By Geneen Roth
Until recently, two of the things that made my life worth living were a cup of milky chai every morning and a piece of bittersweet chocolate every afternoon, each slowly savored. Unfortunately, after partaking of these sublime substances for many years, I developed a bad physical reaction to both. They made my stomach ache and swell; I felt (and looked) as if I’d swallowed a basketball. After a slew of diagnostic tests, my doctor proclaimed that it was "just" allergies. "Stop the milk; stop the chocolate," he said "You'll be fine."
Fine? Without chai and chocolate? Was he nuts? Would the sky be fine without the sun? Would Guinevere be fine without Arthur (or, er, Lancelot)? My response was as simple as his diagnosis: He was wrong. I'd never been allergic to either before, so it couldn't be true. Furthermore, chocolate is a food of the gods; how could I be sickened by something so divine?
I'm not giving them up, I decided. I didn't want to live in a world without chai or chocolate.
Then I remembered the retreat I'd led not long before, where a woman I'll call Dani said, "I'm a diabetic and I can't stop eating sugar. My friends and family are worried that I'm killing myself. I'm worried that I'm killing myself. But I can't seem to stop. I love love love sweets. And I resent the fact that I can't eat them."
Sigh. When we have to stop eating food we love, it can be miserable at the beginning. I've worked with people suffering from high blood pressure or heart disease whose doctors have prescribed lifesaving diets. These people looked at the diets and scoffed. No way, they said. I can't. I won't. No one can make me.
That's true. No one can make you. Still, it's good to think about what's going on when you know eating something makes you feel terrible and threatens your life, but you eat it anyway.
When Dani told me she resented the fact that she had to stop eating sweets for her health, I said that it sounded as if she was having a major fight with reality.
"Yup," she said. "I don't want things to be the way they are."
When you don't want to be in the situation you're in, you suffer terribly. But if you spend all your time thinking about how you don't want to have diabetes but you do, or how you don't want to be allergic to your favorite foods but you are, you're not changing things. It's hard enough to have diabetes and allergies. But when you can't stop thinking about how much you hate the fact that you have to spend your time doing what you need to do, you double the difficulty.
Dani had made her life even tougher: She blamed herself for her illness. She told me that since she'd known forever that diabetes ran in her family, she was certain she could have avoided the disease by choosing food more wisely, "I ate like there was no tomorrow," she said, "as if I'd never heard the word diabetes."
Maybe Dani is right, and she could have dodged diabetes if she'd kept to the dietary straight and narrow. Or maybe she would have gotten it anyway. I'm not a diabetes expert. But I have a black belt in the art of fighting with reality, and I know that one very common move is self-blame - engaging in the "if only" game: "if only I had done that, then I wouldn't have to feel this." The problem with "if only" is that it keeps us whipsawing between the past - immersion in what we could or should have done - and a future where we mourn the life we might have had if only we'd acted differently. We completely avoid the present, the only moment in time we can actually do something about.
I asked Dani what would happen if she stopped blaming herself. "Well," she said, "I suppose I'd feel sad about being diabetic, and I'd have to grieve the loss of certain foods in my life."
"And then what?"
"Then I'd be left with having to figure out how to have the best life within the parameters of what I could still eat." Yes!
There are two main types of deprivation, I told Dani: the kind brought on by circumstances (like illness or a bad economy), and the kind you bring on yourself. Being deprived of foods you love because of illness is a bummer of the first kind. Refusing to give up what damages your body creates the second kind of deprivation. You're choosing to cheat yourself of the chance to feel vital, at ease, and full of energy.
Thinking about Dani, I decided I didn't want to cheat myself. It's been two months now since I stopped eating chocolate and drinking chai. The first week was really tough. I was cranky and grumpy and walked around feeling terribly sorry for myself. Then I began to notice that the pain was gone and my stomach had assumed its pre-basketball shape. Slowly, grudgingly, I realized that I felt light, even happy.
I got an e-mail from Dani last week. She said, "I finally stopped fighting with the diabetes. I've done some research on what I can eat, and the range is so much broader than what I thought. The best thing is that when I feel better in my body, it is so much easier to feel better in my heart. And since feeling good in my heart was all I ever wanted from eating those sweet things, it's a win-win."
Bingo! Giving up certain foods doesn't mean giving up what you want to feel when you eat them. Staying away from sweets doesn't mean that you need to deprive yourself of sweetness or comfort or joy.
I still miss the ritual of drinking my morning chai and eating my afternoon chocolate. I plan to introduce them into my life again and see how they affect me. In the meantime, I've been making it a practice to see "the chai and chocolate state" in other aspects of my life, like taking leisurely walks with my husband, playing with my dog, and enjoying a quiet moment by myself. Instead of eating my pleasure and sweetness, I've been living them.
If certain foods make you spacey or depressed or lethargic and you're still eating them, ask yourself what you think they give to you. The answers may be contentment, delight, the sense that things will be OK. Now ask yourself where in the non-food world those feelings can be found. You may find them in playing with your children, talking to your friends, puttering in the garden, relaxing with a great book, or volunteering to help people who need what you have to offer. When you make it a practice to fill yourself with that food, you may never feel deprived again.
You can learn a whole new way to relate to food – and explore the foundation upon which you build your life and your relationships – at my next retreat, this coming November. Six days of immersion in constant support, endless kindness and ever present awareness. Such a blessing. Once you know those things are possible for you, you can never go back to believing that they're not. If this resonates with you, you can find out more here: http://retreats.geneenroth.com/fall/