In this riveting new docu-series, eight people battle their addiction to the one thing they literally can’t live without: food. At Shades of Hope, a rural Texas treatment center, these desperate clients struggle through an intense 42-day treatment plan led by maverick therapist Tennie McCarty. Using unorthodox methods and a tough-love approach, Tennie asks her clients to confront the painful issues in their lives that have led them to use food as an escape. Full of drama, emotion and triumph, Addicted to Food shows us that recovery is possible even for people who fear their lives are hopeless.
This is by far the best weight loss/eating disorder recovery show I have seen on television. I am highly skeptical of these shows in general, but I watch them with somewhat guilty pleasure. This one really makes you think.
The people on the show are all binge-eaters. Some are obese and some are skinny. The skinny ones are bulimic. On first glance, you might not suspect that the underweight people have anything in common with the obese people, but as the show goes on it becomes clear just how similar they are.
One thing that strikes me particularly is that pretty much every person on the show has a parent who was an addict. In one episode they participate in a group therapy session where they talk about what it is like to be a child of a parent with an addiction. The child wants to connect to the parent, but there is something in the way- the addiction. The child grows up learning to interact with addiction- not with the person beneath it. In adulthood, the child mimics what she has learned by acquiring her own addiction or by finding herself in relationships with other addicts. This is what she knows. She never learned how to interact with people who don’t suffer from addiction.
What is addiction? I have thought about this many times over my own life. Much of my life I have been in relationships with addicts. I have eaten myself into obesity, but when I decided to stop, I just did it. I have smoked cigarettes for over 10 years and quit many times, but I have quit permanently now and no longer fear a relapse.
Addiction is a complicated idea to me. On one hand, there is no doubt in my mind that some people find themselves simply unable to stop their addiction. Or perhaps they cannot find within themselves the desire to do so. On the other hand, I do not believe that addiction is anything other than a choice. In some ways, I have always felt that admitting you are “powerless” over your addiction is a cop out and an excuse. You do have a choice. It may be a very difficult choice to make, but saying you don’t have a choice, to me, is like giving up. Surely, substance abuse and other addictive behaviors change your brain chemistry. Take away the substance and you have to deal with the nasty emotions you were trying to escape in the first place. I’m not saying it isn’t hard, I’m just saying it IS possible to choose to change yourself.
I also have some reservations about calling addiction, or obesity for that matter, a “disease.” Again, I feel this takes the personal responsibility out of the equation. Changing my eating habits and my body took a lot of personal reflection and the main thing I learned was that I was not taking responsibility for my choices and their consequences. Thinking that my weight was genetic or that I was in some way the victim of a society that forced me to become obese was not helpful. These things may be true. People may be predisposed to gain weight by their genes. People may suffer from media and societal pressure to overeat. But in the end, it all comes down to the choices we make.
So what is addiction? To my mind, addiction is not about the substance or activity one is addicted to- whether it is drugs or alcohol or food or sex. Addiction is about something that is missing inside and an inability to deal with emotional pain. Many people overcome one addiction only to replace it with another addiction. Sometimes we refer to people as having “addictive personalities” meaning that there is something genetic about them that predisposes them to addiction. This is used to explain why some people can try drugs and not become addicted while others seems to become addicted immediately. I think it’s more likely that some people grew up not learning how to deal with painful emotions and so they learned to mask those feelings in other ways. But masking emotions never works in the long run. The truth is, we have to feel our feelings no matter how unpleasant. We have to acknowledge them and deal with them. Hiding from them will only come back later to bite you.
The focus of the show is the treatment the people receive from Tennie McCarty at Shades of Hope. This treatment involves following a meal plan, group and individual therapy, and daily interaction with the other members of the group. The show manages to be introspective without seeming overly exploitative or sensationalist. It is also heartbreaking to learn about the traumas the patients suffered in their childhood.
In many ways, I don’t think there is much difference between drug addiction and eating disorders. And over the past few years, I’ve come to recognize that binge eating is pretty much the same thing as not eating or eating and purging. None of it makes any sense. But in some way, it is always an attempt to deal with some emotion that isn’t being dealt with.
On one of the first episodes, Elizabeth, one of the bulimic patients, says to Robby, an overweight patient, “You and I have the same pain- but yours is visible on the outside.” to which he replies “I can see yours too.” This struck me as quite profound. We see heavy people and many of us cast judgment upon them because it is so easy and socially acceptable to do so. Yet a person’s body does not tell the whole story. We think that heavy people are lazy or slovenly or have no will-power or are simply greedy and gluttonous. I would contend that it is never that simple. Being obese is very painful physically and emotionally. I don’t think anyone ever chooses it consciously.
But in the end, we can choose to change ourselves from the inside out. It can be done. It isn’t easy. But it can be done. Check out the show if you haven’t seen it. It’s a good one.