Functional addictions

I think most people have some sort of functional addiction- that is, a mild addiction that really doesn't interfere with life and health. You could probably put my obligatory morning 2-3 cups of coffee in that category. Sure, I've been a nasty coffee fiend, usually in concert with the eating disorder, but mostly, I just love coffee. And caffeine. I hate mornings, and so I gravitate towards anything that might make it just a little bit easier. Am I addicted to caffeine? Probably, a little bit. Does it really harm me? At this level, I doubt it.

My aunt probably has a functional addiction to exercise. The amount she exercises isn't excessive, but if she doesn't get her morning workout, she says she feels cranky and out-of-sorts. Is her exercise harming her life and health? Probably not. Is it still an addiction? I would say so.

I've had both functional and non-functional exercise addictions, and my problem was not only the addiction itself but how it was billed by those around me. When people heard I exercised every single day, rain or shine, snow or sleet, they didn't ask why I didn't want to take a day off or even if I would let myself take a day off. No, they lauded my devotion and willpower, which has led to a hate/hate relationship with that last word. They patted me on the back and told me I was "hard core" and how they wished they could do what I did.

Frankly, I wanted to smack them.

Our culture has a totally screwed-up attitude towards both food and exercise. They're related, to be true, and I have historically been much more painfully aware of the "food" aspect. However, as I've begun to address my exercise issues in therapy, I've started to realize just how blind our culture is to exercise addiction. It's seen as a good thing, not a problem.

Which is why this article from my local paper has me a little bit tweaked: Ultra runner brings sport to Ann Arbor

From the text of the story:

Meet the ultra marathoner. You, too, can be one if you have steadfast willpower, oodles of devotion to training and a true love of adventure.

It sounds so positive, and maybe for many people, it is. But the words "ultra marathoner" immediately raise red flags in my head, and for the man featured in this article, it was no exception.

Asked if running is his first priority, he said, "Absolutely."

"It's like an addiction," said Purdy, a married father and retired Ford employee. "You need to get your fix, otherwise you feel crabby. You don't go to the bathroom the same, don't sleep the same."

And people are celebrating this? Certainly, the man is dedicated and talented. I don't doubt that for a second. But that's not the issue. The issue is that someone admits they have an addiction, and we tell them how much willpower they have. It's like patting a heroin addict on the back for the lengths they go to in order to score some dope. Sounds kind of silly when you think about it. It's not willpower- it's desperation!

I have no idea if this man's health or quality of life is being impacted by this. Maybe it isn't. But I also think we should stop blithely celebrating such addictions, even if they leave someone functional.

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Girl. said...

ugh. nothing makes me more mad than stuff like this.
like when i went to a dietician and she told me she wished she had a diet like mine coz i eat so healthy. i almost laughed.

Tiptoe said...

I agree that this is concerting how they glorify these achievements. However, having talked with several ultra-marathoners, what amazed me was how relaxing they told me the atmosphere was--much different from a marathon where literally everyone is watching their stopwatch an d it is so stress-filled. I guess I feel a bit bewildered, because, there has to be some obsessional component for these people, but yet, obsession doesn't usually breed a nice atmosphere as the people I talked with say.

I think a lot of the problem is that like anything in the media, it is really only a small portion that is featured--and these do usually wind up being the ones who are obsessed, perfectionstic, etc. Still though, all around, it can be a problem.

chylo said...

I'm having a hard time finding a group of people in endurance sports that have 'healthy' mindsets towards running.

I have to agree w/what Tiptoe says though, the ultras are much less #s focused in general. I kinda hate Dean Karnazes though, he basically is everything I hate about exercise/attitudes in the flesh.

I suppose we're all hooked on something-- we just have to be able to stop when it ceases to provide us with enjoyment/becomes damaging, you know? I love this whole article:

I don't know how to handle other people's moderately unhealthy exercise views. The whole moralization of exercise is hard for me. And I suppose it's like dieting-- some people can do it. It's not like dieting/running got me into trouble, but damn, if I *did* start to lose weight or decide that running more=being a 'better' person, I'd be in big trouble. And yet, other people don't fall apart...

Carrie Arnold said...

That's an interesting point you make, Tiptoe, and I do see the attraction of the sport, even from a non-ED point of view. I think there are healthy and unhealthy aspects to nearly everything, and I think we each need to find where that balance lays FOR US.

I guess many alcoholics probably have the same response to the advice that you should drink a glass of red wine a day.

Cathy said...

Surely the difference between a harmful addiction and a 'hobby' is determined by the extent to which an individual depends upon an activity (in this case exercise) to 'cope' with life.

Exercise may be dangerous as both an addiction and a hobby if it is undertaken at an intensity and/or volume that is too great to allow the body to adapt favourably. When compared to healthy individuals, individuals with EDs are at greater risk of harmful physical effects of exercise as a consequence of malnutrition-induced organ dysfunction, dehydration, electrolyte disturbances etc. Even so, top level athletes can suffer with over-training syndrome.

Our society applauds those who exercise because of the obesity epidemic. Rarely do professional (except ED professionals) consider some of the ill effects of exercise.

Entangled said...

You've articulated something for me that I haven't been able to state before. I'm compulsive about exercise, but not excessive. It definitely affects my mood negatively if I don't do it, but I will begrudgingly accept that there are times when it's not possible or healthy to work out.

I find that while a lot of people are impressed that I run or go to the gym every day, the people closest to me tell me to cut it back a bit. When I went four months without an off-day, my mom scolded me. My boyfriend is always trying to get me to take time off. My dad runs, too, and he knows that it's a Very Bad Idea to do that every day. My friend who is super serious about fitness told me I shouldn't work out on vacation to give my muscles recovery time.

I feel really lucky that I'm getting this kind of reinforcement from the people I trust most, because the message in society is more more more. But, no, not everyone can be an ultramarathoner. You don't need determination - you need abnormally hardy joints and to be free of responsibilities that preclude many, many hours a week of training. Put the two together and only a small portion of the population is eligible. (whether it's even healthy to put your body through that level of stress is another thing entirely - for many people it's dangerous)

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but notice a few points in this great post.

About addictions: My nutritionist (trying to recover from an ED) has me on reduced caffeine intake...1-2 cups a day. And that was only TEA (I hate coffee). But she felt it was giving me energy I was supposed to be getting from the FOOD I wasn't eating. After reducing my tea intake substantially, was I addicted? Well, I don't have headaches, but I am a lot more tired (that could be for a variety of reasons.

Exercise addiction: I am also on exercise restriction now and going nuts. At first, it was almost like a relief--exercise had truly become punishment (rain or shine, on 2 hours of sleep, whether I had time for not). But now I am just ancy and I miss the treadmill. Sigh.

I was never an athlete so my sudden increase in exercise was really ED-related. It depends, but people who have always been athletes? it's hard to tell how functional the addiction is. I am a classical musician--am I addicted to practice? I have to be. I have colleagues who do 6 hours a day, no matter what. Also, some have injured themselves doing it. I guess it all needs to be balanced...most people think 6 hours sounds AMAZING and like that person is a GOD, but if you mess up your hands forever, then it wasn't a very good idea, was it?


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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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