Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Last Cookie

I'm sitting with five or six other moms, at a little lunch get-together at a friend's house.  We're sipping coffee and chatting, pleased to be at the stage in our lives where we have school aged kids and can finish sentences, bond together as women and not just as moms.

The hostess places a platter of homemade chocolate chip cookies in the center of the table.  We make the usual exclamations, and reach out simultaneously to pluck a cookie from the plate.

Minutes pass, sipping and chatting, and eventually there is only one cookie left. Every now and then someone's eyes dart to the platter, but nobody reaches for it.  I call this the 'cookie dance' - nobody wants to be the one to grab for the last one, even though we're all thinking about it.

After a while we drift away to sit and chat on the more comfortable couches, and by the time I stand up to leave the last cookie is gone.  Someone, at some point, snuck away into the kitchen and polished it off when nobody was looking. 

On the drive home I think about the last cookie, about the unspoken code that nobody wants to be the one to eat more than the others.  Part of it is politeness, perhaps, but my suspicion is that somehow scarfing the last cookie represents some kind of weakness, a feeling of need that nobody wants to reveal. Or, perhaps, it is a fear of vulnerability, that the other women will somehow have something over you - they could restrain themselves, and you had to have just one more.

But you know who's really not going to reach for that last cookie?  Someone with an unhealthy relationship to food.  For that person, who is sitting and chatting like everything is fine, that cookie is speaking to her. Her fear of revealing her dark secret, her obsession with food (too much or too little of it), is too great.

It reminds me of my drinking days, when I would put on my mask of normalcy, laughing and chatting with friends at a party and all the while my mind was racing, calculating how much I could drink without judgment. When the hostess would come by with a refill, I would place my hand demurely over the top of the glass and say, "No thanks, I'm driving," and then later at home, when nobody was looking, I would drink like I wanted to. 

We go to great lengths to conceal suffering and vulnerability.

All this makes me think about how important our reactions are to people who take the brave step and admit their vulnerabilities out loud. For someone struggling with a secret obsession, like drinking or food, the expectation of judgment is so great, it keeps them silent and stuck in their secret would of suffering.

If a friend came to you and admitted she had a problem with food, that she was turning to food for comfort and distraction from boredom or pain, would binge eat in secret and then feel terribly about herself (or maybe purge), how would you react?  Would you say "Well, I can stop at one cookie, why can't you?"  Would you feel that tug of superiority that you don't have that problem?  Or would you find a way to identify with her silent suffering, her feelings of inadequacy, her pain?

When someone breaks out of their silence, comes forward and admits they have a problem, they are extremely vulnerable because we are hard-wired to fit in, to color inside the lines, to stay with the pack.  But our sense of the pack is skewed - when you're struggling you think everyone else has it figured out, that you're weak or flawed.  The reality is everyone has something they wouldn't want the world to know about, a way they think or behave in the privacy of their own little world that they don't want anyone else to see.

I realize that alcoholism is really hard to understand for people who don't have any first (or second) hand experience with this disease. The behavior patterns and thought processes of an active alcoholic (or problem drinker) are baffling.  Why on earth would anyone DO that to their lives?  Why would they make such poor choices?  Why would they risk so much for another glass of wine?

The answer is simple, really.  They have a disease, an allergy, an obsession - call it whatever you want - that has taken over their minds and their lives.  They don't want to drink too much, and they are as baffled by their own behavior as you are.  THIS is why getting sober is so hard to do on your own; you are held prisoner within your own body and mind, and need help getting free. 

But asking for that help is hard, because judgment is so prevalent. 

Most women, on some level, can understand food problems, I think. Our culture is so riddled with images of bodily perfection that just about everyone I know diets, or talks about dieting, or has body image issues.  

I find it interesting that visibly obese people are still victims of so much judgment, when most people - especially women - can understand on some visceral level struggling with food/dieting/body image.  We can empathize to a point - when someone says they are dieting we are quick to offer support.  But when someone crosses the line into obesity empathy becomes harder to find, because being significantly overweight pings a fear reaction in people.  That person took too it too far, we think, and instead of offering support and empathy, we avoid, we gossip, we compare instead of identify.

When someone admits to struggling with drinking, or has slid into active alcoholism, they face a lot of judgment.  A large part of this is likely rampant lack of understanding about addiction; people mistakenly believe it is a moral issue or a strength of character problem. If strength of character was enough to stop addiction, there would be no addicts.  But another part of it is a fear response; that person has taken it too far.  We go into that place where we compare ("I'd never drink that much") instead of identify ("she is suffering, and I understand suffering").

My hope is for a world where we can reach past judgment and fear and find empathy. A world where someone can show vulnerability, admit a problem out loud, and find compassion.  We can't understand all problems - and addiction is one of the most difficult to understand - but we all understand suffering.  Stepping outside the pack - reaching for the last proverbial cookie and admitting something isn't perfect - takes courage. And just like we can all understand suffering, we can all understand courage, too.


  1. Simply, this huge. A huge lesson. I think relating alcohol struggles to food addiction and over indulgence is perfect, as I've related to those who are struggling with alcohol through the lens of my own struggles with food. I'm the girl who has the cookie talking to her, trying to recover from such a strong grip. Thanks for this, Ellie.

  2. Excellent post, Ellie. I completely understand where you're coming from. I used to judge in my youth and yes, it was driven my sheer ignorance about whatever the subject matter was, be it alcohol & drug addiction, food addiction/disorders, on and on. It was only through facing my own battle and subsequent recovery from alcoholism that I gained the knowledge and empathy for others like me, as well as others who were addicted to other substances or unhealthy activities.

    I applaud you for your courage in being a public face of recovery. Acts like this provide a doorway to others who are suffering to step through.

    There will be people who will judge those of us who choose to be public about our addiction. But there are scores more that you are helping by being so self-less and courageous.

    My prayer is that those who may have a negative reaction, will choose to seek out information and become better informed and then be able to have some compassion. But no matter what they do, I know that I can be peaceful in my own actions.

    You are a champion and a hero in the recovery world. xo

  3. Great post. Sharing this one. Thank you, dear Ellie.

  4. I still haven't been able to tell my mentor at university that the real reason I haven't done any of my school work is because I can't keep my brain out of online games. I've tried over and over again to focus, to do what I KNOW I NEED to do, but I just can't. I'll go to click on a school program, and end up clicking on an MMO, or Sims3, or some other nonsense. And I do it every day. And if I can't play, I get crabby and grumpy and snappish. I'm not even sure what to do anymore, if anything can be done.

  5. I "get" this from an alcohol stand point, and food, for sure. As I grow older, I am learning more and more how to reach out for support. It's not easy. I can only hope that my response to friends coming to me will be as supportive as I'd hope for.

    Lisa, I love your response.

    Great post, Ellie.

  6. I compare the judgement about weight to the caste system in India. People think: I may be 20 pounds overweight, but at least I'm not OBESE. shudder. It is shame-shifting to protect us from feeling our own unacknowledged shame, as Brene Brown writes. Same thing applies to drinking and judgment about the severity of the disease. We can only have compassion for others if we have self-compassion. Another thanks Ellie.

  7. This is just a brilliant post, and I want to thank you for writing it. I think the bottom line is when we judge, we judge for fear that others might see our own weaknesses. I'll be sharing this post with my readers.

  8. What a gorgeous post, Ellie, thank you! I need to remind myself that when I judge, it's probably out of fear of my biggest weaknesses.

  9. Such a great post, thank you.

  10. i wrote to a friend last night trying to put across exactly what you are saying and then this morning i saw your post and sent a link to it - you say just what i was trying to say, only far more eloquently!

    thank you for how you write and what you write. x