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 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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Aug 12

This month the court of Morrow County, Oregon received a request to declare a West Nile virus state of emergency due to a sudden appearance of infected mosquitos there. West Nile is a pathogen that is native to Uganda, and can be transmitted to humans with a single mosquito bite.

Morrow county is a place that is near to the hometown of author, Emily Smucker. But West Nile virus is a disease that is not so dear to her heart, after she lost her senior year in high school to it.

In her newly released book, Smucker gives a detailed account of her struggle to survive the potentially deadly West Nile virus after she contracted it at the age of 17. What was thought at first to be just another “Emily flu,” turned into a serious chronic illness that the teenager is still struggling to overcome two years later.

While most people will experience no symptoms or mild effect after being bitten by West Nile infected mosquitos, others will experience severe and long-lasting effects which can include encephalitis, meningitis, and permanent damage to the central nervous system. If the virus spreads to the brain, death is a possibility as well.

Considering the worst possibilities of the virus, the severe fevers, headaches, and debilitating weakness that incapacitated Smucker were not the worst things that could have happened to her. Being isolated from her friends, missing every aspect of her senior year, and not being able to graduate, however, made it feel to Emily that the worst things that could have happened had actually happened. She was still a teenager, after all.

“Sometimes it feels like I’ll never be able to do anything in life, to go anywhere in life, because I’m sick all the time” Smucker wrote in her book. “And other times it feels like I am missing a huge chunk of life, and in place of that missing chunk is sickness.”

Smucker’s experiences with battling West Nile virus were documented on her blog while she was living through them. Her book is a memoir of sorts which gives readers an intimate look at the emotional, spiritual, and identity crises that chronic illness can create. The author provided more insights about the experiences documented in her book during an open web conference this month, which has been viewed by more than 1,000 people. The teen fielded about 300 questions and comments from participants during that event.

“The world would be an easier place if everyone I knew had gotten West Nile in their past, that way I wouldn’t have to spend so much time explaining to people what it was like,” Smucker wrote in her book. “So maybe someday someone else will have the same thing, and I’ll make their life a little easier, because I’ll know how to empathize.”

With the outbreak in Oregon this week, and other major West Nile outbreaks reported in California, Alberta, Canada, and even the Galapagos Islands this summer, unfortunately, Smucker may have to see that wish come true.

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Aug 11

A teenager in the UK has reportedly received that nation’s first successful eyelash transplant surgery, a miracle procedure that became necessary because the teen suffers from trichotillomania.

A condition with no definite cause, trichotillomania causes up to 11 million people in the U.S. to compulsively pull out their own hair. Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, people with trichotillomania use their fingers to pluck out individual hairs from their head, their eyebrows, their pubic area, or in the case of the woman in Great Britain, from their eyelashes. Without intervention, the compulsive behavior can lead to bald spots, or the complete removal of hair from certain parts of the body.

Although it seems like the condition would have a psychological root cause, trichotillomania has been documented in patients as young as one year old. For Marni Bates, author of a new memoir about her own struggles with trichotillomania, hair-pulling was born out of a desire to be more attractive.

Marni convinced herself that pulling out her eyebrow hairs would make her more beautiful. By itself, eyebrow plucking is not an unusual thing, but when Marni’s hair-pulling also included her eyelashes and bangs, she knew her compulsion no longer had anything to do with a normal beauty regime.

After struggling with the condition all throughout high school, Marni is now successfully coping with it, and is working to raise awareness about the condition and the help that is available to other “trich teens.” In conjunction with the release of her autobiographical trichotillomania book, Marni answered questions about “trich” in a live web conference that was broadcast simultaneously on 30 websites. Marni fielded more than 300 questions and comments about trichotillomania from participants during that web event.

Currently there is no known cure for trichotillomania, but treatments similar to those used for patients with other obsessive compulsive disorders are often useful in helping to minimize the hair-pulling compulsion. Sometimes reconstructive surgery, like the eyelash transplant performed in Great Britain, is necessary to repair the long-term effects of the hair-pulling disorder.

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