Image by StockSnap from Pixabay


Addiction Isn’t the Real Problem; It’s How We Love

When I was four years old, I could hold my breath until I fainted.

My mother would find me passed out, pick me up and rock me in her arms, until I came to.

I fainted so often that she took me to the doctor, worried something was seriously wrong with me.

The doctor told her that I was holding my breath intentionally, a ploy to get her attention “Ignore her,” he advised, “and she’s stop.”

So she stopped picking me up when I fainted, and eventually, I stopped.

My mother laughs ruefully when she tells me this story: It is an illustration of what a willful, difficult child I was.

I have no memory of doing this.

I tried once holding my breath to see if I could still do it.

I couldn’t.

I don’t have that kind of will-power, if that’s what it was, today.

I can’t imagine that it was a rational calculation at the age of four, but thinking about it now, holding your breath until your faint, is a kind of four-year old attempt at suicide.

I don’t think I wanted to kill myself, but I was desperate for my mother’s attention. And not just any kind of attention.

I wanted to be held. I wanted to be rocked in my mother’s arms, to be touched and kissed and told I was loved.

I know that my mother did love me. I know she was doing what she could do.

But I also know I didn’t feel loved.

At that age, I desperately wanted, needed to be touched and to feel loved physically.

“A study released on October 8, 2013 confirms the importance of human touch to healthy brain development. Researchers in the UK found that loving touch, characterized by a slow caress or gentle stroking increases the brain’s ability to construct a sense of body ownership and plays a big part in creating and sustaining a healthy sense of self.”

I didn’t know how to ask for what I wanted, how I wanted to be loved. So I fainted

For a short time fainting worked.

The doctor was right about my motives for holding my breath, and his recommendation that my mother ignore me, “worked” in that after awhile I stopped fainting — it’s like so many of the “cures” we are offered: it removes the troublesome symptoms and gives the illusion that the problem has been solved.

But my need to be touched and held didn’t go away.

To this day, I am hungry for physical touch, and I can never seem to get enough of it.

Instead, my need went underground.

In my case, I developed an eating disorder at the age of five.

My mother tells the story another illustration my willfulness, of how she watched me return from a birthday party carrying a plate of cupcakes. Apparently, I stopped outside the front door and ate every one of them. And then came inside and threw them up.

In my family, we expressed love with sugar: the only reason to eat dinner was the promise of dessert. For special treat, my mother, mother and I would go out for an ice cream cone. Halloween and Christmas were all about the candy, and homemade cookies, desserts.

If I was “good,” I was given a cookie. If I was very “bad” I was denied dessert.

Image by R391n4 from Pixabay

Is it any wonder that I developed an obsession with sugar?

Is it any mystery why when I am exhausted or depressed or even when I want to celebrate, that the first thing I reach for is a cookie, or some form of chocolate?

What I really want — someone to put their arms around me and hug me and hold me, and reassure me — is a lot harder to ask for.

Too hard and too painful.

I don’t want to risk the pain of rejection — asking for something I desperately want, and may not get.

And not getting what I really want for so long, I doubt I deserve it.

That’s what I learned anyway.

It was a lesson for me about love: what I could and couldn’t ask for and receive.

Sugar is easier to reach for. And it’s entirely in my control.

But personally, I pay a heavy price for this socially acceptable “solution,” that inconveniences no one.

I pay with shame and self-loathing, whenever I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

I’ve become an expert in not seeing myself.

I see this loathing and disgust I feel mirrored in other people’s eyes.

Men on the street and online freely share their negative opinions about my body, along with the assumption that I have an obligation to be attractive to them, and, at the very least, to smile for them.

With other women, disgust is mixed with anxiety, fear and self-loathing: At least I’m not as fat as she is.

I could be projecting. In the fun house mirror of envy, comparison, shame and self hatred in which I can’t see myself, and it’s very like I don’t see anyone else clearly either.

But one thing I am clear on: often what people call addictions are compensatory strategies for emotional traumas and still unmet emotional needs.

We want to have a villain we can name: sugar, alcohol, gluten, processed foods, drugs, etc.

The real causes for these addictions are underground, and harder to identify.

As@Shannon Ashley comments:

“Anxiety and emptiness are probably the two biggest reasons I binge eat…And although I want the answer to be so simple, I simply can’t be healed by making food my enemy. Or by saying this is all sugar’s fault.”

Addictions ar compensatory strategies; ways we find to cope when we don’t know how to get our real needs met.

We are creatures of habit and also of superstition. If something worked once to sooth our pain, anxiety, or meet our needs even partially, we try it again.

But as long as the real need is not addressed, and the real hunger not fed, compensatory strategies provide temporary relief at best.

“You can never get enough of what you don’t need, because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.” — Dallin H. Oaks

Which is why unmet needs often masquerade as addictions: we repeat the same obsessive behaviors over and over again, and start to believe that our compensatory strategy is the cause of the problem, rather than it’s side effect.

Over time compensatory strategies take on a life of their own.

Sugar was never the real cause of my eating disorder, but a lifetime of overeating sugar has by this point created a habitual dependence on sugar, which when combined with the chemical effects of sugar looks very much like an addiction.

We all develop strategies to compensate for our unmet needs as childhood.

Many of us continue to use the same strategies in dealing with the pain, frustrations, disappointments we experience in our adult lives, even though this strategies never really worked then or now.


Because that’s what we learned

Because anything we repeat over time becomes a habit, and habits takes on a life and a momentum of their own.

To change the direction of something that has gathered a lot of momentum can be done incrementally, but in my experience the force of inertia requires radical changes in one’s relationship, physical and environment, and identity.

We have to change how we understand love and how we express it.

The means disrupting one’s live and those close to you.

It’s not easy or comfortable to live without easy villains to blame.

We have to come face to face with the fact we are often our own worst enemy: We are the ones who make the choice to continue to mistreat and abuse ourselves. It’s the path of least resistance.

To do something else requires we take responsibility and develop the emotional skills we need to actually meet our own needs in a healthy way.

And we can’t know practice or even know what it means to meet our needs if we are not willing to do this in our intimate relationships, with those we are closest to.

Fundamentally, it means we have to challenge and reinvent what it means to love — to love ourselves and to love others well.

We don’t know how to do this, or what it will look like.

But the alternative — to maintain the status quo and let everyone deal with their own shame, trauma and self-loathing as best they can privately, is killing us.

Not just some of us. All of us.



I write about the creative process, social control, the powers of voice and how we can collectively re-imagine a future where everyone flourishes.

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Suzanne LaGrande

Writer, artist, host of Disobedient Femmes & The Voice Plays podcasts. Interested in personal transformation & collective liberation.