Yesterday was an emotional day filled with tears, laughter and some top tunes. After spending 14 months at the Living Room, (an addiction centre in Herts) for binging and compulsive overeating I was graduating. Below is a summary of my journey and what I read out yesterday morning during my final group counselling session. Yesterday evening my 14 year old daughter presented me with a framed graduation certificate that she'd made up online.
A year ago I would have felt totally overwhelmed and most likely undeserving of this incredibly thoughtful gesture. Yesterday I thanked her, hugged her, felt proud of my achievement and proud to have such a thoughtful and loving daughter.
My 17 year old is also thoughtful and loving. It's just that as she's 17 we mainly only see her at meal times. She's working the rest of the time and listening to music. Still not Kate Bush unfortunately but I live in hope. Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish are all pretty good though so I've got no complaints really.
After a life-time of binging and compulsive overeating it was time for me to face the honest truth. I wasn’t living, I was simply existing and that life was filled with insanity. I hadn’t even realised I’d had a problem until recently. I’d spent my life accepting that my eating and the madness around it was just who I was. Even worse, I wore it like a badge of honour, I was proud of it. Who else could eat a pack of biscuits, six jam doughnuts or a tub of ice cream in three mins flat?
Known as the human bin, I’d finish off everyone’s leftovers at home and in restaurants. I’d hide food, steal it from my children then blame it on each other, eat out of the bin and off the floor. I’d spend days constantly stuffing food into my mouth until I was ready to be sick and then just carry on eating. It was as if my hand was it’s own separate entity and out of my control. I didn’t want to keep binging but I couldn’t stop myself. Eating to bury feelings, eating to soothe myself, eating for no reason. I’d lose the weight I’d put on by exercising or obsessively eating healthily and then start the cycle again. On and on it went for years.
Whatever happened in my life, good or bad, I felt nothing. Family rushed to hospital, people we knew dying, me winning trophies, nothing. I’d eat instead. I knew I wasn’t a sociopath and I knew I had feelings somewhere deep down, where were they? Finally, I had a sobering talk with a friend who’d lived with eating disorders for years. He talked about his behaviours and emotions around food and my reply to almost every one was, “I do that.”
In that instance I came to the terrifying realisation (maybe mixed with relief and acceptance) that I had a disease. I was on my knees. I came into the Living Room tired, scared and feeling like the small little boy I used to be. That first morning, being with a group of adults for the first time in over ten years, I felt the walls were closing in on me. I was told, “Just listen, take it all in.” I listened to others share and recognised their stories and feelings, some of which were mine.
That first afternoon someone was leaving and we all chose songs to be played. I sang along and felt safe. I came back and was given space to listen, to speak, to be honest. I found the courage to do all three. I wasn’t judged, I felt at home. I was shown kindness and compassion both of which I struggled to accept and feel deserving of. I joined a 12 Step food programme and found a sponsor, I started the 12 steps.
After spending weeks at the Living Room checking in with no abstinence I managed to go 1 day without binging and overeating, it was a miracle. Then it was 2 days and on it went. I received “Well dones” in group and a clap when reaching a milestone. I didn’t feel like I deserved them, it was too much for me to acknowledge that I’d achieved anything.
I continued listening to everyone’s stories, feelings, their struggles and their victories. I still felt small in the group, like I didn’t belong. I found it hard to accept that my struggles were as valid as other peoples. Drugs and alcohol and the havoc and repurcussions they reaped seemed far more serious than food to me. Someone in the group with multiple addictions would often say the food was the hardest to deal with. I thought she was mad.
I found the courage to confront people in the group when I felt there was injustice, even if it was the counsellors being unjust. Then I discovered that the perceived injustices weren’t even mine but someone else in the group. Paul, meet co-dependency, your previously unknown and now very visible companion. My abstinence grew and so did I. I was more accepting of myself and started to acknowledge what I was achieving.
I began to feel like an equal member of the group. I shared often but sometimes found it difficult to connect with my innermost and deepest feelings. Sometimes the tears flowed and I always felt held, supported and loved by the group. Friends came and went; some graduated, some fell by the wayside and tragically we lost the beautiful soul that was J. Back to my friend in the group who said food was the hardest addiction to deal with. I now realised she wasn’t mad and I believed her. The reality is that I’m surrounded by my drug of choice every day of my life with no escape. What’s worse I have to take that drug to survive. In time,
I recognised my danger foods; the foods that trigger me to want to binge and overeat. The foods that I would invariably reach for. One day at a time I stopped having them. My eventual goal was always to have three meals a day and no snacks. It took almost a year to find the courage to have that as part of my abstinence but now it's there, one day at a time.
So here I am today, the 5th February 2020, 14 months after walking through the Living Room doors. I entered an addict, lost and on my knees. I’m leaving as an addict in recovery with a year’s precious abstinence behind me. Abstinence earned one day at a time. Abstinence earned through progress not perfection. I give service at the 12 Step group and I’ve embraced a Higher Power whom I ask for help every day. Help to stay abstinent, help to be gentle and kind to myself. Help to connect with my family and beyond. I'm not religeous and never have been. Faith in something is just faith, it doesn't need to be religeous.
I’m less hard on myself now than I’ve ever been. I’m showing myself kindness and love that I didn’t do previously. That inner critical voice which was once booming is now (most of the time) a whimper. I’m also reaching out to others when I’m struggling or in anguish. Sometimes I do so just for a chat. None of it is easy or feels completely natural but it’s progress. Two weeks ago, for the first time, I accepted a compliment and didn’t cringe, dismiss or belittle it. I simply agreed with it and said thank you. And I meant it. I’m beginning to accept kindness from people and not feeling undeserving.
Yesterday my wife was taken to hospital after having bad chest pains. She was fine. When the ambulance left I wanted to reach for food. I outreached and spoke to someone instead. A year ago I wouldn’t have thought about food I would have just eaten it. 6 months ago I woudn’t have outreached. It’s a miracle. One day at a time, progress not perfection. Not cliches, absolute truths. I am eternally grateful and thankful to the counsellors and fellow clients of the Living Room. You have helped make me a better person and walked with me on my path to living a life not simply existing.
See you next time.