The beads of perspiration began to gather on his brow, as he sat in the small, crowded basement of a church in a town barely known to him until just recently. It was always difficult for him to speak in public, but now the idea of having to stand up there, admit his addiction, and tell his story to these strangers was making him extremely nervous. It would have been easier if this was his hometown, and these were people he knew, but this was the only meeting place for Food Addicts Anonymous within fifty miles of his home. He had promised himself that he would come here to speak, and there was no backing out now.
As the leader, a balding, middle-aged man of regular build, stepped to the podium, Jim's heart began to pound. He knew that as the only new member, he would be called on to speak almost immediately. "Well, at least I'll get it done over with quickly," he thought, as the moderator began his introduction.
"Today, we are lucky enough to have a new member joining us. He has a unique story. He, like all of us, has had a life-long struggle with food addiction. And, like some of us, he has finally conquered his problem. His story is unique, though, in that he was able to overcome this terrible problem by becoming a vegan. What's a vegan? Well, I'll let Jim fill you in on that. I just ask that you keep an open mind, and hear what he has to say. And so without further delay, here is Jim Armstead to tell his story."
As he got up to walk to the podium, he got light-headed and thought he was going to faint. But he kept going, and as he stepped up to the mike he told himself, "Well, here goes nuthin."
"My name is Jim Armstead, and I'm an addict. I've been a food addict ever since I was a little boy. I've been fighting my food addiction for almost forty years now. I've tried every diet in the book, some of them several times. I must have lost and gained thousands of pounds over the years. I've started a new diet -- that one special diet that would finally work for me -- hundreds of times. But each time the diet, and I, would ultimately fail. The price of each failure was much steeper than simply the weight I would inevitably gain back when I could no longer follow the regimen. The price was so often a piece of my self-esteem. Each time I promised myself that this time I was going to stick with it; I put my self-esteem on the line. And each time I broke that promise I did inestimable damage to my psyche.
Each new diet had a theme designed to finally get me to succeed. There was the "If you're a man, you'll stick to this diet" theme. Then there was the "Stop being such a wimp and show some backbone" theme. And who could forget the "Grow up and show some discipline" theme. What I didn't realize was that by motivating myself for each new diet with these themes, I was putting my self-esteem at risk. And when each diet failed, my self-esteem would take a big hit. After several hundred of these failures, there was no self-esteem left. And let me tell you, living much of your life without a strong sense of your own value is sheer hell.
My food addiction started in grade school. I would eat more food between meals than most kids ate all day. As a result, I got very, very heavy. I became the butt of every joke and the target of every wise guy. Even my friends would run away from me every day on the way to school because they thought it was funny that I couldn't keep up. So, my self-esteem was being attacked not only from within, but also from without. The deep hurts handed to me by my so-called friends and classmates just got worse as I got older. I was totally humiliated every time I went to buy clothing. I wanted to die at the weigh-in at junior high school. I weighed 172 pounds. It was painfully obvious to me and everyone else that I was the fattest kid in the whole school.
Things just kept getting worse. As a normal thirteen year old, I began getting interested in girls. I had absolutely no confidence to ask a girl out because I was so was sure that any advance from me would be rejected. So to avoid the pain of rejection, I never asked a girl out. Yet, incredibly, they still found a way to reject me. I once told a classmate that I thought this girl in our class was cute. He said he'd tell her. I'll never forget how she walked into the class, looked at me, and just shook her head indicating, "no way fatso." Or the time I was talking in the hallway with two other boys and a girl. She told them she thought I was cute. When they started laughing, she quickly clarified her statement by saying, "Oh, I mean, just his face." But the worst incident happened in an elevator on a class trip. I thought I had made pretty good eye contact with this adorable sixth grader. Just then, the elevator lurched downward. As it righted itself and continued its normal decent, some wise guy said, "Hey, we better get Jim out of the elevator." Most of the entire class cracked up, though I don't know if my little cutie was among them because I could no longer look her in the eye.
It got to the point where I was sure I would never date or marry and would probably live my entire life alone. The excess weight started getting in the way of everything else too. I was an excellent baseball player, despite my weight, and thought, as so many young boys do, that I could possibly make it a career. My tryout for the junior high school baseball team lasted exactly two seconds. I was put on first base. The shortstop threw the ball to me, which I promptly dropped because of nerves. I didn't have the confidence to demand another throw, or even demand to get an at-bat to show what I could do. I just slinked away and never got to play organized ball. That tryout was a microcosm of my entire youth. I'd try to do something and either some adult would think that I was too fat to do it well or I would not even try because I was so embarrassed about my appearance.
I don't want to bore you all with all the details of my life. I've already taken enough of your time. I'll make the rest of the story real short. I began to try every diet ever invented, and though many failed, I did succeed at losing weight at various times in my life. But the addiction never went away. I'd lose sixty pounds, then gain back seventy. My confidence was always tied into where I was on the scale. If I was thin, I could conquer the world; if I was fat, I would hide in my room to avoid the pain.
Somehow, I was able to really get a handle on it as I entered my late teens. I finally was at a normal weight. I began dating and got out of my shell. Despite ever-wavering confidence and self-esteem, I managed to graduate college, get married, embark on a decent career, and start a family. I maintained a normal weight for many years, though I couldn't avoid several hills and valleys along the way. As I got into my forties, though, the addiction began to worsen, and I was fat once again. It was just too hard to maintain a normal weight with a sedentary job and a slowing metabolism. And though the slings and arrows of my youth were no longer a factor, health concerns suddenly came to the fore. Was I going to die of a heart attack at forty-five years old because of my obesity?
I was desperate about my weight again. I knew that I was in trouble because I couldn't do anything requiring exertion without gasping for breath. I was getting severe colds, which inevitably turned into bronchitis, several times a year. I developed arthritis in both hips and a bad back, undoubtedly because my incessant dieting often didn't provide me with adequate nutrition. I still kept trying every new diet, but none worked for very long because I wasn't able to stick with them. Often I'd start a new diet in the morning and quit it by suppertime.
Quite unrelated to my weight problem, I had always loved animals. Was it perhaps because they had never caused me pain as humans had? I imagine for that reason, and many others, I became a vegetarian, and then a vegan in my mid-forties. My feelings for these defenseless innocent creatures went so deep that I vowed I would never again allow myself to eat their carcasses or use their skins.
And then a funny thing happened to my food addiction: it almost disappeared! After a lifetime of trying every diet and joining every diet club and reading every diet book, I had conquered my food addiction by doing something that was completely irrelevant to my problem. For the first time in my life, I had kept my word to myself about food. I could now walk away, without so much as a bite, from the foods that had formerly owned me. Meats and cheeses, which I had previously consumed several times daily in large quantities, no longer held any attraction for me. Suddenly people were marveling at my willpower and self-control, two attributes I thought I'd never acquire, especially when pertaining to food.
Which brings us to today and why I'm here in front of you. I am still an addict, but my addiction doesn't rule me anymore. I'm here to tell all of you that you, too, can gain the upper hand over your food addiction. I haven't had a piece of meat, a slice of cheese, or a piece of cake (unless specially made) in over four years. I have lost some weight, though not as much as you might think. What I have done, though, is gain control over what I eat, for the first time in my life. This doesn't mean that I'm no longer an addict; I still binge and gain weight. There are many fattening vegan foods such as potato chips, french fries, peanuts butter, pasta, trail mix, etc., to binge on. There are also complete lines of "mock" products, including mock meats, cheeses, ice creams, "dairy" products, cookies, candy, and cakes of all types. The stereotypical image of the vegan subsisting on a diet of lettuce and carrots is woefully inaccurate. Becoming a vegan doesn't change your eating habits through food deprivation.
The difference in my life is that now I have a new history with food. I have a history of being in control. When I gain a few pounds, I can take them off with relative ease. I have quite incidentally, developed that strong willpower which had always eluded me, simply by living my beliefs.
My health has also improved phenomenally. I now ride a bike for at least 15 miles several times a week. I play basketball and lift weights. I haven't had as much as a cold for the past two years.
Part of the twelve step plan for dealing with any addiction is admitting that you're powerless to overcome your addiction alone and turning your trust over to a power greater than yourself. I'm here to tell you that you need to turn your trust over to an ideal, the ideal of the "love of the innocents" and the concept of peaceful co-existence with your fellow inhabitants on this earth. I am living proof that when you put others' needs before your own, it will all come back to you or, as they say, "What goes round, comes around." How ironic it is that I chose to spare animals' lives, and they, in turn, saved mine."
The applause started slowly, then built to a loud crescendo. Jim didn't know how many people decided to try becoming vegan from his speech, but it sure felt good getting all of that off his chest.
e x t e s s a y -
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