I'm struck--yet again--by the similarities between overeating and overspending. One is a decent substitute for the other, but it's unclear which is heroin, and which is methadone; I suppose it's dependent on mood. Both nasty habits are similar to a third: sex online with strangers. (I won't delve too deeply into that subject, because it's tawdry even by my relaxed standards.) All three trade long-term joy for short-term pleasure, self-respect for self-disgust, and sometimes-painful mindfulness for sometimes-blissful distraction.
Years ago, I quit chatting online, and I anticipate similar success as I quit overeating and overspending. I anticipate becoming a healthy, energetic, debt-free cutie-pie with a well-funded retirement account. Any. Minute. Now.
When I relax into the temptations of overeating and overspending--and the clerks at Krispy Kreme and TJ Maxx greet me like an old friend--I feel (by turns) excited, outgoing, energized, busy, clever, liberated, secretive, ashamed, burdened, and uncomfortably full. When I strive to overcome the temptations of overeating and overspending--and I eat wholesome foods to satiety, and buy what enriches my life without cluttering my life--I feel (by turns) peaceful, mindful, healthy, content, disciplined, unfettered, wistful, jealous, listless, and peckish. If I choose to follow one path, I cannot successfully follow the other path.
The path of eating and spending in moderation will lead to more and better rewards, but...not today. To reap the rewards, I need to stay on the path...for months, for years. Early on, this path is recognizable only by what's not there: double cheeseburgers with fries, pecan pie with ice cream, Rachael Ray's line of brightly colored kitchenware, a cashmere cardigan with shell buttons and three-quarter-length sleeves. Early on, this path looks like the Black Rock Desert, like an abandoned factory, and I feel lonely in such a desolate place. For me, the buddy system is an illusion, and a Weight Watchers meeting or Debtors Anonymous meeting is worse than the first day at a new high school. This is a solitary journey.
In my experience, there's only one thing to do: Embrace the solitude. Embrace, even, Jung's "legitimate suffering." Empty deserts and empty factories are fierce and frightening places, but it's not necessary to flee. I can plant my flag here. I can brew a cup of tea, and ride this out. The rewards are vast, and the journey--even the third or fourth time--is compelling.
Here, I want to examine the intersections of overeating and overspending, so that I can be attentive when approaching them. (Of course, I'm only an expert on me, and I don't presume to know what you do when no one's looking.)
Problem: Both overeating and overspending are terrific (if temporary) stress reducers. And god bless 'em for it. Both go a long way toward seeming to fix: (a) cabin fever; (b) marital strife; (c) too many pets, bills, and unread classics; (d) too few long baths, marketable skills, and attentive listeners; and (e) the always-there, never-quite-gone feelings of fear, frustration, regret, boredom, and worry. Worried about a new mole? Worried about failing to embrace Alan Arkin's advice in "Little Miss Sunshine"? Worried about not taking a meaningful risk since Jimmy Carter left office? Well, I'll feel much better if I start my binge at Taco Bell, swing by Barnes & Noble, and finish up at Dairy Queen.
Solution: I can take a deep breath, and consider the possibility that my life--as is--can be borne, can be endured. I'm sure much of my stress would magically disappear if I had a real problem to deal with, like cancer or civil war. In fact, I make myself more vulnerable to stress (and everything else) by not being prepared for physical or financial emergencies. So, next time I feel anxious, I'll turn and face the demon. If I can't do something productive--something that directly addresses the problem--I'll embrace the stress, knowing that it's not likely to kill me.
Problem: Both overeating and overspending are crimes of opportunity, and--for me--the "bargain" presents an almost irresistible opportunity. Deals are everywhere: 80-percent off, 90-percent off, buy-one-get-one. Here's a coupon! Here's a book of coupons! Have a dollar? Here's three tacos! Have five dollars? Here's a pink cotton sweater! The most difficult challenge is anything that is free: a thick slice of buttered bread at Great Harvest, half an egg roll at Costco, an oatmeal cookie at a health fair. And those little snacks--given so generously, so innocently--flip a switch in my head, and thirty pounds later I can trace my falling-off-the-wagon moment to that goddamn health fair.
Solution: As a minimum, I can stay away from clearance sales, bakeries, and the drive-thru window at McDonalds. I might also want to consider a less black-and-white approach to everything. It's not necessary to deny myself the pleasure of new socks or a coat that fits; it's not necessary to hide behind a locked door when the neighbor girls deliver a plate of cookies. I can learn to see the difference between eating and overeating, between spending and overspending.
Problem: Both overeating and overspending are often preceded by disappointment: in me, in others, and sometimes in the very thing I eat or buy. I've resumed bingeing (and/or spent a fruitful afternoon at Ross-Dress-for-Less) when I received an email from a woman asking that I stop flirting with her husband, when I had to remind my sister that it was my birthday, and when my a la carte chicken enchilada had too much cilantro. It's crushing! It's more than I can bear! I've suffered enough!
Solution: I can acknowledge that disappointment is difficult, and some of us handle it better than others. My husband once waited until I was in a cheerful mood, and suggested that I learn to manage my expectations. Since then, it occurred to me that maybe I want to be derailed: I'm devastated, so I'm allowed to overeat and overspend, right?
Problem: Both overeating and overspending are--duh--encouraged by advertisers. It feels inescapable, especially late at night when I'm watching TV or surfing the 'net, when my resolve is weakened by the need for sleep. I must have that crab-cake sandwich, or those corduroy pants with a 36-inch inseam. Wherever I look, someone is encouraging me to eat more or spend more, and it's easy to feel ambushed, and to surrender.
Solution: Resist already! I can see it for what it is, and I remind myself that I already have more than enough.
Problem: Both overeating and overspending are encouraged (to some degree) by loved ones. "You should buy that," my sister says. "It's eight dollars, it's darling, and it's so you. Didn't you have an olive-drab sweater just like that when you were dating ___?" and she speaks the name of someone I loved and lost. I cradle the sweater in my arms, harking back to a simpler time, reaching into my purse for a ten-dollar bill. Later, we're at a sandwich shop, and she offers to share her huge snickerdoodle with me. "No, thank you," I say, and she's crestfallen. I love her, and I'm responsible for the dejected look on her face. I change my mind about the snickerdoodle, and all is right in our world.
Solution: I can find a way to love and be loved without overeating or overspending. And I can learn to enjoy both habits vicariously: my niece's Victoria's Secret catalog order, a friend's new kitchen counters, my dad's bowl of mostaccioli or cioppino...I can appreciate something without eating it or owning it. (And, as a bonus, I get to feel smug for resisting.)
Problem: Both overeating and overspending are social habits, and often feel integral to celebrating, visiting, and vacationing. They're handy when saying I like you, I love you, I want to get to know you better, I want to impress you, I'm sorry, and thank you.
Solution: I can remind myself that all of these situations can be handled with moderate eating and spending, or--better yet--with something that requires more imagination.
Problem: Both overeating and overspending tend to result in choosing quantity over quality. By definition, they lead to excess, which for most people means a whole lotta crap. I'm reminded of a vacation several years ago when, one afternoon, I drove twenty miles to buy an ice cream cone at the Tillamook cheese factory in Oregon. I watched as a girl made waffles, which became waffle cones; she filled a still-warm cone with Marion Berry Cheesecake ice cream for me, and I happily paid $4 for it. I sat alone on the patio, in the warm sunshine, grinning at children and dogs, eating my treat. A week later, back in Utah, I bought a low-fat vanilla cone at McDonalds for $1 and ate it while driving home. I was struck by the difference between the two experiences. My first thought was, "I need to move--alone--to Tillamook," but even I knew that was unreasonable.
Solution: I can learn to slow down and ask myself if what I'm about to eat or buy is exactly what I want. I can reject the easy choices: those things that are merely okay, that are convenient, that are habits, that are attractive only because they are bargains. I can hold out for a Tillamook ice cream cone every time.