When I Started Viewing My Eating Disorder as an Addiction


The first time I ever sought outside help for my eating disorder, I was 17 and attended an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. It didn’t sit well with me. I never went back, and I became skeptical of 12-step programs in general. As I got older, I encountered friends who were members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I just didn’t understand. I dismissed it as “cult-like” and continued to believe for many years the abstinence approach was creating unhealthy patterns of thinking. As I trained as a therapist, I did learn that 12-step programs are incredibly effective in treating addictions, but I still felt very skeptical about its applicability to eating disorders.

I have experienced a successful, and honestly probably atypical, recovery process. I had few slips and no serious relapses, following my year spent in and out of treatment centers at age 21 and well beyond my 30th birthday. So it really shook me to the core when I found myself craving eating disordered behaviors in a way I could only equate it to the experiences of the addicts I saw on my medical dramas like “Nurse Jackie” and “Private Practice.”

I felt completely at a loss. I’d had enough exposure to addiction. I knew that’s what this feeling was. Still, I didn’t have a clue what to do because I firmly believed the addiction model did not correspond to eating disorders. “If I was an alcoholic, then I’d go to a meeting right now, but I have nothing.” I said this to myself, indulging in a brief moment of powerlessness before biting the bullet and deciding to explore the 12-step model a little bit more, just in case (especially regarding how it pertained to eating disorders). Maybe this was more of an addiction than I had believed. Maybe I could even go to a meeting.

What I discovered was, no, as I knew all along, I do not have an addiction to food. What I do have, however, is an addiction to control over my body. I am addicted to the ridiculous and unhealthy behaviors in the name of maintaining this feeling of control. Food is not my substance. Food is not my enemy. My substances are crazy diet plans and punitive exercise routines. Flipping through a women’s health magazine is my equivalent to walking through a liquor store, reading about ridiculous meal plans followed by sneaky calorie restriction tips, and imagining what it would be like to follow through with that.

I tell myself it’s not a disordered plan. Lots of healthy people do it. So it would be totally fine for me to try that cleanse (or, by this logic, for my alcoholic brothers and sisters to have just one glass of wine or even the whole bottle, only just this once) to join the group weight loss pact or to stay on the treadmill just until the calorie count hits the next even number, multiple of five or 12, times two.

Diet articles and weight loss games are fine for some people. For me, I’m one cleanse away from intense calorie restriction, binging, purging and over exercising. I am one diet plan off of the back of the cereal box away from being unable to focus at work or from putting myself or even someone else at risk. It can happen in a split second.

Not every slip leads to a relapse. Why play Russian roulette with my life, though? It’s a really big risk to take. No, I am not addicted to food. I’m not ingesting the substance of my addiction daily, but I’m faced with several opportunities a day to “use,” to choose the safer food or count my calories. The opportunities to use my unhealthy forms of control are endless. Once we start “using,” our insight starts dwindling and we fail to see the danger we are in.

I’ve been converted. I think the 12 steps make a lot of sense. I think they can help me to heal. I think finally figuring out I have an addiction, no matter how long I am sober, allows me to make sense of what I’ve been through and what I continue to go through. I think it ultimately will set me free.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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