Nov 13

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 “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 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 about writing her memoir. “Why waste a good problem?”

HLN will be accepting addiction stories at 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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Aug 24

Jane Velez-Mitchell proves seven nights a week that she is not afraid of confronting the tough issues or expressing the unpopular opinion during her HLN news talk show, “Issues.” In her new book, however, Jane may be expressing her most unpopular opinion of all. According to Velez-Mitchell, Americans are addicted to consuming.

What leads Velez-Mitchell to say this, and what gives her the authority to label the consuming habits of most Americans as addictive, is Jane’s own consumption addiction, which, she admits, gave her a high while she was shopping, and a hangover after she had made the purchase. “To improve my standing on the totem pole I, like others, have jockeyed for position. One way to do that is by engaging in competitive consumption,” Jane says in her book.

Jane admits that competitive consumption gave her “the high of the buy.” But like any addiction, the buzz wears off eventually, and the cycle of addiction is self-perpetuating. “I would often feel guilty, remorseful, and anxiety ridden after making a purchase,” Jane says. “Within an hour or so I began to sober up to the reality of an unnecessary and self-indulgent purchase.” But, as with any addiction, the “hangover” is usually not enough to curtail the impulsive behavior the next time. Even though she was successfully recovering from her alcoholism, Jane was still an addict.

Even though “consumption addiction” is a new idea, the concept of addiction is very familiar in the United States. A recent survey conducted by Lake Research Partners reveals that a 76% of U.S. adults know someone who has been addicted to alcohol or drugs. As staggering as that figure is, it only addresses a portion of the things that Americans are addicted to. According to many different authorities, addictive behavior in the U.S. is the norm, not the exception. Recent research studies have reveals that American society now includes:

- 72 million obese, and therefore addicted to consuming more calories than their bodies need to function
- 30 million addicted to the internet
- 25 million addicted to nicotine
- 23 million addicted to alcohol and drugs
- 21 million addicted to caffeine
- 18 million alcoholics
- 16 million addicted to sex
- 7 million addicted to pain pills
- 6 million cocaine addicts
- 3 million addicted to gambling
- 3 million addicted to video games
- 400,000 addicted to meth
- 213,000 addicted to heroin

This does not include the number of people who are addicted to marijuana or television, which are not very hip and therefore not studied very much any more. No one can even estimate the number of Americans who are addicted to work and money, since it’s very difficult to find a healthy benchmark for those behaviors in the U.S.

There is also no scientific data yet for Addictions 2.0, although it seems fairly obvious when you spend time in any public venue that there are millions of Americans who can’t stop texting, twittering, and talking on cellphones, no matter where they are or what else they’re supposed to be doing. Of course, behind every social media addiction is the newest high tech gadget that makes the virtual socializing accessible at all times.

Velez-Mitchell admits that she was addicted to gadgets. “I had gadget lust,” Jane says in her book. “The guys at my local electronics franchise knew me by name and would swarm toward me with big grins on their faces when I walked in the store,” Jane says. “When they nicknamed me ‘Gadget Girl,’ I realized they thought I was an easy mark.”

Even though Jane has become clear about her own consumption addiction, what makes her think everyone else shares her in this particular dysfunction? The economic events that she’s been studying and reporting in the past two years is one thing that makes it clear to Jane that her assessment is correct. “If there’s a silver lining to the current economic crisis, it’s that Americans are finally being forced to distinguish between what we merely lust after and what we genuinely need,” Jane says.

Statistics provide evidence that Americans have created an addicted culture of consumerism for themselves. The average amount of disposable income that Americans have saved since 1929 is just 7%. Consumption per capita, in contrast has climbed 25% in the past 20 years. Americans have been on a two-decade spending binge, which finally ended with a crash and has left us all with an economic hangover and spending withdrawal.

Consumerism escalated at such a fast pace that now more than 60% of the U.S. GDP depends on Americans purchasing more stuff. This has created the greatest conundrum of the recession for Americans. We can’t afford to spend like we used to, but our economy won’t improve until we start spending like we used to. It’s a cycle of insanity that is familiar to anyone who has broken free from their own personal addiction cycle.

Since Americans consume more than they create these days, getting to the first step of the addiction where we admit that we have a problem is going to be particularly difficult. When a major story in Time magazine in January, 2009 advised people to get sad about the recession because sadness motivates spending, it revealed the dysfunctionality of our thought processes. When former president Bush told Americans that one of the best ways they could respond to 9/11 was to go to the mall and shop, it revealed the insanity of the whole U.S. economic system from the top down.

Velez-Mitchell says in her book that consumption addiction has caused American society to devolve instead of evolve.

Now a recovering consumption addict, Jane also explains in her book what it’s going to take for Americans to break free from the consuming habits that drive them. “My frst step was to surrender to the fact that no material product would ever fundamentally alter my inner emotional state,” Jane said. She finally realized that she couldn’t express her individuality with products, which is what most Americans have been hypnotized into thinking. “What’s unique about me lies within me, not on my shelf, in my cupboard or in my driveway,” Jane wrote.

With the economic crash, frugality has become the new black, and many Americans have spontaneously freed themselves from the overconsumption spell. But with both industry and government pushing for American consuming to resume (ala sales tax holidays), it will be difficult not to get lured into the addictive cycle again.

Like any addiction, Jane takes her consumption addiction one day at a time. “When I am able to let go of my hunger for more, I can relax and say to myself, I have enough. From there it’s easy to deduce, I do enough. Ultimately, that leads me to the realization, I am enough. It’s a wonderful mantra that has helped me when I start feeling cravings for stuff I don’t need: I have enough, I do enough, I am enough.” And she no longer needs stuff to prove that to anyone, least of all to herself.

Jane Velez-Mitchell’s book, “iWant, My Journey From Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life” is scheduled for release September 1, 2009.

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