The Literary Mind

Life, literature, and politics, from the inside out.

Four Ways to Fight Addiction

Frank Bruni's recent autobiography tackles addiction.

The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni's recent autobiography, Born Round (see link here), explains his addiction to eating and his methods for handling the addiction. The first half of the book could be the bleakest 100 pages I've ever read. For half of his life, this man couldn't get naked and couldn't see friends without planning months in ahead, because he was so obsessed with his body.


But there are some turning points in the book, and Bruni chronicles them like stars in the sky: radiant still points that teach tons about addiction.

Turning Point # 1: Being Outed

Bruni struggled with bulimia for about 6 months in his 20's, but he didn't self-identify as "bulimic." He thought of his occasional binge and purge as a novelty: a handy way for a smart guy to undo a big meal.

Addicts often use that self-styling: "The label doesn't fit me like it fits real addicts. I've just got special problems and special solutions." But long stretches of privacy distort reality. And even small-scale sneaky behaviors can snowball, without our knowing, into life-threatening patterns of thought and behavior.

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For example, over months of "casual purging," Bruni adopted the false idea that his indulgences in fact needed to be undone. People like Bruni who rely on an occasional purge avoid learning a lesson that other people learn: how to deal with the negative emotions after eating too much and rebounding to a normal eating schedule the next day. Bruni entered a cycle which got worse the longer he kept it secret: Food became more and more frightening--the monster that sometimes brought chaos that had to be reversed.

One day, he was "outed." His two best friends confronted him, saying they knew he was bulimic. This changed Bruni's relationship to his own habits. Now his habits had a name with the power to shame him and to make him more accountable. Shame worked well here. Sometimes, the best thing for an addict's self-knowledge is being labeled, which ends secrecy and increases accountability.

Turning Point # 2: When Family Outs You

A second shaming, or making-accountable, happened in his 30's. This one happened in the context of family, which many addicts consider a hornet's nest. Family is a mirror for what we love and for what we avoid in ourselves. It's tempting to project what we want to disown onto family members or to blame them for who we've become.

Bruni had a tough relationship to his family insofar as they (all huge eaters themselves) had fuelled his obsession with food while fostering a warped self image. Because food was so important for all of them, he imagined no one in his family could really see him gain weight. One night, at a party, after too many drinks, Bruni made fun of a brother whom he envied, and his brother shot back: "At least I'm not fat."

That was a blow to his self-concept. Bruni ran into a bathroom downstairs, and cried. People close to us know us almost too well. They hurt us most and can change us quickly. After that night, Bruni finally decided to get serious about exercise.

Turning Point # 3: Behavioral Change Before Full Mental Change

There's really only so much progress any of us can make through talk. Often, the first answer to addiction must be forcing a change in behavior. After the family insult (and a few other public shamings), Bruni got a trainer. He surrendered some of his control over self image and over his choices: He hired expensive help, and this trainer made him work out. He threw his body into committed action before his mind could doubt it, and, throughout his life, that's the one way the weight came off.

Turning Point # 4: Changing Cultures

A second, bigger change helped him further. Bruni took a newspaper assignment in Italy. Changing cultures changed his life more radically than talk or a gym routine could. He went from the American eating culture to the Italian one, from a culture of high quantity and low quality to high quality and low quantity. You can't independently think yourself into an Italian mindset when you're living in America. Culture affects us to the core--it sets our "norms." In Italy, Bruni ate rich things, but they were served in smaller helpings, and he didn't have to battle alone to be "disciplined." People there simply didn't pile stuff so high on their plates and didn't snack between meals. The place you live, and the people living around you, determine cravings far more than we give them credit for. For the addict, the lesson here might be changing jobs or even states.

Flying back to the U.S. from Italy one year, Bruni sat behind a bunch of Americans who cracked open bags of chips between the meals. The old Bruni would have loved to do that, too. The new Bruni looked on from an Italian perspective, and those habits (his own old habits) looked misguided.

Small points of light change us. By the end of this good book about addiction, Bruni's telling us we've got to avoid magical thinking and be almost boringly honest about accountability. This doesn't mean avoiding food (or drugs or alcohol, necessarily, if those are our vices) altogether. It means understanding our cycles of self-punishment and exceptionalism. It means not sinking deep into self-hatred after indulgence, but buoying ourselves with accepting what we've done and moving on. Bruni writes about being kind to ourselves--both in terms of what we resist and what we devour.

 

see my book here

Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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