I can’t tell you how often my patients present their food addictions to me as though it were nothing more than a lack of discipline. Yet no one would look at a meth-head as someone who could just use a little more willpower—we would likely all agree that this was a full-blown addiction and an extremely dangerous problem. We would probably immediately suggest he get some help and wouldn’t dream of merely suggesting he just cut back a little. With food addiction, however, the problem is rarely taken as seriously and the suggestion to go on a diet is often handed out with a condescending shrug. Problems with drugs and alcohol are just more pronounced than problems with food, and we can probably attribute that to both legality and safety issues. Drugs and alcohol are mind-altering substances, and, yes, you could die the first time you try them. Binge-eating, however, is a beast that is likely get you over time, and, no you’re not likely to drop dead on a weekend-long McDonalds bender. What do they have in common, however? Our ultimate indulgences do serve a function. In my work I see it almost daily, the very undeniable underlying reason for addiction: Avoidance. If you’re struggling with addiction—any addiction—I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but there’s something going on in your life and mind that you’re simply not dealing with.
People don’t realize how their vices con them into thinking they’re happy. One of the big warning signs I often listen out for is any derivative of a ‘can’t complain’ statement as a response when I ask friends how they’re doing. Some people are happy. Some people are seemingly happy. Some people are unhappy. Some people are downright miserable. The miserable ones are fairly easy to spot. The quieter ones are the ones who often slip through the cracks. You might misread a slight vacancy in their eyes as a sign of a previously bad night’s sleep but not realize that your friend is experiencing well-masked pain. The truth is we simply don’t know what our friends are doing behind closed doors. Whether they’re eating too much, spending too much, smoking too much, over-exercising, or even dipping their toes into darker pools such as self-mutilation, we really just don’t know. People present well and most of the people we know are functional. They make it to work each day, they look after their children, they pay their bills and they keep their houses clean. Yet as a therapist, I get to see and hear each day about how many of these seemingly happy people who get things done and handle their business are secretly finding ways to self-soothe each night after work. It makes me wonder if Thoreau was right about “the mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation.” The problem isn’t that our friends are withholding their pain—the problem is they may not even realize they’re in pain to begin with. The addictive behavior they’ve discovered can serve to take the edge off just enough to make someone get through the day—thinking they’re alright enough.
The litmus test I would use to discuss with any patient whether or not their behavior was, indeed, addictive in nature was whether or not they could not do it. If you can’t not do something, then maybe this behavior has gotten problematic. If you can’t not have dessert one night. If you can’t not have a drink (or 2 or 3 or 6) after work, then you should look at that. The problem is that such patterns of destructive behaviors are a mask, a hiding place. The trick is to challenge yourself to actually feel your feelings. Many of us drink too much when going through a break up. Or we eat too much or exercise too much or do whatever we think we need to do, excessively, to cope with whatever we’ve got going on. The problem, and the irony of it all, is that the key is to be able to actually sit and cope with our feelings until we don’t need to go do something else. To get to the point where you can actually tolerate your own emotions is where the real freedom lies. Indulging on the short-term, however, such as in response to horrible news and events is different than using on the long-term. The habitual nature of addiction is the indicator that something isn’t working for you in your life if you need to incorporate these substances into your routine.
A patient recently asked me “Is it better to cry?” She then added, “if I couldn’t reward myself with sweets at the end of the day, then I really think I might spend my evenings crying—even though I already do cry over being at a weight I don’t want to be at.” Most of us wouldn’t like the idea of sitting and crying each night, but here is the thing with that: If you fell into crying episodes, unpleasant and awful as they can be, you probably wouldn’t cry everyday for the rest of your life. Crying is a release, and the more present you are with your emotions, rather than stuffing them down with food or booze, the more likely you might be to get in touch with what’s really going on. You might have a better shot to get to the bottom of the critical question of your life’s problems. Why do you feel so emotional? What is the void in your life that you’re choosing to fill with something? Even if you didn’t become closer to answering these questions on your own maybe you would at least elect to go talk to someone.
“Wow, I guess I’m not happy with my life”, said Donna*. “I think I’ve just been going about my days making the best of a bad situation.” Donna had a historical struggle with Binge Eating Disorder and had had a particularly hard time with it for the past few years. She didn’t realize that her weight struggles actually telegraphed more of a message to herself and to the world that things weren’t quite right. Donna isn’t alone. I can’t tell you how many people I see who eat or drink or spend or smoke or snort over bad marriages, toxic work environments, tensions with their in-laws or family members, or just general anxiety and malaise. It doesn’t matter what you’re using—if the behavior feels at all out of control, it probably is. Addiction is a delay—a procrastination. This maladaptive behavior, however, does serve a purpose—to get you through the day. Realizing your dependence on this behavior, however, is an opportunity to wake-up and take charge of the fact that this is your life and it’s up to only you to make it better. Addiction doesn’t have to be something as indulgently obvious as heroin or deep-fried Snickers bars. Anything you’re using that you feel you can’t do without should be looked at. Yes, it would be great to replace our bad behaviors with healthier ones. I tell my patients all the time, “I’d love to see you paint a picture or go take a bubble bath in response to feeling sad, but I know that behavior isn’t likely to take the pain away like a cocktail would.” The instant gratification is often what one is addicted to, but it prevents long-term satisfaction, and that is the trap. It’s a scary thing to admit to yourself that you might not be happy, and I think that is the reason people hide from it. It’s ok to be unhappy. And if you're addicted to something you know you shouldn't be, then, no, you just aren't happy. If you are lucky enough to figure that out, perhaps you can, eventually, leave the donut-cave behind and start living the actual life you want.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.