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Behind Closed Doors: A tale of food addiction and recovery

Georgie Hanafin
Food addiction
The silent struggle of a food addict  Shutterstock

Whether it's an unrelenting desire for a substance or an activity that once provided comfort, addiction knows no boundaries.

*In order to protect the privacy and anonymity of those sharing their personal journeys of addiction and recovery, names in the story have been changed.

Trigger Warning: This article includes personal stories related to addiction and its impact on individuals and their families. The content discusses challenging experiences, emotional distress, and recovery journeys. Please proceed with caution, and if you find yourself in need of support, consider reaching out to a mental health professional or a helpline. Your well-being is important.

In New Zealand, addiction touches the lives of a diverse group of people, and can take on many forms.

It encompasses the more familiar struggles with alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, prescription medications, gambling, sex and pornography.

Surprisingly, even everyday activities like work, school, gaming, social media, and food can become addictive. 

I had the privilege of a sit down conversation with a group of individuals on their journey to recovery from food addiction. 

They shared with me that addiction is a multifaceted battle that unfolds when control slips from your grasp, causing harm to both yourself and those around you.

Their stories revealed that addiction is a journey of mental illness, hope, healing, and resilience as they navigate the intricate web of the disease.

Recognising addiction as a mental illness opens doors to treatment approaches similar to those for other mental health conditions.

The good news is that addiction can be treated, and the path to recovery is very much within reach.

From Binge to Balance: Overcoming Food Addiction One Day at a Time

Fiona grew up in a household with her mother, three sisters, and her father, who she describes as a "quiet but hardworking" alcoholic. 

Her own journey through addiction began at a very early age—kindergarten, to be exact. And while Fiona's memories from that early age aren't specifically food-related, what she vividly remembers is the overwhelming feeling that she was different, or that something was wrong with her.

She was a kid who constantly sought attention, quickly gaining a reputation as "the troublesome child" – the one who wouldn't sit still, or who'd rock herself to sleep.

She reflects on those early misgivings, saying, "I felt like I must've been adopted, or like I was put on the wrong planet. Right through school, I felt really, really different. Different from my friends and family. I didn't feel like I fit in anywhere."

She describes her early encounters with what she'd later learn were addictive thought patterns.

"I remember sitting in one of the old dentist chairs with the foot pump to bring the chair higher, and the chair making a funny noise with me in it. The dentist made a comment about how I must be getting too big to sit on it."

It came from loved ones too. 

"Sitting on my dad's knee for a cuddle and him saying 'oh my gosh, you're getting heavy. You're getting a big girl now,' and me not taking it as 'you're getting big and growing up'. It was like, 'oh my God, you're getting fat.'" 

For Fiona, those throwaway comments stuck with her, repeating in her head like a mantra. "In my brain it was like, oh my god, you're way too fat and heavy."

She said these seemingly innocuous comments would play in her head "like a bunch of radio stations" she couldn't turn off.

"I always had a constant chatter in my head. It was there when I went to bed, it was there if I woke in the night, and it would be there when I woke in the morning."

Throughout her life, Fiona's thoughts were consumed by food, calorie counting, and the need to hide her body from others. 

She got married at a young age and had her first child at twenty. But for Fiona, pregnancy was not the joyful experience many expectant mothers have. Instead, it was a nightmare, with her obsession over food, weight, and her body taking over her thoughts.

"I was extremely self-conscious," Fiona recounts, "and I loathed the idea of gaining weight. It felt like people were constantly talking about me, silently judging how fat I was."

"Everyone you meet wants to touch your stomach or mentions how big you are," she says. "I had no gauge on what my body actually looked like – I always believed I was huge when I really wasn't."

Even during a stay in the hospital following a preeclampsia diagnosis (a risky pregnancy complication marked by high blood pressure) and the premature birth of her first child, Fiona couldn't escape the self-criticism.

She recalls, "The doctors came and lifted up the lid on what I'd ordered for lunch, and there was nothing healthy on there. I remember feeling just so ashamed that they were looking at what I was eating, and I was just big, swollen, and with a lot of fluid buildup, but I felt so, so humongous."

Despite her constant worries about her body size and weight gain, Fiona says she couldn't stop her destructive behaviour.

"I couldn't control myself once I started eating. It was like I couldn't just have one – it's similar to an alcoholic not stopping at one drink."

She elaborated, "I'd eat until I was uncomfortably full and sick, then wait for that feeling to subside and start the cycle again."

Fiona says, "Every time I had a binge, I promised myself it would be the last, but I'd often cry myself to sleep, overwhelmed by self-loathing, shame, and guilt for my perceived lack of willpower."

For Fiona, it wasn't just about the addiction to food; it was also the mental chaos that accompanied it. Chronic anxiety became a constant companion, making her nervous and fearful of everyday situations.

As life moved on and her addiction progressed, Fiona says her mental health declined and her moods were determined by whether she was having " a fat day or a thin day".

She says she began to find it harder to leave the house, and longed for the day to end so she could pull her curtains and shut the world out.  

When she did venture out, she felt like she was being watched and judged, even though her weight was actually within a healthy range.

"I felt like everybody was looking at me, thinking, 'Look how fat that woman is.' Which is why I would have to push the pram, have a bag over my shoulder, have it on one side while walking down the street so nobody could see my fat ass," she shares. "But when I looked in shop windows, all I could see were these thunder thighs. So when I turned and walked the other way, I'd have to switch the bag to the other side to hide them."

"My thinking was warped, I couldn't see that I was a normal size," she said.

This life, according to Fiona, was exhausting. She had had enough of living in isolation and feeling like something was fundamentally wrong with her.

Fiona tried various therapies and counselling with little success before finding a support group for families of alcoholics.

Surprisingly, she found herself relating more to the addicts at the centre of the stories than to their family members. It was during this period that she had a life-changing revelation.

"There was one girl up there who shared about a food fellowship she'd been to for people addicted to food," she says.

Fiona says she never knew food was an addiction and had always believed she was alone in her suffering.  

"I thought I was the only one and that I was going to live this life forever."

Fiona began attending meetings in her area, which marked the beginning of her recovery.

"I loved what I saw and heard from the members of the group," Fiona remembers. "They were telling my story, they weren't struggling, and food no longer controlled their lives."

"Although I continued to struggle for the first two years," she reflects, "I never stopped going. I knew there was an answer to my problem, and I was desperate enough to stick around."

Fiona says once she started to work the steps through the program, her life quickly changed.

"The anger I had felt all my life resolved, I no longer felt lonely and afraid, the depression and anxiety left, and I realised that all the things I felt were wrong with me boiled down to one - I am an addict, and my substance is food."

What slowed her down at the start, she says, was her tendency to look at the meetings as another diet which would start again on Monday. 

"I thought I was ready, but I kept going in with that 'I'll start again on Monday' mentality," she admits. "I would be down on my knees praying every morning to try and get through the day without eating, but I'd get that obsession to start eating, and I couldn't stop."

Fiona persisted in attending meetings because she knew there was no alternative, and she felt she had lost control of her addiction. She recognized that the answer to her problems was within reach, even if she couldn't grasp it immediately.

I asked her what finally shifted for her to open herself up to a life of recovery from her addiction to food.

"I wanted a life free of always thinking about food. I didn't want to always feel crazy, I wanted to be happy and I wanted my children to have a mother who was full of love and patience. So I kept on going to meetings and started working the steps," she responds. "I just sat in the chair, listened, and shared, regardless of how I felt."

Twenty-years on and Fiona's life looks drastically different. She no longer wakes up angry, battles depression, or succumbs to anxiety, and she can handle situations that once left her bewildered and filled with fear.

"I can have a conversation with anyone. I don't go to bed at night or wake up thinking, 'How the hell am I going to get through a day without eating?' Life is pretty simple. I show up for work every day, don't spend a lot of money on food, attend meetings, and try to carry the message to help others," she explains. "I'm no longer self-conscious, full of self-hatred, or jealous of others. My insecurities have disappeared."

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Recovery Shutterstock

In 2019, folks from the New Zealand Institute of Health and Fitness delved into a study exploring how we view obesity.

The goal was to challenge the idea that it's solely a lack of willpower, often simplified as just needing to diet or exercise more.

Participants were split into groups, each reading about obesity as either a food addiction, a disease, or a caloric imbalance.

Surprisingly, those learning about food addiction were least likely to blame willpower for obesity.

This connects with the principles of the 12 Step program used in Addictive Eaters Anonymous, modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous.

Both recognize the importance of acknowledging addiction as a disease and seeking support beyond personal willpower.

The study, involving fitness practitioner graduates, revealed that seeing obesity through a food addiction lens helps professionals understand the struggles, removing blame and allowing for comprehensive treatment plans—akin to the holistic approach in the 12 Step program.

Understanding the food world, where joy and comfort often meet, means recognising its complicated and not-so-pleasant side – food addiction.

It's not just about what's on the plate; it involves a mix of feelings, how we see ourselves, and pressure from society.

Fiona's journey shows that dealing with food addiction isn't something you do alone; it's a shared experience filled with hope and strength.

Viewing addiction as a mental health challenge opens the way to break free and start a journey to recovery.

Unlike substances such as meth or alcohol, a food addict can't just walk away from their drug and never look back; they need it to live.

Balancing that need can be tough for someone with addiction and getting support is crucial to finding the right balance.