Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cheating and Why 12 Step Programs Aren't For Me

For most dieters, will power alone is simply never enough.

You start the day with the genuine desire to commit to whatever PLAN you're following, and then, without even thinking about what you're doing, you sabotage your best intentions and find yourself finishing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey and dabbing chocolate off your chin.

With every new day, dieters confront one of a gazillion tempting trigger foods. And we all know what happens when that trigger gets pulled.


Suddenly you're sitting in some cheesy faux leather banquette saying, “Waitress, I guess I picked the wrong day to give up Buffalo wings. Can I have a little more ranch dressing please?"

Most of the time, you are barely aware of your destructive behavior. Cheating can sometimes be a little like sleep eating, but without the Ambien.

Once the demoralized dieter has gone rogue, you give yourself some reckless license to overdo for yet another day. And from that first Buffalo wing onward, you're pretty much screwed as you move from meal to snack to mid-afternoon bite-sized nibble to post dinner refrigerator raid. Like pound markers on a scale, the "I've been naughty" needle just keeps moving from bad to worse.

Many years ago, my Grandma Bea told me one of the greatest cheater stories ever.

In the early 70s, she attended this weight loss program at Duke University in North Carolina where the privileged paid gobs of money to pretty much eat rice all day. 

Sounds like a great racket, right? 

Anyway apparently she was there with the rather rotund and hysterically funny comedian, Buddy Hackett, who happened to be friendly with my grandfather. She said one night, Buddy was so desperate for anything other than rice that he literally climbed out a window and escaped from the famed campus. A short while later, he struggled to crawl back through the window and showed up in her room with a very large pizza pie in hand.

Buddy was a very bad boy :P

Since I have been that proverbial "naughty boy" on literally every diet I have ever been on, I started to think about what I am doing now and why and how it differs so far from my other dieting experiences.

Some might say most diets are based on the concept of having friends support your goals. Weight Watchers certainly has very good support sessions, and other programs, like Overeaters Anonymous (OA), revolve around group meetings where you are encouraged to pick a "sponsor. " This person, who is sometimes a friend, is supposed to provide you with a check and balance system as you work your plan.

What I find different about the approach I am now taking is the way I have activated my friends and family, work associates, neighbors and yes, strangers. Instead of binge eating, I am binge friending.

In the past, before the liquid shakes and doctor supervised diets, I attended programs like Weight Watchers or OA. And while I was there, I was surrounded by folks who really didn't have the foggiest clue who I was. I never socialized with these people outside of the meeting I was attending. So if I cheated, no one really knew but me and my scale. I guess when I stepped into the bathroom and closed the door, I entered my own private caloric confessional. My diet diversions were my secret.

In the past month, because I have been so candid with so many people who I encounter on a regular basis, my commitment to what I am doing is such that I really am gonna have to think long and hard before I leap into that large plate of lasagna.

This social network dieting is clearly not for everybody. For me, it's like a doomsday plan that you only consider when everything else has failed. And when all is said and done, this idea may ultimately be relevant for only one person - me.

I say relevant because I can't really say helpful. At least not yet.

After nearly 5 weeks, I am not pretending as though I have found the dream fix. I just know that I am behaving differently than I have in the past partly because of my decision to loop in close and casual friends.

When you are big and you are trying to lose weight, it really shouldn't be shameful to ask your colleagues and friends for a little help. And it's not as though all that extra weight you're carrying is a state secret that you have brilliantly managed to keep hidden all these years. You reach a certain size and I think people can safely assume that there may be just a wisp of weakness within you.

Now I don't have a crystal ball and I have no way to determine how far this diet will take me and my family. All I know for sure is that we all want to have a fairytale ending with a long-term lifestyle change. But right now, forecasting success is a bit like asking my 8-year old what he wants to be when he grows up. So, let's agree to talk in a year or two and see where things really stand.

What I can say about this experience to date is that I am really thinking about how I got to this hefty place. To be brutally honest, some of these thoughts and feelings are issues I am just coming to terms with for the first time ever. As Fat Bastard might say in a thick Scottish brogue while choking back tears, "I've got to get in touch with someone.... Myself."

Blogging and having friends support what I am doing has triggered a lot of memories and thoughts about my life. It's my own form of Fat Bastard therapy.

Thinking about how harsh it is for the heavy is plenty of incentive to push me and my family on a different path. And perhaps best of all, I am not charging myself $200 bucks an hour to spread out on some plaid couch while spewing to a shrink about how all I want to do is shrink.

A little earlier I was talking about Overeater's Anonymous. Let me share a personal example of why traditional diet programs like this are a little weird for me.

I was about 13 when my mother drove me to a little known park just east of the Farmer’s Market and left me alone in the care of a complete stranger, an OA sponsor, who seemed to me to be an absolute 100% freak.

Now clearly, a parent exhibiting that kind of care-free behavior today would probably get reported to the authorities. So I have a question for my long-deceased and beloved mother which will surely never get answered: who leaves a young boy with a strange man in a nearly deserted park?

I know it was the early 70s, but honestly, what were you thinking? No, really! Completely inappropriate.

I was expecting to go to some touchy-feely group meeting, and instead I got one-on-one face time with Mr. Creepy.

I vividly remember sitting awkwardly with this bozo on a park bench as he started talking about OA and how I needed to turn my life over to the care of God, and blah, blah, blah. I kept waiting for others to arrive, but they never came. They probably had more sense than me or my mom. The whole time I was sitting there waiting for my mother to come back and pick me up, I must have been thinking that instead of listening to this wannabe diet bwana, I would rather be home placing a hot soldering iron on my tongue.

But it was my first experience with a 12-step program and I have been giving a lot of thought to the last 8 weeks of my life in a 12-step recovery kind of way.

I believe the episode with my back was that elusive and proverbial "bottom" that 12 steppers frequently talk about. You need to hit bottom before meaningful action can change your life.

For those of you who aren't aware of the 12 steps, the 1st step in recovery is admitting to yourself and to anyone who will listen that you are powerless. In my case I admit that I am powerless over food.

But that first step is not just about admitting you are powerless, it also says something about your life being completely unmanageable. Well, the rule book of life pretty much states when you are being pumped with drugs because you can barely move, your life has officially become unmanageable.

Yep, look for yourselves. It’s all right there in Chapter Fucked.

Don’t get me wrong. I probably would normally dig the I.V. cocktail had I not been in agony. So I guess, in the context of the 12 step thing, I have to put a little check mark next to the unmanageable part of my life.

Step 2 is all about believing that a higher power can restore you to sanity and I think I have that one covered too. I was absurdly high on that morphine and everything else they gave me to dull the pain of the blown back disc. And, I gotta say the whole experience definitely restored me to sanity. I never want to go thru that again, so I decided it was time to change. Seems sane to me. Chalk up another check in the “yes” column.

Step 3 involves turning your life over to the care of God, and damn if I am not batting 100% on this whole 12-step stuff.

As many of you know, I am in the care of a doctor who is monitoring my progress. Show me a doctor that doesn’t think they are God and I will show you a doctor with a PhD instead of an M.D.. So, while I have never seen a burning bush in her office or any member of her staff turn into a snake, I guess in a way, I have turned my life over to the care of the medical gods.

Step 4 covers the concept of taking a fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Hmmmm. Well, for starters, you are currently reading Exhibit “A” in my fearless moral and immoral inventory. Case closed. "Waiter, can I get another check please! Oh, and you never brought me that damn ranch dressing for the wings. No tip for you!"

Step 5 says you need to admit to yourself and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs. Does sharing your frailties to more than 650 facebook friends count? Probably so.

All right, the rest of the steps are all about God and making amends and praying and I am so NOT into the GOD particle in these steps. And this is why traditional recovery programs based on these tenets don’t work for me.

When half the program revolves around God, it's a religious movement, not a road to recovery. When I want to communicate with God, I'll go to my temple, thank you very much.

I walked through the door because I wanted to lose weight. I was not looking for a Stairway to Heaven. I like the Zeppelin song too much.

In the end, I believe I am the only one controlling my diet destiny and I don’t mean to trivialize the amazing works of 12-step recovery programs. Nor do I mean to offend anyone who relies on these passages to help them thru their day.

As I said, I have actually attended many 12 step meetings in my life. And as much as you may think the bizarre encounter with the guy in the park would have left me running for the hills, the great thing about these programs is if you find yourself alone in a park with a creepy guy who freaks you out, there are plenty of other meetings in the area that you can try and may even enjoy.

Let's just say when you are 13 and you are forced to hang with some coot you don't even know and he is trying to get you to talk about your food issues, it's probably not going to be a productive session.

I remember at the end of that insanely odd meeting, the guy asked if he could hold my hand and pray with me. I am sure to anyone observing this tender moment between man and boy, it was a scene torn from the cover of the NAMBLA newsletter.

There we were standing alone by the park bench, suddenly hand-in-hand. And as he recited the Lord's Prayer, I was just praying for this nightmare to be over.

Ultimately, I attended many Overeaters Anonymous meetings and they were held in real buildings with truly inspirational speakers. Imagine that! One of them was even held in my former High School cafeteria after school was closed for the day. Leave it to the food addicts to book a help session for fatties in a cafeteria. After that, I often wondered whether AA meetings were held in bars.

Had I been a bit more mature, these meetings may have actually been helpful to me, but all the talk of food and God just left me wanting to eat more. 

I figured if God exists, he has better things to do than worry about whether I am snacking on a ding dong.

So here I am, more than 30 years later, an expert in many diets with a magna cum laude advanced degree in screwing them up.

The reality is that any good, common sense food plan works. As the 12 steppers say, "it works if you work it."

When I had my own rare "moment of clarity," I looked at myself in the mirror, acknowledged my many shortcomings as a person and a serial dieter and decided I couldn't "work it" alone. So instead of turning once again to a bunch of strangers, I humbly informed my friends that I could use a hand if they witnessed me in a moment of weakness. Not that it's wise to encourage people to step in and take food from a hungry lion, but I don't have claws and my teeth are really no where near as sharp.

Instead of turning friends into the food police, I received resounding motivation, inspiration, encouragement and support. My facebook pals have become a personal cheer leading squad that roots for every single ounce we lose. In my mind, if I am thinking about cheating, they are continually on the sidelines and whether I am alone or not, I know they are constantly there and watching over me. And like any player getting cheered in a big game, the last thing you want to do is fumble the ball in front of the fans.

© Steve Elzer, 2009/ text only


  1. Hey! I saw your wife and son at Sunday school this past weekend, and they look great. I think a lot of us need to be better role models for our children like you guys. "Do as I say, not as I do", doesnt' work.

    Keep inspiring.

  2. Congratulations on the success to date, on the success your whole family is experiencing, and on making it inspiring for the rest of us to follow. As of today (no more delays!) I am losing with you. I know what I weighed on Monday morning of this week and I'm going to commit to Monday morning weigh-ins from now forward. I appreciate your bravery.

  3. Thanks Brian and Kirk! Truly appreciate the props.

  4. First, I am SO with you on the 12-step programs. Second, I know it's obvious but I have to quote the song: "We get by with a little help from our friends ..." and so it should be. You have been so much in my thoughts that you've made cameos in my dreams. Next thing, we'll be astral-projecting. Not to worry. I fly safely. Sending you good thoughts and love, Susanne

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