As a woman in long-term recovery, I’m very familiar with the challenges, freedom, and growth we experience recovery. Yet, this growth sometimes feels stunted by our relationship with food. While many of us experience weight gain when we get sober—and sometimes experience what feels like an uncontrollable appetite—there are thousands of us that continue to struggle with food long into our recovery. Often, we don’t even realise we’ve had a disordered relationship with food our entire lives.
That was my story. I just thought every woman was on and off a diet her entire life—I chalked it up to being a woman. Likewise, I thought we all skipped meals, and then occasionally binged on food. I excused purging as part of my addiction too. When I got sober, the light of recovery shone brightly on my disordered relationship with food. I had to take notice. I discovered that my history with food amounted to eating disorders, yet couldn’t understand why I continued to binge in recovery. I’d find myself sitting in meetings and fantasizing about what food I’d buy on the way home to binge on in front of a TV drama.
Harmful Advice Led To Another Addiction
Myth: It’s perfectly normal to crave sugar when you get sober—you should carry a bag of candy in your purse, I was told. Don’t worry about putting on weight and eating cake if it keeps you sober, they said.
Looking back, now that I have dealt with my eating disorders, I realise just how harmful this advice was. It was like telling someone with substance use disorder that it’s okay to smoke heroin so long as you’re not drinking. It’s absurd.
I know I am not unique with this experience. Every day, I speak to women in recovery about their struggles with food, their sugar cravings, and their insatiable appetites. Eating disorder or not, women in recovery are struggling with food. I know many men are too—but they don’t talk about it. None of us are talking about it as much as we could because the behaviour is veiled in shame.
How My Eating Disorder Developed
My eating disorder started as a child when I discovered that food led to escape: I could use it to numb my feelings of loneliness and depression. I spent the rest of my life chasing that feeling; the only thing that changed was the substance—when I replaced food with drugs and alcohol, nicotine, or sex. The substance doesn’t matter; the disorder label doesn’t matter—it is the behaviour of seeking to avoid reality that mattered.
I never learned how to regulate my feelings and emotions and I had no idea how to weather the stress of everyday life. No one taught me. I was just told to get on with it, so I did what I knew best: escape and numb out.
How I Recovered From My Eating Disorder
Living in recovery gave me the ability to be present and learn how to deal with life. Except, without drugs and alcohol, my brain sought pleasure in food. I faced a paradox: I can’t be engaged in life and still binge eat. I had to get to the root cause of my eating disorder.
When I started to deal with my relationship with food, I uncovered a long-standing history of depression. This explains why my brain sought pleasure in substances that produced pleasure-releasing neurochemicals; namely dopamine. The problem I faced newly sober was that my brain was even more depleted in dopamine and I now faced overpowering cravings to balance the chemistry in my brain. With the help of a doctor, health coach, exercise, and eating whole foods, I slowly rebalanced my brain. In learning to care for myself and regulate my emotions, I could deal with the desire to escape and stay present.
Looking after my whole being became the key to maintaining long-term sobriety and dealing with my eating disorders. The desire to escape never really goes away, it just becomes less strong and I have more tools to cope today.
Be sure to check out my emotional eating cheat sheet below, which might help you curb those cravings to numb out.