Every single time I visit the ocean, I learn something new. I have learned how to grieve, I have learned how to let go, and I have learned how to accept the day-to-day fluctuations of recovery. So, I was excited to go on this year’s trip, anticipating a brilliant lesson learned under the hot sun and in the cool surf.
And I waited.
I swam in the ocean, bobbing around on sometimes-rough waves, a turquoise and black clad buoy pulled out to sea with wave swell one minute, then lifted high above the surf and dashed into the frothy whiteness the next. I loved every minute of my time in the water. It is my second home, and one of the only places where I feel both at peace and energized simultaneously.
And I waited.
I strolled the boardwalk with my family, stopping to ride the Ferris wheel and roller coaster. Laughing at how high we towered over the people below. Feeling my stomach lurch with each rise and plummet.
And I waited.
We enjoyed delicious dinners to the sound of the ocean’s roar. Mediterranean kabobs one night. Vegetable spring rolls the next.
And I waited.
I tried not to push the message. I tried to remain passive, a patient receiver. But by the last day, I felt the tiniest ache of disappointment creep over me. Maybe the ocean had taught me all it could. Maybe I was full of its teachings.
The morning after we got back from the beach I awoke to find my lips swollen ten times their usual size and covered in painful blisters. I was aching, freezing, and felt like I couldn’t breathe. I slept. I slept for five days, waking for only as long as my son needed me.
When I finally felt well enough to get dressed and rejoin humanity, I took a long hot bath. Maybe 15 minutes after I slid into its velvety grip, I felt something touching the bottom of my right foot. Thinking that a washcloth or body sponge might have fallen into the water, I searched for the offender with my toes. I found nothing. Minutes later the sensation returned.
I sat up and felt my right foot with my hands. To my horror, thick sheets of dead skin were hanging off the bottom of my foot. I had never seen anything like it. Unlike peeling from a sunburn, this skin shedding was extreme, enough so that the skin left behind was silky, new. I worried about the skin plugging the drain, so as I peeled off each piece and piled it on the rim of the tub, marveling at the quantity. Both feet were in the same state, and the work took me at least a half an hour to complete.
I was so amazed by this phenomenon that I texted a picture to my brother who works late at night. He sent me the expected awe and disgust: “Damn, sister!”
I got out of the tub and discovered that the new skin on my feet was hot, so hot that it hurt to walk on them. I quickly stumbled into my room and propped by feed up on my bed—cooling them beneath the ceiling fan.
It took me awhile to figure out why my feet were peeling in such a painful way. I remembered the many trips I made across the burning beach. The sand was incredibly hot while we were there. The temperature regularly hovered near 100 during our stay. In fact, the sand was so hot that even with shoes, I cried as I made my way back to the hotel from the ocean. One day it was so hot that I screamed out loud and peed myself from the pain.
As I sat there on my bed, skinned feet cooling in the breeze, the ocean’s lesson revealed itself to me at last.
Like my wounded feet, the damage we do to our bodies from compulsive eating (and other behaviors) doesn’t always manifest itself immediately. It might take days, weeks, months, or even years for the caustic results to appear. In fact, it wasn’t until we went to the beach that I realized the toll a recent relapse had taken on my physical, mental, and spiritual health. Although I was back on track and had been for months, the excessive weight and inflammation from bingeing remained. My joints hurt. I got tired easier. And I couldn’t ride all the rides with my son at the amusement park.
I learned from my trip to the beach that even if in the moment I believe that my actions have no enduring consequences that doesn’t make it so. I think that’s why food addiction is so hard to conquer. We get the high from the food, then we berate ourselves with guilt and shame. But that is not the end. Eventually, we gain weight, develop high cholesterol, suffer from diabetes, and/or joint pain. We become more depressed, more anxious, and more suicidal. It happens slowly, though, so slowly that it is hard for us to connect the two: overeating and a troubled life. The burning sand and my peeling feet.
It took several months of relapse before my health began to decline, so I believed as I had for decades while in the throes of the disease that I was somehow getting away with eating family size packages of Oreo cookies and whole loaves of crusty white bread. My depression returned, my body ached, my soul felt distant, out of reach.
As the bottom of my feet started to heal, I began to realize the toll relapse had taken on my body and for the first time I wondered if it might be too late to rally as I have done for the last 30 years. Will it be able to heal itself again? Will I be able to maintain my eating plan this time? What happens if I do manage to regain my health? Will I hide in the food again if a man so much as winks at me?
Through patience I have grown to accept that I can only do my best. I can only stay the course. I can only continue my efforts. I cannot know the future. I cannot delete the past. All I have is this moment and the choice to live it well. I hope that I never relapse again, but really, I am just grateful that I am not relapsing now.
**Note** This entry is an excerpt from my newest book, The Optimistic Food Addict: Rebounding from Relapse (Fall 2017).
If you want to read more writing like this, please see my other books on the subject of food addiction: The Optimistic Food Addict’s Recovery Journal and Activity Workbook and The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.
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