“The addiction really isn’t over until I can see the emptiness of the behaviour: not good, not evil…just an outside “thing” I’ve been using unintelligently to dull the suffering edge of life.”
– Daniel Mate
As the years bring more character to my face, it’s sometimes startling to see my father’s eyes staring back at me in the mirror. A further, lower glance at my body suggests I’ve inherited his hedonistic tendencies as well. *Sigh*
I never recognized this as addiction when I was younger, yet in hindsight I can see that my 20s were devoted to being a shopaholic, my 30s were consumed with workaholism and my 40s were characterized by junk food…and lots of it. I had many days that started and ended at McDonald’s, bookends for all the sugar in between. Loading up my passenger seat with the spoils of my hunt, I would speed home for a completely mind-numbing, out-of-body experience.
It took me a long time to connect the dots in my own life but I’ve since learned that addiction is part of the human condition because it disrupts our natural wiring for joy. Except we’re settling for pale substitutes and that results in a pale version of ourselves.
All addictions, whether behavioural or substance-based, engage the same brain networks and chemicals. They differ only by the degree to which they impact your clarity and misdirect your energy. But they all involve selling out on Soul, where you become enslaved to your drug of choice, looking for that immediate chemical shift or “high”.
Over time, repetition literally rewires the brain, such that capacity for rational thought and choice-making become impaired. That feeling of being swept along your destructive path? It’s a very real phenomenon.
So what is addiction, exactly? Most professionals in the field can agree it’s persistent use in the face of harmful impact but there’s huge debate between treating it as an incurable disease vs. addressing it as a psychological and physiological dependency that can be resolved. Personally, I find the disease model outdated and too simplistic, considering what we’re now learning through brain research and imaging. Is there a disease component though? Clearly, because it changes the brain but you can’t just label it a disease, separate from its psychological and physiologocial complexities.
Is there such a thing as food addiction? Ask anyone who’s ever faced down a chocolate bar and lost and they’ll insist there is. I happen to agree, especially with studies that show cocaine and sugar act on the brain in similar ways.
Beyond the general definition of addiction, I define food addiction as the inability to have a taste or serving of something and then stop. If junk food is more than 10% of your daily intake, a dependency is highly likely to develop, not because the food itself is addictive but due to your relationship with it. While overeating and bingeing start off as learned behaviours, they get reinforced by brain chemicals.
So if our brain networks and chemicals play such a significant role, why do we dismiss this neurochemistry and berate ourselves for our lack of willpower? I think in part, not enough is done to help people first understand their addictive behaviour – its origins, its purpose and the factors that influence it – before strongarming it into submission.
This speaks to another issue, of bringing a fighting or defeatist posture rather than a reflective one, to the topic. Forcefulness, guilt or shame have absolutely nothing to offer except more of the same, whereas compassion, curiosity and learning have the power to engage the addicted brain in its own healing process.
In my next articles, I’ll discuss the three major brain networks affected by addiction. I’m happy to report that mine are functioning well again when it comes to having a taste or serving of McDonald’s french fries and I’m no longer “driving while under their influence”. Whatever your drug of choice, this is entirely possible for you too.