Harm reduction protocol.

Image:  Cactus , Laurens Vincentsz van der Vinne, 1668 - 1729, Rijksmuseum. Used with permission.

Image: Cactus, Laurens Vincentsz van der Vinne, 1668 - 1729, Rijksmuseum. Used with permission.

I did the BEST workshop last week with the cartoonist Lynda Barry, who is a wonderful artist and excellent teller of weird and fantastic tales. Not one drop of self-improvement in anything we did. SO good.

HOWEVER. The retreat center where our workshop was held proved pretty darn challenging to me. Total trigger carnival, even for someone who fancies herself a recovered binge eater (and I do count myself recovered).

I will list some of my "triggers" - aka shit that I prefer to avoid if possible - that were present at the center, and perhaps you can relate: 

  • early mealtimes

  • soupy one-pot food (what they called "glop-n-go" at my kids' sleepaway camp)

  • low-protein, carb-heavy vegetarian emphasis

  • a popular diet guru on campus

  • mealtime discussions of his idea that we need to deal with "root causes of overeating" like "our emotions"

  • rancid food (not kidding)

  • way past use-by-date food (not even kidding)

...and like that.

Perfectly hospitable eating environment for some, but not me. Without intervention, I could be in trouble pretty quick. No fridges for student use, and I didn't have a lot of time to go off-campus and shop anyway.

Then I remembered the idea of harm reduction.

Do you know this idea? I'm going to oversimplify, because it comes from the world of drugs, which is not really not my world. Here are a couple things I do know:

The concept of harm reduction involves the idea that we won't be rid of drugs today. What's possible today is reducing the harm they do. So how shall we do that?

Well, if you're in an environment that's not the best for you, one where you have limited control over what's being served at meals, limited choice about mealtimes, you're doing challenging work for long hours and you're without the supports you rely on to manage any remaining bingey impulses - like ADEQUATE PROTEIN FFS - and the very experience of loss of control itself being something you find triggery, well... Here's what I do:

I look at the hills I'm normally willing to die on. Some are:

  • No bingeing. No matter what.

  • No seconds. Slippery slope; bad news for me.

  • No verifiably bad food, like rancid or borderline-rotting food. Come on.

  • No subjectively bad food. Like, how you gonna keep em down on the farm after they've had Audrey Jane's Pizza Garage pizza? I'd have to be near death to say Don't mind if I do! to an offer of Tombstone now.

  • Protein first.

And there's a few more. But in an uncommonly challenging environment, on Harm Reduction Protocols, I decided to relax a few things. I mostly relied on peanut butter sandwiches. I did have seconds when I found something I liked. I threw away more food in one week than in my entire time at boarding school. And I was truly grateful for the sad pizza.

Not optimal. But way less harm than saying This must be hell so fuck it, which I was always prone to before, and which we all recognize as a giant hallmark of bad habits and addiction in every domain.

That makes this another reminder that perfection is never the goal. Thank goodness.