for such a mess I have made of my life. Medications are not working, but I keep taking them to try to keep from going over the edge again. Confonded and desperate for help!

    • Oh, Teri — I am so sorry that you’re stuck in such an unhappy space, and that medication isn’t doing much to help you. I think realizing that you’re the one who hasn’t forgiven yourself is a great first step in moving forward.

      Do you have a good support system? Just being with other people who’ve had similar experiences and have found ways to cope can be so freeing. I used to be so ashamed of my behavior around food that I never talked about it with anyone, but that only made me feel worse — isolated and alone. The Twelve Steps have been a really valuable support system for me because I got a sponsor who really knows me and wants to help me, along with a whole fellowship of people who’ve faced similar issues with food. For you and your depression, NAMI has some good support groups, and I’ve heard that DBSA (http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=home) has some great ones as well. There are also therapy groups that can help you feel less alone in your struggle.

      Other than that, try to take it easy on yourself. Remember that recovery is a process, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You’re doing the best you can, and that’s good enough for today!

  4. Carey Sipp says:

    Thanks, Heather, for your willingness to put yourself out here to the world and share vulnerabilities along with your amazing abilities: to communicate, empathize, speak your truth. I truly enjoyed your post and your comments. Addictive behaviors are sneaky. Depression is double-sneaky. Staying on top of self-care is everything. Self-care for those of us in recovery includes keeping first things first: prayer, meditation, meetings, rest, fellowship, healthy foods in the right amounts at the right times, staying willing, open, and honest, and having some fun. It helps to have a sense of humor, and to not take ourselves too seriously. To that end, MERCY, I identify with regard to the sorbitol or sugar alcohols or whatever the sweeteners are in the chewing gum and the “sugarless candy.” There’s always a consequence, and I can ill-afford, LITERALLY, to do anything that will make me feel bad about myself (or bad, period). God bless, and peace! C.

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