Saturday, March 6, 2010

Food and Sex Addiction: When "Abstinence" Isn't Really A Healthy Option

The term "addiction," according to an article a colleague sent me from Alternet, "was originally and properly defined as a physiological dependence on a substance to which the body had grown accustomed, such as alcohol, nicotine, heroin and various other drugs. The cure was to end the dependency and abstain from further use of the substance in order to avoid a recurrence of the physiological dependency."

In the case of substances that we can easily live without, and truly do not "need," abstinence makes a whole lot of sense. Over time, however, the scope of the term "addiction," expanded to include more than drugs and alcohol, to include other substances and processes (including food, sex, money, computer games and internet use), some of which ARE essential for our existence and well-being.

Food, for example, is on the basic level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, along with shelter and clothing. We need to eat to live. And if we don't eat a reasonably healthy, balanced diet, we become ill, and can even die.

Sex, is a basic human need, and a source of connection and expression, as well as reproduction. Without sex, we would become extinct. Without the connection of sexual intimacy, love relationships would lose a major contributor to bonding, mutuality and long-term staying power.

Yet, when our relationships with food or sex become imbalanced, when food or sex become compensations for trauma, emotional wounding or unmet needs at other levels, we can develop behaviors which today are called "eating addictions" or "sex addiction."

Clearly, an unhealthy relationship with food or sex can jeopardize our health and at worst, our lives. However, the "simple" abstinence approach to "beating"the addictive behavior is not really an option. Somehow, we need to connect with, face and heal our wounded places while still relating to the nourishing and healthy parts of food or sex.

In some cases, we've either lost touch with or never developed a healthy relationship with food or sex. For example, do you really know the signs when you are hungry? Do you pay attention to what you eat, when and why? Do you understand sex to be a sacred connection with a loved one? Do you practice safe and conscious, consensual sex? For some people, when they feel a bad feeling, they eat for comfort or to stuff the uncomfortable feeling down. If a person turns to sex because they are angry, bored, feel trapped or have no other outlet for emotional discomfort, they are "using" sex to fill a void rather than connecting with the healthy and more complete experience of sexuality.

In today's world, junk food, fast food and lots of food are easy to come by. Likewise, junk sex, fast sex and lots of sexual imagery are easy to come by. Often, it is just a few key strokes away.
Helping heal from an unhealthy relationship with food or sex does require stopping the unhealthy behavior. But it also requires noticing the uncomfortable feelings the behavior is "self-medicating," and learning to uncover what we really need and how to get it.

There are some parallels, in this sense, with healing from a drug or alcohol addiction. Until we stop engaging with the substance, we don't have the space--either biochemical or emotional--to discover the pain, trauma or difficulty feelings we are "running away from." However, in the case of food or sex, we need to somehow re-establish and new and healthy relationship with these life fundamentals, rather than living a life without food or sex.

In all cases of trying to heal from or overcome an addiction problem, we cannot do it all alone. There is an emotional component. There is a spiritual component. There is a behavioral component. It takes at least one other human being to tell your full truth to--a safe, compassionate human being who will listen deeply and who really understands. And it really does take a village, whether that village is a 12-step program, a support group or some combination of resources that hold you accountable, let you know you are not alone, and give you emotional, practical and spiritual support in a constant, regular way.

It is too bad that we so easily reduce human struggles into one or two-dimensions, when in actuality, they exist in more dimensions. And I find it most sad that so many human beings end up so isolated with their pain, that they turn to a substance or process, rather than another human being for consolation.

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