Over the summer I took a course on substance abuse. During the 7-week period we were assigned to pick something that we were moderately to severely addicted to to give up for the term. What first came to mind was Diet Coke. This idea was IMMEDIATELY shut down after I realized that I was to stay at school from 9-5. My classmates jokingly threw out “McDonalds” as a suggestion for me. I considered it. It would be difficult to give up. I was going at least once a day every day of the week for my $1 Large Diet Coke and a lil’ hamburger. We were given only a couple moments to think before we went around the room committing to our abstinence. “Coffee,” “Candy,” “Cigarettes,” “Alcohol!” some brave souls offered up their sacrifices and all too soon the spotlight landed on me.
“McDonalds,” I whispered.
The first night proved more difficult than I thought. I drove past the local McDonalds slowly like a stalker ex-girlfriend several times, just to see what it was up to without me. On the weekend I drove 45 minutes to a California Pizza Kitchen to treat myself for not eating McDonalds for three days. I tried to ignore the buzzing neon-yellow arches that flanked me on the freeway as I hurriedly drove back to the safety of my apartment. By the time I got home I had eaten the entire pizza and somehow managed to still feel empty. No amount of savory delights would sufficiently fill the Ronald McDonald-shaped hole in my heart.
I somehow managed to stay sober for 5 days, a feat that I told everyone at every chance I got, not unlike a gluten-free person. Yeah, I hated myself too. Most people did not understand how difficult it was for me, because most people don’t eat fast food every day, unless they are filming a documentary on processed foods. The lack of validation was starting to wear on my stamina and weaken my resolve. I sat in the parking lot of McD weighing the pros and cons of keeping up with the assignment for at least an hour. Just sitting in the parking lot gave me a proximity high. Eventually, I drove home disappointed and hungry.
What was originally seen as a delicious habit turned out to be my only coping method for dealing with difficult emotion states. Within the weeks that followed I underwent terribly dramatic things; my boyfriend turned out to be cheating on me and then dumped me to be with one of the girls he was sleeping with, I had insomnia, I was forced to sit at the singles’ table for several weddings, I was paying more money for less satisfying food. It was rough. Each time something would happen I would feel an overwhelming urge to numb out the emotion with McDonalds.
As I tried to dissect the meaning behind the association I was reminded of childhood road trips with my family. I was a sickly child with the tendency to become nauseated on a whim. Also, my dad is THE WORST DRIVER EVER. Every time I started to feel carsick we would pull over to McD and get a small hamburger to settle my stomach. It would work like a charm and we would continue on our merry way to exotic Utah or Oregon. My mind became conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to drool (for McDonalds) the moment an upsetting feeling aroused within me. Since emotion states register physically as well as mentally, a physiological sensation accompanying an uncomfortable emotion would trigger a desire for McDonalds to placate the ickiness. Whether it be nausea, anger, shame or depression my reaction would be the same: get a little hamburger in my mouth ASAP.
Needless to say, years of habit reinforcement were not broken within the 7-week period. In fact I caved during week 2 and yelled, “I don’t even care! Totally worth it,” at my peers, mouth full of French Fries. Regardless of the lapses, okay full-blown relapse, the experiment afforded me an opportunity to gaze into the unhealthy coping mechanisms I harbor and grant me greater empathy towards those struggling with more severe addictions. Yes, even more severe than being addicted to McDonalds. The insight I gained helped me to develop more healthy tools for dealing with difficult emotion states so I could partake in McD at a more reasonable rate. Now, as I pull through the drive thru on a thrice-a-week basis I try to be mindful of the sensations, emotions and intentions running through my head as I place my order, because, let’s face it, I might as well get something positive from the experience. Admitting you are powerless is the first step right?