What are you Hungry For?

July 7, 2010

(or) Getting at the Essence of Addiction

I knew a guy named Titus who went to Atlantic City with $300 to gamble. Once he lost it all, he dug into his pockets and found one last twenty. He went right to the craps table, put it on the pass line and won. He did it again. And again. And again. He now had $320 and could go home even. But that wasn’t even a thought. He bet it all and won. He did it again. And again. He suddenly had $2,560 in chips in front of him.

Before this trip, if you told Titus he was going to double his money, he would have been thrilled. Had you told him he would win a grand, he would have been over the moon. So with more than $2,200 in winnings, what do you think he did?

I won’t answer yet, but I’ll give you a hint. Geneen Roth, author of eight books, including The New York Times bestseller, When Food is Love, spoke to my class at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Innocently enough, she asked us to turn to the person next to us and answer one question:

What are you hungry for?

I was floored. Speechless. Embarrassed.

When I finally snapped out of it, that question became the catalyst for me to look at food and addiction in a whole new light. It’s also the same question I would like to have asked Titus when he was at the craps table: what are you hungry for?

When you look at anything done to excess, it’s usually an indication that no amount is enough. There’s a void so deep that it can never be filled. The simple explanation is that Titus, like most compulsive gamblers, was hungry for action. But what does action really mean? And where does it stem from? And does the catch-all word “love” really alert us to what’s missing in our lives?

Geneen’s question forced me to look at myself and my patterns around food. I learned that when I traveled, I craved salty food. This suggested that I was looking for food to ground me. I uncovered that when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would use food as a way to slow down my mind and help me sleep (the proverbial food coma). When I looked deeper, to places that weren’t as comfortable, I understood that I looked to food as a way to fill up the emptiness in my life—whether it was feeling lonely or lacking love and support. I also realized that I developed a pattern from my family, passed down from generations, to turn to food as comfort, or even worse, to anesthetize any feelings at all.

I was lucky enough to read a column by Roy Cooke in Card Player magazine when I was nineteen that urged me to H.A.L.T. That is, don’t play poker when hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Indeed, as I’ve become more balanced in my life, I’ve become a better poker player. Not so coincidentally, I made my biggest score at the World Series of Poker three months after I hired a holistic health counselor, paid off all my debt, and began making healthier choices. When I watch poker players who consistently lose, I wonder what keeps bringing them back. What is it that they’re so hungry for that allows them to continue to lose their money and pride, day after day?

Awareness is the first step in creating change. By asking myself what I was hungry for, I started noticing patterns and finding new tools and solutions. I now see that when my life is in balance and I feel full from my work and the people I love, food is often an afterthought. When I do have those moments of loneliness and the need to fill a void, my logical mind combined with my awareness takes over. It tells me that food won’t fill those voids. I take a breath and think about what I can do that will. Maybe I pick up my guitar. Perhaps I write. Or maybe I’ll just sit with it and feel lonely—without the distraction of food to get in the way of my real feelings. And sometimes, I’ll make the conscious choice to eat. When I do, I’m honest with myself that I’m seeking comfort. I don’t beat myself up about it, but I also don’t fool myself into believing that I’ve dealt with the void.

As for Titus, I’m sure it’s no surprise that on his next roll he crapped out and went broke. I do think there is much to learn from his story. The next time you find yourself feeling insatiable, whether it’s to eat, drink, gamble, screw, shop, work or whatever you do to excess, ask yourself: What am I hungry for?