I do, however, abstain from a number of foods that many people find pleasurable. Chocolate, for instance. Spaghetti. A nice bottle of wine.
A lot of people in my life don’t get it. “Everything in moderation,” they say, shaking their heads, incredulous that I haven’t allowed myself the “pleasure” of eating these foods in more than 11 years.
They don’t understand that, for me, although the actual act of tasting the food might give me pleasure, it’s the same kind of pleasure a heroin addict feels as she pushes a needle into her vein.
In the past, I prized comfort over just about anything else. Because of this, my life got very small. It was uncomfortable to go out into the world and interact with other people, but it was comfortable to sit in front of the TV and eat candy bars all day.
I didn’t like feeling awkward or self-conscious or ugly (which was how I always felt around other people), so I avoided those feelings by indulging in easy, pleasurable pastimes like reading, watching TV, and eating. Funny thing was, though, that although these pursuits made me feel good in the moment, in the long run, they left me empty, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled.
I suppose, in a way, I was a hedonist without really knowing it. (Merriam-Webster defines hedonism as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.”) I didn’t really have a higher purpose than to make myself feel good. This, in turn, filled me with a gnawing sense of existential angst. “What’s the point?” I’d wonder. “We’re here, we die, who cares?”
I was depressed, and the “pleasures” of isolation and bingeing were the only things that seemed to relieve my depression. Again, though, they only worked for a very short period of time, and then they’d compound my depression by adding guilt and self-disgust on top of all the existential crap I was already feeling.
It was a vicious, insidious little circle.
When I joined my Twelve Step program, I gained a purpose. Suddenly, my life wasn’t all about making myself comfortable, it was about helping other people who were struggling with similar issues with food.
And having an unselfish reason for being on the planet gave me the strength to stop engaging in behaviors that felt good in the moment but only hurt me in the long term. It gave me the gift of self-restraint.
In THE WAY OF THE LEADER, Donald Krause writes about the importance of self-discipline and self-restraint:
Self-discipline, at the most personal level, means that you do not attempt to deceive yourself. Always be careful what you think and do, but be particularly careful when you believe you are alone. Practice self-restraint in your private life. Remember a person’s opinion of himself eventually shows in his face and is reflected in his outward behavior. A true leader exercises self-discipline through controlling his thoughts and actions even when he believes that no one else can see him.
Many people who’ve suffered from eating disorders can learn how to eat in moderation. My mom did. My sister did. But I can’t. I tried and tried for years. I don’t deceive myself anymore into believing that one bite of cake will be one bite; I know that, for me, one bite inevitably leads to one thousand.
Today, what I do with my food in private is the same as what I do with my food in public (weighed and measured meals, no flour, no sugar). Because I don’t binge, I don’t have to sit in bathroom stalls hiding my binges anymore. I cannot tell you how much more self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect I have as a result.
Oddly enough, as my self-esteem improved, I stopped feeling awkward, self-conscious, and ugly around other people, and it became much easier for me to be out in the world. Not only do I not need to fall back on the “pleasures” of sitting in front of the TV eating ice cream all day, I don’t even want to isolate myself and eat until I can’t think straight.
It’s a gift I didn’t expect when I first joined my program. I knew I’d lose weight, I knew I’d stop purging, but I never thought I’d lose the desire to eat and eat and eat. The freedom I have from food is incredible, and it allows me to focus on more interesting, more productive, and more service-oriented areas of my life.
When my husband got sick, the easy, comfortable thing to do would have been to leave him. A lot of people whose spouses are suddenly struck with severe mental illness do just that. After all, it’s certainly not pleasant or pleasurable to nurse someone through mania, psychosis, and depression.
Again, though, it comes back to the question of feeling good in the moment vs. feeling good about who you are as a person in the long term.
Pleasure is awesome, but it’s incidental. For me, true happiness comes not from seeking out an endless string of pleasures, but from growing, from learning, and from striving to serve other people whenever I can.
This post is part of the Self-Discovery, Word by Word blogging series for February.