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My weekend held a series of errors in judgment, which comprised poor self-care around my bipolar disorder – and were set in motion by a slip around my food addiction.

I have known for some time that peanut butter is a problem food for me, a food that I am prone to eating compulsively – and sometimes outright bingeing on.  I have written about this twice in this blog.  But I recently gave up gluten, when about the fourth person suggested this might help with depression.  I actually took her advice to also get off dairy, a commitment on which I have since reneged.  Bread and cheese have been such staples in my diet that I rationalized that I needed to add peanut butter – a quick and easy source of protein – back into my diet.  What was I thinking?  How much evidence do I need that it is a problem food for me?  How great is my capacity for denial?

So I took a jar of peanut butter with me on a weekend trip to see my son, daughter-in-law, and new grandbaby.  I love my son madly – and I know that he loves me deeply, but our relationship can sometimes get tricky – so it’s extra important that I take good care of myself when I go there, do everything I can to stay centered and grounded.  If you’re already smelling trouble here, you’re right

After taking the peanut butter on the trip, my second error in judgment happened at Starbucks Saturday morning.  I had some time to kill before the kids wanted me to come over (on the weekend, when the baby goes down for her first nap they nap also), so I took my laptop to the wireless internet at Starbucks.  Probably even going there was an error in judgment.  I don’t drink coffee – I know that, as someone who is trying to manage his moods, caffeine is a really bad substance for me.  And i don’t even do decaf – it has always seemed like a lame substitute for the real stuff.  I also (aside from periodic slips or extended lapses) don’t do sugar, which is also problematic for someone trying to mange their mood.  I tell myself that other sweeteners with a lower glycemic index (how fast they metabolize in the body) are not a problem.  But it’s hard to make a case that the 7 packs of honey it took to get my bitter grande decaf sweet enough for me was completely harmless.  But i did it – actually it not once crossed my conscious mind that this was an awful lot of sweet stuff.  More denial.

Honey probably is relatively harmless compared with sugar - and I'm not ready to take it out of my diet - but 7 packs of honey is a lot of sweetener.

Honey probably is relatively harmless compared with sugar – and I’m not ready to take it out of my diet – but 7 packs of honey is a lot of sweetener.

We had a great day.  That night, the chicken took a long time to cook and we ate pretty late.  I ate kind of a lot (it was very good) – right up to the edge of overeating, or maybe a little over.  I was very full.  Then, since it was already pretty late, I went back to my hotel room.  The beginnings of my trouble back there was my Zing bar.  I know that those energy bars are very sweet, but I somehow had managed to convince myself that it made sense to buy one – after previously swearing off them – at the gym, after a swim earlier in the week.  The blueberries I had had for dessert at my son’s house were really very good, and I was already quite full – but there was this candy bar calling to me, so I ate it.

My Zing  bar was sweetened with agave and did have protein, but it was awful sweet - for me it was a candy bar.

My Zing bar was sweetened with agave and did have protein, but it was awful sweet – for me it was a candy bar.

I guess that just opened the flood gates, because for some reason I then got into the peanut butter – really into it.  I was still eating it as I walked it down the hotel hall to find a garbage can to dump it in.  That night my stomach tossed around all night and I didn’t sleep well – and woke up early.

The next morning it was back to the Starbucks for internet – and another grande decaf, with another 7 packages of honey.  My son and daughter-in-law know a lot about my struggles with mood and I had over the weekend recruited their judgment about whether I was cycling high, which I had been concerned about on Thursday.  We all kept agreeing that I seemed pretty level.  But that morning  (or almost noon, the appointed time to arrive at their house) I observed to my son, “Wow, I’m pretty chatty today.  It does seem like I’m cycling kind of high.  I think it’s the lack of sleep.”  (The honey still didn’t cross my mind.)

A little while later, I had a tense encounter with my son.  Perhaps the most telltale sign that I was revving high was that I made very little of it, and –  when my time to leave came before the tension had been fully dispersed – I gave it no thought the rest of the day.  This even though the next day it seemed pretty significant, enough so that I want to make a point of apologizing to him.  Carrying some unconscious tension from this certainly did not help my growing mania.

When I left for the 7-hour drive home at 2 p.m, the genuine caffeinated coffee that I had at Starbucks was not an impulse move.  I had told them of my plan.  When they offered to make me some coffee, I said, “No, if I’m going to break down and have real coffee, I want it to be Starbucks.”  And still, as I was announcing this decision, I at no point thought this was maybe a bad idea.  Let me state it again: I don’t do caffeine.  It had been many months – maybe a year – since I had had any.  I was already describing myself as cycling high.  What was I thinking?

Here’s where I think my food addict – with all the denial that goes with that – intersects with poor management of my moods.  I had, during the last week, been outlining a blog post on strategies for staying grounded – lots of very positive ideas, which I was actively practicing and which are very valuable, and which I am still going to write up.  But I may need to add some don’ts: If you want to get good sleep to keep from cycling high, don’t overeat before going to bed.  Don’t consume 7 packs of honey.  Don’t have caffeine.

So I went to Starbucks and – thinking I was being very disciplined – had only half caffeine in my 16 oz grande.  The French Roast bold blend in my half-caf part (my request) made the coffee even more bitter than the decaf had been earlier that morning, so 7 packs of honey didn’t get it sweet enough.  Rather than go back and ask for two more packs of honey, I grabbed two packs of “Raw” sugar.  Let me say it again – I don’t do sugar.  It had been several weeks since I had had any.  And still it did not cross my mind that I was making a mistake – let alone being flat-out out of control.  What was I thinking?

For someone who hasn't had caffeine for a year, 8 oz. of French Roast is a lot of caffeine.  Then there's the honey and the sugar - and I'm trying to stay grounded?  Sometimes mania has a mind of its own.

For someone who hasn’t had caffeine for a year, 8 oz. of French Roast is a lot of caffeine. Then there’s the honey and the sugar – and I’m trying to stay grounded? Sometimes mania has a mind of its own.

The trip home was uneventful.  I never identified myself as revving high, though looking back some  signs were there.  That night I actually slept well and long (7 hours).  The next morning, I did identify myself as revving a little high..  By mid-day I had a bad case of stomach cramps.  All afternoon I went back and forth as to whether I was manic or sliding towards depression.  (Being bipolar, it’s so easy to obsess over the signs – which way is my mood heading?)  By late evening, I had chills and fever, stomach cramps – and I was depressed.  Was I getting sick?  Maybe, but I think it was the over-eating, the lack of sleep, the honey and coffee and sugar – and mania.  Crashing from all of that can explain a lot – and gets me out of denial.

I had stomach cramps all night and didn’t sleep well.  Today I have stomach cramps, feel lousy – like the flu – and am depressed.  Maybe it’s the flu, but there’s no real learning in all of that.  The real learning for me is to keep working my Overeaters Anonymous program and to remember some absolute basics for self-care around my moods: no overeating before bed, no sugar, no big doses of “innocent” sweeteners, no caffeine.  All my positive, pro-active strategies for staying grounded are wonderful, but if I don’t mind the basics they don’t have a chance.

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I’ve been depressed for the last six days – and again not writing.  Around 6 p.m. this evening, I was staring at a threateningly empty evening.  I asked myself what I could do this evening that would be most encouraging on this very discouraged day.  My roommate Will is a sculptor and painter.  He’s anxious about a relationship – and this afternoon and evening is channeling that anxiety into painting.  “Why not me?” I thought.  “I’ll create – I’ll write.  I’ll write a blog post.  I don’t know what it’s going to be. i don’t want it to be discouraging. I’ll find something.”

So the fact that I’m writing is encouraging.  And there’s more.  I have for the last few weeks been involved in Overeaters Anonymous for my sugar addiction and compulsive eating.  Shortly after making my resolution to write, I got a call from one of my OA friends. She and I have been trying to connect by phone, so I was glad to interrupt my momentum towards the computer with this call from her.  And that call gave me the material to write about.

When I was high a week ago, I was enthused about lots of things – including  my progress around my food.  In the last few days, my eating has fallen apart – and has reinforced my nihilistic mantra of “Nothing helps and nothing matters”.  But my friend helped me name several things I’m doing right, several areas of progress, and I’m going to name them here.

  1. The first one starts with a setback, but also has a positive dimension. I had, almost as soon as starting OA, named peanut butter as a problem food.  It’s a food that I am most likely to eat compulsively, most likely to overeat – a food that I genuinely binge on.  So I just completely cut it out – huge progress.  But I left two jars in the cupboard.  This morning, in my “Nothing matters” mode, I pulled out one of those jars of peanut butter and – having already eaten a little breakfast – ate four spoonfuls – and then a couple more.
    I get it - I really get it.  Peanut butter is not an innocent food for me - it's a problem.

    I get it – I really get it. Peanut butter is not an innocent food for me – it’s a problem.

    Then, a couple hours later, I went back for more.  But here’s a sign of progress: I struggled with it.  The 12 Steps encourages you not to trust your willpower, but rather to turn it over to a Higher Power.  I tried to figure out how to do this, but couldn’t get there.  I considered making an outreach call to an OA friend, but didn’t manage to do it.  But, as someone said later, “If you can insert a pause, you can insert a call.  You’re this much closer to making the call next time.”  I’m picturing doing that – and knowing that it will feel enormously gratifying when I do it.

    After giving in and eating more peanut butter, I poured some hot sauce in the rest and threw it out.  I’ve learned the hard way that just throwing it out won’t necessarily prevent me from fishing it out of the garbage.  Later on, I dropped the other jar – and a jar of almond butter – off at the food pantry.  It was out of my way, but felt like a big symbolic step.

    So where do I focus my attention? I can focus on the slip, focus on the regression to an old behavior.  I choose to focus on the new behaviors – the struggle where in the past there was only abject surrender, the taking of the food to the food pantry.  And the fact that this offending food, which up until just a few weeks ago was a staple part of my diet, now is an intruding stranger.  What a huge change that is!

  2. I went to an OA meeting.  I judged myself harshly for “going to meetings instead of eating right”, but the meeting was actually encouraging and good connection.  And what a totally new behavior for me!  These meetings are a completely new presence in my life.  And I told people there how much I am needing to make calls, to break up my isolation.  And made a specific plan to call one woman, whom I like very much, tonight.  I’m going to do that when I’m walking the dog, right after finishing this post.
  3. This wasn’t from today, but yesterday and tomorrow.  After many months (a couple of years, actually) of trying to find the right focus of attention while I’m swimming laps, I’ve got one that’s really working: creating and repeating mantras from the first three of the Twelve Steps.  I described this at length on August 30 and 31, but three of my favorites are “Came to believe” (that a Power higher than my own could restore me to sanity) and “turn over my life and my will” “to God’s care, as I understand God.”
    "Whatever this Higher Power is, in some mysterious way it cares about me" shortens down to "Life cares about me."

    “Whatever this Higher Power is, in some mysterious way it cares about me” shortens down to “Life cares about me.”


     I don’t understand God or Higher Power, but I think there is some kind of power or energy that underlies the separation of the material world – and it feels like a very positive step that I am spending all this time opening myself up to it.  In fact, this is huge.  This could actually turn out to be the biggest development of this phase of my life.

So who says I’m stuck?

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I talked yesterday about how while swimming laps on two recent days I used as mantras phrases from the first two steps of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – and Overeaters Anonymous, with which i have recently gotten involved.  Here I’ll write about how on both of these swimming outings I’ve used the third step (as far as I’ve gotten, and I’ve just barely dipped into these three).

3) “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

I’ve described earlier that for me God is not a person, much less a guy.  I mostly avoid the God word, though I’m working at being less allergic to it.  I’ve actually been positively impressed with how allowing these particular (Asheville-type?) OA folks are of all the variation in how people understand their Higher Power, but there still is a fair bit of God talk in these meetings.  When I use the word Life to describe my Higher Power, I imagine some of these folks internally translate that to God – and I some of the time am doing the flip of that.  But notwithstanding the God word, this step is working some real juju on me – including while swimming laps on Wednesday and again yesterday.

Made a decision“. Am I making a decision?  A decision to be more open to spirituality – to make it more a part of how I really experience the world, not just how I think about it?  I used this phrase as a mantra for a lap or two and it felt good to me.

Turn our lives and our will over“.  This one is huge for me.  I’m usually trying to run the show.  I feel alone in the universe – who else is going to make the decisions, run the show?  The OA person I connected with on the phone when I was in such a difficult place on Wednesday morning suggested that before I go into the meeting I was feeling anxious about I practice thinking “Thy will be done”.  But who is this “thy”?  The great mystery.  And it worked!  I had a great, actually enchanted, visit with my friend.

This morning, when I was struggling with whether to have another little bit of a food that I had already overeaten, I interrupted the struggle by thinking, “Maybe I don’t have to fight the fight – I’ll just turn it over to my Higher Power.”  My first reaction to hearing myself think this was, “Where did that come from?  That’s not how I operate!”  But it felt kind of soothing – and it amazingly got easy to let go of having the food.  So this phrase, which for part of the time I shortened to just “Turn it over” (one of the most popular 12 Step phrases), really had a lot of power for me.

To the care of God, as we understand him”.  This is the one that most took me places Wednesday and especially today.  What if, when I turn my will and my life over to this Higher Power/Life/Spirit/Great Mystery, it genuinely has my best interests in mind?  No, more than that, cares for me.  What if, when I let go of trying to have it my way, i drop into being cared for, cared about?  After a couple of laps thinking the phrase “the care of God”, I really went for it: “Life loves me” (two laps), “I am loved” (another two laps).

Then I spent a couple of laps thinking about people in my life who I really do believe genuinely love me.  Two days ago, as I was sitting on this very same front porch writing, my 37-year-old roommate Will – who is a wonderful artist – brought out a beautiful drawing of the Buddha, which he had shown me on day 3 of him working on it and which I had enthusiastically loved.  He said, “This represents what it’s like for a bipolar person to be in balance – I want you to have it.”  That completely blew me away.  I spent about a lap today thinking about this gift – then going on to ways that other people (including Tom, my other roommate) have recently expressed care for me.

I probably don’t need to belabor the connection of all this with depression.   I more and more getting it that being out of control of my food is discouraging and depressing.  One of my core depressive mantras is “Nothing works”.  Opening up the possibility that OA might actually work for me – might lead to some real, concrete, positive change in my life – is really torqueing my stuff around.  Yesterday morning I was kind of jumping out of my skin with the internal battle between the forces of hope and despair.

But, as much as thinking that i might make significant change in how I eat is kind of blowing my mind, the 12 Steps are messing with me on a deeper level.  What if this program were to significantly change my relationship with Life as I understand it?  What if this network were to – as it promises – provide me with relationships that offer real support, real intimacy? (I’m already getting glimmers of this being true.)  What if working this program were to help me shift my life (not just my eating) in some healthy, life-affirming ways?  People talk about the 12 Steps changing the whole way they approach their lives.  I’ve been in the periphery of various 12 Step programs and people in recovery for much of my life, but I have never really thought about it as a system that could have a big impact on my life.

But who knows?

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Yesterday I wrote about my recent immersion in Overeaters Anonymous (OA).  I have mostly never had a problem with my weight and now am relatively thin, but I’m facing the fact that my problem with food goes beyond a serious sugar addiction – mostly controlled right now, with occasional serious slips – to chronic compulsive eating and a  chaotic relationship with food.

I described how I started the day yesterday significantly depressed (mania-depression 8) – and then bingeing on peanut butter left me even more messed up, and fearing that this would compromise the rest of my day, including a 10 a.m. visit with an important new friend.  So here’s how my day turned around, to where in the afternoon and evening I was calling myself an md 6 – in balance, really pretty happy.

Around 9 a.m., I got a call back from a new OA acquaintance whom I had called for support on Saturday and left a voice mail.  She did a great job of listening to and supporting me around my difficult morning.  In particular, talking about my upcoming (45 minutes from now – yikes!) visit with my friend – which i feared would be wrecked by negative carryover from my morning peanut butter binge – she gave me two especially helpful tips.  Neither was necessarily fresh or creative, but they did finally work for me.

  1. She reminded me that each new moment is fresh and in a real way completely separate from the previous one.  It is completely possible in each moment to step into a new reality that is not encumbered by what went on before it.  Much easier to say than to practice, and I was not sure I would be able to implement this strategy 45 minutes from now – but it sounded like a great direction.
    present moment - Tolle
  2. The second suggestion was even dicier for me.  She encouraged me to take a stance of “Thy will be done.”  Twelve Step programs have a spiritual base, but I have been reassured in these meetings and outreach calls by how people have complemented the God-talk with referring to “your higher power as you understand it”.  I don’t hold a belief in a personal God, but I identify myself as spiritual more than agnostic.

    I do believe – and sometimes actually experience – that life (I sometimes use a capital L) is in some mysterious way intelligent and benevolent, that it has our well-being in mind and continually gives us just the experiences we need for our healing and growth. How all  this works is definitely the great mystery, but I do cognitively believe it.  Emotionally, in my gut, however, I don’t moment to moment hold this as real.  Most of the time I do not walk around feeling supported by the universe – rather I live as if I am an isolated being in a chaotic universe.thy-will-be-done
    If I don’t think there is a personal “thy” out there to turn my will over to, then what is it to whom I would surrender?  Life?  A benevolent universe?  I aspire to this kind of surrender, but would it stand up to the heat of meeting with my friend in less than an hour?  I decided it was worth trying.

I pulled up outside of my friend’s house a few minutes early and worked on these two directions: “It’s a new moment” – check.  “Thy will be done.”  I just ran this mantra over and over in my head.  And it worked!  I immersed myself in the moment with my friend, surrendered to the flow of the dialogue and feelings between us – and we together created a really magical 90 minutes, before she needed to run off to a yoga class.

I left her house in a really great mood.  Then I went off to my gym to swim laps – and continued to have great experiences, which I will describe in another post.

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Last Friday my mood had lightened to a place where I was up to writing a post.  By Saturday I had really crapped out again and today is the first time I have again been able to get myself to write.

This morning I was in a lot of depressive pain (mania-depression 8), but have over the course of the day moved to an exceptionally balanced place.  And the source of today’s shift is a new development in my life that has surprised me as much as it may my readers.

I have, over the course of the last two weeks, progressively thrown myself into Overeaters Anonymous!  Over the first 10 days or so of this development, I did a whole lot of fussing about it – lots of resistance – and a lot of this had to do with depression.  “But my real problem is depression!  Everything else spills from this.  My chaotic, compulsive eating has everything to do with depression.  I can’t take my eye off that ball, and besides I have no real chance of improving the way I eat while I am so depressed….and no one is going to want to read my blog if I add in still one more big area of problems.”

Well, the easy answer to that last issue is that people who don’t want to read about my food issues can skip those posts – but those posts will make the point that people with bipolar disorder are bigger than that one very big issue, more complicated, and share struggles with other people who are not dealing with bipolar disorder.

And I am more and more believing that my chaotic, out of control relationship with food may cause depression as much as vice-versa.  It is really demoralizing to watch myself day-to-day have a really toxic, sometimes tormented connection with something as basic as eating.  I have for the last couple of years gotten more serious about my sugar addiction, which I had been naming for years but not before ever really hunkered down and tried to control.

Cookies - white flour and sugar.  I do love 'em, but very bad for this genuine sugar addict - and for anybody trying to stabilize their moods

Cookies – white flour and sugar. I do love ’em, but very bad for this genuine sugar addict – and for anybody trying to stabilize their moods

Over these two years, I have had periods of weeks or even months of being abstinent from sugar, but have always eventually had major slips and relapses.  And, though my chaotic eating habits have more and more tried to get my attention, I am only now starting to really face them – to treat them as a serious problem requiring a serious response.

I have attended four OA meetings in two weeks and have over the last five days made a bunch of outreach calls looking for support, actually connecting three times.  My eating is still way out of control – in some ways even more so than before these two weeks.  I am not close to finding a sponsor or developing a food plan. But I am beginning to see some deep wisdom in the 12 Steps, which I have floated around over the years – some Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings a long time ago and one OA meeting about two years ago – but never really engaged with.

Today I started the day with some terrific depression as soon as I got out of bed, then some really out of control eating – bingeing on peanut butter, a staple food of mine but one that I frequently abuse.

Peanut butter - I have relied on it as a quick and easy source of protein, but am now facing how often I abuse it, eating way more than I intended or immediately using it to try to balance out a sugar slip.

Peanut butter – I have relied on it as a quick and easy source of protein, but am now facing how often I abuse it, eating way more than I intended or immediately using it to try to balance out a sugar slip.

I then continued my compulsive eating with a bunch of other stuff, none of which was terrible in itself – but the stream of out-of-control eating left me demoralized and in a real brain fog.  i was getting ready to go meet an important new friend for tea – a meeting that I had been tremendously looking forward to but now felt would be compromised or outright wrecked by my miserable physical and emotional state.

That’s the md 8 (“definite physical contraction – my brain is in pain”) part of my day.  I’ll make another entry tomorrow about what turned all this around.

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