In my Substance Abuse Counseling course this past semester, our class was asked to give up one treasured habit or behavior for two weeks in order to better understand, in a small way, how difficult it is for clients to give up an addiction. Outsiders often wonder why it is so hard for addicts to make an immediate change when they are clearly harming themselves and others around them. Many well-intentioned helpers even ask addicts to “just stop” what they are doing. However, my classmates and I found out in this short-term assignment (not even involving harmful substances!), it is ineffective and naïve to expect addicts to be able to quit instantly and completely.
I do not eat a lot of meat, due to taste preference as well as concern for both animals and my health. However, I generally replace meat with a lot of cheese in my diet, which I realize is not the healthiest substitution. My favorite foods include homemade macaroni and cheese, pizza, grilled cheese, and any Italian dish with cheese involved. For this assignment, I decided to try giving up cheese in my diet for two weeks, knowing that this change would be very difficult for me!
The first week started off well, as I mapped out my grocery list to include dishes with no cheese. I planned to make Mexican salads and a marinara pasta dish, both with no cheese included. Lunches were very difficult from the start. I could buy sushi from my work cafeteria or bring in dinner leftovers, but most of my premade or store-bought lunch options tend to include cheese. However, I felt motivated intellectually to go out of my way and figure out how to overcome these obstacles. After all, I know cheese is bad for me and that it often doesn’t digest well. I thought that maybe I would even begin to look some weight, timely with summer approaching!
On Thursday of the first week, my company brought in a food truck that served artisanal popcorn. Without thinking, I picked up a bag of white cheddar popcorn and ate through it happily. It took me four hours to realize that this may have violated my commitment! I brushed it off, and decided to keep trying.
Unfortunately, I didn’t last much longer. I had a very long week and after leaving work late on Friday because of a team event, I called Chris to brainstorm dinner options. We realized that we didn’t have much left in the fridge, but we were both starving. I felt guilty for a second, but the hunger took over. We decided to order a pizza. Sitting at home with Chris in front of the TV with Papa John’s pizza is such a nice treat when the work and school week has been long!
After this major slip-up, I started to resent the assignment. I am a busy person with a full-time job, graduate school classes and homework, a husband to consider, volunteer commitments, and hopefully some sort of social life and a semblance of an exercise routine. It was too difficult to take the time to alter to my diet! After all, don’t I deserve some cheese at the end of a long day?
Going forward, I still tried not to overdo it on the cheese, but I did not keep to the assignment very well after that first Friday. I didn’t like that cutting out cheese meant I had to eat more meat. (I was not about to turn vegan for this assignment!) I missed cheese in my favorite dishes. Most of all, I just stopped feeling motivated and didn’t see the point anymore of leaving out cheese. Sure, my stomach hurt sometimes, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe I should be healthier and lose a little weight, but I could try to go to the gym more instead. I knew I wasn’t taking the assignment seriously anymore when I went to the grocery store at the beginning of the second week and bought a few different cheeses. The culmination of my rebellion was a few nights before the two weeks ended. I made a delicious batch of homemade spicy macaroni and cheese, using a fabulous recipe from The Pioneer Woman, and pigged out!
It is really hard to not only give up something you love, but to give up something that has become a regular staple in your life. All of us are busy and have come up with different routines to help navigate the chaos that we deal with each day. I was convinced of the health benefits of giving up cheese at the beginning of the two weeks, but when push came to shove, it was more convenient and desirable to add cheese back in. The low level of guilt that I felt for breaking the commitment was more comfortable than trying to keep going without cheese. Honestly, the guilt disappeared quickly as well, and eventually, I even felt okay with myself that I was going against my pact.
I think that one way I resolved my rebellion was through justifying it in how I talked to myself about my actions. I told myself that I deserved cheese, that I was busy and important, and that I didn’t have time to figure out alternatives. I asked myself why it was a big deal in the first place to be a person who eats a lot of cheese. I could always work on other behaviors to improve my health and well-being, such as going to the gym more and cutting down on something easier like carbohydrates.
I am sure that addicts often feel similarly on a much larger level. Maybe they are shocked to hear about the health aspects initially, or they feel guilty for hurting someone close to them. However, then life keeps going and hard things come their way. I am sure they engage in self-talk as well, telling themselves that they deserve to have a drink, just one more will help them cope with this hard situation, etc. Perhaps the self-talk escalates like it did for me, and addicts wonder why they are giving this up in the first place. The justification continues, any guilt they felt previously subsides, and it is just more comfortable, helpful, and convenient to keep the addiction going.
Helpers should never tell an addict to “just stop” taking substances. It is almost impossible for any of us to abruptly and permanently give up something that we rely upon and love.
Thank you to Professor Sandy Sale at GMU for such an insightful semester learning about counseling those struggling with addiction!