I am eating myself to death!

Everything else in my life is good -- but I'm killing myself with food

By Cary Tennis

Published April 1, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I hesitate to write but I find your column to be so illuminating in so many wonderful ways that I must. Plus, I think my letter will touch a nerve in quite a few members of your audience. You see, Cary, I am fat. I could sugarcoat, it would be easy to say that I'm also "fit" or that I am "athletic" and while both of those things might also be true, I am foremost quite overweight. I'm about 6 feet tall and I tipped the scales this morning at 279 pounds. I also happen to be charming, good-looking and male. Which has led to less insecurity about these issues than other people. But don't get me wrong, it's MY ISSUE.

... and I'm scared. You see, I don't know how to stop eating. I like to work out, but I love calories more. I have struggled with this my whole life but it remains stubbornly part of my identity. "The big guy" ... the "husky guy," etc. (For the record, no one likes being the big guy and the only people who call people "big guy" are invariably small people.) I'm happy in so many other wonderful ways in my life. I'm a good dad, I am a creative professional with actual work, I have a beautiful and supportive girlfriend who looks past my weight ... but this is the boulder that I push up the psychological hill every single day. I go to sleep fantasizing about not eating and what I would look like at 220 pounds. Yet, sometime during the following day I will be wolfing down food like I'm about to climb Everest, not walk to the car. Which has led to depression and medication. Ironically, I don't drink, smoke or do drugs ... anymore ... not one of which was difficult to stop. Food is my addiction and it's slowly killing me.

I haven't found a successful diet for more than six months, I am too broke to get surgery, and I'm too scared to look in the mirror and acknowledge that I can't seem to effect a lasting change for myself. I have achieved so much in my life, and to this point have been proud of those achievements but they all pale compared to the lack of success I feel in this most important part of my life. I seem to like carbs more than my health, because no one has been able to get me to lose weight, it has to come from inside me and I don't know where that part is ... I'm scared, Cary, I'm scared that I can't make this change and that I will never be the man I want desperately to be.

Dying from the Inside Out

Dear Dying,

You know, I only speak from my own experience on matters like this, and I don't have an eating addiction, so I can only compare your situation to my addiction to alcohol and drugs. The way I got off alcohol and drugs was through the 12 steps. And there is a 12-step program called Overeaters Anonymous for people who can't stop eating.

So for me it's simple. From what you say, it sounds like you are an addict and have reached the end of the road and you are asking for help. If I were you, I would present myself at the door of a 12-step program for overeaters and just say, here I am, help me. I know the 12 steps work for addicts such as myself, and I see no reason why it should not work for people whose addiction is to food.

Here is why I identify with you even though I can usually stop eating when I'm done. When you say you can't stop doing it, and that you don't know of any power in you that you can call on, and that no diet seems to work, it sounds similar to the desperation I have felt as an addict and alcoholic. The difference is, you can't just stop eating. I frankly do not know what I would do if I had to drink but not get drunk. But I guess that is what you have to do.

I urge you to take an open mind. As the OA site says, "OA is not just about weight loss, gain or maintenance; or obesity or diets. It addresses physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It is not a religious organization and does not promote any particular diet."

So I hope you will go. And I could stop right there. But I want to chat a little about a paradox at the heart of the 12 steps, which is the notion of "powerlessness." What good does it do to proclaim one is powerless over the thing one is addicted to? Does that not just feed dependency? Does it not undermine whatever strength one has left?

Say you are trying to find a job. What good would it do to admit powerlessness over the job market? Wouldn't that lead to despair, procrastination and defeatism? If I admit I am powerless over the job market doesn't that just make me want to give up entirely? And what about with traffic? If I am powerless over other drivers and the timing of the stoplight, does that make me want to give up driving?

In practice, that doesn't seem to happen. We admit our powerlessness and it actually gives us the feeling that maybe we can get better. It draws our attention away from things we cannot influence, and helps us focus on things we can actually change.

So I hope you will find an OA meeting and go to it and ask the people there for some help.

If it doesn't work for you, there are probably behavior modification regimes that are also worth trying. Since I have no direct experience with such things, I can't claim to be able to direct you.

But I have the feeling that you are ready to let go of your assumptions about what works and what doesn't. You've tried a few solutions and none has worked. So you are open to trying a new approach. This posture of open-mindedness is a life-saver. But it sometimes doesn't last. So I hope you take action while you are in the frame of mind to do so.

I urge you to make contact with others who have been through what you are going through, and ask them for help.

Write your truth

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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