Melissa Hartwig: From Addict to Whole30 Self-Help Queen

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Melissa Hartwig: From Addict to Whole30 Self-Help Queen

By Brian Whitney 04/29/16
Melissa Hartwig: "Quitting heroin is hard. Drinking your coffee black is not hard."
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Melissa Hartwig's Whole30
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Melissa Hartwig is the embodiment of health. As co-creator of the wildly popular Whole30 program—which is not only a diet but something meant to change your lifestyle choices forever—and author of two New York Times best-selling books It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom, she now sits firmly on top of the self-help world. But not too long ago, she was having a pretty hard time trying to help herself, let alone others.

While it might be hard to imagine when one sees Melissa as she appears on The Today Show, Dr. Oz, or The View—or when one reads her best-selling books—but she struggled with addiction for years. While she has rarely talked about it publicly, she agreed to sit down with The Fix and talk of her years of drug use, how she recovered, and what she does now to stay healthy in body and mind.

Thanks for doing this. While your addiction issues are nothing you are trying to hide, I know you have never really talked about it openly to the public, other than on your website. Can you tell me a little bit about what was going on with you?

I didn’t start using until later in life compared to a lot of people I met in rehab. I started smoking weed in my first year of college. I had been looking for a while for something to keep me away from dealing with some childhood trauma and some other issues that I had been avoiding. Alcohol didn’t work, exercise didn’t work, I had tried all these different things to sort of numb myself and take myself away, so when I found drugs I was like, oh, here we are. So I started late but jumped in fast and hard.

I didn’t really have a drug of choice. I used anything and everything I could get my hands on. It seems like I only dated drug dealers for about four years. For a long time I was highly functional, I was using a lot, but I maintained a job and still had a decent relationship with my family. I did my best to keep my two lives separate. At first I was just using the drugs to avoid the issues in my life, but before long the drugs became the issue in my life that I needed to manage and deal with.

I no longer was having fun with it, it was just trying to figure out what I could do to even myself out, or keep me awake, or put me to sleep. I became kind of unhinged mentally and emotionally. Friends and family started noticing things. I was having panic attacks, I was constantly drug seeking with therapists, I became a master manipulator and a very good liar. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, my whole life became about the drugs. 

I read that a lot of what you did was ecstasy and heroin.

Yeah I did, I smoked weed all the time, I did a lot of acid, I dabbled in coke, but the thing I really liked was ecstasy, especially in combination with other things. I particularly found x and heroin to be brutally effective at completely wiping out every thought of my real life—which is what messed me up the most, of course. Ecstasy made me feel like nothing in my life would ever be as good as I felt when I was on that drug. My whole life was about chasing that feeling.

Pretty much everyone who uses to that level hits a low point before they get help. What was yours?

I had a boyfriend that I lived with who didn’t use that much. I had been treating him terribly and was really just incredibly mentally unstable. One night he sat me down and just said you need help and if you don’t get help right now I am leaving. He made a call, there was a bed ready and within an hour I was at rehab before I even had time to really think about it. I remember calling my parents from rehab and letting them know. They had no idea I even had any sort of problem. So I spent a couple weeks in rehab, then did some intensive outpatient work. I gave up everything for a whole year, and then I don’t even know what happened. I really don’t. I was just at a party and used and that just sent me off and running again. I picked up right where I left off and was doing heroin again within a week, and went back to outpatient—and that was the last time I used and that was around 16 years ago.

I love the quote that you use for your program about how quitting heroin is hard, but drinking your coffee black is not hard. It is rather funny to me that a lot of people don’t know you say that from experience.

Right? When I was writing the rules for the Whole30 program back in 2009, I had done this awesome squeaky-clean 30-day program that was profoundly impactful with my relationship with food. I found I was using food much in the way that I used to use drugs. My addiction and recovery experience plays a huge role in how I support people who are doing the Whole30. That saying about heroin and drinking your coffee black is really meant to empower people to recognize that they have done much harder things than this. Changing your habits is always a challenge, but when you look at all the other things you have done in your life, a 30-day food experiment is not hard in comparison.

I see a lot of parallels between drug addiction and how we as a society go for that hit with food. We go for something processed, with tons of sugar, we get something that will make us feel good in the moment, but that in the long term will make us feel worse.

You just nailed it. From a psychological standpoint, food and drugs are not that different. We are talking about the same cycle of craving and the promise of reward, and the intense stimulation to pursue this reward. So often what we put in our bodies is nowhere near natural, but our brains prefer it because it feels so rewarding. And then we go through the same cycle of guilt and shame when we are done because that experience promises rewards but doesn’t actually deliver happiness. When I talk about this cycle, am I talking about donuts or am I talking about heroin? It really is the same cycle for a lot of people. The shame cycle around this type of behavior can really be the worst feeling in the world. 

What we try to do with the Whole30 program is get people to recognize where they are using food in an unhealthy way, and where they have a dysfunctional relationship with food. And then find another way to fulfill that need, just like I had to do when I stopped using drugs and realized I still needed to figure out a way to comfort myself and reward myself and take pleasure in life. It is the same process. Food can be so much harder to get under control than drugs, in some ways. Everyone eats. It isn’t like I can walk into 7-11 and buy heroin, it isn’t like my friends and family are offering me heroin all the time the way they do with unhealthy foods.

Do you have any thoughts about reinventing yourself as a healthier person? Obviously you were someone that was emotionally and physically a bit of a wreck in the past, and now you are someone who is espousing this program. Is there anything you might want to say to someone else who is trying to do the same thing and change as you have?

Yeah totally, that is exactly what I am writing my new book about, which is called Food Freedom Forever, that is out in October. It is about how to take any short-term intervention and turn it into a lifetime of healthy habits, whether you are trying to break free from drugs or eat food in a healthier way. I had to change everything. I changed the way I dressed, I changed the music I listened to, my routines, my friends. I had to change the habits I associated with drug use—like watching the sunrise was a habit I associated with drugs, so I couldn’t do that anymore.  

So what I am really writing about in my new book is the adoption of a growth mindset. Your personality traits are not fixed. It isn’t that if you are once a poor student you will always be a poor student, or if you once were not athletic you will always be not athletic. Just as I once felt like a worthless, useless drug addict does not mean that I have to be like that forever. Believing that I was a healthy person and a worthy person made a huge difference in making new habits.

I know exactly what you mean by that. Sometimes I feel like I have lived around seven different lives at this point. Congrats on your new book, I noticed your other books are selling enormously well.

Thanks! You know, all the things that made me a fantastic drug addict—I am tenacious, when I commit to something I am all in, I am totally on or off—all of those qualities make me really good at what I do for work now.

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Brian Whitney has been a prisoner advocate, a landscaper, and a homeless outreach worker. He has written or coauthored numerous books in addition to writing for AlterNetTheFixPacific Standard MagazinePaste Magazine, and many other publications. He has appeared or been featured in Inside Edition, Fox News, People.com, Cracked.com, True Murder, Savage Love and True Crime Garage. He is appearing at CrimeCon in 2019. You can find Brian on Facebook or at Brianwhitneyauthor.com.

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