Many years ago I classified myself as a “sugar addict.” For nearly a decade, spanning my mid-teens to my mid-20’s, I put forth a daily struggle to consume fewer foods that I “knew” were unhealthy. I had many victories, but within a week I would almost always cave in and eat something really “unhealthy,” and would do so in ever-greater amounts. In other words, in an attempt at junk food abstinence, I set up a repeated cycle of binging, followed by starving, followed by binging again – harder and harder with each round. And each round became more frustrating and shameful. The more I failed, the more guilt, shame, and self-loathing I experienced.
So I lived with a song of self-punishment playing in the background of my life. This came to a climax at 26 when I went 44 days on a very low-sugar, low-calorie, monotonous diet while making my through Wyoming’s most rugged and vast mountain range. “You have to work for the right to eat,” I convinced myself. “The luxuries of modern life are not to be taken for granted.” And I certainly worked very hard for very little of it – food and luxury that is.
The result? My “addiction” got worse, and I developed new addictions in the process. After the 44 depleting days I developed new addictions to coffee, tea, and chocolate in addition to my sugar addiction, which was magnified several times over. Alcohol had become a lot more exciting as well. I now ate a couple pounds of candy and chocolate and 10 cups of caffeinated tea daily. I started turning up all offers of beer instead of turning them down.
Worst of all, I felt really defeated. My attempt to break myself of my weaknesses had failed. And I felt more powerless than ever as I put away “fun size” candy bar after fun size candy bar – rarely going more than an hour without having a couple during waking hours.
Luckily I had broken myself, and really had to develop a different relationship with me. It was at that time that I started dabbling in alternative “spirituality,” and adopted the practice of diffusing feelings of guilt or self-loathing when they arose as my highest priority. When it came to sweet treats – ice cream, cakes, candy – I would smile and eat them slowly, focusing on all the flavors and textures in a very sensual manner.
And something remarkable happened. The compulsive need to eat such things completely went away. Of course, I no longer was punishing myself with hard exercise in response to my “moments of weakness,” nor was I starving myself in repentance the rest of the week. So all of this worked synergistically together to break the psychological pattern that really was at the root of the compulsion to begin with. Loving myself, choosing to enjoy the experience of eating yummy food instead of feel anxiety and guilt over it, and not consciously trying to make up for lapses in willpower through barbaric dietary strictness and “binge exercising” diffused the whole circle of addiction. It’s as if shame, guilt, and fighting or being at odds with oneself are prerequisites for the development of addiction in the first place. At the very least, this psychological pattern is a great perpetuator and strengthener of addictive tendencies.
1811 Eastlake… Seattle, Washington…
Orchestrated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an entity whose name makes me giggle more than once, the city of Seattle embarked on an incredibly bold and revolutionary approach to dealing with its homeless alcoholic population. It built a very nice, $9 million, 75-apartment building with taxpayer money specifically for housing the homeless.
Although the move was highly controversial to begin with, it became a lot more controversial when it allowed and even subsidized the drinking of alcohol inside the building. They were effectively saying to the homeless population, “Here, come live in this nice, warm, safe apartment, staffed by a nurse 24 hours a day, and drink here with your friends and other troubled people who you can relate to instead of out in public. We’ll even make sure you have plenty to drink.”
It was a revolutionary idea, and one based on our collective understanding of human psychology and sociology instead of presumed assumptions and uncompassionate detestation of those with substance abuse problems. It was attacked for being a publicly-funded “enabler” of alcoholics of course, even though tenants were encouraged to drink less and resources were made available for treatment.
The cool thing was that it actually saved money – millions of dollars in fact. $4 million in the first year of operation alone due to decreased medical costs, reduced need for law enforcement, and a dozen other ways that were not fully expected. And, even cooler, the amount of alcohol consumed by residents steadily declined. The longer one spends at 1811 Eastlake Ave, the less he or she drinks. Some even got off the sauce completely.
And I get why this works. The community says, “We care about you and love you. You deserve a place to live. It’s bad enough you have to deal with addiction, mental illness, public humiliation, and other things frequently suffered by the homeless. The least we can do is give you a safe and comfortable place to live.”
The fact that they are allowed to drink however much they like just affirms that who they are is being completely honored. When helping someone out without asking for any change in behavior or other hoops to jump through, that help comes across as a lot more sincere. The energy behind it is totally different. It evidently worked, as they only had to invite 78 to fill their 75 rooms. That’s not many turning down the offer, unlike what would have happened if they were forced to stop drinking or work like it was some kind of enslavement.
It’s also important, as I have always argued, that working at overcoming addiction is something that comes after a foundation has been built. That’s exactly what went on at 1811 Eastlake Ave. You don’t tell a person in a truly horrendous and desperate and depressing situation that they should stop drinking. That’s like telling someone trapped in a forest of poison ivy that it’s time to break their addiction to Calamine lotion. Rather, you need to make that person feel appreciated, put a roof over their heads, give them three quality meals per day and a comfortable bed in a quiet, safe room, surround them with people they can relate to, and, ideally, give them something fulfilling to pursue. Get them out of the poison ivy forest before you take away their itch cream.
While 1811 Eastlake has probably come up a little short in terms of helping its residents find something fulfilling to pursue, it’s certainly delivered on the rest of the equation. They provide a foundation with the faith that human beings, with a strong foundation, are more likely to thrive. And they are. And even the ones who continue to drink heavily or cause trouble are still drinking less and causing less trouble than they are while living on the streets. Improvement is improvement, especially when it saves money instead of burning through it faster.
I bring all this up because a recurring theme since the 180DegreeHealth creation known as the “High-Everything Diet” was developed in 2009, is that addictive fixation on certain foods or a compulsive desire to eat them typically lessens or goes away altogether (and with the even more recent development of strict adherence to whole foods falling by the wayside this is even more true). This is a phenomenon noted elsewhere too, such as The Gabriel Method, the world of “intuitive eating,” the Health at Every Size movement, and the work of disordered eating pioneers like Geneen Roth.
Part of it is nourishing yourself well. When the body is in a nourished, restful, low stress state, the desires for various crutches decline. But something changes when your relationship with “x” addiction changes too. Tell someone that eating a certain food is bad for them and they will feel a deep yearning for that food on some level. If they indulge in the desire for that “forbidden fruit,” a strong guilt and repent cycle can form with its own, mysterious, paralyzing grip. The greater the magnitude of sinfulness of indulging in something forbidden, usually the bigger the binge. The greater the repression, the greater the escalation and perversion – an idea that obviously extends far beyond food and alcohol.
Anyway, I think what’s going on at 1811 Eastlake Ave. in Seattle is a glimpse into the future of our understanding of human behavior, addiction, and a lot more. It is a powerful example of care, compassion, and support’s ability to outgun punishment and shame in the battle to bring about a better, more synergistic and pleasant existence for all involved. This is a rare case of a win-win story, but there are a lot more where that came from if we learn from this example.
As far as how it applies to us, as individuals, it’s good to keep 1811 in the back of your mind. The person we typically treat the worst is ourselves, and it’s a valuable health lesson to break the downward circle of shame, blame, guilt, and punishment about who you are, what you’ve done, and what you’re into. Food of course, is more of the practice ground for much bigger and more important issues. But it’s a start.