Recently the above video was brought to my attention and I have to tell you, I cried when I heard what she had to say. As someone who has loved addicts, I agreed with her 100%. We need to change the way we talk about addiction and how we treat addicts that are recovering.
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” (Source)
There is a lot of hurt that comes with being in an addicts life. I have dealt with addicts very close to me. I have loved addicts (still do love them). I have seen the devastation they have caused. I have been heart broken by addicts. I have been angry at addicts. I have cursed them for being addicted. I have even stopped talking to addicts because their addiction was interfering with my life. Addiction is such a strange thing to try to understand if you aren’t an addict or if you are an addict but in denial yourself. I love the addicts in my life, even through their addiction and some part of me has always understood that they are not their addictions. They are human beings underneath the drinking and drugs. They are still people that I have shared a bond with or loved or am related too. But I won’t tell their stories because they aren’t mine to tell. I only have my own story of addiction to tell. My story of addiction is slightly different than probably your average addiction story. It doesn’t involve meth or alcohol or crack. It involves something you probably wouldn’t think of as a drug.
I quit smoking a year ago. I started smoking in order to keep my weight down. I felt it was the only way to keep myself from eating. I remember many times not having enough money for cigarettes because smoking was a very expensive habit, so I would sell things in the house, anything to amount to even a cheap nasty pack of cigarettes. I dug for change and emptied out penny jars. I even borrowed money to buy cigarettes. I remember the day I woke up and realized what smoking was doing to me. How it was aggravating my PCOS and how it was costing me tons of money a month. So I quit. Many times I quit. Till it finally stuck a year ago that I no longer needed the cigarettes. I went through 6 months of battling severe anxiety and panic attacks before I was able to feel half way normal again. It was a tough addiction to face and overcome, some days I still feel that urge, that feeling that I am missing cigarettes and that they gave me some comfort. But in the end, I know I made the right decision!
“Food addiction is, quite simply, being addicted to junk food in the same way as drug addicts are addicted to drugs. It involves the same areas in the brain, the same neurotransmitters and many of the symptoms are identical.” (Source)
I have used food to deal with tough emotions since I was a child. When I was feeling sad or hurt or frustrated, I ate. I didn’t just eat though, I ate every piece of junk food food I could find in the house. Even when my stomach was full and uncomfortable, I would continue to eat, it was like I couldn’t stop till every piece of junk food was gone. The minute I knew there were cookies or candy or junk food in the house I would think about it endlessly till I just had to go eat some, often times I would finish the whole bag before realizing what I was doing. When I started high school and got the freedom to have lunch out, I would beg my friends to treat me to bagels and sandwiches and chips and soda out in the town or I would beg my parents for money to buy this stuff and eventually I started my first job at a fast food franchise. I was allowed one free meal a day during my shift and I made that meal count. Once I got my license I spent most of my paychecks on food and cigarettes. I spent a huge chunk of time binge eating and then only allowing myself one meal a day for long periods of time so I wouldn’t gain huge amounts of weight.
I can remember digging candy out of the trash can that my mother threw away. I can remember eating so much raw Top Ramen one day that I puked for what seemed like hours. I can remember sneaking food in my car and hiding the evidence before I got home. I can remember eating two dinners because I didn’t tell my mom or husband that I had already ate. I can think of many times I lied and even stole to feed my habit. I have sold things, I have spent my last $10 on fast food when we needed it for gas, I have made huge sacrifices just to feed that voice in my head that tells me to eat more and more and more till I feel sick.
I sat down and recently did the math on how much I have spent on food monthly. Now I am not talking about grocery shopping for healthy food. I am talking about how much money I have spent monthly, just me, on eating out. I almost fell over when I realized that I was spending close to $355-$500 on eating fast food, at the cafe downstairs at my work and the 7/11 down the street. This is just what I was spending, this wasn’t what I had asked my husband to pick up for me or bring home with his own paychecks. There were many times I remember my husband taking the time in our hectic mornings to make me a healthy lunch. Most of the time I would buy lunch anyways and throw away the healthy lunch he packed me so he wouldn’t know I was eating out. I wasted all that healthy food just so he wouldn’t know I wasn’t eating what he gave me. The guilt was tremendous but I couldn’t stop.
There were many times I have had interventions. I remember when the doctor told me I was 300 pounds and started listing off all the health complications this could cause. I went home crying. I remember talking to another doctor about my PCOS symptoms being so out of control and him telling me I had to lose weight to gain control over them. I remember being told I was anemic because of my PCOS which was extra aggravated because of my weight. I remember being placed on high blood pressure medication. I remember being told I probably would never get pregnant if I couldn’t get my weight down. I remember being tested for high cholesterol as a teenager. I remember long talks with my mother and husband regarding what to do, how to deal with all of this. I remember seeing the numbers 3-3-0 flash across my scale.
There have been some interesting studies done on lab rats involving food addiction:
“We then warned the rats as they were eating—by flashing a light—that they would receive a nasty foot shock. Rats eating the bland chow would quickly stop and scramble away, but time and again the obese rats continued to devour the rich food, ignoring the warning they had been trained to fear. Their hedonic desire overruled their basic sense of self-preservation.” (Source)
I have been disgraced by some people I love because of my food addiction. They just can’t understand what about food controls me so much. They can’t understand why I can’t lose the weight. They have called me lazy and fat. They have given unhelpful advice. They have caused me to hate my body and who I am. I have felt guilty for their frustration. I have felt belittled and hurt so many times for having this addiction, for letting food control me so much. But there have been times I too have belittled or judged someone I loved for their addiction to drugs or alcohol, wondering how they could do that to themselves? Why couldn’t they stop? As I have gotten older though, I have started to understand it a little more and have come to realize how far a little kindness/empathy can go with an addict.
Maybe this is why I can understand where the addicts in my life are coming from. I knew I would never touch drugs after seeing drugs wreak someone I love very much’s life. I never had the desire to fix my problems with alcohol. But I have felt the pull, the desire, the craving for oblivion through food. I have spent many nights wondering why I couldn’t just eat to survive like other people. I have spent many days wondering why I needed that food, why I needed to feel the oblivion that food provides for me and why I couldn’t just stop eating the junk food. I have many times vowed to just eat healthy and not touch any junk food, I have succeeded for a month or a week or even a day but at some point the pull of my addiction becomes very strong, so strong it can be nearly impossible to ignore.
“[With] alcoholism, drug addiction, nicotine addiction … [y]ou could live the rest of your life and not drink alcohol, take drugs or smoke nicotine,” she said, whereas food is everywhere, and you have to eat.” (Source)
But when thinking of addiction I am always left with one question, is one addiction worse than the others? It is addiction and either way addiction is hard to break. It means giving up a security blanket or coping mechanism that you have used to cover up the hurt pieces of you. Breaking that addiction means having to heal those broken pieces of you instead of ignoring them or blocking them out. It means feeling all that pain and shame. Sometimes it means anger. Sometimes it means facing the loss of people, time, years, stuff you can’t get back. It means an onslaught of emotions that you have been avoiding for a very long time. Physically going through withdrawals isn’t easy either. I have never had to withdraw from drugs or alcohol but I have seen it and I know that it hurts physically like nothing you can imagine. I have felt withdrawal symptoms when quitting smoking and even quitting junk food brings its own pain, but they probably don’t even compare.
I think one of the first steps in healing for me has been talking. Finally opening my mouth and telling the people I love that I have a problem. It made them more aware of the signs to look for and my husband has become really good at gently telling me when I am starting to binge eat junk food. It also helped me release the idea that this addiction I have was a dirty little secret I needed to keep. Doing that released a lot of negative stigma around this disease and helped me start taking small steps in the right direction. I still sometimes have a hard time talking about it on really bad days but it is getting easier to look at. It has helped me start implicating healthy food choices into my life and releasing some of the control food has had over me for so long. Which feels really good.
We all have coping mechanisms for the hurt we feel inside. Some are healthier than others. I believe we need to talk about addictions and release the negative talk. We need to not define people by their addictions but by their heart, ability to love and who they are as a person. A little bit of kindness shown to someone who is an addict can go a very long way. Shaming them doesn’t. In the video she talks about the program she co-created and I love the idea of it. Using physical training to beat addiction, to grow stronger, to find ways to feel good in your skin and build a support system around them. That is why I shared this video and that is why I shared my story. I would never compare my food addiction to that of a drug addiction or alcohol because I know they are very different. But I do know what it is like to love an addict and to be an addict and to feel shamed and defined by an addiction.
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