In what ways does addiction shape your food choices and you?
I have three addictions: shopping, nicotine, and cannabis, and in that order. For years I believed nicotine to be the hardest to resist until I used shopping to resist it. In a store, any kind of store, clothes, books, furniture, wallpaper, toilet seats, you name it, my mind is captivated, and as a result, my body is calm. This is addiction.
I used to be addicted to food too, a nasty co-dependent entanglement that took me the best part of four decades to unpick. I still have odd food habits, a list of foods and places I can’t or won’t eat. These days, I mostly eat balanced meals that nourish me and keep my IBS symptoms at bay. I’m ever vigilant knowing I could slip back into bad habits at any time. This is addiction.
Seeing it as nourishment and learning how to eat at set times was key to healing my dysfunctional relationship with food. I try not to be too vigilant. In the beginning, my approach was militant but that led to further problems. I developed orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with eating “healthy.” Due to restricting my food intake, I went into early menopause. This is addiction.
I’ve smoked tobacco and cannabis on and off for thirty years. I’ve quit tobacco twice in my life and have heard third time’s the charm – am relying on it. I stop smoking cannabis regularly, as it’s the easiest of the three to resist but it also defines me in ways the others don’t. I work in the canna-industry, have marched for legal cannabis, and make life choices that accommodate my habit. I call it what it is: addiction.
WANT VERSUS NEED
Last night, I dreamt a snake burst through the skin on my forearm, poking out his green scaly head. I watched, horrified, as his cartoonish body slid out of mine. Finally, desperate, I swatted him away and to my surprise he collapsed easily, breaking apart like Lego, withering to dust. In mythology, the snake represents sexual energy. Mine is trapped in my skin, withering to dust.
When I was younger, I deprived myself of home comforts and good food because I didn’t understand their value. I would over-indulge in alcohol and bad food because they made me feel ill and stoked my sense of shame, giving me a reason to berate myself, my lack of self-control. This cycle of negative thinking fed my destructive choices for years. For comfort, I’d reach for alcohol or bad food. A vicious circle.
Back then, there was no way I could conceive of the things my body needed to be strong and symptom-free. I was too busy recovering from a hangover or dealing with a flare-up. Nor did I know that I have levels of need, and every time I reach a level, the satisfaction is fleeting, as mostly it just highlights how much further I have to go. On the 14th of June 2014, I quit drinking alcohol.
At the time, I told myself it was the end of that part of my life. Really, it was the beginning of a seven-year journey that would test and teach me. I had some vague notion of me as a “better person.” I wanted to be a better person. But I needed to learn the basic tenets of self-care. I wanted to forget my past, start fresh. But I needed to inhabit my past before I could shed it.
IDOLS OF THE HEART
Sexual energy is life-force, and it never goes away. It can fade, be dampened down, put on mute, but it’s ever there, pulsating, waiting for its moment to burst free. It’s everywhere and everyone’s got it, from kids to freaks to seniors. Even trees got it. It’s that wild instinct that propels you forward, gives you ideas, and gives you the energy to act on them.
One way to gag life-force is with addiction. As Gabor Maté, the Canadian physician and trauma expert, explains in his book, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, addiction can take many forms, can be to a substance or behaviour. He was addicted to buying CDs of classical music. His addiction was so strong, he once abandoned a woman in labour to buy music, and had hundreds of CDs stacked all over his house.
The bible warns: “We all have idols of the heart.” We’re addicted to comfort. Human beings are designed to stay put where it’s safe, only moving when it’s too uncomfortable to stay put i.e. when hunger strikes, forcing movement. We don’t want pain, any pain, and we’ll do anything to avoid it. When pain crops up, we reach for the easiest and faster comforter, whatever it happens to be.
This duality exists in every person, the need to be safe, and the life-force itching to burst free. What makes dreams possible is interaction with other people, whether through work, tribe or family. The isolating nature of addiction cuts ties with people, and as a result, dreams die. In his book, Lost Connections, writer Jonathan Hari points out that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety it’s connection.
LEARNING TO CONNECT
“At the core of every addiction is an emptiness … The addict dreads and abhors the present moment; she bends feverishly only towards the next time, the moment when brain, infused with her drug of choice, will briefly experience itself as liberated from the burden of the past and the fear of the future – the two elements that make the present intolerable,” writes Maté in his book.
He also explains why addiction is a relatively new phenomenon that’s risen with the real and existential pain of contemporary life. It’s my belief that addiction, much like IBS, is a nervous system dysfunction that disrupts dopamine paths leading addicts to seek out false rewards to soothe pain. Here’s the cruncher: the methods we’ve been using to deal with the pains are not working.
In the US, the overdose number spiked during the pandemic. 6 million people die every year from tobacco-related diseases; 3 million from alcohol-related. Britain is the sixth fattest nation in the world after the U.S., Mexico, New Zealand, Hungary and Australia. For many people, food is the first addiction.
Modern advertising makes it impossible to avoid. Research shows over-exposure to food images has dangerous consequences, messing up hunger signals leading to over-eating. Research also shows that quality of food determines the robustness of brain development in children and mental health in adults.
Maté says the other thing that shapes brain development is trauma, and each of us carries our own version of it. We all also have our own idols or comforts, ways to disconnect to escape the fear of the present. For me, it’s shopping, nicotine and cannabis. Now that I’ve squashed some old addictions (food and alcohol) the remaining ones taunt me like snakes trapped in my skin. This is the beginning of change.
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What are you addicted to? Check in with yourself. No judgment. Consider when you fall into spirals of negative thinking? What are you doing when that happens? Keep a notebook, make a list.
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