Secrets of People With Extraordinary Willpower is a novel about a career woman in NYC who wants to stop turning to unhealthy comforts like food and wine. She discovers answers that many before her have sought throughout the ages: how to gain feelings of peace, satisfaction, and happiness in life.
Photo credit: Matt Biddulph / Creative Commons
My heart was pounding in my ears as I strained to hear the voices on the other side of the door.
"You think she's an alcoholic?"
"She told me she's always setting goals like sticking to one drink and she can't do it, so yes, I think she's an alcoholic."
"Oh wow. She told me on the way here she was only going to have one, but obviously that's not happening."
"Yeah, she's had a drink in her hand all night, and I'm betting it's not the same one."
I panicked, searching for somewhere to leave my half-empty glass of wine. I spotted a hallway table, and I winced as I left my glass there on the polished wood surface without a coaster. I zipped back to the door in time to hear, "...although we are at a cocktail party, and I don't think she's even drunk..."
I wanted to leave, but I'd been at this party for three hours and I'd had three glasses of wine and I would seriously wet my pants if I didn't get into this bathroom in 10 seconds, this bathroom that contained one of my best friends, Terry, and my shrink -- well, after that night, my ex-shrink, Jill.
The door opened and I was face-to-face with Jill, who had just informed Terry of her bloated opinion that she thought I was an alcoholic. I would have spent a little time expressing my anger and indignation, except for the love of God! Toilet! Now! I pushed past their shocked faces into the powder room and slammed the door.
Once I was perched safely on the toilet seat, a warm stream of relief between my legs, I realized my hands were shaking and I didn't know whether to punch a wall, laugh, or cry. Yes, I said I would stop at one drink, just like I'd say I'd stop at one bowl of ice cream or one measured portion of pasta or one slice of triple-cream brie. If I was guilty of a behavioral crime, it's that I was a chronic dieter. Or more specifically, a chronic overeater. Which led to cycles of dieting and giving up. In short, I was a yo-yo-er.
Wine was just another one of those consumables I was telling myself to limit and then embracing in a fit of rebellious pleasure. Like chocolate. And cheese enchiladas with margaritas. And champagne with cupcakes. And New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream paired with pinot noir. I wasn't a drunk as much as I was simply greedy when it came to the hedonistic pleasures of food and drink. I would concede to the term "glutton."
Way back when I was a young 20-something adult trying to make it on my own, I recalled a spectacularly vicious screaming match that ended with this accusation by my mother: "You just do whatever feels good!" Her comment ended the fight because I could only think, "Why, yes. Of course I do. Why would anyone do differently? Isn't that why we're here on Earth?"
But by the time I was solidly entrenched in my 30s -- well, if I'm honest, fast-approaching 40 -- it didn't feel good to be single and to feel fat and unlovable. I was in a near-constant fight when it came to these behaviors like pigging out and boozing that, when I was younger, used to have no downsides.
I recognized that I was completely neurotic about my overeating and drinking. These habits that used to feel like fun and freedom were now so deeply ingrained that they felt like a part of me. As I tried to break free, the fun had turned into prison.
Does anyone else argue with themselves incessantly about what they put in their mouths? I felt like a crazy person. So when Terry recommended the shrink she used to pull her marriage through a rough patch, I was hopeful that Jill could work her magic on me and help me learn how to feel normal. Terry and Jill are now good buddies, but the last thing I thought Jill would do was peg me as an "alcoholic" and then violate my privacy by blabbing to Terry about it.
Alcoholic. God, that word makes me cringe. What a stigma. Well, Jill can go eff herself. What kind of shrink betrays a client like that?
When I was growing up, I always felt unmoored and uncentered, like I didn't know who I was and like I was waiting for someone else to tell me. I was finally getting a sense, now as an adult, that my opinion of myself mattered. This woman might be a psychologist, but she didn't know me better than I knew myself. She drew that conclusion out of thin air, and Terry might have bought it, but I could say unequivocally that it was bullsh*t. I didn't give a crap about Jill, but if Terry believed her, then I was officially Very Pissed Off.
As I washed my hands and reapplied my lipstick, I could hardly contain my rising anger. Maybe I did give a crap about Jill. How dare she?
I pulled back my shoulders and held my head high as I threw the bathroom door open. There was nobody there. I heard voices and laughter coming from the back courtyard, and I realized that the party had moved outside. Rivaling my anger was embarrassment, and I realized I didn't want to see Jill or Terry right then if I could avoid it. I needed to get out of there. I slinked to the front door of the brownstone and slipped outside onto the sidewalk of Brooklyn.
I couldn't possibly suffer an epic upset like that without stuffing the hurt down with food, so on the subway ride back to Manhattan, I fantasized about what I was going to eat. I decided on a Thai dish called drunken noodles. The name was appropo given the accusation against me, plus noodle dishes of any kind were one of my favorite soul salves.
Carbs, especially pasta, made me fat. And the more upset I was, the more physically destructive I was in my food choices. But I didn't want to think about all that just then. I wanted to escape. I picked up my cellphone and called Ginger. I felt relief as her friendly voice greeted me over the phone. I asked her, "What time do you get off work? I'm craving Thai."
Ginger said, "José can fill in for me at the bar if I need to leave early; it's slow here tonight."
"Sorry, train is about to go underground, I'm going to lose you. Meet me at Mimi Thai in 20 minutes. Something weird happened tonight. I'll tell you all about it there."
I emerged from the smelly, dank subway station, and as I approached the restaurant, my mind reviewed familiar arguments, those deeply-worn ruts that my brain was used to traveling: "This is my chance. I could change my behavior forever right now by breaking the cycle. I could go home and journal out my thoughts and feelings instead of eating my way through the hurt."
Then other familiar thoughts hijacked the thread: "But noodles give me pleasure. What's a life without pleasure? I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. If I'm still alive tomorrow, I'll start fresh. I need this right now, just for tonight. I can't believe what they said about me. I want to feel better, and the fastest way, the only way I know how, is a steamy, savory plate of noodles."
I wondered if, after I died, it would all be clear to me. Would I be better off with a life of vegetables, never allowing myself to eat whatever I wanted? Or would God laugh in my face and say, "I made doughnuts so you can eat them, dummy!"
I wanted so badly to not want. It would be great if I could eat delicious and healthy food most of the time while allowing myself the occasional treat, but I didn't operate that way. Instead I turned the flow of want on and off completely, like a valve. When I get too fat for my clothes, when I felt so disgusted and uncomfortable in my body and so unhealthy that I felt worried, then I went on a campaign of health. I cleaned up the diet. I made healthy choices.Then when my pants loosened, when my face started to look young and fresh from my healthy choices, when my belly began to flatten and look trim, the geyser of want opened again and I found myself thinking that drunken noodles were the best solution to my problems.
As I opened the door to the restaurant, the familiar tinkle of the bell over my head started my mouth watering, just like one of Pavlov's dogs. Ginger was waiting for me at our favorite table with two glasses of cold white wine. As I sat down, I looked nervously and longingly at the glass. With what I was about to tell Ginger, I suddenly wondered how to act.
Ginger saw the look on my face and laughed. She said, "I know everything. Terry called me."
"And you still ordered me a glass of wine?"
"Of course! That's ridiculous! You? An alcoholic? Give me a break. If you're an alkie, then I should have gone to rehab five years ago. Drink up."
When our waitress came by, Ginger said, "Oh hey, Mimi. We'll have the usual, thanks."
A wave of relief washed over me. I picked up the wine and sat back in my chair. For the first time since I overheard Jill and Terry talking about me, I could breathe. I always felt A-Okay when I was with Ginger.
Ginger said, "So I should probably warn you...Terry and Jill want to stage an intervention. Terry called me to see if I would lure you over to her place tomorrow morning. I told her she was being crazy."
"What!? An intervention?! Oh. My. GOD. I am so embarrassed!"
"Calm down, it's no big deal; I told her we're not doing it."
"And? What did she say?"
"Well, she seemed a little unsure of the whole thing anyway. She actually sounded relieved when I told her she's acting stupid. I think Jill is putting her up to it and so she felt pressured into it."
"Jill. God. I never should have gone to that woman. What a bitch! I tell her my secrets and then she uses them against me? Shouldn't this be in the Shrink Handbook of Things Not to Do?"
"Yeah, doesn't sound right to me, but I don't know what the rules are." Ginger looked thoughtful for minute, and then said, "She probably thinks she's helping. What did you say to her to make her think you have a drinking problem?"
"Well, I struggle with cravings a lot. But honestly, I struggle with cravings for everything. Sugar-free Redbull. Spinach and artichoke dip. Pasta with homemade tomato sauce with loads of garlic. Sushi. Pizza. It's possible there's nothing I don't crave. I'm obsessed with food, and to me, wine falls under that category."
"So Jill just fixated on the idea that you like wine too much."
"Well, I gotta be honest here. I do like wine too much. Do I like to get a good buzz on? Yes, I do. But I always eat enough to drown out the buzz. I went to Jill to see if she could help me stop craving everything all the time. I'm tired of feeling fat. I'm tired of feeling unhealthy. I feel like I'm wasting my life obsessing about food and my weight. I'm almost 40. Shouldn't I have this crap figured out by now?"
"You should meet up with my friend Sherry. She's really into this stuff, I mean healthy eating and all that. She's studying to be a health coach, so I bet she could tell you what to eat. She's like a walking MindBodyGreen article. She'll probably take you to buy a bag of chia seeds or something."
"Oh yeah, I like Sherry. She and I chatted for hours at your birthday party. You think she'd be willing to help me?"
"Definitely. I'm telling you, she lives for this stuff. She's all about crap like goji berries."
"Whatever those are."
"Exactly. Here, let me text her for you. I'll give her your number and see if she can meet you at the Union Square Farmer's Market tomorrow morning. I know she goes every week."
"How early is it?"
Ginger laughed, "Are you serious, Kelly? How early is it? Would you rather we did the intervention?"
"No," I scoffed.
Smiling, Ginger shook her head and texted Sherry.
On my walk home that night, I got a text from a number I didn't recognize. It read, "Hi Kelly, it's Sherry. Want to meet at 9 tomorrow morning at Union Square?"
I texted her back, "Yes, please! Thanks so much for helping me out." Help was on the way. Finally.