10/11/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Zen and the Art of Therapeutic Food Shopping

I started IOP (intensive outpatient rehab) in September 2012. After work, for eight consecutive weeks, I reported to a clinic in downtown Baltimore. Sessions lasted three hours, after which I'd reward myself with a trip to a nearby grocery store. It's typical, almost expected, of addicts in early recovery to develop obsessive behaviors. One of the first fixations from which I suffered manifested itself as a daily compulsion to buy groceries. I had a little more income, though I wouldn't call it surplus, so I figured that, compared to the things on which I typically spent my money -- alcohol and illicit substances -- this new "habit" was, indeed, a marked improvement. In fact, I was proud of it. Never in my life had I displayed such an interest in food. Eating hadn't been a part of my daily routine, and even when I did make the time to consume solids, they were usually in the form of potato chips, microwaveable chicken sandwiches, or Popsicles. Suddenly, I was interested in learning to cook. The day after my first successful batch of sugar cookies (third attempt), I reported to IOP with a ridiculous grin on my face. "I made cookies," I announced to the group. "And they're edible." Applause all around.

I still love to go grocery shopping. Here's why: The minute I step through Safeway's or Whole Foods' swooshing automatic doors, I'm in awe of the endless possibilities spread out before me. My choices have been pre-organized by paid individuals into both themed sections and like-minded aisles -- produce, frozen food, cereal, crackers, beverages, pizza, cleaning supplies, pet food, greeting cards. You name it.

Now, the obvious reason for my newfound obsession can easily be extrapolated given what we all know typically defines an active addict's life: There's only one choice, and that's getting messed up. But grocery shopping, personally, allowed me to discover new elements about myself I had no clue even existed. For example, I learned that if I tried really hard, I could prioritize things in a pragmatic fashion (as opposed to the typical irrational fashion to which I'd for so long adhered: drugs first, work later; drinks first, shower later.) When I first started obsessive grocery shopping, I suffered from intense cravings for all things sweet and sugary. (This is common for alcoholics who quit drinking because their bodies are no longer getting the amount of sugar alcohol provides. For heroin users, sugar cravings are a direct result of drug-induced insulin depletion. "The more you know...") I'd go into Safeway and beeline straight for the ice cream, loading up my reusable bag with pint after pint, sometimes even opening a container in the store, sneaking a few spoonfuls in with a plastic spoon I'd ganked from the buffet-style salad bar. Then, I'd get everything else. I hadn't yet learned how to shut off or even recognize the presence of my "auto-pilot switch" -- the same switch that flipped awake the exact moment I'd first take a drink. I needed that ice cream and lots of it, dammit. Right away. Snap, snap.

Of course, you can guess what happened to all those pints of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food by the time I made it to the check-out line. I repeated this mistake twice before, finally, it occurred to me that I might want to grab my beloved ice cream last, right before checking out and hailing a cab home. And guess what? That third time? Well, the ice cream barely melted. (I'd started eating it on the ride home.)

Grocery shopping also taught me that I can only handle so much. Literally. My grocery bag is the size of a duffel bag. It has a shoulder strap and it's insulated to keep cold foods cold (for a certain length of time -- certainly not for an hour and a half or more.) Being that I was used to the instantly gratifying consumption level of two amphetamines, a cigarette, and a pint of Sierra Nevada all at once, I figured that my trusty little grocery bag would suffice to hold everything I wanted to purchase all at once. So, on my first obsessive trip ever (and there's nothing quite like the first time, man), I loaded it up with a whole rotisserie chicken (which was warm), four pints of Cherry Garcia (which was cold), two boxes of Life cereal, three liters of diet tonic water (another new obsession I'd developed), a box of macaroni and cheese (this I came to consider, when preparing, a variation of "cooking"), six or seven cans of condensed soup (again, when prepared on a hot stove, "cooking"), and a large bright-orange bag of peanut butter cups. Of course, I'd noticed that my grocery bag was growing progressively heavier as I shopped, but the walk home was only five blocks. Of course, I could carry that load for five blocks.

Not so. After checking out, I made it as far as the parking lot before the pain in my shoulder got to be too much. I yelled and dropped my bag. People stopped to stare. I couldn't drag it. I definitely couldn't carry it. The only other option was to hail a cab. So I did. (And, yes, even though the trip was five blocks, I opened a pint of ice cream in the car.)

I suppose I'll always have an affinity for grocery shopping, which is fine by me. Thankfully, my extreme taste for ice cream and diet tonic water has died down; that was hard on my already-traumatized teeth. And my cooking capabilities have grown considerably -- I can now prepare stir-fry, meatless lasagna, chicken cacciatore, pesto and swiss turkey burgers, and homemade macaroni and cheese. Now that's progress. Bam!

For more on addiction and recovery, click here.

For more by Abby Higgs, click here.

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