Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Addictions Come In All Shapes and Sizes

Amy Winehouse is dead at 27. That's sad. It's also sad for all the other 27 year olds that died that day. This isn't going to be some rant about how we should be more concerned about the deaths of soldiers or mothers or good Christian people or any other category of people. It's not even a rant. It's just a recognition.

Winehouse's issues with drug and alcohol abuse have been well-documented, just in case a popular song about "I don't wanna go to rehab" wasn't quite enough proof. We don't yet know if her death was related to alcohol or drug abuse. But it seemed she was trapped in a cycle she couldn't break free of.

It's easy to brush off her death as that of just another junkie who made bad choices that finally caught up with her. That, of course, is the problem in a nutshell. It's not a choice.

People may well choose the first drink, but no one chooses to be an alcoholic. A person may choose to experiment with pot, but no one expects to end up shooting heroin. But for some unlucky people that's where it goes, because their bodies process the substances very differently than the rest of us. Most of us walk away with nothing more than a story and maybe a headache, but some awaken a craving that can never again be sated.

I was lucky enough to get through my wilder days with nothing more than some stories and some minor struggles. There were no arrests, no deaths and no addictions. I'm thankful. Incredibly thankful. There were close calls. And some of the people I traveled those roads alongside weren't as fortunate. Some of them aren't with us on the planet anymore. Some have added stories of rehab, relapse and more rehab. But by the Grace of God, there go I.

It's hard for me to understand why anyone ever uses a substance like meth, where 95% of people become instantly addicted. Even in my wildest days I would not have gone down that road. At least not when I was thinking clearly. But, how many people are thinking clearly when they're already under the influence of something?

Yes, life is all about choices. Sometimes choices have unintended consequences people are not capable of understanding or foreseeing. If you're a person who has never struggled with any addiction, I beg of you - a little mercy for those who are walking that path. From what I can see, it's pretty rocky.

We know very little about others and what brought them to the places they are today. Children grow up in circumstances people who haven't been there can't imagine. And they have no idea what impact that has on the rest of their lives. We never know another person's pain and what they may have to do to get through the days and nights. People "self-medicate" with all kinds of things - drugs, alcohol, shopping, food, porn, computer games, sex, gambling, exercising and a hundred other things. Just because you may have "chosen" a more socially acceptable addiction doesn't mean it's not the same process at work.

If you can't function without a cup of coffee, want to go shop after a bad day at work, or just don't feel right if you don't run five miles every morning, you have some sense of what addiction is like. All those things result in chemicals that change the way your body works. You can argue that some are "good" and some are "bad," but it's all the same process. None of us is immune to the charms of chemicals. Just because they come in legal forms like lattes, prozac, gym memberships and ice cream doesn't mean they're not doing the same things at a base level that illegal substances do. They're changing the chemical makeup of our bodies, causing us to feel a certain way.

I've been addicted to food my entire life. I was a fat kid who grew into a fat adult. I went to a therapist when I was 22 and said, "fix my brain." I knew my desire to eat had nothing to do with hunger. It had to do with something chemical happening in my body. I knew I needed to change my thought processes. You know how those happen? By chemical interactions. That's why some anti-depressants make people not want to eat. Unfortunately, they all come with other side-effects.

The therapist's suggestion was that I needed to diet and I should count calories. Like every fat person, I can recite the calorie count of almost any food off the top of my head. And I'm very good at math. I understand calories in and calories burned through activity. It's a simple equation. Lack of knowledge is not the problem. What is the problem? I don't know. That's why I went to a professional who was supposedly in the business of fixing such problems. The only thing he had to offer was the same tired suggestion medicine has been offering for decades.

Diets fail 97% of the time. Most people have gained all they lost, plus some, within three years. If any other medical procedure failed 97% of the time we would not suggest it. Can you imagine a cardiologist suggesting open heart surgery if only 3% of people had good results? Would we set broken bones like we do if 97% of the time it failed? No, of course we wouldn't. But, it seems fat people are not viewed as worthy of serious medical research because as far as I can tell, no one has bothered to try and figure out a new plan in the intervening two decades plus. It seems like it would be a very lucrative field, but as a rock star who gained weight after getting clean and sober pointed out, being fat is less socially acceptable than being a drug addict.

I'm pretty comfortable with who I am. And I'm incredibly lucky that I have normal blood pressure and sugar levels, and my cholesterol is a nice 117. But, if you can, believe me - from the person living it - being overweight is not a choice to let yourself go, of not caring about yourself. It's not laziness or a lack of willpower. It's something more intrinsic than that. It's something in our brains, our chemistry. The hows and whys of it, I do not know. Unfortunately, it seems I caught on to the basic problem a few decades before the people who are charged with healing. I'm not optimistic about a solution since they're still recommending something that fails 97% of the time.

A few years ago I was talking with a friend and mentioned craving a particular food. She looked at me blankly. As we talked more, it occurred to me to ask her if she had ever craved food.
She thought for a moment and said, "No, I don't think so."
"Never?" I asked.
"No," she said, thinking harder. "I don't think so."
She thought some more, then said definitely, "No. Never."
I don't remember a time when my days were not filled with cravings for particular foods. I asked what she did crave - what she felt a need to do or have - what she wouldn't feel satisfied without. The answer was exercise. That was the beginning of my understanding that addictions come in all shapes and sizes. They may be damaging or not, but they're all providing chemical experiences we crave.

So, while the crude - and sometimes cruel - remarks about Amy Winehouse and her addictions fill Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and late night talk shows, I think I will refrain. While I don't know her struggles, I know my own all too well.

Even if you are the rare person who has no addiction at all - not caffeine, not shopping, not chocolate - maybe you can find it in your soul to extend some grace to those who are not so fortunate. Maybe you can offer a prayer for those grieving lost loved ones, regardless of the causes. Maybe you can see another's path, and feel inspired to thank the fates for your own good fortune.


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Deb Brown said...

Thank you Patsy for putting that into words. I can't even imagine a day going by that I don't crave some kind of food. Like you, I've tried everything.

Kim said...

This is powerful. I have lived this my entire life, too, and so I think it gives me/us compassion about others who struggle so mightily with addictions - no matter their form. But that doesn't make it easier to be on the receiving end of the judgments. Thank you for pouring out your heart in this way. I hope it speaks to those who spend more time judging than finding parallels in their own lives. Blessings to you. (I would also add that people don't understand the concept that you never feel full - no matter what you eat. It has to be a misfire of the chemistry in the body.)

Patsy Terrell said...

Thank you both for writing. I know I'm not alone in this. My great frustration is that medicine seems totally uninterested in this, beyond dieting. They don't get into the head of someone who's overweight - they're only approaching it from the logical standpoint. Just as it's hard for me to understand anyone sticking a needle in their arm to shoot heroin, it's hard for them to understand eating another piece of chocolate cake when you know all the horrible things it can do to you.

Judith Robl said...

Wonderful post, Patsy, but what I really crave right now is one of your great hugs.

Patsy Terrell said...

Thanks, Judith... we must connect when your schedule allows! :)