The difference between parts and brain: What my colonoscopy taught me about food addiction

A medical procedure shows me the nuance between the parts of me and my brain and how both play into my addictive behaviours.

I’m reflecting on the lessons I learned through a medical procedure which I have to do every few years. (While I have a part that is reluctant to share too much information, I am fully committed to sharing my lived experience of food addiction; I firmly believe there is a lot of value in that. And this part is ok with that and has softened back).

My first colonoscopy was about 5 years ago. I had to modify my food plan for a couple of days and then fast for 24 hours before the procedure. Of course, all the ‘low residue’ foods suggested on the medical information sheet were out of the question for me: white bread, sugary drinks, cereal with milk etc…So I modified my food plan based on my abstinent foods and confirmed them with a food support friend. So far so good.

During the fasting period I was required to drink plenty of clear liquids; again many on the list were unsuitable. Normally I drink water and herbal tea of many variations. That’s it. Because all other drinks are addictive to me. In this situation, for the sake of hydration and electrolyte balancing, I had to expand my liquids so I chose to drink coconut water and chicken broth. On the fasting day, I found myself drinking endless amounts of coconut water. The information sheet said to drink x amounts of glasses of liquid at certain times, and to mix up the types of drinks. I found that impossible. The deliciousness of the coconut water was so overpowering. Even though I was very full from all the liquid, I kept drinking and drinking coconut water. Needless to say, none of the other liquid choices appealed after my brain was hooked on its sweetness. I was totally obsessed with it. I only stopped when there was none left.

For the second colonoscopy, which was quite recent, I took precautions and committed to a friend the amount of coconut water I would drink at certain times of the day. And I bought less coconut water and more chicken broth. Even though I committed this (because accountability helps me in these situations), I found it incredibly difficult. Again, all I could think of all day was the coconut water and I was pretty obsessed.

So, why am I sharing this? What is the big deal? Of course, it won’t hurt me to overdrink on coconut water once every 5 years for medical reasons. But what I found significant about this experience is noticing how my food addiction, after 10 years of abstinence, is alive and well. It is a brain process, a wiring, that I am totally choiceless over. I don’t perceive it as psychology. In the language of Internal Family Systems (IFS, my favourite type of therapy), there are no parts involved in this process. It is simply a physiological craving that kicks off obsessive thinking, which in turn leads me to the compulsion of grabbing the glass and drinking it. You could say there is a part which gives me obsessive thoughts and a part which makes me grab the glass. But those don’t feel like parts. They feel like seeking mechanisms. Drives. Reflexes. Impulses. They don’t have any depth like parts do.

This experience was another one of those moments of strengthening my conviction that when we have pervasive addictions, there are simply things we need to do to ‘sideline’ the addictive brain process. For me, that’s my abstinent food plan. As long as I have that food plan, my food addiction is totally dormant. It doesn’t affect me whatsoever. But when exposed to substances that are addictive to me, the process kicks off, like an old looping tape.

How that translates into my practice with clients is that I am open to exploring what aspects of their addiction are parts-related (and therefore can be healed in therapy), and what aspects are neurology/biology/physiology (and therefore require lifestyle strategies and counselling around implementing them). It does vary depending on how early the addiction started (that’s my anecdotal clinical experience), so it requires individual exploration.

In the Internal Family Systems world there are some great ongoing discussions around neurodiversity and IFS. For example, when someone has ADHD or autism, how do we differentiate between parts and brain? Again, the individual’s system will show us. I am curiously following those discussions, and am really encouraged that therapists (usually those with lived experience of neurodiversity) are recognising that not everything can be healed with parts work. Certain practical steps and ‘life hacks’ can help those of us with interesting brain wirings to sideline those processes. And in terms of therapy we can work on healing those parts who have formed around that wiring. That’s why my work is about ‘two lanes’ - the practical solutions for optimal living with addiction, and then the deeper parts work around it.

I’d love to hear your lived experience so please feel free to get in touch and share.

Categories: : Food Addiction, Internal Family Systems

Acknowledgement of Country
I recognise the history, culture, diversity and value of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and acknowledge their Elders past and present.

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