McDonald’s and I have had an interesting relationship over the years.
I love McDonald’s and have had a tendency to lose self-control around it. At first it was infrequent, during late-night study sessions with friends, entirely on impulse. Then it stopped being so infrequent.
I moved to Montreal after I graduated university and found myself in a new (big) city with few friends. My evenings after work during those first few months were spent alone. I didn’t have a lot of energy to meet new people at the end of a long day. So I watched The Big Bang Theory instead. During this time, I had moved right across the street from a McDonald’s. The mouth-watering scent of salty fries was carried on in the warm September breeze, across the street, and into my bedroom window.
I was doomed.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could get a Jr. Chicken Meal for under $5. Sure, a peanut butter sandwich cost me roughly $0.50, but it wasn’t as satisfying as those fries, that Coke, and that slightly-spiced chicken.
I started going weekly. Then I started going when I was lonely. It was probably the second time I went under those conditions that I knew what was happening. I would sense my loneliness (which would usually arrive around dinner time) and then I would think, “McDonald’s is comforting, it reminds me of happy times as a family.” I ate it for comfort.
I knew exactly what I was doing and I knew it was physically and emotionally unhealthy. We aren’t meant to cope with loneliness through food.
Then, I started going three times a week. I tried to have self-control, but any time I was hungry there was a McDonald’s right there to greet me. “Look! I’m so cheap! I’m full of fat and salt, and your brain is wired to love me!” I didn’t resist because I didn’t want to. I was being comforted.
After a few months of this, through the encouragement of friends, I cut out McDonald’s for a whole month. It took all the will-power I could muster coupled with the support of friends and even acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter.
We aren’t meant to cope with loneliness through food.
Fast-forward a year and a half. I got engaged and my McDonald’s was replaced by a real man. Don’t worry, I fully understand the awkward truth of that statement.
So what happened with McDonald’s? I discovered that I had a wheat intolerance, so McDonald’s is more or less out of the picture. After marrying my husband, the lonely feelings that initially drove me to Mc-binge were gone, at least, for a little while. Once our honeymoon stage was over and it was the dead of winter, those feelings of loneliness returned—even if much less intense than before.
As you can see, my behaviour had changed but I hadn’t entirely. The presence of my husband in my life had replaced my attachment to McDonald’s. But for everything my husband is to me, and as much as I love him, I am still someone who has lonely moments and someone who desires comfort.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how people change. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the difference between changing our behaviour and changing all-together.
For you, McDonald’s may or may not be a coping mechanism, but we all have coping mechanisms we turn to when under stress, and they can actually control our lives.
So how do we change these habits that seem unbreakable?
Realize that good things can become dangerous to us.
McDonald’s became a subtly addictive thing in my life. My friends and coworkers started to get wind of how often I was eating fast food and they started to encourage me to stop. I knew it wasn’t healthy, physically or emotionally, and so I tried to give it up. It was hard. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to stop. A good thing had slowly become not-so-good. Many times, my conscience would say, “Jess, stop. This is overboard,” and then I would be alone for a few nights in a row again and it would be too much.
Here are two steps to changing a habit that helped me:
1. Find the triggers
The first key was figuring out my trigger. As I mentioned before, I had noticed a trigger that was prompting me to crave McDonald’s. It was my loneliness after a hard day’s work, or the anticipation of going home to be alone for the rest of my evening, that drove me across the street. It was comfort food. Once I found my trigger, I was able to make a plan to avoid putting myself in this situation.
When I moved out of that apartment across the street from the McDo (as we call it in Quebec), the problem became a little easier to solve. My new roommate was around more and we ate meals together. The temptation seemed to just go away. A few months after moving in with my new roommate, I started dating a guy. Nine months after our first date, we were married. Was my craving “fixed”? No, that became pretty clear to me when my husband started taking night courses and I found myself alone again four nights a week. For the first time in a few years I felt that loneliness again. The triggers returned. But at least I was aware of them.
2. Replace the behaviour
Psychologists seem to agree that to properly get over a bad habit, you need to replace the negative response to a trigger with a positive response (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a great resource). Some might suggest that I respond to my loneliness by munching on celery instead of a McChicken. But that wouldn’t really satisfy, would it? Not in the same way as that salty, fatty McChicken.
That’s the pressing question: what really satisfies? The McDonald’s was a coping mechanism. You could even go as far as to say that marriage is a coping mechanism for loneliness. As you can see from my example, even marriage couldn’t fully satisfy my loneliness!
So what, then, do I replace my food response with? What will really satisfy me? I am happy to say that I’ve found the answer!
One night, when I was a teenager, I was lying in my bed. I felt lonely. I had been raised to believe that God existed and he was a personal God. That night, in my loneliness, doubt and anger, I said to God, “If you are really there, prove it.” As crazy as it sounds, I waited, arms folded across my chest, for an answer.
I waited. And waited.
And then louder than my own thoughts I heard the words in my head and felt the comfort in my heart: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” These are words from the Bible that are placed at a very interesting spot. In Hebrews 13:5, the author instructs people to “keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.” Why? “Because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”
The logical conclusion in the author’s mind, is that God’s presence is more satisfying than money, things, or really tasty food. Based on my own experience, I can say this is true. Instead of escaping from the stress of life through food or shopping or TV, when I turn to the Bible and read words like “never will I leave you” I can’t avoid being comforted, satisfied, and reminded that my sense of loneliness is false because God is with me. It’s a bit crazy isn’t it? The fact that a perfect, always-existing, all-knowing, all-powerful being not only cares enough for me to have a personal relationship with me, but will never leave me? Wow.
Not only is my relationship with God a source of comfort, unlike any other option we can use to satisfy these deep cravings, it is not a trap. Like anyone else, I have difficulties in life. But as I read about the fact that Jesus calls me his friend and extends grace to me despite my flaws and failures, I can’t help but be changed. Now, when my husband is away at his night classes and I feel lonely and my friends are busy, I don’t turn to food (even though the instinct is still there). Instead I turn to the Bible or prayer.
I’ve found this has helped me enjoy my relationships with my friends and my husband more because I’m not looking to them to fill all of my needs. Otherwise, I might have grown resentful of the fact that my husband’s higher education was leaving me all on my own; I didn’t get married to sit at home alone. Instead, I’m able to be happy for my husband, knowing that he’s following his dreams. And I’m more than happy to pass on my Jr. Chicken cravings.
I like this version of me much better.