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Addiction Amoeba

I mean, did you ever see a commercial saying “This is Your Brain on Credit Cards”? Or,“Just Say No to Overtime”?


You have stopped having wine. You are off of sugar and no longer eat “white things.” You have done all sorts of work to get your life in order. But there are still some things that creep in, rear their ugly heads and make you uneasy. What is going on here?

You got the idea of being a sugar or carbohydrate addict (or both). Learning the biochemistry of sugar sensitivity has helped to take the charge off the word “addiction.” You realize that your body chemistry is different and you get a bigger ‘hit’ from the substances that evoke beta-endorphin so you are drawn to go back to them over and over.

But some of those other secrets are connected to sugar sensitivity. Maxing out your credit cards, your intense attachment to Starbucks, playing sweepstakes, working eighty hours a week, going back to the guy who hits you. “You have got to be kidding, Kathleen”, you say. These things are NOT connected to food for goodness sake! Maybe not, but let's walk through some intriguing ideas and see what you think.

Beta-Endorphin Again

You may not realize that the beta-endorphin response is tied into many other behaviors. If you are sugar sensitive, you will be biochemically vulnerable to the effectsof the behaviors and not have a clue that your sugar sensitivity is being affected. You may mistakenly believe that some of your other struggles are a function of willpower, discipline or habit. Thinking of them in the context of your sugar sensitive biochemistry can give you some helpful insight. Learning about the addiction ameba can provide a new model for a solution.

The “Addiction Ameba” can trap you unknowingly. Before we look at the solution, though, let's revisit the idea of addiction. Just what is it anyway? As we go through this, remember there is ADDICTION and there is Addiction. I am going to ask you to stretch the boundaries a little because I find it an incredibly useful tool for healing. Because I think of addiction as more of a chemical problem than a character flaw, I don't judge it as a moral issue. When we don't know what is happening we are more vulnerable to being driven by the biochemistry. As we learn the variables that affect us, we can make a different kind of informed choice.

Let's start with the formal definition of addiction. The American Psychiatric Association publishes a book called the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) which provides clinical diagnosis for mental illness and non-traditional behaviors. (They might refer to them as aberrant, ;-) ). One section of the manual provides a series of questions to determine addiction. These are typically used to measure whether a chemical is being used in an addictive way. Insert alcohol or drugs in any of these criteria to get a sense of how they work.

  • The substance is taken in greater amounts or for a longer time than intended
  • There is a persistent desire or one or more unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control use
  • Major time is spent in seeking, using or recovering from the effects of use
  • Frequent intoxication or withdrawal interferes with responsibilities
  • There is a decreased level of social, recreational activities due to use
  • There is continued use despite adverse consequences
  • There is a marked increase in tolerance
  • There are withdrawal symptoms
  • There is use to prevent withdrawal

These criteria are easy to use if you are a professional in the field of chemical dependency. When you are on the inside of your own addiction, it may be hard to recognize a “marked increase in tolerance.” You are likely to simply think you can hold your liquor well. One major marker for recovery is the ability to recognize how many of these criteria are applicable to your use.

For those of you who have not had to deal with alcohol or drug addiction, the effects may be slightly more subtle. You may think you are simply doing the food a little better and not think of yourself as a sugar addict. But applying the criteria to sugar addiction is uncanny. Sugar addicts KNOW the truth of the addiction story on a very intimate level. You have been working with sugar and carbs for a while. Try looking at other chemicals such as caffeine, nicotine, or diet products, to get a sense of whether they might be a part of your own addictive use as well.

Let's take it a step further. It is even more powerful to begin to apply these diagnostic criteria to your behaviors. Things like shopping, credit card use, gambling, bulimia, sex, exercise, work, tattoos and piercing, codependency or abusive relationships can be evaluated with this filter. I thought it might be fun to “play” with the concepts a little. Let's apply the DSM criteria to two common addictive patterns - work and codependency.

As you do this, remember that society rewards “working hard” or “taking care of your husband.” Applying this new filter to these behaviors may stretch your way of thinking. Bear with me and try the ideas on. See if there is any truth in this for you. And if you start getting edgy at how close to home these hit, be kind to yourself. I have been the Queen of workaholism and codependency. I used to beat myself up for it. Now I understand how tied into my sugar sensitivity they were and I laugh at being so critical of myself.

Work Addiction or Workaholism

Try on these patterns to see if they fit you.

  • You are working fifty or sixty hours a week and you tell yourself you need to in order to get ahead. Or you need to in order to “catch up” with the additional workload caused by downsizing.
  • Your spouse often asks you to spend more time with the family; you sincerely want to but find it really hard to get away. There is always a new client or a new job demand that requires your staying late.
  • You come home exhausted and collapse at 8 o'clock, too tired to eat, too tired to talk and certainly too tired to interact with the kids.
  • You are not holding up your share of family responsibilities, but tell yourself that you are working hard to earn the money that makes a good life for your family.
  • You haven't taken a vacation in three years. You keep telling yourself that “next year” you will be free to go.
  • You are under constant stress. Your stomach hurts, you have constant headaches, you find it impossible to unwind and your blood pressure keeps rising.
  • Forty hours a week crept up to fifty and now you are planning to get in earlier so you can work when no one else is in the office.
  • When you go on vacation, you are irritable and restless. You keep thinking about the work you need to do. You take your laptop and feel huge relief when you can get to it and check your email.

I remember the days of going on vacation to a beautiful secluded lake in Northern New Hampshire. I would sit on the dock with the canoe tied up next to me. As dusk, the loons would be calling, the light would be shifting over the water and I would be working on numbers for the State Plan. When I think of it now, I know it was part of the insanity of my sugar sensitivity. Those were the days I was eating ice cream daily and having pasta with pesto sauce every night. I think I missed a little of life.

Codependency or Losing Yourself for Your Husband (or Wife or Partner or Children)

You can adapt these questions to your own special situation. They might apply to your relationship with your parents or your children. Your codependency might be subtle so you don't think of it. The key is a life defined by the well being of others. You are a “good” mother, wife, husband, partner or child based on your effectiveness in taking care of the other person. Accepting the power of codependency in driving your behavior is very difficult. Be gentle with yourself as you go through this assessment. It's a hard one.

  • You have worked hard to develop your own interests but you often find yourself planning events around his availability or mood.
  • You spend a great deal of energy noticing whether and how much he is drinking. You count bottles or notice how much is left in the bottles you have.
  • You think about leaving him, but you tell yourself you would never survive financially. You work hard at creating emotional distance and then he comes home drunk and you can think of nothing else.
  • Much of your emotional energy goes into “munching” about your husband. He isn't being present to the kids, you don't want him in your bed when he has been drinking, your are concerned about his driving under the influence, you don't know where he has been, you are enraged at his drinking, you are terrified that he will leave you.
  • Sometimes you get so angry and distraught over his behavior, you can't think of anything else.
  • You eat for comfort. You vacillate between rage and depression over his behavior.
  • You go out less and less because you don't want to be seen with him when he is drunk. You don't want to go out by yourself because you feel awkward and strange without him.
  • You stay even though it is getting worse and worse.
  • You stop noticing how you feel. Life becomes more and more numb and you tell yourself you don't care, you are simply going to do your own life.
  • When you are away from him, you find your thoughts drifting back to how he is. You wonder if he will get enough to eat or if he will be able to manage the laundry while you are gone.
  • When you are nagging him about spending time with the kids you are floored to realize that part of you feels really comfortable with your being the “good guy” and his being the “bad guy.”

As many of you may realize, my understanding of these patterns started with my own acceptance of the things driving my behavior. This is not an academic expertise. It is pushing the edge to making sense of a sugar sensitive life. When I thought these were just part of my healing experience, I was interested but didn't understand the bigger picture.

I have worked with thousands of clients who are deeply committed to recovery. They would get clean and sober from alcohol and drugs, but struggle with other substances and other troubling behaviors. They would feel as if it were a losing battle. They would work on one thing only to find some area slipping away. As I worked on my own recovery and then observed these patterns in my clients, I saw a pattern that intriguedme. I formulated the concept of an addiction ameba. I remembered the little ameba from high school biology, a little mass of oozing protoplasm. It would stick out a “foot” thing, called a pseudopod, flow into that area and then pull the rest of its energy into that direction. I imagine that ameba having its many interests in different parts of its little body.

If we put a gate over a given area, the protoplasm of the ameba will stream in a different direction. Not using alcohol? Let's think about caffeine. Not drinking coffee? Let's try sugar? Going off of sweets? Let's go shopping. The addiction energy oozes to the places that are not gated. So we feel as if we are constantly battling with our addictions flowing to a new place.

But as I noticed my own process and talked with many, many clients, I began to observe an intriguing change. As we did the food, the addiction flow seemed to quiet. It's as if getting the biochemistry steady changed the entire equation. The “struggle factor” went away. And the desire for deepening recovery became a behavioral reality.

No longer do I work with people to “do” one addiction and then another and then another, for a lifetime of change. I encourage them to work on the core, the root of it - the biochemistry. And, the most exciting thing - working on the root is easy. It's the same program, same simple steps, same clear and uncomplicated process.

And rationally, when people first hear this idea that changing your food could alter a sexual addiction, or could affect the way you use your credit cards, it sounds nuts. That's why I don't go around saying it. But, then there is the reality that is happening over and over. People start with the food. Over time, they get skilled. They understand addiction. They embrace the concepts. They like the feeling of recovery. And they start looking at the other stuff. It's not as if the “food” changes things, but the biochemistry provides a platform for change.

They stop exercising compulsively. They start working in a healthy way. They start going to Alanon. Their relationship to debt changes. Clutter gets thrown away, plans become thoughtful, compulsivity turns to spontaneity, and recovery creeps into unexpected places.

Most of you have progressed enough in the process to get a whiff of what this means. Work with it, explore where your own ameba oozes. Share with one another on the forum, in the lists. As you explore this, you will discover the power of the model. It is big, it is exciting and can offer a powerful tool for your recovery.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who said that she didn't relate to some of the PnP lingo (my words, not hers, but basically she didn't like a certain aspect). Her explanation was that she did not come from a “recovery background.” At first, this puzzled me - “what's that got to do with anything?” I thought.

Then, I had a flash of understanding: it's denial. Of course - if you've never really had an issue with alcohol or drugs (those socially acclaimed addictions), it's so easy to separate yourself from “those people” who are in recovery. Sure, you may understand that the body can become chemically dependent on sugar, but that's not “real” addiction, is it? And all those other behaviors - working too much, being a martyr, debt trouble, perfectionism, etc. etc. - those couldn't be “real” addictions, either. Could they?

I mean, did you ever see a commercial saying “This is Your Brain on Credit Cards”? Or, “Just Say No to Overtime”?

So, it's very easy to say “I don't relate to this language of recovery.” “I'm not recovering, I'm just eating better.”

Ah-ha!! Now I totally get why this person yesterday said that. And why she doesn't “get” the language - she doesn't see herself in it.

The conversation yesterday has been haunting me. And now I know why. It's because I, too, forget that I'm a “recovery person.” Just because I didn't go to Betty Ford for detox, doesn't mean I'm not in recovery.

Okay. I finally admit it: I'm in recovery.

(c)Kathleen DesMaisons 2006. All rights reserved.

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