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Monday, March 5, 2012

Food Addiction

With the first day of the Fast 'under our belts' (pun intended), it should be no surprise that the topic of food would be on our minds.  Well, maybe just on my mind.  In any case, one of our readers (David Dickens) posted this comment:

I wish you might address the unique problems of food-addicts, in comparison to other addicts. It seems to me that all other categories (from alcohol, drugs, sex, or behavioral stuff like theft or violence) can "enjoy" total abstinence.

How would any alcoholic do if he were forced to have one beer every day for the rest of his life, but remain sober? For the food-addict this is very much the case. We must eat.

Anyway, perhaps it is more a subject for a future post. But I'd welcome an extended exposition of your thoughts.

Food addiction represents one of the most difficult addictions to address precisely because of what Mr. Dickens points out, "We must eat."

This passion is rooted in Gluttony, and therefore is easy to discern directly from the classic list of Seven Deadly Sins.  But, the strange thing is, food addiction is not really about food.  Then again, alcoholism isn't really about alcohol.  What we are addicted to and why we are addicted are often two entirely different things.

A true gourmet will push away a substandard dish and go hungry rather than eat bad food.  If it were about the food, that would be the reaction.  But, the food becomes a 'tool' that the addict uses to avoid pain.

The process of recovery means healing from the origins of that inner suffering, the same way we are healed from all the passions.  Yet, in the early stages of recovery, it seems also like the food addict is expected to indulge in his addiction moderately.

What is really going on for this type of recovery is for the addict to discern when he is eating for necessary nutrition and when he craves food to avoid himself.  Yes, this can be difficult to discern at first, which is why the addict must examine all of his thoughts.

Other substance addictions (alcohol and drugs for example) are largely avoidable unlike food, but food does not have the chemical composition of drugs that profoundly effect the sense the way that food normally does (unless you are chewing betel nut or eating fugu [blowfish] livers).  Other substances become addictive because they alter the chemistry of the brain.

In the case of food addiction, the brain chemistry is not altered by the food, but the reaction to it.  By working the Steps and asking God to cure us, the 'bridging' reaction between food and addictive brain reactions can be constricted and someone can eat with caution.  Nutritional eating and addictive eating can be differentiated.

To a certain degree, the same is true of alcohol and certain drugs: addicts have surgery all the time, and use pain medications properly.  Alcoholic priests serve liturgies and masses with real wine and don't relapse.  Sometimes there are occasions when we must return to a substance which we are addicted to when pressed by necessity.  But, necessity is the operating factor.  A Catholic priest who is an alcoholic must be careful that he is not serving ten masses a day, and an Orthodox priest who is an alcoholic would do well to watch how much wine he pours in the chalice if he must consume the remainder after the liturgy.  

There are sex addicts who are in marriages where normal physical relations are expected.  Again, the process of discerning whether the intimacy is appropriate or inappropriate is key.

This is not to say that non-addicts are free to do as they please.  The ascetic practice of discerning one's thoughts is essential for all people seeking happiness and peace.  To be abandoned to one's impulses is the first step towards true torment: the loss of impulse control takes us down a dark path, even to addiction.

The idea of "Total Abstinence" is only the beginning of the treatment of addiction.  There are plenty of 'dry drunks' who are totally abstinent and totally miserable.  Abstinence is less about the substance as it is about the spiritual condition underlying the abuse.  An alcoholic may ingest alcohol on occasion, either accidentally or because of a good reason, but this does not constitute a relapse unless the passions were behind the ingestion.  Sobriety is much more than abstinence, and it is dangerous to think that an addict who has a year of clean urine tests is any more 'sober' than someone who pops dirty on every test.  Substance testing does not discern whether the spiritual disease is still operating in an untreated manner.

Anyway, Mr. Dickens, this is a big issue, and it will come up again and again as we plod on through this subject.  Thanks for your comment.

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