Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Power of Positive Thinking

I am coming up on five years of back-to-back abstinence in OA-HOW, a structured way of working the Overeaters Anonymous (OA) program, a Twelve Step program for people wrestling with any food-related compulsion. In OA, abstinence means "refraining from compulsive overeating" or other compulsive food behavior like anorexia or bulimia. In HOW, we put a lot of emphasis on abstaining from negative thinking, which is really hard for me. I am by nature, negative, and the brain does a lot to try to protect us from future heartache; one of its main ways of doing this is by anticipating the worst to "inoculate" us from bad things happening in the future. Of course, this is erroneous, because we just end up suffering twice: in the anticipation of the bad event, and then, if/when the bad event happens.

Pesach (Passover) has always been a miserable holiday for me. It is hard for any observant Jew: imagine preparing for Christmas and moving at the same time. There is a tremendous amount of work to prepare for the holiday, some of it very labor intensive. Even though my husband David carries most of the heavy lifting, I still do my fair share, and the necessities of the holiday preparation -- cleaning, shopping, cooking, entertaining, and staying up late -- really pushes all of my buttons. It activates my chronic pain in a bad way. All of this means that I usually approach the holiday with a lot of dread and negativity. This makes me miserable, but worse, it also erodes David's enjoyment of the holiday.

I have been getting deeper into my mindfulness practice, and I think I am growing weary of the suffering I cause myself. Pain in life is inevitable, but more and more I am clearly seeing that I am the source of most of my suffering. Stress happens, of course, but the stories I construct about what I am experiencing are truly the cause of my misery. There is a massive difference between pain and suffering. So, in an attempt to cut down on my suffering, I decided to try something different for Pesach this year: abstaining from negative thinking, just like my Twelve Step program advises me to do.

I wasn't sure I could successfully keep a positive attitude, but I was determined to try one day at a time. To my surprise, I was quite successful. To my amazement, it made a tremendous difference to the quality of my holiday. Yes, I am still exhausted. Yes, I am still in pain bad enough that it requires narcotics to manage it, which I hate taking. But I have enjoyed this holiday more than any in the past. I was more productive. David said, "You have gotten more done, with less pain to yourself, than you ever have in the time I've known you." My OA sponsor said, "I can tell how much calmer you are." Even my body bears the fruits of my efforts: this is the first time in a decade I haven't had my telltale Pesach cold sore, which is a stress response.

This has made for an infinitely sweeter holiday. It is is profoundly meaningful for my faith -- it is the story of God rescuing the Jews from brutal slavery in Egypt, ultimately leading to our redemption and giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This year, freed from the excessive negativity and crap stories I tell myself, I was able to relax and enjoy the holiday, both for what Hashem (God) did for the Jewish people, but also what Hashem did for me: leading me out of food addiction to a saner, freer existence. I used to dread Pesach because I was so driven by the compulsion to eat, I couldn't stay away from non-kosher food, or chametz, leavened food prohibited on the holiday, for even eight days. It was torture. This was a problem for me since adolescence.

To an outsider, it seems like I do a lot of extreme things for my recovery program: I weigh and measure all my food, yes, even in public, even when it's embarrassing. I make at least four telephone calls per day to other fellows in recovery. I do a daily reading and writing assignment. Most importantly, I work the Twelve Steps, which are simple but never easy. Yes, all of this takes time, and I do not always enjoy it, to say the least! However, when I reflect on my greatest blessings of recovery, it becomes clear why this is so worth it. Yes, losing so much weight is amazing. But living with integrity is priceless. Knowing that I won't have to go binge on non-kosher foods during Pesach, or the other 51 weeks of the year -- and end up hating myself for it -- is the biggest blessing. Recovery has given me integrity: my insides match my outsides. No more outwardly living an Orthodox lifestyle, while binging at Burger King, praying no one sees me (and again, hating myself for my "lack of self control" -- I know now that this was the cunning, baffling, and powerful disease of addiction, as the book "Alcoholic Anonymous" describes it). Living my values, having God redeem me from slavery to food addiction is truly priceless. Is my daily OA work worth it? Hell yes!

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