What causes addiction? We have discovered that the causes can be many: nature (genetics), nurture (environment), some combination thereof, and other causes. I came by my addiction by virtue of the combo nature/nurture package. I was born sensitive, not necessarily with a gene for addiction, but with a tendency to be vulnerable to hurt, and when hurt came, addiction helped.
I have started on a new book, a novel this time as opposed to Southern Vapors, a memoir. The following excerpt about a mother named Queen and her daughter, Trina, seems to me a nice demonstration of how addiction can come out of a person’s environment, the culture of his or her family of origin.
“You can never be too rich or too thin.” That was Queen’s motto, impressed on Trina daily, or so it felt. Queen was consumed by her size, by the fact that she was large boned and curvaceous in an age when Twiggy’s image was on the cover of every magazine on the newsstands.
Queen’s fashion advisor assured her that Queen’s body was made for clothes, and it was undeniable that she was a showstopper in classic Norman Norrell with matching bag and heels. Queen bought only the best, classics that, with the kid glove care she gave them, would last up to twenty years, fashionable as the day she bought them. It was that damned number twelve affixed to the label that drove Queen crazy. She had gone through a period when she ordered the maid to scissor the label out as soon as the shopping bags arrived from Saks, but after a time the scratchy point left by the scissored tag was more annoying than the label itself. Queen wasn’t much different from a dry drunk, an alcoholic who doesn’t drink but is consumed by thoughts of drinking. Queen was consumed by thoughts of eating, and denying herself so that she was and always would be the fairest of them all.
Trina did not remember a time when Queen’s laser focus on food was not turned on her. She still cringed at the memory of her third grade teacher announcing to the class that Queen had requested that no one give any snacks to Trina because she needed to lose weight. She would never forget the diet doctor Queen had taken her to at fourteen, who gave her shots to make her lose weight and made her stand naked and look a her reflection in the mirror, snapping in her Teutonic accent, “You see dat flab?? You want your body look like dat? No, no, deesgusting!”
Even as a child, Trina noticed an inconsistency in Queen’s apparent mission for Trina to be thin and beautiful. Because whenever Trina did become thin, which was frequently enough in the seesaw world of her weight, Queen’s compliments carried an edge. “Dear, that skirt looks great on you, but don’t you think it’s a little too short?’ “I don’t really think that shade of pink is a becoming color on you.” “Don’t you read the magazines? You’re supposed to wear a belt with that!” At sixteen Queen took Trina to Cadole, the famous lingerie house in Paris and ordered her custom underwire bras at $45 a pop, unheard of in 1969. “Your breasts need the support, you should probably sleep in these, too, or you will sag. You already do a little, at your age.”
What effect did all this have on Trina?
I haven’t written that part yet, so we’ll have to make do with my personal experience. My background, after all, wasn’t that different from Trina’s, and the outcome for me was low self esteem coupled with a built in system for self sabotage as fine and precise as any weapons system ever devised. Add to the mix a complete disconnect from my feelings and that about rounds it out. Addiction, in my case binge eating disorder, was the fuel that kept these personality traits alive and well-fed. I ate outlandish amounts of food to punish myself because I thought I deserved it.
That kept the cycle of low self-esteem intact. If I ever lost weight and began to feel good about myself, I went into extended periods of overeating, lasting for weeks to months, until I had fully sabotaged myself plus extra for good measure. Another way to keep my need for low self esteem well-supported.
I also used food to feel anything at all rather than nothing at all. Because I was so emotionally undeveloped, I had no idea how to identify and process my feelings in a healthy way. But I was desperate to feel something. After all, even I could tell that feelings were pretty much the name of the game when it came to living. So I used my food addiction to make me feel at the most elemental of levels—pleasure and pain; rudimentary, yes, but at least they were feelings. In a parallel fashion, I used the food to numb out the uncomfortable feelings that roiled close to the surface—pain, fear, embarrassment, loneliness. You can eat until you pass out just like you can drink or drug ˈtil you pass out. Arguably it is a more benign, self-loving choice. I did it a lot.
Finally, in a twisted sense, I used copious quantities of food to give myself nurturing that I had missed. What says love more than a delicious meal? They don’t call it comfort food for nothing. Studies talk about the uplifting properties of chocolate. I can’t tell you much about that, only about the end results of dumping vast quantities of sugar into one’s system following periods of semi-starvation—not good to say the least—but the first few minutes were great. It’s a rush just like what I assume a drug rush to be. The withdrawal may be slightly easier, but it’s no picnic.
How did I get better? Lots and lots of therapy, spiritual practice, a steady job and making an extreme effort to learn and practice healthier coping skills. What does “better” mean? For me, no more bingeing ˈtil I am unconscious. Because of the work that I have done and continue to do, I don’t have to fight myself about this any more; the irresistible cravings have been gone for a couple of years. For the moment, “better” means a vast reduction in my intake of refined sugar, candy, baked goods, ice cream, processed foods and the like. It means making an effort to stay connected to people, to reach out if no one has reached out to me and I feel the need for connection. It means adding exercise to my life even when I don’t want to. It means attending my therapy sessions religiously, no matter who is visiting from out of town or what holiday it is. And it means writing posts like this one, which helps me by reminding me of my journey and gives me hope for the future.