Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Relapse Is the Rule

Debbie has close to forty years of experience as a mental health nurse. From time to time I’ve heard her say, “Relapse is the rule,” and asked her about it as I contemplated my actions of the past week. What kind of week has it been? One in which I went “off plan” –some more or less as anticipated and planned, some most definitely not anticipated or planned.

Before I go further, it occurs to me that my perspective on what constitutes out of control eating may have shifted. I have seen enough television and read enough articles on eating disorders to know that there are differences among people on how they gauge a quantity of food. I am not suggesting I have an eating disorder—at least not at the anorexic end of the continuum. I merely look at that as an extreme example of how individuals might look at the same modest portion and one sees too much while another sees too little. I suspect that my “bingeing” this week would have barely registered on the seismograph of my old eating behaviors.  

It all started, innocently enough, when I once again faced the challenge of attending a wedding on Sunday, July 1. This affair was very informal and truth be told, I probably could have gotten away without eating anything and no one would have noticed. But based on both my philosophy and my practical experience at that wedding a month ago, I decided once again to celebrate with others by participating in the wedding meal. A significant difference this time was that I faced a potluck buffet! The groom’s family hosted the event in their lush Pacific Northwest garden, and they also grilled salmon, steak kabobs, and chicken complemented by a vast array of side dishes provided by the guests. I went through the line with reasonable determination and discrimination, selecting a small skewer of beef and a small portion of salmon. To that I added some green salad modestly dressed, a spoonful of chopped liver and I just had to taste that deviled egg. Ouch! At the time my plate looked positively barren compared to most others at the table, but now as I write it down, I’m less impressed with my restraint!

Speaking of restraint, or the lack thereof, the real issue became the amazing chopped liver. I needed just another taste. And another. And pretty soon, well let’s just say I may have hovered over the chopped liver a bit too long, smearing it on a succession of little oval slices of French bread. A couple of bites of wedding cake later and you can see what I meant by “more or less as anticipated and planned.” But let’s put this in context. The previous night, after we had landed in Seattle, we went to a pizzeria (please note, this was with my buddy from my halcyon New York pizza days) where I had zero tastes of pizza and one Optifast chocolate mint bar and club soda. Moreover, there we were on the road and I worked out in the gym in our building each morning! Just saying.

Everyone in our weight management group knows that I had publicly declared my intention to have a hot dog on the Fourth of July. On the evening of the 3rd I went shopping. I read the nutritional information on nearly every hot dog in the store. Amazingly I found the Applegate Super Natural Uncured Turkey Hot Dog with no nitrates and only 50 calories. Moreover it tasted great! As planned I downed it with brown mustard, sauerkraut, Diet Coke, and owing to the minimal calories of the dog itself I bought a smallish bag of Tim’s Cascade Potato Chips to share—only 90 calories per ounce, so a small handful would fit reasonably into my plan.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Close, but not really. Elliot put all the chips in front of us, and while I managed not to dump the whole bag down my throat with a single crunch, I did eat a few more handfuls than I had intended. Not to mention the corn chips and mango salsa Karen served. Other than a few bites of watermelon I resisted all other temptations that night and they were considerable, and I skipped two regular “feedings” to compensate for the other damage. Oh, wait, I forgot the deviled eggs. You see I had spent much of Wednesday packing up all the edibles in our house so that the house could be wrapped in canvas and lethal gas pumped into it to exterminate our resident termites. We couldn’t just dump a dozen eggs into the bags in which everything else was enclosed, so we boiled them. You see where I’m going with this—Fourth of July, heading to friends for grilled food, who wouldn’t devil the eggs?
Who wouldn't devil the eggs?

That brings us to Friday, the 6th—an unusual day. Given the house fumigation, Debbie and I took shelter Thursday and Friday nights at Karen and Elliot’s house (while they were in Southern California). The accommodations were superb, but the experience was still disorienting. In the weight management program we often talk about controlling our environment to be successful. These daysbefore, during, and after the fumigationmy environment was as out of control as I can imagine. Friday, I sat working in someone else’s kitchena kitchen that is well stocked under ordinary circumstances, but this day I had special knowledge of all the Independence Day leftovers. It was a ticking time bomb.  By the time I reached my midday feedings the leftover chips, salsa, chicken sausage, and sauerkraut had all emerged from cold storage and were being voraciously consumed.

Saturday, July 7, the Terminix tent having been removed, and fresh air having been reintroduced to our house, Debbie and I spent the day restoring order in the place in time to head for the San Jose Repertory Company. This was the last production in a series we had attended down there all year. We are well acquainted by now with many of the neighboring food establishments including one particularly enticing place with the yummiest Vietnamese chicken sandwiches. By this time I was in full justification mode. It had been a stressful few days surrounding the fumigation. It was a holiday week, etc, etc. I couldn’t get the darned thing out of my mind! I can say one thing: I ate that sandwich slowly and savored every delectable bite.
It had been a stressful few days surrounding the fumigation.
Now you have some understanding (I also must confess, I have not chronicled every indiscretion of the week) of why I asked Debbie about relapse being the rule. She explained that with most behavior change, whether relating to addiction or not, it is common for people to revert at some point to the prior behavior despite best intentions. The important thing is to look at it with compassion and not to judge, just to note it and move back to the new behavior. I did a little Googling about this and discovered that not all are in agreement with this concept. Some argue that to imply that relapse is “part of recovery” is flawed for a list of reasons, and that relapse needs to be considered as part of the original problem. Be that as it may, I’m choosing Debbie’s approach as much as possible. Today I executed the weight loss program flawlessly. Tomorrow is another day. As they say in the 12-step programs (ironically the subject of the play we saw), I’ll simply take it one day at a time.


  1. Love your article, amigo. I know someone who brings her own food to buffets -- that's how clear she has learned that she won't be able to restrain herself. (Not that I recommend that at a wedding; that would be weird.)
    I love your wife's comment, too. So true!

  2. I think we're on the same wave length. I went an entire week without a perfect program day, and am having trouble getting back on track. I find when I eat off program, I am hungrier and want to eat more. But I like Debbie's experienced perspective and, like you, I think it's vital for us to eat mindfully, slowly and enjoy every bite. But still can't help by polish off my plate. I realize, for me, it's important that I journal my binges and accept them and move on to "one day at a time." Thanks for sharing.