Friday, April 27, 2007

One of Us Asks about Addiction...

I recently received this email and thought it too big a question to not take a swing at in a more formal setting:
Do you think addictions and their associated behaviors are ever cured? Or when we do things like quit drugs, alcohol, sex, junk food (what ever our particular vehicle is) we are not really "quitting" them, but merely keeping them in check? Do you ever truly rid yourself of an addictive behavior? Do you ever get over being an addict? Or are we destined to forever walk around on eggshells (no pun intended) regarding certain foods knowing, but denying, that we are one Twinkie away from the next food OD? I guess my question is...Does it ever end?

I'd realy like to know what you think...

OK, I'm willing to give this a shot, with the caveat that I can only speak from my experience and some research.

There are two kinds of addictions, first of all. The kind where you "put the plug in the jug," as they say in AA. Most of them fall into this category -- gambling, drugs, booze, sex, smoking, shoplifting, thrill-seeking. (I'm referring to a website directory of different 12-step groups that I recommend readers refer to when they want to know which I attend:

The other kinds are those in which one has to handle the very substance of the addiction every day. I immediately think of Debtors Annonymous (you HAVE to spend money) and the many food addiction groups. That website would provide a couple more -- depression, emotions, manic-depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, all of which are arguably biological in origin and not easily cured -- as well as workaholics ( you HAVE to make money) and possibly codependency (you have to have relationships and even brand new ones post-recovery can display symptoms you didn't suspect lurked within a new friend or lover).

None of these addictions is easy to overcome but I've heard in the Rooms from people with dual addictions that food is the hardest because you have to eat. Moreover, the food groups define abstinence in different ways that boil down to not eating "compulsively".

I've chomped many a weighed and measured, abstinent salad with the frenzy I can eat cookies.

Further, I responded to an AFG post today that these days when I binge, I do it consciously, seeking the barbituate effect, the loophole out of my reality that's better than any drug I've got on hand. It takes a lot of refined carbohydrates and sugar to do that but my choices are as deliberate as brain surgery.

Is that "compulsive"? (Microsoft Bookshelf defines compulsion as "an irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation".) It's hard to resist my desire to shut down but it's equally hard to resist my desire to eat the squeaky clean salad when I'm hungry. And lately it feels as though I force myself to go get that shit. I don't necessarily crave it.

But once started, I don't stop until my food is gone, or it's very hard to and I'm very resentful about it. I have done scary things for food, not criminal but tinged with the feeling that I am one. My heart races and I look nervously around the store to see if I know anyone from the Rooms there. My cheeks burn with embarrassment as I put the packages on the counter. I walk home hoping I don't run into anyone.

Most of the addictions (I don't think manic depression is an addiction, BTW, although I'm on the fence regarding depression and certain emotions) I've mentioned above are involved with mood alterations, whether it's through chemicals, adrenaline, hormomal alterations or seratonin boosters. Food is a complex and large set of chemicals, and both sugar and fat alter the brain by shooting it up with seratonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter we all take Zoloft to enhance.

Further, natural seratonin is manufactured from tryptophan, an amino acid extracted from protein. Sugar drives insulin up, carrying competing amino acids to muscles and leaving tryptphan able to cross the brain/blood barrier to do its work in brewing up a big pot of seratonin. Sugar also releases endorphins and other pain-killers and pleasure-enhancers into the system.

For the person suffering from mild depression, sugar can be that little something that brightens mood. Research bears this out: obese people are 25% more likely to suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder. When rats are offered the choice of water or a sweet, morphine based drink in isolated cages, they choose the latter. Rats in a rat theme park prefer water. I should mention that endorphins are chemically similar to morphine.

Boredom, isolation = mood relief = addiction.

Rats who have been forcefed sugar for long periods, then fed a drug that blocks the effects of heroin and other similar brain chemicals, showed similar withdrawl symptoms -- chattering teeth, tremors, lowered dopamine -- as heroin addicts.

Further, we know that people with a self-proclaimed sweet tooth report that their moods change when they eat sugar.

OK, so I've made a case for the chemical effect of sugar on the brain. But is this addiction?

Wikipedia defines addiction as "a chronic or recurrent condition proposed to be precipitated by one or more of the following: genetic, biological/pharmacological and social factors. Addiction is characterized by the compulsive use of substances or engagement of behaviors despite clear evidence to the user of consequent morbidity and/or other harmful effects."

We are much more aware that the tendency to be overweight is genetic. I've made a good, if brief, case for sugar as a pharmacological agent. Just as opium dens, shooting galleries, bars and casinos exist for the sake of convenience and social reinforcement of the activity, so, too, food has a strong social context. Holiday foods. Family traditions. Advertising and its associations of good times and satiation. Comfort food...

More recently, however, the American Psychiatric Association Bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has substituted "dependency" for "addiction".

Back to Microsoft Bookshelf we go! Dependence: 1. Contingent [i.e., "centered on" or subject to, also according to MB] on another. 2. Subordinate. 3. Relying on or requiring the aid of another for support.

So I guess the question is, does your world revolve around a particular substance or activity? Does your life center around it? Do you depend primarily upon it for company, reassurance, mood elevation, stress and pain relief? If you kick it out of your life, cold turkey, are you able to cope on your own?

Remember that just as there are different kinds of alcoholics -- gutter drunks, social imbibers, chronic drinkers and binge drinkers -- there are different kinds of addicts in the other categories. I can go for long stretches without sugar but when my life becomes too painful or too boring or too unrewarding or too isolated, I begin to crave.

But these are questions you have to put to yourself. There are lots of criteria around for whether We are food addicts or not. Here's one: This set of questions will tell you that saying yes to any of them "may" mean you're a food addict. There aren't very many women in the Western World who don't calculate calories taken in and expended, so I don't know how definitive or scientific this quiz is.
So to answer the question...
I have not had any success in eating like a normal person when the food includes sugar or even "abstinent" food that's too much like other food. I don't know how much of this is a combination of deprivation & my feeling that I'm going to end up abstinent again & I'd better cram it all in while I can, & how much of it is genetics & an addict's neurology.
I can say that I have hangovers from sugar. It's interesting that insulin sends all those amino acids to the muscles because my muscles hurt the Day After. I'm terribly thirsty & I'm exceedingly generous with salt on my abstinent food & it doesn't make me that thirsty. Sugar makes me very tired, as opposed to the high I hear so much about. It puts me right to sleep, which is what tryptophan is supposed to do from the Thanksgiving turkey. I'll be tired & sometimes pretty spacy the next day.
I also run on dysthymic depression, a low level, chronic condition that occasionally peaks into a major depression. This is common for an addict who uses a substance for self-medication.
And then there are my other addictions. I've abused alcohol but am not dependent on it (it makes me want to eat). I smoke. I buy too much stuff -- books, clothes, music, movies, salt-&-pepper shakers, hat boxes, dolls -- when I have no retirement plan, health insurance, & taxes to pay off. I get obsessive about things like taking pictures, "labels" on posts, how much garbage I generate for each trash day (Oh! The vanilla box! A bonus piece of garbage!), waiting until the small jar of nickels is full before rolling change & putting it in my savings account.
I see my addictive patterns in many things, some more harmful than others. I see myself as being an uncured addict. This post makes me understand how 12-step programs work for addicts.

It's all food for thought.


Cindy said...

Having had a variety of addictions, I consider them more as being in remission, and not cured. Food is by far the hardest. And I don't even know how to begin to classify that one right now. The others were all plug in the jug kinds. I just don't indulge at all, and I don't need any of those substances to live. Even after 18 years of the plug being in the jug, I still consider myself an addict in the sense that if I took the plug out of the jug, I'd have a hard time putting the jug down, ever. Maybe some people get cured. I just don't see myself as one of those. Not right now any way. I am happy to be in remission, though. Remission is good enough for me today. I'd like to get my food situation in remission. Great topic.

FunnyBits said...

You know how I feel.

Glad to see you're doing this blog.

Unknown said...

How are you doing? The bonus garbage thing made me laugh -- I have the opposite thing where I feel bad about how much trash we have, even with recycling.

Hope you're enjoying your weekend.

Bea said...

Good grief. Put this in the book.

Lily T said...

Interesting ...and complicated. This post must have been a lot of work, and I apprechiated it.

Anonymous said...

Obsessive-compulsive disorder Symptoms (OCD) means having behavior or thoughts that come over and over again and if these behavior or thoughts are not done then there is an anxious feeling of incompleteness. Some of the behaviors are normal everyday things, for example washing ones hands, checking doors or stoves, and some of the things can be unusual, counting to ten, counting while waiting for someone, hoarding money, or other similar things.

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