Confessions of an Ideal Protein Coach: Don't Drive Off the Cliff

About 5 weeks ago, just before I decided to do this very public restart on Phase 1, I had a heart-to-heart with my best friend.  We were meeting for coffee and I'd been agonizing for days over some feedback I'd received from someone who told me I'd let her down by being so off track with my own journey.  I felt terrible.  I'm a bit co-dependent after my upbringing, so I tend to take too much responsibility for others' wellbeing even on a good day. Having someone tell me I'd let them down ripped me up inside because I'm in a position of leadership as a clinic owner, and I do feel like I owe it to my clients and employees to walk my talk.  I had already been feeling embarrassed for months about my weight gain. It's one of the harsh realities for those of us with food issues. When we're off track, there's just no hiding it. Unlike someone who struggles privately with drinking, gambling, shopping, etc., our problems are obvious to everyone. You can't hide significant weight gain no matter how many loose fitting tunic you buy.  Everyone notices even if they are too polite to say.  So I was already walking around feeling totally exposed and embarrassed, but adding someone else's disappointment on top was really messing with me.

My friend gave me one of the best, most honest, loving and helpful pep talks I've ever experienced. (There's a reason she's my best friend).  There was so much wisdom in what she shared, I could seriously write a dozen posts about the many insights sparked by our conversation. But for the sake of brevity and the point I want to make today, the nutshell was that she reassured me of my worth as a human being and encouraged me to "own" my struggles because they could ultimately make me a better coach and a stronger person.  I credit her for the inspiration to blog my journey and share it with you all.  She helped me feel brave rather than ashamed.  And that day, helped me feel compassion for the person who was blaming me for her troubles because I have definitely tried to pin blame on situations or people outside of myself to avoid having to claim responsibility for my own choices, too.  I get it.  I have broad shoulders and a new-found ability to admit that my struggles affect others. I can see it.

Today, though, a particular part of that pep-talk is ringing in my ears, and I want to share it with you.

My friend observed, very lovingly and carefully -- afraid of hurting my feelings, but loving me enough to say it anyway -- that when I cheat or go off Phase 1, I tend to go OFF!  Like WAAAAAY OFF!  She said I don't just drive over the white line and back onto the road again, I drive straight off a cliff.  She said I always seem happy and joyful when I do it - like Julie Andrews singing and spinning on the hill in the Sound of Music…. "The hilllls are aliiiiive, with the taste of choco-late!  And ice cream…. And bread and pizza and everything else I decide to eat because I'm OFF!" 

It stung. The truth often does. But it only stung the small, prickly egoic part of me that wants to believe I'm getting away with things.  Denial is powerful. I pretend that people don't notice my off the cliff behavior just because they usually don't mention it directly.  They are too polite even if they are concerned.

But a deeper part of me heard and recognized what she was talking about. She was totally right. It was extremely rare for me to have a small splurge and get right back on track.  I think there are several reasons why I do this, but I was mostly unconscious or resigned to this behavior before she brought it so vividly to my attention.

The first reason I think it happens is one that is common among people with insulin resistance.  We tend to have the opposite reaction to a large intake of carbs compared to "normal" people.  This study on insulin resistant women with PCOS (a hormonal disorder) showed unusually high activity in the areas of the brain associated with desire and reward after heavy carb consumption.  So instead of feeling satiety like most people do, we feel a strong desire for MORE - immediately!  And these cravings come from the same areas of the brain as cravings for drugs, alcohol, etc.  Finding this study felt like validation for what I've felt since I was a kid -- if I start eating concentrated carbs, I have trouble stopping.  I sense this at the root of my compulsive overeating…

 Insulin Resistant Brain Study - Hunger

Insulin Resistant Brain Study - Hunger

Secondly, I recognize I have very black and white thinking.  I'm either ON or OFF Phase 1. I'm either GREAT or AWFUL - depending on how well I'm doing on the diet. My self-talk is extremely punitive if I'm not perfect. Perfectionism is something I've struggled with for decades and decades.  Mistakes lead me to beat the crap out of myself. The critic in my head tells me how weak I am, what an imposter I am, how hopeless I am…  When I feel this way, I start lying and avoiding people who support my health… I become lonely and depressed.  It's not long before I turn to my old stand-by foods to soothe my emotional pain.  Then my body feels awful - my knees ache, my thinking becomes dark and circular, I walk around with a pit in my stomach… It's a dark downward spiral. The tsunami of negativity following a cheat swamps me and the last thing I feel like doing is starting phase 1 again…   I always think of it that way.  It always feels like a restart even after one splurge meal… I don't allow myself the grace of calling it a slip very often. Instead I call it being "OFF," and hurl myself over the cliff for MORE. 

Driving off a cliff had become a psychological AND physiological habit.  I had stopped even fighting it.  Until my friend helped me wake up and see the pattern.

This is significant because the week leading up to Thanksgiving provided many opportunities to observe my predisposition toward this habit.

My boyfriend's birthday was Tuesday.  I arranged dinner with friends at a great local restaurant, and I asked one of our friends (a renowned pastry chef) to make my BF's favorite cheesecake for dessert.  Now, just for reference, cheesecake is one of my all-time favorites and this one was going to be spectacular.  I started wanting it the moment it was planned.  I thought about it a lot, and even dreamed about it once.  I started negotiating with myself about having some… just a little bit… I'd been so good for weeks! I deserved it, didn't I?  I'd just have a small slice at the birthday party and then be right back on track the next morning.   Or maybe I'd have a **little** bit the next day, too, and then get right back on.  But the next day would be Thanksgiving… if I was already cheating, maybe I should just take Thanksgiving day off, too, and restart Friday.  Or Monday. Or December 1st.  Or maybe I should just take the Holidays off and restart my restart in January.  People would understand. I would find some way to explain it so it would sound smart. Planned. Intentional. 

HOLY MACKEREL! My mind goes to wild extremes in just a few seconds if I let it.  But this time I saw it.  Here's how it went once I became more conscious.

We went to a Tex-Mex restaurant for the birthday party.  I had decided before we arrived that I would have a reasonable meal and a tiny piece of the cheesecake.  The planned cheat was making me very nervous.  Not only because I knew how hard it usually was for me to contain cheats, but also because I'd be doing it in front of all of my friends (including my best friend) and they would know exactly what was happening.  And so would GOD.  My inner perfectionist likes to tell me I'm disappointing God if I have a bite of anything not on Phase 1.  As I evolve on my spiritual journey, I am able to quickly replace thoughts like that with a more loving concept of a higher power, but this judgmental, eye-rolling, frustrated God is a knee-jerk relic from my childhood who likes to pop into my mind whenever I am battling shame.  I took a quiet internal moment to center myself.  I prayed and asked for guidance… It helped. 

But then, we were told there'd be a long wait in the uber-crowded bar before our party could be seated…  The cacophony of sound, competition for seats, irritatingly slow service and my usual social anxiety launched a non-stop stream of urges to order margaritas, chips, salsa…  I resisted.  (Miraculously).  Once we were seated, I ordered steak fajitas with mushrooms (a bit oily, but mostly ok).  I resisted chips, appetizers, drinks… The restaurant smelled fantastic!  Everyone was laughing, drinking, eating… My food was delicious but I kept wanting the things I couldn't have… I ended up eating some cheese and guacamole, rationalizing it as fat instead of carbs.  I could feel my resolve weakening…

When it was time for dessert, I asked for my tiny piece of cheesecake. Mortifyingly, my sweet BF served me first, and it felt like a white-hot spotlight burned down upon me -- Sherene, on Phase 1, blogging everything for the world to read, in front of all her friends, about to cheat with cheesecake…  (Lordy, how self-absorbed I was at that moment!).  I stared at the tiny dessert. I battled rational and irrational thoughts as I faced it. All this fuss over such a small thing. Maybe I should've asked for a bigger piece since I was feeling all the shame anyway… No.  Don't drive off the cliff, Sherene.  I took a bite… overwhelmingly sweet! OMG! It's unreal how hard sugar hits you the first time you eat it after a month without.  It was wonderful.  Just as good as I had imagined. I savored it, enjoyed it.  Appreciated it. And at the end, amidst internal screams for more, I put my fork down and stopped.

I stared at the empty plate, recognizing it as the edge of my metaphorical cliff.  Asking for seconds would equate to flinging myself over the edge.  I noticed familiar thoughts forming… There was a lot of cheesecake leftover.  They'd surely send it home with us.  I could make some excuse to have another piece later that night.  Or the next day…. Or…. I took a deep breath.  I felt myself teetering… 

Don't drive off the cliff, Sherene.  I tried being grateful for the treat, but telling myself it was over.  It had been scrumptious and worth it.  But it was done.  Except it wasn't.  The pull was strong.  My mind kept spinning.  So I put my fork down and prayed.  "God, help me step back from the cliff.  Lend me your strength to stay on the path you've guided me to. I can't do it on my own.  I'm in your hands. Thy will be done."   And I let go.  It worked.  I got out of the restaurant without any more cheats. 

I wish I could say that was the end of it, but it wasn't.  Fortunately I knew enough to brace myself for the inevitable cravings which came the next afternoon.  It's the price I always pay.  To get through them, I added 2 extra shakes and tried to ignore the siren call from underneath the cake dome in my fridge.  I managed, but it was hard. 


The following day was Thanksgiving. I was still feeling shaky and worried about how I'd do at dinner. I was planning to stay on Phase 1 and I did for the most part!  My resolve was a little sketchy but the accountability I had built up with my friends/family kept me in line.  At one point, one of the kids asked for help getting dessert.   I grabbed a plate and headed toward the Harry Potteresque dessert table, at which point I heard a friend say, "Hey, I thought you already had your cheat this week…"  My small, egoic, prickly mind yelled, "F-you, f-you, f-you!!!"  Because I had already begun considering grabbing a little something for myself while I was at it…  But my higher self, my SANE self yelled, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!"  Because I recognized that he was trying to help me. He was being brave enough to risk my small mind hating him a little in order to give my higher self what I'd asked for - support for my journey toward health.  I smiled at him and found it suddenly easy to return with just one dessert for the kidlet.

The total damage on Thanksgiving included a few cubes of cheese, a tablespoon of gravy, and an extra restricted while folks were eating pie. But overall I was proud of myself. I wasn't perfect, but I didn't use that as an excuse to drive off a cliff. I minimized the damage and white-knuckled it back onto the road.  I surrendered myself to the support of my friends, family and higher power and let them keep me accountable to the promises I'd made to myself. 

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and if you didn't, I hope you don't drive too far off the cliff.  You can stop now. You can recover.  It doesn't have to be the same as it's always been.  Sending you strength, peace, love prayers and support.  Thanks for listening.