Alcohol addiction starts when everything goes black after that first drink and all you want is to keep drinking even when you know that it’s the wrong thing to do. Food addiction is the same. Any kind of sweet was the new alcohol for recovered alcoholic Michelle Goldberger. Her craving for food was insatiable until she started working the twelve steps at the COR Retreat Center. Even with a 60-pound weight loss, she still battles with food addiction. The desire to eat a lot is gone with the help of the program, but the addiction never leaves. Learn how she addresses this conflict and how to put focus on things that block you from recovering from food addiction.
In this episode, I’ll be discussing food addiction with Michelle Goldberger. Michelle is a food addict who has maintained a 60-pound weight loss since 2004. A recovered alcoholic as well, she has been clean and sober since 1993. Michelle battles with addiction and experiences the solution she has found in the Twelve-Step answer to the mystery facing so many others. “Why does this keep happening to me?” Through COR Retreat she passes on what she has learned about a new way of living and those seeking freedom from compulsive overeating. Michelle is a conference speaker on addiction and has facilitated recovery groups and workshops at prominent retreat centers such as The Retreat over a ten-year period. Michelle holds two teaching licenses in the State of Minnesota and has taught children and adults in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public School District since 2006. Through it all, she also raised five boys.
Listen to the podcast here:
Food Addiction, Twelve-Step Program To Recovery with Michelle Goldberger
Thanks for having me.
What is food addiction?
A lot of people want to know what that is and it’s misunderstood by many. All I can say is even though the medical community might not acknowledge that this is a disease yet, I know from personal experience that food addiction is real. The first moments I figured it out, I was in an AA meeting. I was reading The Big Book and we were talking about the allergy of the body. For me, as an alcoholic, once I start drinking any kind of alcohol at all, it sets up this craving for more. My shut-off valve is broken. I keep drinking until I pass out or run out. Sitting in a meeting one time, we were talking about that, I realized, “This is what happens to me with sugar.” It’s the exact same thing. Once I start eating any processed sugar, a combination of sugar, white flour, fat, any kind of sweet bakery item, but mostly chocolate, ice cream, things like that, what I call my alcoholic foods, once I start eating those types of foods, it creates that same craving and it’s insatiable. There’s not enough M&M’s in the world for me to get to put one in my mouth and say, “There now, that’s so satisfying. I’ve had enough M&M’s.” I will keep eating those until I burst or pass out. There’s no shut-off for that, and I made the connection. I said, “This is exactly like alcohol is for me. I’m addicted to processed sugar.” That was how I discovered I was a food addict.
I work for COR Retreat and I take all the phone calls. When they call, they want to know, “What is a food addict? How do I know if I’m a food addict?” There are two simple questions I ask them, “Once you start eating certain foods, do you lose control over the amount you take?”Most of them will say, “Chips,” or some people say, “Burgers,” but usually sweets, things like that. The second question is, “Once you give up those foods, let’s say for example, you give them up on a certain diet, you’re not eating processed sugar, high-fat foods, can you stay stopped for anything several years without outside help, without going to a Twelve-Step group or having a treatment or a detox?” They’ll say maybe they were on a diet, gave that stuff up for like a year or something, but that was a long time ago and nothing recently. They cannot do it again. One of the symptoms of food addiction is that it’s progressive. It gets worse, never better. That’s why the diets that used to work for us a decade ago, we think logically, “I’ll do that diet. That diet worked.” All of a sudden this time, it doesn’t work. We cannot stick to it. We’re totally lacking power in stick-to-itiveness. That’s where the dilemma is of the addict. The problem is lack of power, and that’s why we need a Twelve-Step Program to help us find the power that can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
Much of what you said resonates with me. For example, I do not buy ice cream and bring it home even though my wife loves ice cream. My wife is basically a slim, petite woman, and I’m thick and stocky basically. I don’t bring ice cream into the house because I know what will happen. I will eat it all. I will eat 80% of it. If I don’t buy it, then I won’t eat it. It’s very hard to control all the sugar coming into the house. For example, I was looking for the Gripe water in my wife’s baby bag and I discovered she had half a packet of biscuits, the chocolate-coated biscuits, that she was keeping in there. She deliberately keeps them out of sight of me which I asked her to do. When I discovered them, I ate all of them. It’s typical of me. If I find them, I’m going to eat them. A lot of what you’re saying is resonating with me, and the way that I control it is I control it in the supermarket. I try to not buy stuff that I shouldn’t be eating. How do you suggest to your clients that they control their eating habits?
For a real food addict where they’ve gotten to the point where they’ve lost control and they’ve lost power, they also have the second problem which is there’s the problem in the body. Once you start eating you can’t stop. The second problem we have is in our head and it tells us insane things. It tells us to repeat the same experiment over and over and expect a different result, which is Einstein’s definition of insanity. We get these thoughts and they are lies. It sounds like this. “This time will be different. This time I’ll be able to eat a little bit and stop like everybody else,” or, “This time I’ll do it this once and I’ll quit tomorrow.” They always sound true in the moment. “I’ll have it this once. I’ll eat as much as I want and I’ll stop tomorrow.” In a moment, it sounds true for us. We believe it. The problem is whenever we wake up, it’s always today. “Today, I want to do it one last time and I’ll quit tomorrow.” We have this problem in our head. It gets ideas and they are lies. They convince us to run the experiment again and go ahead and eat it.
Right before I got to recovery for the food, I would do what you are doing, shop around the outside of the grocery store, don’t bring it in the house, don’t go through drive -thrus and things like that. When that obsession comes on, it crowds out all other ideas to the contrary. The obsession is this, “I’m going to go get some,” and I do. I go get it. You order it in or you go to the store or whatever you have to do to get it. When that obsession is on, you’re convinced that, “It’s too late. Nothing is going to stop me.” After they leave COR, that’s a good plan to not have it in house to tempt them. By the time the guests leave COR after five days, they’re given a period of grace. Paul, this isn’t a program of white-knuckling it trying not to eat. The desire is gone. It’s removed. It’s like magic. I’ve had guest come in and I say, “Write down what you want to get out of this five days. What do you want?” Somebody was joking and said, “I want a miracle.” We all laughed and I put the card away. By the last day, when they leave and they get their medallion, they’re supposed to say one thing that they take away from the retreat, and this same person said, “I’m taking away a miracle.”
The desire to eat these foods is gone in five days. I’m not saying it’s permanently gone. You have to keep taking the actions that we started taking on the retreat. I still take those actions today, thirteen years after my last binge or bite of processed sugar. I still take the actions I have to take to maintain that. I don’t fight it. I have it in my house. I’m still a real food addict and if I ate that stuff, I would be off to the races. I wouldn’t be able to stop. That’s true for me today. There are brownies in my refrigerator right now, pizza, and there’s peanut butter cereal. It doesn’t call me. The desire is completely removed. The Twelve-Step process works. That’s why we use it at COR Retreat and get them started. It’s an intensive five days and they do some work. They abstain from their alcoholic foods, usually processed sugar, white flour, and high-fat, fried foods, those types of things, and any of their other trigger foods. By the time they leave, the desire’s gone and then we load them up with what to do now? How to keep it gone? That’s the key. Five days is just the jumpstart. They’re not cured. They have a lot of work ahead. We only do the first three steps.
Let me delve a little deeper there because you’re saying that your clients are there for five days and do a Twelve-Step based program, and you mentioned the first three steps which are that you admit that pile this over food, that you surrender to a Higher Power, and that you have hope.. Are you suggesting that with counseling, you are able to produce miracles?
I do not produce the miracles. I don’t know what does, but all I can say is I witnessed it. We focus a lot on the things that are blocking them and they need to find out what those are. Sometimes we get atheists, sometimes we get Evangelical Christians, we get Buddhist, we get everything, Native American, and all types of different kinds of Higher Power values. People come in and they say, “I believe. If I believe in and I’m praying, then why hasn’t my Higher Power answered? Why hasn’t my Higher Power removed the desire?” In order to take the second step, which is basically become willing to believe in a Higher Power or at least be willing to pray for the willingness, the third step is to turn your thoughts and your actions over to a new boss which is your Higher Power of your understanding. A lot of people have blocks to their conception of their Higher Power. They don’t think it’s strong enough or they don’t think that it would fix them. I had all those same thoughts.
We address those thoughts, those arguments, whatever their conflicts are that keep them from believing this is possible for them. We wipe those away and I tell them my story. I tell them about how I came in with a concept of God that didn’t work. I was raised Catholic with Catholic schools all the way through high school. I believe I was damned to hell for the things I did in my drinking days. I thought, “I can’t turn my will, my life, my thoughts, and my actions over to a Higher Power which I call God. I was told this God has damned me to hell.”
I had to take them through the process, share with them my process of how I had someone say to me, “If your conception of God doesn’t work, just make another one.” That’s the common thing that sponsors tell sponsees that have trouble with God. I couldn’t do that. I thought, “I can’t make up God. God is God.” When somebody said to me, “Why don’t you try on this idea, try it on and see how it feels. What if God was all love?” I thought, “The nuns taught me that. That makes sense.” “What if God was all merciful and nonjudgmental, all-forgiving, all-merciful?” I started crying and I thought, “I have felt it.” It was like a new experience, and I said, “That would be so fantastic if that were true, then this could work for me.” I got some hope, and then right away I was like, “But you can’t just make a God?” I never got that idea out of my head about that conception, and it grew on me. The more I thought about it, it became true for me. I was able to let that new heart, that new conception of God of all love and mercy, direct my life. I asked for direction each day and try to follow that out to the best that I can, and start over many times each day if I need to.
This is spiritual progress, it’s not perfection. We focus on that type of thing, and then we talk about the blocks. Some people have a great conception of God and they’re like, “Why isn’t my Higher Power fixing this food addiction?” Then we talk about the blocks that are blocking you. We talk about, “If you truly believe in God, then look at this. Check and see if there is a contradiction to that. Where do you go when you’re hurting?” “The freezer for the ice cream.” “What are you worshiping?” Their heads drop and they go, “Whatever we think about all the time, that is our Higher Power.” For me, it was food. What am I going to eat next? How am I going to hide it to eat the amounts I want? How am I going to get rid of the evidence, and how am I going to over exercise to get rid of calories and not gain weight? Then I sleep it off. I try to manage my five children, get up, and what am I going to eat first thing in the morning? Everything was around food and body image and all that stuff. It took a lot of energy.
How does the miracle happen? It’s because they look at these blocks. These blocks are things like resentments. Some of these people have deep resentments. A lot of them have had sexual abuse or incest or horrible things that happened. It’s one of the things that happen to food addicts quite often. They are hanging onto this anger and resentment from things that happened so long ago, and they were wrong. These things were awful. The problem is hanging onto the anger and the hatred. If I’m hating, I can’t be loving, which is what my Higher Power is. I have to choose one or the other. If I’m thinking about hate all the time, then I am not thinking about my loving Higher Power that I believe in.
Then there’s another block, fears. We all have fears. We don’t realize it but think about this. There are two kinds of fears that cover every fear. The first is, “I’m afraid that I won’t get what I want.” The second fear is, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose what I have when I get it.” I’m constantly afraid and it doesn’t always mean material things. It can be, “I’m afraid I’m not going to get your approval. Then once I get it, I have to keep it. Now, I have to keep up what you approved of. Now I’m afraid I’m going to lose your approval.” We’re in fear all the time. Fear blocks us. We start teaching them about this. In the Big Book, there’s instructions like, what do you do when fear comes? What do you do when resentment comes? We start showing them these things. Even though they’re in the steps four through nine where these blocks, when the work is done, we get them started and we give them all the hope that when they leave they’re going to continue working the steps. We’ve even made a follow-up retreat called EnCOR and that is where we finish the steps with them. We do the work of four through nine and we sit with them.
Quite honestly, the directions in the Big Book aren’t easy to follow. They’re not easy to find, they’re not numbered. If they don’t say, “Here’s the step and this is how you do it.” You need a teacher. We guide them. We work with them one-on-one to finish their steps and get their amends letters written. We talk about which ones need to be made and which ones don’t. You don’t always have to make an amend for everything you’ve ever done. It’s very involved. They are so filled with hope and with Higher Power, all they had to do was crack open their mind a little and it’s blown wide open, and they leave it there. We do a lot of laughing and crying, and they have a good time. It’s not all work. It’s not therapy. We don’t use therapy. It’s non-clinical. It’s purely the Twelve-Steps which is a spiritual program. I basically told you everything we do.
Clearly, you’ve communicated that you have a spiritual-based Twelve-Step based food addiction recovery program, if I ask you, “What are your thoughts on fat?” What’s your response? Fat as a substance you eat. I’m asking for your input on olive oil, coconut oil, fat on meat. Could you give me thoughts on fat?
I’m not a nutritionist so that’s not my area of expertise. We do have a food plan at COR that was created by a combination of nutritionists. In my day, I follow a food plan and I have to have healthy fats. I have to keep them in safe amounts. I choose to measure them out. I have, for example, half-and-half in my coffee but I just have one tablespoon. I measure it. I don’t pour a bunch of half-and-half in there. A tablespoon of half-and-half in my coffee is delicious. We serve avocados, one ounce is one fat. We tell them what each serving is of each fat. They can put salad dressing on their salad. That’s one tablespoon is one fat, and they usually get two fats for dinner. They could have some salad dressing and an ounce of avocado, or they could have a couple teaspoons of sunflower nuts, or you could have two tablespoons of sour cream even. That’s a fat. You can have that on your baked potato. They have to eat fat. You need it for your brain. Our food plan is not a diet. It’s literally a food plan. In fact, we recommend that they go to a doctor, a nutritionist, when they leave so they can get one made specifically to them.
The amounts that we are able to eat would astound you. Honestly the guests are like, “I can’t eat all this. How am I going lose weight when I eat all this?” If you’re not putting any zero empty calories, just like the alcoholics put zero alcohol in their body, we’re not putting any processed food for the most part at all in our bodies. We’re putting protein, starch, dairy fat, vegetables, fruit in our body in the amounts that they require every day. We abstain between meals. We’re not grabbing a chip here or a handful of this here or nuts here. We can eat nuts. Those are healthy facts. The key is as long as it doesn’t trigger you. Everybody’s triggers are different. For example, every kind of nut triggers me, especially salted and roasted nuts. I do not include them in my food plan, except for raw sunflower nuts or sunflower seeds. They have to be raw and unsalted then I can eat them. Honestly, they’re more like a vitamin to me. I eat them to fuel my body. I love the food that I eat. We have salmon and baked potatoes with sour cream and asparagus for a meal and some coffee with half-and-half and a salad with some salad dressing or something. We eat a lot and it’s good. We don’t include the foods that cause us to eat uncontrollably. We’re happy without the processed sugar. When I see my kids eating it, I look at that and I go, “That’s beautiful. That looks like that’s good. I remember when I used to eat that. That was pretty good.” It doesn’t call me. I don’t feel like I have to have them hide it from me or eat it away from me. It’s gone.
This program, it is a miracle. I can’t explain that. No human power can make that happen. My therapist cannot make that happen in me. I went to therapy for years and we all still go whenever we need it. I’m not saying, “Don’t go to therapy,” especially, most food addicts have trauma in their past and they need to get professional help. As far as an addiction goes, the therapists do not have the power to remove the obsession from our head. The actions of the Twelve Steps produce that effect. That’s a by-product of doing this program. We do it according to the directions in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. For food addicts, we just changed the word alcohol to food and alcoholics to food addicts and it works exactly the same for us. If that works, we don’t want to try to fix it. We use their program and it’s a high success rate. When people stick to it and do it, you will get success. It’s like running an experiment. If it’s a known experiment of hundreds of thousands or millions of people have run this experiment before and got a certain result, chances are if you run it the same way they did it, that’s the key, you will get the same result they got. That’s the way we teach about the Twelve Steps.
I’m sure many people would like to know what your personal concept of God is. Would you share that with us? When you’re thinking personally, privately of what your God is, what is that?
My personal concept has evolved a lot.
Tell us where it started from and then takes us through the evolution and what it is today. I feel that your program is spiritually-based, and having an insight into your personal God would be of interest to many people.
I was raised with a Catholic God. I’m not saying that that’s wrong. I don’t believe that any conception that anyone has is wrong. What happened for me was I had to get rid of the idea that I was damned forever. I was living in terror of dying because I was afraid I would burn for eternity and that’s a long time. What happened was I started researching near-death experiences and I got a hold of a book, Betty Eadie’s book, Embraced by the Light. She had a near-death experience and went up to heaven when her heart stopped. She was given a tour and all of her questions were answered. When her heart started again, she came back to life and she wrote these things down in a book. They confirmed for me, that belief that a member told me about I should try on that God is all love and all mercy. That’s not what I was taught. When I read her book, it came to the point where it was like she had the tunnel, your life flashes before you and you’re in that moment of judgment. It all happened. These are all universal beliefs about death. She’s standing there and she’s watching her life pass before her, and there’s with her somebody observing this. When she was done, whoever it was standing with her wasn’t the one to judge her and say, “You get in or you go up the escalator or down escalator.” They didn’t. What he said was, “Now, you get to be the judge of your own life.”
For me, that moment reading that, I wanted to believe that because it took God off the hook. That way finally I could say, “God’s not judging me. God is all love and all merciful. He’s not judging me.” This is my process. I’m not saying anybody else has to believe this. You asked how I got a concept that I could live with. Now, I have a merciful, all loving God. My heart is so filled and I’m walking around the world saying, “I’m not dammed. There is hope for me.” I’m able to fall in love with this God because I can see my life as an alcoholic, and the other alcoholics know, we don’t deserve to even be here. We should be dead from the drunk driving alone. We’ve been given a new chance and we’re not living because we deserve it. I’m walking around with a merciful concept of God. Now, my problem is if I’m the judge of myself, I better find out how to forgive myself. We are all such harsh judges of ourselves. Everyone always nods their head when I say that. It’s like, “I’m the worst judge myself. I’m so hard on myself.” There are some lines in the scriptures. I can’t quote them very well. There’s one where it says, “The same measure you measure others’ faults is the same measure you measure your own with.” Even in the general Lord’s Prayer which most people are familiar with, it says, “Forgive us as we forgive others.”
I went on this spiritual quest and somebody taught me that when I’m judging myself up, I’m judging others for the things that I have inside of me. If you spot it, you got it. If there’s something that bothers me about you, it’s usually that I have that in me. Now, in order to forgive it in me, I have to forgive it in you. When I let you off the hook, then I let me off the hook. I have this judge in my head and if I can quiet it down for others and let the crazy drivers drive, let the sick people be sick, our slogan is ‘live and let live’, then I can say the same thing for me, “Michelle, live and let live. Leave yourself alone. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Everyone’s doing the best they can.” Now, I have a way to make it into the pearly gates hopefully with self-forgiveness by stopping judging others.
Part of my path was I converted to Judaism. I thought at that time that was another reason why I was going to be dammed to hell. I had to get over that. My sponsor with another faith, I said, “Tell me again when your mom died. She was with the presence of her God.” She would tell me the story and I would say, “I was so afraid, my husband and myself and my children were damned for not having the proper religion.” That’s what I was raised to believe. Today, I believe that God is all loving and all merciful and non-judgmental and I believe that God can come in any form that we choose. Therefore, if I’m Buddhist, it can be in that form. If I’m Christian, it can be in that form. If God is omnipotent and everywhere, then he can come in any form. That’s why I’m guessing, with my studies of near-death experiences, each person of their own faith sees the God of their faith when they die, and they say, “I told you. Mine was right.” God can be anything. When they ask me, “What religion are you?” I say, “All religions but mostly love.” Love is my religion. Love is my God. It’s the feeling. It’s almost like an energy of love. God can be an energy or is form and without form. That’s my concept.
Do you attend physical locations in order to connect with your God? Are you attending a synagogue for instance or do you have other physical locations or religious groups that you find has a strong affinity with your own belief system of God?
No, I don’t practice Judaism anymore. I’m divorced and my children are Jewish so they get bar mitzvah and I go to temple with them for that. Honestly, I choose to go back home to the one I grew up in because it’s comfortable and I feel the love of God there. I made friends with an Eastern Indian Saint. When she came to town, I went to the Hindu temple and I felt the presence of God there. I felt it in her presence. Wherever I go, I feel the presence of my Higher Power. I can feel it physically. I can’t explain it. I love God so much and I love listening. I’m going back to my roots and I listen to Christian music. It moves me and it’s one of my soothers. I love incense and candles and listening to Christian music.
When you attend a Christian gathering and you hear words that are personifying the concept of God, for instance Jesus dying on the cross, that isn’t core to your belief system any more. Am I correct on that?
I believe all of that’s true. I don’t believe in the dogma and that’s the only way to heaven. I don’t believe that’s the only way. I dismissed the humanness of all religions when sometimes they say things that are contrary to what my belief is, and I don’t think about it. I go there to just commune with my Higher Power. It’s comfortable there because as we get older, I’m in my 50s, it’s fun to go back to your childhood and get that comfort that we were raised with once in a while, the familiarity of it.
I agree with you and I also agree with your concepts that love and the energy of love is certainly part of the concept of God. I also love your point. I’m very attracted to your point that at death you get to judge your own life. I know that your program at COR is a very spiritually-based program and that you’re using the Twelve-Step philosophy in order to help people to recover from their food addiction. Michelle, I want to thank you very much for being here. A lot of people will find this very enlightening because we all eat food. Many of us eat too much as well as the wrong things. I hope that we can speak again in the future. Thanks again for being on the show.
Thanks for having me, Paul. I hope that I talk to you again soon.
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