Often times, we talk about substance abuse as it relates to other illnesses. Not uncommon is a co-occurring disorder, where a person suffers from an illness that, more or less, drives substance abuse. We have to take a step back and examine the coalescence of two illnesses. Which is driving which? And what is the origin of such unhealthy behavior?

Looking closer, we often find that the very origin has deep-seated and insidious power. Let’s inspect this point further and talk about the link between eating disorders and substance abuse.

What Is an Eating Disorder?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, an eating disorder is a mental illness in which a person associates negative thoughts and emotions with food intake. The disease is generally characterized by an unhealthy obsession with eating. There are three main types of disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa: depriving the body of food.
  • Bulimia nervosa: binge eating, followed by induced vomiting, or purging. Sometimes the purging is done through laxatives.
  • Binge eating disorder: eating an excessive amount, to the point of discomfort. People who engage in binge eating often report a loss of control during an episode.

eating disorders and addiction

Illnesses That Work Together

The relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse generally meets where some substances (i.e. laxatives, heroin, cocaine) works to relieve the pain of abstaining from or purging food.

What is understood is that the roots of substance abuse and eating disorders share a common core, which is bound together by social and personal difficulties like depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety. Treating both disorders is about reaching the crux of the issue and eliminating the force that drives the destructive behaviors.

How It Begins

Though some eating disorders and mental illnesses can be traced back through a family tree, not all are the result of genetics. Our society has made the window for body acceptance and appreciation so narrow that most women and men do not fit. As a result, many people take drastic measures to conform to a prescribed set of beauty expectations that strip them of their time and money, and in some cases, their identity.

What starts as a diet regimen or an exercise plan can sometimes grow uncontrollably into a full-blown eating disorder. And once that train has left the station, it can be difficult to stop. Couple this with a budding substance abuse problem, and you have a real complex health issue.

Eating Disorders and Addiction

Eating disorders, though often characterized by a loss of control, are actually an addiction. This elucidates some of the confusion around how two addictions can be born in one person.

The root is the same — it’s the manifestation that looks different. When we think of co-occurring disorders in these terms, we can better understand how addiction can look like abstaining from one thing, while at the same time, over-indulging in another.

Recovering from Two Problems

This is where things get very complicated. Recovering from one disorder is difficult. But recovering from two, especially two that have very different needs, can seem almost impossible.

Learning how to eat food and keep it down, while also learning how not to consume drugs and alcohol where there is incredible temptation is an astonishing feat that requires professional attention from two separate disciplines.

The best recovery programs for cases such as this are those that use two tracks for therapy — one to regain consumption of food and one to abstain from consumption of harmful substances. While rarer, these programs are not impossible to find. However, they may require some temporary relocation.

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