In 2013 stopte journalist Andrew Dasselaar met zijn werk voor media als Elsevier en het Financieele Dagblad om zich te storten op een nieuw project: ruim 70 kilo afvallen in een jaar. Hij schreef over dat jaar “Let Go: A story about weight, loss and gain”, een boek met 17 autobiografische hoofdstukken over het afscheid nemen van een voedselverslaving, plus 16 hoofdstukken met praktische tips. Deze voorpublicatie bevat het voorwoord en het eerste autobiografische hoofdstuk van “Let Go”.
You are probably reading this book because I lost over 70 kilograms, or 160 pounds, in eleven months (and four days), and want to know how I did it. So did my friends. I told them I followed a nine-word regimen. Eat less. Exercise more. Lots of vegetables and fruit.
This was a lie. My actual diet could be summarised in just two words.
I overate for the same reason others work too much, drink too much, or smoke too much: because there were painful issues in my personal life that couldn’t be resolved. But instead of letting go, instead of accepting the pain and moving on, I chose to try to live with it, and used food to numb the pain.
This is where the warning comes in. The only way to be cured of addiction, be it to food or something else, is to face that hurt.
Most of us don’t. We hide our pain in the basement, unwilling to either face it or release it. We keep it around because it is the only thing we have left from a situation we can no longer change. When the pain becomes unbearable, we look for a distraction, and what better one than an addiction, which simultaneously diverts and desensitizes?
Food is the most popular drug of the 21st century. Eating to excess is as widely accepted as smoking and drinking once were, with billboards everywhere suggesting we “indulge” in “guilty pleasures”. If the problem is addressed at all, it is framed as an issue with “discipline”. But this makes no sense at all, considering most overweight people manage to get to work on time, take care of their kids, and pay their mortgage every month.
People overeat not because they lack discipline, but rather the contrary: because they want one area of their lives in which they don’t have to march in step, where they are in control rather than external powers.
Addiction to food offers such a sanctuary, and it is a comfortable one. I loved overeating. I cherished the warmth of satiation, the shivers of withdrawal, and the bliss of binging, but most of all I relished the feeling of control over my drug in a world where I, correctly, assumed I had none.
I never wanted to stop being addicted. I felt strong when I was famished, and euphoric when I overate. I may have been disgusted with myself the next day, but that just helped perpetuate my condition. I simply compensated with another round of self-imposed starvation, another futile attempt at proving to myself that I was the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.
It doesn’t need to be that way. There is a middle ground, but it is so unfamiliar to us that it feels scary. It requires just being there with the pain, without trying to manipulate it in one way or another.
The cure for pain is to simply feel it, and to find out that amidst the pain, you are still there. The point isn’t that pain hurts — the point is that pain can do no more than hurt. It has no power other than that.
In every moment of pain, there is the opportunity to practise dealing with it. During this process you will fail, and recover, many times.
I certainly still do. Even after losing the weight and keeping it off since December 2013, my attitude towards food is complicated on good days, and troublesome on all other ones. A friend asked me if I would ever want to meet my old, bigger, me. I told her I already have. I meet him every time I eat.
Walking the path away from addiction isn’t easy, but it is simple. All it requires is that you accept that holding on to the past is no longer an option. Let go. Step out of your uncomfortable comfort zone. Have faith that you have the strength to stumble, get back up, and continue your journey.
Come. Let’s walk a few steps together.
Chapter 1. Waking up
It is five minutes past five in the afternoon. I am sitting behind my desk on the top floor of my penthouse in Amsterdam. I’ve been on the job since 7 AM. Because I work from home, and have done so for the past decade, starting nice and early is as easy as sliding out of bed and into a bathrobe. Which is exactly what I do most days. Often I will wear the bathrobe until dinner, usually around 9 PM, stopping only for bathroom breaks or to refill my coffee mug.
Today is the exception. I’m all suited up because I have just finished meeting with a new client. Business was already good and it’s about to get even better. The client, one of the largest publishers in the Netherlands, is interested in my work as a science journalist. He has asked me to prepare a number of proposals for new story assignments. My day is going great. There is no obvious reason for me to be distraught about anything.
Or so I think.
Six minutes past five. Suddenly, the world changes. A vague feeling of anxiety that I’ve been experiencing for about an hour explodes into panic. The transition takes my breath away, but only figuratively, as hyperventilation sets in immediately afterwards. My heart rate rises to about 140 beats per minute. It will stay at that rate for the next 22 hours when I finally will have had enough and call my GP to ask for metoprolol, a drug which slows down the heart. There is sweat on my forehead, in my neck, on my back and chest. I welcome it. It is winter but not even in the tropical forests of Northern Australia have I ever felt this hot. Rarely was the winter cold on my balcony more soothing.
Those are the physical symptoms. The psychological ones are far more impressive. I experience derealisation: the pervasive sense that the world is not real, that all of this is a fiction conjured up by my fevered mind, that I am alone, the sole being in existence. This succinctly describes the philosophy of solipsism, which was first thought of by the ancient Greeks, but this is not an exercise in philosophy. This unreality feels very, very real. Petrifyingly so. Solipsism has scared me since I was twelve. I don’t want to be alone.
I call an acquaintance who works as a doctor. She’s a veteran in dealing with psychiatric patients. The tough ones. Schizophrenics, borderline patients, bipolar sufferers. I ask her if I have gone crazy. Her answer is as clinical as it is soothing: “If you had, you wouldn’t have called me to ask that question.”
The rational part of my mind knows she is speaking the truth. As a science reporter with a fair amount of medical knowledge and as someone who took a psychology minor I know very well what my symptoms represent: a panic attack. It is one of the most common psychiatric disturbances. Roughly one in four people will experience one during his or her life. And that number only counts the people willing to acknowledge what they went through. Presumably quite a few cases of panic attacks are written off as “hyperventilation” or “low blood sugar”.
The emotional part of my brain is unimpressed by this line of reasoning. It will not be denied. It is angry, or sad, or frustrated, or scared, or all of those at the same time.
Eleven years before, I nearly killed myself by accidentally driving a Toyota Camry at too high a speed too near a cliff in Yosemite, California. The car halted within inches of the abyss. Being petrified lasted all about twenty seconds then. Now it lasts for nearly a full day. The afterglow, a continuous sense of impending doom, will stay with me for about half a week.
I know that panic attacks are not harmful. They are simply emotions. But I am scared of emotions. It will take about a year for me to realise that this fear of fear is, in fact, what is causing my current symptoms. Only then will I be able to begin the real work of my recovery: addressing the issues I’ve tried to hide from in the first place.
I am nowhere near that point now. I walk through my house towards the front door. I nearly trip over a stack of boxes containing an expensive cinema system which I gifted myself for Christmas — two years ago. I’ve been too busy working to unpack it, or so I tell myself. For the past decade, I have done nothing but work. Obsessively so.
The house is a mess, a golden cage to which I’ve voluntarily confined myself. I loathe this place, and it shows. The once beautiful red wooden floor has chalky white patches from spilled water. There is dust in the curtains and on the cupboards. And of course, there are socks and T-shirts all over the floor. Probably a few under the couch, too.
I pass a small closet in the hallway. The door is open. Five wires stick out of the wall. These were meant to be hooked up to a sauna furnace which I never installed either. Instead there are about 50 empty pizza boxes which I will start clearing out over the next few days. My morbid obesity — I have gained 70 kilograms over the past six years — will take somewhat longer to fix.
When the cold December air touches my skin the anxiety momentarily changes into an intense feeling of loneliness. Now that the cold makes the world feel very real again I also sense how much I crave companionship, yet feel too damaged, too inadequate, too bad a person, to be worthy of it. I don’t have a lot of friends. I have not had a girlfriend in eleven years. When I meet with people, they’re usually clients. People with whom every interaction is a transaction.
I walk around my neighbourhood for two, maybe three hours. Every couple I see, every group of friends that seems to have fun, fills me with sadness and envy. When I return home, I go to bed within minutes. I don’t sleep much. Perhaps I don’t really want to. I’ve slumbered long enough.
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