By: Lauren Greenway, LPC, MAC
How many times have we as professionals heard the question, “Why won’t my daughter just eat?” or “Why can’t my wife just stop drinking?” When we are helping professionals in the addictions field, we are often faced with trying to explain the insanity that is the illness of eating disorders, substance abuse, or any other addictive behavior. The Big Book calls the disease of addiction “cunning, baffling, and powerful,” which is an accurate description based on my experience of working in the field of addiction. However, I have heard addiction discussed in a way that has made sense to me and to my clients over the years. If we view addictions in layers, almost like an onion (or parfaits if you are a Shrek fan), with the most superficial layers on top and the “meatier” layers toward the center, we can get some understanding of the spiritual and emotional turmoil that continues to feed these behaviors. I prefer the onions description because as Donkey says in the clip, “They stink and they make you cry.” I know that’s a bit crass and pretty oversimplified but in reality, this metaphor can be helpful for those that are trying to make sense of some of the worst moments of their lives.
The most superficial layer of “the onion” can be described as the behaviors themselves. The outer layer is what we see on the outside: the drinking, the using, the restricting, the shopping, etc. I think that the behaviors are a “sideways” expression of the other layers of the onion. Oftentimes in the treatment of these disorders, the behaviors themselves are what need to be addressed first as we are “peeling back the onion.” Addressing the behaviors includes creating space that is safe and will make it most likely that the person will be able to abstain or in some cases find balance in their behaviors to ultimately address the “meatier” layers of the onion.
The next layer of “the onion” is examining what feelings are trying to be managed with the behavior. People often discover in this stage that they are trying to manage anxiety, depression, anger, fear, loneliness, etc. Sometimes these feelings are so overwhelming that the person is attempting to numb or de-escalate these feelings through addictive behavior. Other times, one is so dissociated or depressed that addictive behavior provides stimulation that can provide temporary relief from feeling numb or shut down. I find journaling to be helpful during this stage, particularly food journaling with people recovering from an eating disorder, to identify these feelings and then begin to find other coping skills to achieve emotion regulation.
The “thickest or meatiest” layer of the onion is something that is often at the core of addiction for many people. These are something that Anita Johnston describes in her book “Eating in the Light of the Moon” as “spiritual and emotional wounds.” The wounds can be described as deep-seated fears, rejections, betrayals, or traumas. Getting to the “core” of the onion can often take time and work and the person doing that work usually requires stability and coping skills, or mastery of the first two layers of the “onion,” to face down the pain of these wounds. As Donkey alludes to in the clip, if they are allowed to fester for too long, they can become toxic and people will turn to whatever is available to survive.
The metaphor of the onion can be helpful for people to remember especially if they are feeling lost in their recovery process. Sometimes it’s important to remember the bigger picture, particularly peeling back the layers “stinks and makes you cry.” The process does have an end. Freedom from “the onion” can be achieved. If we are willing to dig deep, we can get there.
Lauren Greenway, LPC, MAC is a licensed professional counselor and works in private practice in the Buford/Suwanee area. She graduated from Georgia State University in 2011 with a Master of Science in Professional Counseling. Lauren has also worked for MARR: Women’s Recovery Center, Ridgeview Institute, and Hope Homes. Specialty areas include eating disorders, addictions, trauma, relationship issues, and self-esteem issues. She currently lives in Lawrenceville with her husband, Ian, and her pug, Annabelle.