Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell is the host of HLN's "Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell." Below is an excerpt from her latest book, "Addict Nation: An Intervention for America." published by HCI Books
(CNN) -- The other night I went to a charity event at a sprawling private home in the hills of Los Angeles. I parked in front of a house down the block, got out of the car, and found myself staring at a distinctive front door. With a start, I realized, "Hey, that's the place I hit bottom fifteen years ago." Yep, it was through that fancy door that I was carried out of that house over someone's shoulder ... in an alcoholic blackout. I remembered the house only because a friend of mine had lived there and I had visited it often ... until that wild, out-of-control night.
It was great to be confronted by that memory because it put in sharp relief how much better my life has become in the decade and a half that I've been sober. Standing there in the near darkness, those crazy years when my drinking was out of control sped through my mind like a movie stuck in fastforward.
As I walked away and headed toward the party where a chic Hollywood crowd was gathering, I felt immense gratitude. I no longer had to worry about what inappropriate thing I might do or say as the night wore on. I knew that the next day I would remember everything that happened at the party. I knew I would not have to phone anyone the next morning for a "damage assessment" nor would I have to apologize for anything I did or said. There would be no embarrassment or remorse or worry. In other words, I felt completely free. More than anything else, that's what sobriety is: FREEDOM!
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to experience that same freedom! Right now you might be thinking, The nerve of that Jane, to assume whoever's reading this book is an alcoholic! No, I'm not jumping to that conclusion, but I am making a pretty safe bet that you are an addict. Why? Because virtually everyone in America is hooked on something. We are a nation of addicts! In "Addict Nation," you'll learn how you and I, and other Americans, are being lured into a slew of addictions that are supremely self-destructive. They're making us high. They're making us overweight. They're keeping us constantly distracted. They're trivializing our most important relationships. They're putting us in debt. And they're destroying our natural world. We're all becoming slaves to our worst impulses. We are giving up our freedoms.
Sadly, what's happening is the exact opposite of what our Founding Fathers had in mind. The United States of America was created precisely to celebrate "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Freedom of choice is the underlying premise of our society. That means we get to decide how we live our lives, how we spend our money, what we eat and wear, and how we relax in our "free" time.
I love the freedoms I have as an American, and I never take them for granted. In fact, that's why I've written this book. It's crucial that we Americans confront this huge addiction epidemic that is robbing us of our ability to make rational choices in our own true self-interest.
Enslavement comes in many different forms. It's not always someone pointing a gun at you or building a wall to keep you where you are. There is also psychological and emotional bondage. If you know intellectually that you are on the verge of making a bad choice, and, still, you cannot stop yourself, then you are just as enslaved as if somebody were pointing a gun at you. Either way, you do not have what it takes to say no to self-defeating behavior.
Addiction is determining our behavior
We're all familiar with the obvious addictions: drugs and alcohol. Those obsessions have been with us since Adam first met Eve. They plucked their first grapes and discovered the mind-altering beverage that resulted from the fermentation process. There's even the occasional reference to alcoholism in the Bible. Addictions have gone forth and multiplied since biblical times. We now have many more temptations to seduce us into dangerous and even deadly choices. Symbolically, the snake may have first starred in the role of pusher by beguiling Eve into eating the apple, who passed it to Adam, getting them both thrown out of Eden. Today, there are many complex forces not unlike the serpent that beguile us into bad behavior for their own purposes -- usually for profit and power.
Increasingly, almost everything being presented to us as a "free choice" is being packaged and sold in a way that's designed to get us hooked in order to guarantee that we keep coming back for more. To offer just one obvious example, there's increasing evidence that fast food is addictive, which would go a long way toward explaining our obesity crisis. The psychologically addictive component is the constant drumbeat of advertising to encourage fast food consumption, combined with its easy availability. The physically addictive component is fast food's high levels of sugar, salt and fat, ingredients now being tied to compulsive consumption.
For another example, one needs look no further than our current foreclosure mess. Mortgages were offered to millions of people who really couldn't afford them. Predatory mortgage brokers got their cut and didn't seem to care what happened to the house or the homeowner after they sealed the deal. These seductive lending policies triggered an addictive binge of spending and overconsumption as people who bought homes above their means proceeded to furnish them using high-interest rate credit cards. Eventually the house of (easy credit) cards crumbled. We were culturally intoxicated on a cocktail of complex lies, and now we're all reeling from the hangover. All except the very rich, that is. They just keep getting richer, as America's wealth divide continues to widen. In almost every case, there is huge money to be made on seducing you into addictive behavior. Ask yourself: Do I really want to be a slave, existing just to make someone else rich and powerful? No, you say? Well, then, read on.
Freedom of choice implies that you have the free will to make a rational choice. Freedom of choice implies you are capable of deciding what is in your true self-interest. Addiction messes with that equation. Addiction, by definition, is being powerless to say no to a particular substance or behavior that generally gives you a quick hit of pleasure that often results in long-term pain or other negative consequences.
The big issue is addiction
Virtually every story I cover on my HLN TV show "Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell" is, in some way, shape or form, about addiction. Let's examine some of the biggest stories of our time. In each case, the BIG ISSUE is addiction.
Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, DJ AM, Heath Ledger ... these are just a few of the tragic headliners who've showcased the nation's epidemic of prescription drug addiction. There's even a hit show for high-profile drug addicts: "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew." Kirstie Alley has become the national symbol for our collective battle with obesity. She spilled her guts about her rollercoaster ride down and up the scale to Oprah, who could relate because she too has waged a long and very public losing battle with her weight. Could these two supertalented women perhaps be addicted to food? With 19 kids and counting, the Duggars are clearly hooked on making babies ... and getting on television. Ditto for the Octomom, plus John and Kate. With a baker's dozen of alleged mistresses, is it really a stretch to wonder if Tiger Woods was hooked on sex?
OK, those are all famous people. So what? Do you really think stars are the only ones who grapple with compulsions like serial infidelity, overpopulation, pill popping and gluttony? No. The only difference between stars and the rest of us is ... their addictive behavior seems somehow more glamorous, more fascinating. And we all get to watch.
Addiction often comes packaged as a harmless distraction
What's surpassed baseball as our number one national pastime? Crime. America's extreme fixation on violence and murder has reached epidemic proportions. A beautiful Tennessee TV news anchorwoman is raped and murdered while minding her own business in her own home, a Georgia mom is abducted while walking down a country road near her parents' house, a little girl is kidnapped near a bus stop in California and held for 18 years while her captor rapes her repeatedly, fathering two children by her. It seems every day brings a new horror story. And we're hooked! We want to know every last detail!
On my show "Issues," I talk about our culture of violence and insist that, as we cover these stories, we analyze the root societal causes of crime and look for solutions lest we become just another showcase for the pornography of violence. Ironically, addiction itself is one of the most common causes of crime. People who are drunk or high on drugs are capable of monstrous violence they would never even consider while sober and often rob to support their habit. In fact, the title of this book came out of a recurring segment on my show called "Addict Nation," where my expert panel and I discuss how addiction is the underlying theme of so much disturbing news.
America's crime addiction can be seen in our obsession with the mass shooting du jour and the wild televised car chases. We all know how those car chases end. The suspect is always caught. Yet, we remain glued to the live coverage, drinking in the "suspense." After drugs, booze and food, crime is perhaps our most potent and pervasive form of escape. You may now be thinking, What's wrong with a little escapism? Is that really an addiction?
Escapism is the root cause of all addiction. The motive for any addictive behavior is always the same: to stuff down and escape painful feelings and unpleasant truths by altering one's mental and emotional state with the addictive substance/behavior. Addiction is all about altering reality by "using" a substance/behavior to tweak one's mood. The drug of choice may vary from addict to addict, but the purpose of using is always the same. Different addicts drive different cars, but they're all heading to the same destination. Oblivion.
Human beings are capable of becoming addicted to virtually anything -- from plastic surgery to tattoos to texting. I can tell you from personal experience that addictions jump from one substance to another. When I gave up booze -- voila, sugar popped up to take its place as my new obsession. Over the years, I've given up alcohol, drugs, sugar, meat, dairy, diet soda, violent movies and a variety of other bad habits. But new addictions just keep cropping up. That's because all the behavior is driven by the same motive: to "check out," to numb and to escape.
You're an addict when your behavior turns into a never-ending cycle of craving, binging, remorse and withdrawal. That hangover, or withdrawal, then triggers a new bout of craving, and the cycle begins again.
Here's one of my addictive cycles. Every night when I leave work, I feel the urge to eat something. No problem there. It's what I crave that's the problem. As a vegan, I'm pretty much locked in to a healthy diet. You have to search long and hard to find vegan junk food. But, hey, I'm an addict. I will do that! I will systematically hunt down the most fattening, vegan dessert available anywhere in the tri-state area. When I find it, I eat it quickly, voraciously, looking over my shoulder as if somebody will take it away from me if I don't gobble it down fast. About five minutes after the last bite, the remorse kicks in. Why did I just do that? Didn't I just devour the same amount of calories it takes me an hour and a half to burn off during a session of thinly disguised torture called "hot" yoga? Why couldn't I have just had another serving of cantaloupe instead?
Sometimes addiction is called "taking our comfort." When I'm eating the cake, a voice in my head tells me, "I'm entitled, I've earned it. I've worked hard all day. And it tastes so good! Damn the consequences!" When I get into the remorse phase minutes later, another voice in my head says, "Who was that person who wolfed down that vegan cake faster than you can say organic fair-trade agave nectar?" As an addict, I have a committee living in my head whose members love to argue and wage power plays.
Ultimately, I have had to counteract that addiction by simply giving up sweets entirely, even so-called healthy sweets like maple syrup, molasses and, yes, agave nectar. Now, I identify myself as "an alcoholic and a sugar addict." Being an addict, it's easier for me to give up the addictive substance entirely rather than try to negotiate with it. Bye-bye added sugar in all its forms. I simply cannot do sugar or booze in moderation. Put another way, I cannot use those substances successfully.
Any addiction is ultimately self-destructive, even an addiction to something that -- in moderation -- is good for you, like exercise.
So, what kind of behavior is considered OK? What's not? It depends on the cultural norms of the moment. Suddenly, we've got pot stores popping up all over California and Colorado. The baby boomers, most of whom smoked pot as teens, grew up, got into power, and decided, "Come on, there are more important battles to wage than trying to stop people from lighting up, especially if they're sick and need some pain relief." Society is constantly reassessing its tolerance for certain addictive behaviors, declaring war on some addictions while encouraging others.
Remember the '60s? "If you can... you weren't there," is the tired joke. The '60s positively romanticized the use of psychedelics. Then the '90s demonized them. The '50s was one long love affair with smoking. By the '90s, cigarettes were considered gross, inspiring attitudes like "I could never date someone who smokes!" The disco '70s, where hot pants and platform shoes were the rage, looked askance on obesity. Today, there's an ill-advised fat acceptance movement. Our culture has lost its tolerance for drunks and smokers, but we still rationalize obesity as a lifestyle choice. Being morbidly overweight is an addiction to food, just like smoking is an addiction to cigarettes and getting drunk is an addiction to alcohol. To accept obesity unquestioningly is really to be an enabler of the problem.
Whether it's the neighbors' annual Oscar party, or Karaoke Wednesdays, human beings are pack animals. We move in groups from one behavioral landscape to another. We're always adjusting to the shifting sands of cultural attitudes. Simply put, America lurches from addiction to addiction, stamping out one bad habit only to see others take its place.
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