The most deadly addiction?
There’s one addiction that some of us don’t even consider an addiction, yet it is one of the most deadly of them all – eating disorders. Studies show 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems . Eating disorders produce the highest mortality rate of any mental illness .
But is an eating disorder really an addiction? In his book Addiction and Grace, Dr. Gerald May defines addiction as “any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human action.” It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects. The word behavior is especially important to this definition, as it indicates that an action is essential to the addiction.
The object of desire for a person with an eating disorder is food. For the bulimic or the overeater, it is the consumption of food. For the anorexic, it is the abstention from food. For the emotional eater, it is the pleasure or calming of food. Each of these activities limits the freedom to eat in a normal, healthy way. We can see how desire, comfort, control or calming or can be nailed to food.
It’s about how we deal with pain
Eating disorders are all about choices; deliberate choices on how to deal with pain. If love and acceptance were dished out sparingly or not at all when you were growing up, is it any wonder you chose food to fill up the real hunger you felt? If affection was sporadic and unpredictable, is it any wonder you turned to something much more predictable and reliable like food for self-soothing? If every aspect of your life seemed out of control, is it any wonder you chose controlling the only thing you felt you could – your own body?
Yet understanding how you came to choose food as a coping mechanism in the past doesn’t necessarily enable you to deal with an eating disorder in the present. For what began as a method of controlling a difficult, painful situation has now evolved into an addiction. In order to understand the power of this addiction, it is important to understand how addictions, in general, function.
Why do people get addicted in the first place?
Addictions – whether it’s an eating disorder, alcoholism, workaholism, substance abuse, promiscuity, excessive exercising, gambling, pornography – always appear attractive at first. They promise to deliver exactly what we desire. They even seem to deliver on those promises initially. But like a rose, their attractiveness hides thorns.
- They promise freedom, but deliver slavery.
- They are cruelly progressive, not revealing themselves initially. We use names like comfort, coping, calming, control that morph into names like addiction, compulsion, chaos.
- They deceive. We believe they will give us something we need, yet rob us of the very things we need most.
- They steal intimacy. The closer we become to our addiction, the more we withdraw from those closest to us.
- They produce shame, cause physiological change, and lead us to accept fear and anxiety as normal parts of daily life.
The danger of eating disorders
For many, an eating disorder is a “safe” addiction. It doesn’t alter the mind or impair or ability to drive or operate machinery. Fasting is even considered a virtuous activity at times, which can produce false pride in an anorexic. For the person turning repeatedly for comfort, calming or distraction, food can appear to hold the position of the lesser of two evils when compared to gambling, drunkenness or substance abuse. With drugs, promiscuity and even material consumption frowned upon in society, food is the safe addiction of choice.
It is this “safeness” that makes an eating disorder so powerful in our mind, and so potentially deadly. An eating disorder is not a dream providing comfort and control, it is a delusion. But there is hope, and there is freedom from the addiction of an eating disorder. Though powerful, the addiction is not beyond your ability to overcome it.
The addiction will try to deceive you into thinking it is more powerful than anything you can do. It is important to remind yourself that you have the power of choice. The lie of an addiction is that there is no choice. As you meet the challenges you face each day, remind yourself I cannot always dictate what happens to me, but I can choose how to respond. Today I choose life free from addiction.
What’s your choice … today?
Making good choices, surrounding yourself with positive support, and an honest self-assessment of your strengths and challenges is key to your long-term mental and physical health. If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, get professional help. You can regain your self and lead a happy, balanced and meaningful life free form your addiction.