Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ordered Disorder

What qualifies someone to give you weight loss advice? Is it the amount of total weight they have lost? Is it the length of time they have lost weight and kept it off? Is it some certification as a dietician, doctor or mental health professional? When looking for answers, which voices do you deem worthy and why?

This is a question I ponder because I notice that the answers tend to boil down to one factor - the thinness of the person giving the advice. If that person is currently not overweight, then it is assumed he or she has a worthwhile answer. Thinness seems to be all of the evidence people require to decide that the party offering up tidbits of wisdom must know what they're talking about. Until that magical number is reached on the scale, any advice that is offered is to be regarded with skepticism or to be utterly dismissed.

I'm known this on a barely conscious level for quite some time. In fact, earlier in my blogging, some readers encouraged me to write a book since my approach is different than most. As they said such things, all I could conclude was that, "no one will listen to me until I'm "done". I know that my voice carries little weight as long as my body carries an excess of it. No matter how unique, intriguing or effective my words, I have to be able to stand out as the proof of technique. If I'm not there yet, despite over two years and two hundred pounds lost and a better relationship with food than any former or current fatty I've ever run across, my theories and ideas have no value.

I don't make that last assertion in order to say that duration and total poundage shed should entitle me to have more ears. I say it because none of that matters until I'm at a magic number and I know it. No matter how certain I am of what I think and feel, no one will take me seriously until I've rung the bell on a state of "healthy weight", thinness, or "looking good."

The problem, as I see it from my computer desk, is that there are a lot of thin people out there who are still incredibly disordered in their feelings and relationship with food. They have simply managed to re-order their disordered thinking to funnel it into maintaining a weight. They still obsess about food. They still have to avoid foods. They still have binges and are "triggered". They can't navigate life in a "normal" fashion because they have to exercise vigilance and caution to keep on that tightrope lest they fall off and regain. They have no idea how to widen the rope, let alone stop needing to walk on one. What is more, they are convinced this is the only option for them.

When I say it's not the only option, I'm not believed because I'm not thin yet. They must be right. I must be wrong. The truth is though that I think the reason most people who lose weight regain is that so very few of them would know a healthy and "normal" relationship with food if you spelled it out for them. They have no idea what it is like not to be obsessed with food and weight. They don't know what it is like to be able to navigate the world of food without viewing it as a field of land mines. The idea that they could ever just "live" and "be" with food is utterly alien to them, and to the vast majority of Northern Americans.

The problem with weight loss, and I faced it, too, is that the more you focus on it, the more disordered you become. At the outset, this is actually necessary. You can't drag yourself from not thinking about what you eat or abusing food to thinking about it and using it more constructively without becoming immersed in it for awhile. This is, however, a stage. You don't have to say in it forever, but most people do... until they don't and snap back to their former state of disorder and overeat.

For most, the stages are:

1. Overeat (defined as consuming more calories than your particular biology requires to maintain a healthy weight, not a set number of calories) and consume freely (without particular attention to food). In this state, you are not particularly obsessed with food.
2. Attempt to consistently under-eat to lose weight and become very obsessed with food.
3. Experience success and determine that this is "easy", "natural", and something you could do forever even though it requires very rigid eating, preparation and deprivation. Plan, plan, plan. This is the honeymoon when you're applying yourself to the goals and having success.
4. Experience fatigue with the obsession, effort, and consistent planning. Start to become tired of the consistent deprivation and inability to freely enjoy food.

This is then followed by one of two branches:

5. Return to step 1 and start the process over again.


5. Reach desired weight and continue to live in stage 4. Fear of regain keeps you there.

For the vast majority of people, it's one or the other of step 5 because step 3 is often executed in a manner which is deeply flawed and disordered. People rarely see any other goal other than a particular weight. It's all about the number. That's why thin people's advice weighs more than mine.

Here's the progression I made:

1. Overeat and freely enjoy food with occasional self-loathing for my lack of control. Believe I was born to be fat since I've been very fat most of my entire life.
2. Under-eat and control my eating. Become obsessed with food.
3. Experience fatigue with the obsession despite my success and decide to work not on the mechanical processes but the things that drive my issues with food.
4. Work out what a "normal" relationship with food would be like. Do self-analysis and conditioning to alter my disordered thoughts. Apply mental and physical conditioning to alter those thoughts.
5. Stop obsessing about food and enter into a more natural and less controlled relationship with it. Learn to exercise prudence rather than strict control when it comes to food. Learn flexibility and eat at restaurants and in situations where I don't know what is to come. Eat everything, but attend to issues of true hunger and satiety.

and the ultimate step will be 6:

6. Learn to trust my eating such that I no longer have to monitor it but handle it intuitively.

With 4 and 5 under my belt, I'm confident that 6 will be possible with further mental work and once I'm at a normal weight and my body's energy demands are for that weight. If I eat intuitively at a greater than healthy weight, I will do so to maintain that weight. I'm still losing so I must continue to exercise some control over calories. However, that control is not obsessive. It's simply more mechanistic and less organic at this stage than I plan for it ultimately to be.

I have lived abroad for a long time and I know what a normal relationship with food looks like. I've seen it in a culture not yet fully contaminated by Western obsessions. I learned from their example and can see that food is just food to some people. They eat everything. They eat when hungry, but they also don't overstuff themselves. They aren't disinterested in food, but they aren't obsessed with it. I can see what normal looks like and it looks like this:

1. Food is just another part of life. It is not the thing your life revolves around.
2. Your body is not the primary focus of your thoughts and energy.
3. Food is not a source of anxiety or stress. You can take or leave something based on curiosity, satiety, and pleasure. It isn't an enemy and it doesn't control you.
4. Health and eating are related, but health is not the only reason to eat. However, entertainment or psychological need are also not the primary reason to partake of enjoyable food. Enjoyable food which is relatively empty calories is eaten with restraint, attentiveness and moderation. It's about the experience, not the volume.
5. Treats, salty snacks, and desserts have a place in a diet. They are not evil and one does not eat a whole bag of chips, a whole pie or cake, or a pint of ice cream because one cannot control oneself.

The worst thing about 99% of the voices out there is that they make you believe that "normal" is simply not possible because they don't even realize they are disordered. They believe that "thin" requires a sacrifice. Obsession is the price you pay and food sanity is the slaughtered lamb on the altar. Beyond those voices are the ones telling you fat is "normal" and inevitable. These two extremes bring nothing but misery to people and frankly it frustrates the hell out of me that there are no voices out there saying you can do better. You can be free. You can work it out, but it will take time and effort. And I don't mean "willpower" or exercise. I mean maturation and thought altering.

One day, you can eat anything without guilt or obsession and still not be overweight because you won't need food to occupy that mental space in your life. Because everyone is so screwed up and they have no clue what "normal" even looks like anymore, this sounds like some hollow statement which is used to sell a hack trick rather than a potential reality. That's the state of our relationship with food in the Western world, and I don't see it changing any time soon.

My ultimate goal is to become a counselor and help people with eating disorders, but I'm nearly at the point where I see it as futile. In the face of a culture-wide sickness, I don't think my voice is capable of "curing" anyone or anybody. People want simple answers and they don't want to deal with the real issues. They just want a list of things that "work" or to throw up their hands and conclude nothing will. What's the point in my even trying? Stay sick and disordered about food, if you like. It's your body, your mind and your life and who am I to try to help? I'm still fat so I clearly have nothing of value to say.