Susan Peirce Thompson went through more in her first 26 years of life than most people will ever experience in their entire lifetime: hard drugs, food addiction, self-loathing, prostitution, dropping out of high school, and homelessness.
Yet when we spoke with Susan on the phone, her joy and energy came through crystal clear, her voice sparkling. When we asked how she was doing, she said "fabulous." Today, Susan has a PhD in brain and cognitive sciences, is the owner of a successful weight-loss business, has been clean and sober for 20 years, and also went from a size 16 to a size four. If you're thinking "Whoa, what?" then get ready for the secrets behind Susan's success and the troublesome journey she had to endure to get there.
A Bright Mind Enters Dark Times
Susan grew up in a beautiful neighborhood of San Francisco, where she loved cooking and excelled at school. But as she would learn later, her brain was wired for addiction, and in her youth her addiction was food. "My weight tortured me. I was an only child [with] not a lot of friends," she said. "I had these hours after school by myself, in which food became my companion, my excitement, my plan." By the age of 12, Susan was overweight.
When Susan was 14 years old, she discovered "the best diet plan ever": drugs. She described her first experience with mushrooms, her all-night trip, and as a result, how she lost seven pounds in one day. Mushrooms were her gateway to harder drugs, which started with crystal methamphetamine.
"Crystal meth was the best diet drug ever, then it was cocaine, then crack cocaine," Susan said. "I dropped out of high school. I was losing weight, and with crystal meth I got thin. I was psychotic. I burned my life to the ground."
Up until she dropped out of high school, Susan was a straight-A student, but the drugs and the addiction got the best of her. By the age of 20, she was living out of "a crack hotel" in San Francisco as a call girl.
"Crystal meth was the best diet drug ever, then it was cocaine, then crack cocaine."
"I got down to a pretty low bottom," she told us. "I was a prostitute with a shaved head and blond wig. I would go out and work, make a thousand dollars in a night . . . that was all drug money." Susan said she would smoke crack for days on end. "That was my life. That was it."
In August of 1994, a glimmer of hope appeared. She remembers the exact date and moment vividly. "It was 10 in the morning on a Tuesday. I had one wide, clear, alert moment where I just got a full awareness of my state, my condition, who I was, what I had become," she said. "It was held there in suspended animation and contrasted with what I had hoped for myself, the life I had hoped to have. I had wanted to go to Harvard."
Susan knew she had to act immediately. "The message I felt in that moment was so clear and so one-pointed: 'If you don't get up and get out of here right now, this is all you're ever going to be.'" She sought shelter at a friend's house, cleaned herself up, and began to get herself back on track.
A suitor had asked her on a somewhat unconventional first date and took her to a 12-step program meeting in the basement of Grace Cathedral, and as Susan puts it, "the guy turned out to be lame but I got launched on my journey." She hasn't had a drink of alcohol or a drug since that day.
"I knew I would gain weight as soon as I stopped doing crack, and I did," Susan said. "I ballooned right back up, and it was right back to the food addiction rigmarole: pints of ice cream late at night, pots of pasta, living through fast food drive-throughs, cravings, hankerings, [and] going out in the middle of the night to the grocery store."
Susan recognized the pattern immediately. "At that point I was in a 12-step program, and I knew I was using food as a drug; I could see it plain as day," she said. "My brain was wired for addiction. At that point, my dopamine receptors had been pretty blown out from the cocaine, crystal meth, and the crack. I needed a fix and sugar was what was available."
Her relationship with food was so different at this point in her life than it had been when she was a child, serving up multicourse dinners from her family's kitchen. "I got to the point where I was eating with tears streaming down my face. I didn't want to be Susan with the food issue anymore; I spent too long being [her]."
Susan knew she had to learn more about the human brain — and her brain in particular — to get to the root of her addictive tendencies. It would be the only solution to a decades-long battle with food, obesity, and self-deprecation. She put herself through rigorous schooling, eventually becoming a neuroscientist with degrees from UC Berkeley, the University of Rochester, and UNSW in Sydney, where she did her postdoctorate work. She dedicated her educational career to studying the brain and food's effect on it.
Regaining Control For Good
She described that the notion of "everything in moderation" is not a one-size-fits-all concept. She likened her food addiction to someone who has emphysema from smoking. You wouldn't tell that person to adopt a "nicotine moderation program" — you'd tell them to quit smoking. "Food actually lends itself well to an abstaining model. There is freedom in abstinence."
Susan has often encountered people saying, "Well, you have to eat to live!" To that Susan says, "You have to eat to live, but you don't have to eat doughnuts to live." Through her education, experience, and knowledge of the brain, she was ready to change her life for the better and get in control of her abusive relationship with food.
After finding the Baha'i Faith, Susan turned to meditation. She now meditates for 30 minutes every morning as part of her daily ritual. A life-changing moment came to her one morning, "It's the day that I count as the beginning of the success that I have now with food," she said. "The words 'bright line eating' came to me."
What are Susan's bright lines? There are four: no flour, no sugar, only eating at meals, and controlling quantities. She's been sticking to it for 13 years and has maintained her size-four body for that same amount of time. "People assume that certainly people get thin if they try hard enough, but it's usually not lasting; people usually gain it back." But she hasn't gained it back, not one pound. Here's how.
The No-Flour-or-Sugar Rule
"Number one is no sugar, ever," she said. "I don't smoke crack and I don't drink alcohol and I don't eat sugar. It is that clear of a line for me." Sounds intense, right? But it makes total sense to a neuroscientist like Susan. "Sugar is a drug, and my brain interprets it as a drug; one is too many, and a thousand is never enough."
If quitting sugar completely and permanently sounds impossible, take solace in Susan's success. She told us a story about how she had frosted blue cupcakes for her daughter's birthday at a playground, and when she got the frosting on her hands, it felt like "spackle" or "plastic," not food. She had zero temptation to lick the frosting off her hands, because it was so unappetizing to her, and she walked the length of a football field at a park to get to a place where she could wash her hands. She also makes french toast every Tuesday morning for her family, before turning around and making herself a bowl of oatmeal. She is totally and completely in control now.
"I don't smoke crack and I don't drink alcohol and I don't eat sugar. It is that clear of a line for me."
"Number two is no flour. I've tried to give up sugar without giving up flour, but I suddenly noticed my diet consisting more and more of chow mein, potstickers, quesadillas, pasta, bread." The neuroscientist in Susan recognized a pattern here as well. "Flour hits the [brain] just like sugar does and wipes out the dopamine receptors." What this means, put simply, is that your brain won't have the cues to stop eating, because your reward system isn't functioning properly (this is what happens with drugs, too — your brain becomes conditioned and you eventually can't stop).
"Sugar and flour are just like white powder drugs; just like heroine, just like cocaine. We take the inner essence of a plant and we refine and purify it into a fine powder; it's the same process."
The Meals and Quantities
"Three meals a day with nothing in between ever," said Susan. "I'm a big fan of no snacking, ever. There's a lot of good reasons for it."
"Willpower is fickle," Susan told us. "If you're somebody who has an issue with your weight or your food and you struggle with it all the time, it is one of the hardest things to overcome." She explained that we make hundreds of food-related choices every day and that "you will never ever win if your eating continues to live in the domain of choices. If you're trying to make the right choices every day, you're dead in the water."
So she automates her meals like she automates brushing her teeth. "Make it super clear when you eat and when you don't eat." She has oatmeal and berries with ground flax and nuts in the morning. She'll have a veggie burger with stir-fry veggies and a little coconut oil with a big apple for lunch. At dinner she eats grilled salmon, brussels sprouts, and a big salad with flax oil, balsamic vinegar, and nutritional yeast.
Besides automating these meals and only eating at meals, Susan sticks to weighed and measured quantities with either a digital food scale or a "one plate, no seconds" rule. This overall automation keeps her from having to think about food, leaving no room for error.
Paying It Forward
That meditation epiphany Susan had about "bright line eating" came with what she calls a clear message to write a book. "I was struck with the pulsing of the suffering and the prayers of the desperation of so many millions of people who are stuck trying to lose weight."
She was ready to share her experience, education, and life-changing knowledge with the world. "I was a tenured college psychology professor, now I'm an adjunct associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester; I was teaching my college course on the psychology of eating; I sponsored a gazillion people on a 12-step program for food addiction; I had helped countless people to lose their weight and keep it off. I knew of a system that worked that had to do with these bright lines."
Susan empowered herself and changed her stark situation to become an acclaimed scholar and scientist, successful business owner, wife, and mother, something she is incredibly proud of. She's now helping others with her business, aptly called Bright Line Eating, using her neuroscience-rooted methodology to help people lose weight, break the addiction cycle, and stay healthy for good. So far she has reached about a half a million people globally. Her book, Bright Line Eating: The Science of Living Happy, Thin, and Free comes out March 21 and will chronicle every detail of her journey and how you can apply it to your life.