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 21

A federal lawsuit has been filed in Pittsburgh which alleges that an 11 year-old girl was bullied so much by her classmates that it caused her to become anorexic. The lawsuit further alleges that the principle and other employees at the girl’s middle school knew about the bullying and didn’t do enough to stop it.

The girl, “B.G.,” was allegedly taunted about her weight and harassed daily during lunch periods about what she was eating. Eventually “B.G.” discarded her lunch instead of eating it in an attempt to stop the harassment. She dropped down to 96 pounds, was hospitalized, and had to finish her seventh grade year from home.

Hannah Friedman knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of this kind of adolescent bullying. One of the nicknames given to her by her classmates in middle school was “Flat Monkey-Girl Freak.” She was teased mercilessly about her hair and her clothes by the girls in her class who came from families with higher social and economic status. Hannah even had carrot sticks thrown at her daily in the lunchroom.

Like “B.G.,” Hannah developed an eating disorder because she thought it would help her to fit in, be accepted, and change her enemies into friends. In what Hannah calls her “quest for cool,” she traded public school for a private prep school, straightened her hair, started wearing designer clothes, got straight A’s, became bulimic, developed a cocaine habit, started smoking and ended up slicing her arm with a razor blade when all of her extreme attempts to fit in pushed her to the brink of insanity.

Hannah chronicles her extreme high school experiences in her new book, “Everything Sucks, Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest for Cool” because she made a promise to “the Universe” that if she could get some help figuring things out, she would spread the word in any way that she could.

“This is all the stuff I wish I had been able to hear from a big-sister type figure when I was going through all that stuff,” she said recently in an interview with LoHud.com. After being the target of bullies, Hannah concluded that who she was obviously wasn’t good enough, and that she needed to be more like the people who taunted her. They were obviously acceptable and she wasn’t.

“When you’re trying to be someone else, that really colors every facet of your life, so everything does suck as a result,” Hannah told LoHud. “Because your entire existence is dedicated to keeping up the façade, and making sure you appear a certain way. And that really comes at a cost.”

The price that is paid for teenage bullying these days is higher than most adults are willing to imagine. Some teens, like Hannah, are able to deal with the abuse of their peers and survive their own path of teenage self-destruction without adult intervention. Others do not have the same internal fortitude or physical strength.

In March, another federal lawsuit was filed alleging that bullying was the cause of 17 year-old Eric Mohat’s suicide in Mentor, Ohio. According to the suit, Eric was bullied not because he was fat, like “B.G.”, but because he was too skinny. His spindly physical appearance, and his participation in theater and music were used as evidence by some of his classmates that he was gay. Besides nicknaming him “Twiggy,” bullies allegedly openly called Eric “fag,” “queer,” and “homo,” and shoved and hit him regularly. Reportedly these abuses took place in front of teachers, and reportedly, school officials didn’t do anything about it.

Nine weeks before the end of the school year, Eric shot himself in the head with his father’s revolver. Three of Eric’s classmates also committed suicide that same year, and it is suspected that bullying played a significant part in those deaths as well. The lawsuit filed by Eric’s parents seeks no financial compensation, but instead seeks acknowledgement from the school district that these deaths were “bullicides.” The Mohats also want effective anti-bullying programs and policies to be put into place throughout the school district.

It’s not like it was in the 1950’s when one really big kid was the schoolyard bully, or one small group of kids was the “bad crowd.” These days it is estimated that nearly 30% of the children in America are either bullying, or being bullied at school, according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that today – and every day – 160,000 children will either go home early or stay home from school completely because they are afraid to be bullied. The Yale School of Medicine has also found that children who are bullied may be nine times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Yale, by the way, is the college that Hannah Friedman was able to attend as a result of her neurotic overachievement in prep school. She was published in Newsweek magazine while still in that prep school, and she won both the Yale Playwrights Festival and the New York Television Festival before she graduated college.

Friedman’s accomplishments at such a young age definitely do not help her to fit in with her peers. The candid and shocking truths that she shares in her book probably won’t make her the most popular person at the high school reunions either.

Come to find out, though, not fitting in is not always such a bad thing. Because when you’re a 22 year-old published author who’s found your voice, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life on the quest for cool. You’ve already found it.

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