My name is David, and I’m a sugarholic.
I’ve battled for decades with an almost uncontrollable craving to eat sweet things at times. For the most part, I make a joke of it, simply because that’s the easiest way to deal with it. If I can’t get it under control, the least I can do is get a laugh about it, right?
I guess so, but I’ve been thinking about addiction a lot lately — of various kinds — and it’s really not funny. We can make an alcoholic into a joke in movies at times. And I can turn my “sugar addiction” into jokes. It’s a good way to deflect attention from the subject. It’s a good way to laugh about the battle that sees my weight go up and down, depending on what’s going on in my life. But it doesn’t do any good in the long run, because laughing about it isn’t filling the need that created the addiction in the first place.
As I’ve started talking about this more publicly, I’ve come to find that a substantial percentage of the people I know suffer from similar addictions. Everybody knows about alcoholics, because alcohol abuse is the most common addiction in the public mind. Fortunately, I never had to deal with that one. I’ve seen alcohol abuse in plenty of other people. I know of at least four people in my family who have had problems with it. When I was a teen-ager, I decided that the potential benefits of alcohol were tiny compared to the potential risk, so I never even started drinking. I think it’s a smart decision.
But I find a lot of people who share my problem with food — people who feel compelled to eat, not because they’re hungry or even that they just want the taste of the food. They eat because they feel compelled to fill some empty spot with something — and something in them chose food at some point as the substitute. But despite the programming that tells us that more food will meet the need we’re feeling, it’s like trying to fill a bucket with water when there are holes in the bottom. No matter how fast we shovel, the hole doesn’t stay filled — but our stomachs are full and that turns to fat.
So what causes addictions and what can we do about them? Many people who have academic and medical letters after their names have written extensively on the subject — and they can’t even agree — so I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m going to tell you what I think based on talking extensively to others who’ve talked to me about their addictions and based on thinking about my own addiction and needs. I can’t claim to know all the answers. I can’t even claim it’s all fresh and original thinking. I just know that it feels true — because it’s what genuinely goes on inside of me.
I’ve come to see an addiction as a matter of confusion in the mind’s programming. Let’s say that your mind somehow became confused about the hunger for food and the thirst for water. Let’s say that every time you were starving, your mind believed you were thirsty. So you would drink water, over and over again. But because it didn’t satisfy the actual need — the hunger for food — you would keep feeling the same desire for water. And as you got hungrier, you would drink more and more water, in a frantic effort to meet a need that was very real.
Now let’s take a different sort of need, but let’s say it’s a psychological need. It could be the desire to be loved or to be accepted or a hundred other things. Our emotional and psychological needs are complex and we’re frequently not even aware of some of them, especially in cases in which we’ve gone our entire lives without having a particular need met. What if the mind’s programming becomes confused about those signals? What if a person’s need to be loved and accepted, for instance, came to be seen as a need for alcohol or for food?
If that were true, it might mean that there would be times when the addiction was under control — the times when the basic need was being fulfilled in some way. But in times of deprivation of that need — or during times when there was an intense reminder of the need — the programming calling for the substitute (the food or alcohol or whatever) would kick in. And so life would be a roller coaster.
When it comes to food, that’s the way it’s been for me. My weight is like a very public indication of what my emotional life has been for the previous months. And that’s why it’s easier to laugh about it than to talk about it — because who wants to talk to the world about his unmet emotional needs?
Addictions are a complex bunch of things to deal with. I don’t claim to have the answers. For me, though — and for some of the people I’ve talked to — I think they’re purely substitutions for things we either can’t have or don’t know how to get.
So I think I’ve figured out — for me, anyway — why the addictive behavior is there. I know what’s missing in my life that would cause me to quit eating so much at times. What to do about those underlying unmet needs is another matter. It’s far more complicated, though, than just saying, “Hey, put that ice cream away.”
In the meantime, I’ll keep joking about the half-gallon container of ice cream being “the single-serving size.” As long as people are laughing, maybe they won’t notice what’s really missing.