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More than 4.5 million people were watching when Shay Sorrells got sent home from the Biggest Loser ranch in the reality show’s current season. Shay’s departure was significant because she was the popular weight loss show’s heaviest participant to date, weighing in at 470 pounds. She had lost 100 pounds before she was booted off, the most for any of the show’s female contestants on its boot camp “ranch.” The blogosphere was flooded with posts from fans who were rooting for Shay and were extremely saddened by her departure.

The show is filled with sad moments, but the saddest reality that the Biggest Loser has delivered so far is the realization that addiction is now so prevalent in the United States that it has become a popular source of prime time entertainment.

“It’s a national epidemic,” says HLN anchor, Jane Velez-Mitchell. The “it” that she’s dubbing as an epidemic is not obesity in particular, but rather the “it” epidemic of addiction in general.

“Ninety percent of the stories that we cover on ‘Issues’ are in some way, shape, or form, related to addiction,” Jane said in a recent interview with TVNewser.com. “Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, money, or sex, this comes up continuously. So it is one of the dominant issues of our time.”

Velez-Mitchell feels particularly qualified to comment on the American addiction epidemic not only because of her position as an internationally recognized news reporter, but also because she is a recovering addict herself. In her recently released memoir, “iWant: My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life,” Velez-Mitchell reveals her own personal struggle to overcome a series of addictions – to alcohol, cigarettes, work, shopping, food and sugar.

“Addictions jump!” Jane writes in her book. “You give up one thing and something else pops up to take its place. The reason for this is obvious. Addicts will use whatever substance is available to escape and self-medicate.”

So while most of the “Biggest Loser” audience thinks they are watching obese contestants struggle with physical workouts and emotional breakdowns, what they’re really watching is the individual struggle to break an addiction to food as a drug of choice.

Shay Sorrells was one Biggest Loser contestant who seemed painfully aware of how she has used food as a drug to self-medicate throughout her life. The daughter of a heroin addict, Shay was immersed in the lifestyle of addiction in her earliest childhood. When her mother’s addiction caused Shay to be homeless for two years, the lack of food available during that time triggered Shay’s lifetime obsession with getting food and her addiction to consuming that food.

It is certainly easy to imagine the underlying terror and helplessness that Shay – or any pre-school child – would have felt in those childhood circumstances. It is also easy to understand how a young child could become dependent on some type of substance to soothe and medicate those feelings. Shay’s drug of choice was food. For other Americans who have pain that is overwhelming, the drug of choice could be cigarettes, pot, pills, alcohol, work, television, the internet, video games, sex, caffeine, or just about anything else that can be used to escape.

“The problem I have with alcoholism is a problem that millions share,” Velez-Mitchell said to TVNewser.com. That “problem” is not just alcoholism in particular, but the wide variety of addictions in general that an estimated 225 million American addicts are struggling with every day.

If there is, in fact, a common challenge that Americans are having with addictions, then there must also be a common thread running through the stories behind the addictions of Shay, Jane, and every other addict. Velez-Mitchell believes that there is a commonality, and in an effort to remove the stigma and shame from addiction, she created a CNN iReport Assignment for viewers to submit their addiction stories.

The dozens of stories that have been posted on the CNN’s iReport website so far illustrate that addictions can be found in every walk of life in America. The root causes behind the addictive self-medication are sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always individually overwhelming. The “iReporters” who have shared their addiction stories include:

- A real estate agent who got addicted to crystal meth and went from making $200,000 per year to sleeping in the bushes behind a McDonald’s

- A war veteran whose wife, mother, mother-in-law, and brother all died as a result of their addictions to drugs and alcohol

- A California woman who was given alcohol in her baby bottles when she was teething

- A man who started smoking at the age of eight because the Marlboro Man was one of his role models

- A cheerleader who started drinking to overcome painful shyness

- A woman who had become addicted to food after being abused at age eight, and then became addicted to purging to allow more compulsive eating

- A teen who became addicted to cutting herself after being locked in her closet for most of her childhood

It is these kinds of stories that Velez-Mitchell believes need to be told. She broke her own 12-step vow of anonymity to write “iWant” in order to give the national addiction epidemic a face and a voice. “I wanted to share my experience to try to prevent someone else from going through the hell that I went through,” Velez-Mitchell told TVNewser.com about writing her memoir. “Why waste a good problem?”

HLN will be accepting addiction stories at CNN.com/iReport through November 20, 2009. iReport submissions chosen to be included on “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell will receive an autographed copy of “iWant” and will become a candidate to visit Jane on the set of “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell” in New York.

More About Jane Velez-Mitchell and “iWant”:

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