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Katherine Baldwin

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From Alcoholism to Food Addiction - It's All About the Feelings

Posted: 22/02/2012 00:00

In his BBC Panorama programme Britain's Hidden Alcoholics on Monday evening, Alastair Campbell suggested he probably traded one addiction for another when he put down alcohol and picked up running.

From my experience with addiction, I'd say he probably did.

Like Tony Blair's former right-hand-man, I was a fully functioning, seemingly successful, competent professional. I worked as a political reporter for a global news agency during Blair's time in office, asking questions of the prime minister and flying on his plane to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But like Alastair in his journalism days, I also had a crutch - in my case, it was food. Despite my outward confidence, I felt inadequate, imperfect and insecure and would binge on sugar and carbohydrates to ease my fears, boost my self-esteem and cope with the stress of my job. I'd manage my weight with compulsive exercise. I was a secret eater - nobody knew.

My binge eating began in my teens but I was in my early thirties before I realised I had a problem with food. In a survey by eating disorders charity b-eat to mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week this week, 58% of people said they didn't tell anyone about their eating disorder because they didn't know how to talk about it - I didn't tell anyone about mine because I wasn't aware I had it.

Whether you're an alcoholic, binge eater or drug user, denial is the hallmark of addiction. And the more successful you are on the outside, the easier it is to stay in denial. I knew I was obsessed with my body and food but it never occurred to me that the binge eating, starving and compulsive exercising that dominated my life for almost two decades were rooted in addiction.

That realisation didn't come until the sedative effect of my drug of choice - food - wore off. Gradually, in my early thirties, the pain and shame I felt after bingeing became greater than its comforting effects. I've been recovering ever since, with the help of therapy and support from other eating disorder sufferers and addicts.

But my biggest discovery of all has been that my problem isn't about food, it's about feelings.

I ate to fill an emotional and spiritual hole that dated back to my childhood. I used food to give me the love, attention, security and comfort I craved and to ease feelings of grief, pain, anger and sadness. And I used it as a crutch to face my fears, suppress my low self-esteem and achieve in my career. One of Alastair's hidden alcoholics said on Panorama she drank in response to an "emotional and spiritual bankruptcy" - that was why I ate.

But the problem with putting down a substance like food, alcohol or drugs is that you're still left with the hole you were trying to fill - and it's easy to try to fill that with something else. I certainly tried. As I stopped binge eating, I looked to work, achievement, compulsive exercise or male attention to get my fix. None of it worked.

In my experience, if I'm eating or drinking or achieving for emotional reasons, no amount of food, alcohol or success will be enough. The substance is the surface problem - the key is to address what's underneath. Many alcoholics who give up alcohol become 'dry drunks' - still plagued by the feelings that drove them to drink in the first place.

And while I'm sure Alastair Campbell is looking beneath the surface - he's talked and written about his depression and therapy - it's a shame Panorama didn't explore this. Why are so many British professionals falling into a spiral of addiction? What lies beneath the booze?

Granted, running marathons or achieving in our careers are much healthier behaviours than boozing or eating to oblivion but they don't address the internal angst. That internal angst, I've found, can only be cured from within. I'm on that journey - building my self-esteem from the inside, through a slow and imperfect process of self-love, self-care, self-acceptance and through trust and faith in something greater than myself. Today, when I feel an urge to binge, I ask myself what's really going on - I'm generally trying to run from my feelings.

Alastair says he now drinks from time to time. Similarly, I can now eat what I like and don't have to abstain from my former binge foods. But the moment I start to use food to fill an emotional hole, I'm in danger of falling back into a compulsive, addictive spiral.

I've come across a lot of recovering addicts over the years, many of them high-achieving professionals. But there are thousands more men and women out there who are binge eating and vomiting in their office toilets or drinking before, during or after work to get them through the day.

The media, society and relaxed licensing laws all have a part to play in the rise in eating disorders or alcohol-related diseases, but I believe the problem goes much deeper than that. From my experience, recovery from addiction lies at our core - with those deep, painful feelings that drive us to drink, drugs or food - and not on the surface.

 

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