Q: What was your relationship with chocolate and ice cream?
Jennifer Karchmer (jk): For several years, I had been going through a cycle of binge eating that included anything with chocolate on it. I would have eaten chocolate covered ants if I could get my hands on them. On and off since attending grad school in 2005, I got into a late night habit of going to the convenience store and loading up on candy and ice cream, coming back to my apartment and studying or writing my thesis. The food was my companion.
My go-tos were Dark Chocolate Kit Kats, Oreo’s, M&Ms and Ben Jerry’s Chunky Monkey or Chubby Hubby flavors. I would go crazy for those chocolate-covered pretzels. The salt against the sugar would send me to the moon. It was a serious addiction. I would eat thousands of sugar calories in just one sitting.
Q: How did you consume that much food and not get sick, or gain a lot of weight?
jk: That was the thing. It seemed like I was in this game with myself about how much I could consume, almost testing myself, "Hey, look at what I ate. I’m not sick and I’m not crazy obese." I’ve always been pretty active in terms of walking and biking and exercise so I have a pretty average weight anyway. I became a bike commuter in 2012 after getting rid of my car so I created a built-in exercise routine getting around. I ate healthy during the day—a sensible breakfast and lunch—but after dinner, when the sun went down, I gravitated toward sugar like it was a lifeline.
For me it was not just any kind of candy… it was dark chocolate! I was going nuts for donuts and mocha lattes too. I’m 5’4” and was pushing close to 160 pounds, which isn’t crazy big or anything but I knew for myself that I was getting heavier and bigger for my size. I didn’t feel good when I was buying clothes. I had moved up from a size 8 or 10 to now a 12 and even 14 when it came to jeans. But I kept saying to myself, “Why aren’t I 200 pounds with all of this junk I’m eating.” I really couldn’t believe why the weight wasn’t so massive so I just kept going. I definitely was on a binge cycle but thankfully never considered purging. Amy Schumer does a bit about not being able to vomit after eating (it’s very funny actually) saying that it's not available to everyone. I never considered bulimia. It just wasn't my thing. I actually knew when I wanted to stop eating but it was only after I had gobbled down a sleeve of Oreos, three chocolate donuts and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
I was doing plenty of self-talk, telling myself I needed to stop, it will happen “tomorrow,” “just one more day,” how about “on Monday,” how about “on Friday,” how about on “the first of the month,” all of those scheduling games, but I didn’t have any tools.
jk: I woke up every day feeling guilty. I saw the wrappers and the ice cream container in the garbage can and felt like, "There I go again." I knew it was a problem from a health standpoint but every time I went to the doctor for a checkup, all of my tests were fine. Blood pressure: 110/80. Resting pulse: fine. Cholesterol: fine. No tummy aches or sitting on the toilet for hours or anything like that. Everything seemed fine so there was nothing telling me to stop, except for the fact that intellectually, I knew it was unhealthy to be pigging out like this.
Q: Did you ever have a medical diagnosis?
jk: No, I self-diagnosed. I remembered learning about diabetes in middle school health class that by the time I was 50, if I kept up this diet, I’d be pre-diabetic or at some point, it would catch up with me. I knew it was much more than a sugar addiction so I went to some OA (Overeaters Anonymous) meetings. I was familiar with other 12-step programs and figured this could be something to try. I knew stuffing my face like that, when I wasn’t hungry, was an emotional response. I was using food to feed an internal hunger of loneliness, fear and who knows what else. I was stuffing down feelings and trying to hide.
jk: Well, leading up to the day (June 1, 2014) that I stopped eating chocolate and ice cream, I had gone for probably about two years straight—literally every single night—eating a pint of ice cream along with the other chocolate treats. That might not seem like a lot to some people, and again the scale didn’t show it, but the habit was undeniably unhealthy. Sometimes, I couldn’t believe that I was consuming that many calories in one sitting. Meantime, I was doing plenty of self-talk, telling myself I needed to stop, it will happen “tomorrow,” “just one more day,” how about “on Monday,” how about “on Friday,” how about "on the first of the month," all of those scheduling games, but I didn’t have any tools. Finally, I’d feel somewhat accomplished when I’d go a few days here and there scaling back a touch, taking a break from the ice cream at least, but still, I grabbed for the chocolate. Anything in a bag was a trigger for me: M&Ms or chocolate-covered espresso beans. Candy in bulk! I could never eat just a handful and be done. Finally I’ve tapped into the essence for me and it seems I’m attracted to the sense of abundance, like I need to “stock up” or someone is going to take it away so get it now. Thanks to my inner work, I believe that's me acting out abandonment issues wanting to hold onto something.
Finally, on May 31, 2014, I saw the film “Fed Up.” It’s a well-done documentary narrated by Katie Couric about the sugar industry. It was eye-opening how it showed the effects of sugar on the brain, similar to cocaine.
On top of it, I learned that the nutritional labels we’re trained to look at don’t even list sugar as a component so it’s hidden or downplayed in many foods. The film goes on to have a 10-day challenge to help you eliminate sugar from your diet so I tried it. I left the theater with my friends and said "I’m going to do this," starting tomorrow of course. I woke up the next day committed. I stopped eating apples because fruit has natural sugars. I stopped eating anything white like bread, rice, pasta and most carbs. I told myself I would try this for ten days so I kept track on a calendar, marking each day. Day One: check. Day Two: check. Day Three: check. By Day Ten on my calendar I figured I’d keep going so now I was on to Day 11, 12, 13 and so on. I kept counting on that calendar until day 100 and by then, more than three months in, had established a new way of eating.
I can’t sugarcoat it (pun intended). It was freakin’ hard. Those first ten days were the toughest and the first month having the addiction on my mind 24/7, fighting the cravings and desire. It's a reprogramming, like a computer. Seriously, you're tracking every moment you feel like you want your goods (in my case, chocolate and ice cream) and then immediately changing the habit associated with the desire so it goes on all day and all night. I was preparing to leave the US for France so I had a lot of packing up, typing up loose ends, passport paperwork and excitement in my life so I kept busy doing those things.
After a few weeks, I noticed that my cravings for the sweets had subsided, just a little bit. They were somewhat muted. The desire, the wanting, the "Oh yea, I want chocolate" wasn’t on my radar as much and it wasn't needling at my brain. That was a hopeful feeling reminding me, “OK, I can do this.” Honestly, I was pissed, and surprised, that I hadn't lost any weight with the new eating habits. Not that my goal was weight driven in the first place but I was as surprised at this time that my body hadn't adjusted to the decrease in calories as it hadn't ballooned all those years when I was gobbling down thousands of calories during the height of the addiction. It really wasn't until about January 2015, about six months later, that I stood on the scale and noticed a weight difference. I had lost about 10 or 12 pounds and was wearing the size 8 jeans again.
I can’t sugarcoat it (pun intended). It was freakin’ hard. Those first ten days were the toughest and the first month having the addiction on my mind 24/7, fighting the cravings and desire. It's a reprogramming, like a computer.
jk: That’s the thing: it wasn’t about will power at all. I turned the idea of deprivation on its head because I know diets and will power don’t work. Making yourself suffer in the face of a desire is futile. After the ten days were up and I was successful with that phase, I knew I needed a lifelong mantra—a foundation to stick to in the face of cravings. Instead of telling myself, "No, you cannot have chocolate” when I would see it at the store or on a dessert menu or at a party, I went deeper into my needs and what really drove me to wanting the Kit Kat or ice cream in the first place. After 100 days, the physiological sugar cravings were muted so I knew it was an emotional desire when I did feel the craving. I knew if I ate even one little morsel, say a chocolate chip, then it would start the cycle again, perhaps like the cycle for an alcoholic.
In those moments of cravings, I said: “I am not a slave to food. I will not be a slave to food.” If I was on the street or in a store, I would whisper it to myself or said it in my head. At home, feeling this way I would say it aloud, loudly even, or write it down. I have notebooks of pages of “I am not a slave to food” kind of like you see in the scene in "The Shining" when Shelley Duvall finds Jack’s manuscript in the typewriter: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” (Aside, Jennifer says: "haha, that is a crazy scene from a scary Stephen King story, and I wasn't manic when I wrote my mantra. I do believe there is power in the repetition of words, manifesting that which we want to believe is true. So let's liken it more to the opening chalkboard gag in "The Simpsons" where Bart is seen writing a repetitive phrase every episode. For him, it's a punishment, but again, the iteration of a positive phrase, moving energy from mind to hand, or keyboard, creates momentum.)
Deep down I knew that food had become my master; I, its slave. My past behaviors showed me that was the relationship and I was appalled at myself for the lengths I would go in search of a chocolate candy bar or ice cream. Rain, sleet, snow, cold, I would go to the store for the candy and chocolate, at midnight no less, on my bike!
The thing was, it was easy to get my goods. Every street corner in the United States has a 7-11 or convenience store. Unless I plunked myself down in the middle of the Amazon, I would have to accept that I live in a place, in a world, where there is an abundance of my trigger foods. Depriving myself wasn’t going to be something I or anyone else could reasonably sustain.
Freedom is a theme in my life—autonomy, independence. When I accepted that food, in particular chocolate and ice cream, were my masters, I let them go finally so that I could lead myself.
Q: How have you been able to stay on this regimen, free of this addiction, since 2014? Especially during the holidays, going parties or pot luck dinners, seeing a dessert menu. You lived in France too, Jennifer?
jk: There sure is plenty of peer pressure about having the dessert. People say, “Go ahead and have it, a little bit won’t hurt.” They don't realize, it's like saying to a coke addict, "Just have one line (of cocaine), no big deal." While living in France, I was surrounded by chocolate croissants and decadent desserts. I accepted and continually reminded myself that even one morsel would send me back to that master-slave relationship, and I knew I never wanted to be chained to something like that ever again.
Today, it’s almost as if those foods are invisible to me. When I go to the grocery store, of course I see the chocolate chip cookies, cakes and Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer section, but I’ve created a new trigger for myself. This one says, “I don’t eat that,” and I have a feeling of calm. I replaced the feelings of craving with a feeling of calm. “I am enough,” is another mantra I’ve adopted. It may seem overly simple or “New Age-y” but what it means for me is that I don’t have to fill a hole—metaphorically or literally—in my tummy. I don’t need food to stuff in this place where I feel a lacking because I know that in this moment, I am enough of a person and everything is OK.
In the first few weeks and months of stopping the chocolate and ice cream, I avoided the convenience store down the street where I used to go every night. Because it’s located on a main street, during the day, when I’d pass by, I’d keep my eyes straight ahead and mutter to myself, “There’s nothing in there for me.” If I wanted buy a newspaper or a pack of gum, I would turn the corner and go to a different store.
To this day, about once a month or so, I wake up in the morning with that guilty feeling like, “Oh no. I ate chocolate last night.” It’s sort of a panic and then disappointment, like I’ve ruined all of this work and re-opened the door. Then I shake out of it and realize it was indeed a dream and I feel better. I’m still analyzing that one.
I read ingredients labels much more now and if I see a hint of chocolate or cocoa or even carob because it’s similar, I don’t eat it. On a few occasions while living in France, I ordered a cappuccino and the server brought it with sprinkled chocolate powder on top. When the server left, I gave it to a friend and ordered another, without the powder. Sometimes I say I’m allergic to chocolate, which draws plenty of sympathetic “Awws.” It’s true. I have an allergy to these foods, which causes me to over-consume so I avoid them.
Sometimes I say I’m allergic to chocolate, which draws plenty of sympathetic “Awws.” It’s true. I have an allergy to these foods, which causes me to over-consume so I avoid them.
jk: OA is a 12-step program that’s rooted in giving up control and admitting that my life has become unmanageable. This was very true. I was unable to manage the food intake. I thought I was managing it my way, and frankly I could have continued for many years to come with no detrimental effects. It really wasn’t affecting my relationships, my work or even my health, yet deep down, it knew it was just a matter of time. I recognized, finally, that I would surrender, saying to myself, “Hey, this is ridiculous.” I love myself too much to see where this is going. I’m either going to be ill, or seriously overweight.
What was interesting about OA was that people are all shapes and sizes. It’s a stereotype that it’s a bunch of overweight women. In my meetings, I met skinny men, underweight women, and people with average weights like myself. I introduced myself as “Jennifer, an emotional eater” because I didn’t consider myself “an overeater.” That may seem like a word play but as a writer and lover of language, I believe in the power of words so identifying myself correctly and then applying that language is important. I was eating healthy meals during the day and binging at night and knew my eating habits were emotional in nature.
Like some others in OA, I was ashamed of my eating and did it in the privacy of my apartment where I could be alone, stuffing my face, feeling sorry for myself. After buying all that candy, I’d never go sit in a park and eat. I would go home or to a private place to consume it.
Q: We hear about "rock bottom" in addiction. Did you have a rock bottom moment or a time when you just couldn’t believe how much you had eaten?
jk: Yes, one time after staying up all night (I was also struggling with bouts of insomnia), it was coming up to 6 a.m., the sun rising, and I decided to go to the donut place that was opening soon. I ordered a mocha and four chocolate donuts and plunked down in the corner to read the paper. It was a public place but at that hour, it was empty and I made sure I didn’t recognize anyone who came in. After powering through the donuts, I still had some of my coffee left and figured I needed more food to go with the beverage. When I went to the counter, instead of ordering one more donut, I asked for two. It was like I couldn’t accept that I would have just one more. By the end of the morning, I had eaten six donuts and gulped down a tall mocha. I was stuffed, and felt ashamed. I shook my head: “I never want to eat like this again,” I said to myself. “I won’t.” With my belly protruding, I couldn’t imagine feeling hungry ever again, or desiring more food. I walked home and fell into a deep sleep (well, passed out). That evening, I was at it again, getting the Ben & Jerry’s and chocolate candy. By then, I knew I was in the cycle.
These tools won’t work for everyone. You have to do the personal work and that will only come when you’re ready, truly ready.
jk: I believe that everyone is different so there is no One Size Fits all to addressing any addiction, like just go to OA or do this diet or see a therapist or write in your journal every time you have a craving. All of those things taken together may be what works for you, but you will only know what works until you’ve tried anything that speaks to you.
My best advice is to be open to anything and everything. I think of it like a combination bike lock with the four dials and you’ve forgotten the code. In effect, to break the code, you could fiddle with it to try every conceivable combination of numbers that will open it. I feel like my addiction is like that. Just keep slapping ideas up against the wall and see what sticks. Some people swear by a 12-step program, others abstinence, others hypnotherapy, or whatever.
All I can say is what worked for me and that is getting to the deepest root of my cravings, this master-slave relationship and chipping away at what was driving me to those foods. Sure, the 10-day sugar challenge got the ball rolling for me but that just took away the surface symptoms. I do believe that momentum is a powerful tool to help anyone out of addiction (and in another blog post, I write about how getting a colonoscopy rid me of alcohol).
Success is predicated on environment. For me, I took myself out of the environment of the sweets in the form of avoiding the convenience store, which was difficult in a practical everyday sense. Also, my friends were supportive, either not eating chocolate in front of me or on my birthday offering a non-chocolate treat with a candle, which was very nice.
I really believe the deprivation idea is key. Rather than feeling the lack of the chocolate candy and ice cream—the stuff that I wasn’t eating—I replaced that notion with the good things I was consuming like healthy foods I love or an overabundance of greens (broccoli, kale, salad) instead of white (sugar, pasta, carbs). Of course, there is a chemical addiction to the sugar and for that, I suggest working with a medical professional, a doctor or nutritionist. For the emotional stuff, create a mantra, something that speaks to your deepest core. I have a meditation practice and one day the phrase, “I am not a slave to food, I will not be a slave to food” came to me so I wrote it down and decided it was my thing. It is simple and it works for me. In the beginning, when I was home or alone, I would say it out loud or if I were in the store or on the street, I would whisper it or say it in my head. Writing it too, as I've mentioned, is very powerful—seeing the words on paper or on screen, making the mind/hand connection.
These tools won’t work for everyone. You have to do the personal work and that will only come when you’re ready, truly ready. I can admit that now, because it's embarrassing to have gone on for so long, but for several years, I was not ready. Just not ready. I really wanted to eat like I was and consume the chocolate, the donuts, the ice cream. They were my companions and it was fun going to the store, seeing the colorful candy wrappers, making the choices of what I wanted that night. Finally, something triggered in me to stop. I don’t know exactly what it was—the information in the documentary, Katie Couric’s voice, the 10-day sugar challenge or the fear of finally being ill or obese. I don't think from an intellectual standpoint I or anyone—a therapist, a counselor, a nutritionist—will ever know what has helped me. But the momentum, the knowing that today, I can look back and recognize that those behaviors are a thing of the past is a great achievement. It shows me that I can do anything not from a superhero standpoint but from an Anything is possible standpoint. As a professional writer, I avoid cliches (like the plague! LOL) but I can't overstate the power of human understanding and similarity: if I can overcome my addiction, anyone can.