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Ain’t No Wagon to Fall Off Of


I’m sure I’ve had conversations with clients about falling off the proverbial wagon before, but a recent one really got my dander up. Where does this analogy come from and how come we use it so much? Is it helpful to think of recovery with wagon analogies or might the concept actually be hurtful? Can you guess where I stand on the idea?

The phrase came into usage around the end of the 19th century and referred to people who said they preferred to drink from a water wagon than imbibe alcohol. The analogy has been used freely in the field of addictions ever since though it’s actually a dangerous concept implying, as it does, the tight control one needs to remain on a moving wagon and the disaster it would be if one fell off one. 

There is no wagon when it comes to recovering from an eating disorder because we know (don’t we?) that an all-or-nothing mentality and such either-or thinking is anathema to mental health. Falling off a wagon is a really terrible visual. There you are in the gutter filthy with mud and sewerage. Moreover, the wagon has continued on its journey without you and you’re all alone. Is this the image you want to conjure up?

Using the wagon analogy implies there’s a certain way to eat and that if you’re not following it, you’re about to pitch headlong into the gutter. There is no perfection regarding food. Sometimes “normal” eaters overeat or undereat. How could we possibly get it “right” every time? Getting it right is not what eating is about.

It’s interesting to me that the wagon analogy has stuck around for so long. I can understand the concept better (but still think it’s harmful) when it’s about an activity that one wants to quit completely. For most chemical abuse, it works better to totally stop using the substance. But we can’t do that with food, can we?

Instead, we’ve transferred the analogy from an all-nothing addiction construct to eating. Being on the wagon has always meant dieting, counting calories, not overeating, making only healthy food choices. But those approaches will never foster “normal” eating. In fact, following that path will only take you farther and farther away from being connected to your appetite and enjoying a comfortable relationship with food. 

No one could blame you for thinking in ways that are leftover from having a diet mindset. It’s been so deeply ingrained in us for so long. In order to ditch it for good, be careful of the terms you use to describe your eating. There are no wagons to be on or off in recovery. Only a journey to better eating and a better life.