GO: In your last book, iWant, you focused primarily on your own journey from alcoholism and addiction to sobriety and a healthier lifestyle. In Addict Nation, you turn the focus outward to examine how addiction and consumerism are crippling America as a nation. How have your experiences as an HLN host and news analyst shaped your views on widespread addiction?
Well, the fact is that a good percentage of all the stories that we cover on [my show] “Issues [With Jane Velez-Mitchell]” have addiction as their root cause. If you look at Charlie Sheen, he is cross-addicted to five different things: drugs, alcohol, sex, porn and rage. And that’s what I call in Addict Nation a “blended cross-addiction,” which is far more difficult to overcome than an addiction to a single substance. We know that addictions travel in pairs. People who drink sometimes smoke, people who smoke pot sometimes get the munchies, and when these behaviors are enmeshed, it becomes hard to pull them apart and tackle them individually. And this is something that’s happening in a lot of areas of our culture. So the reality is we have what I call an addicto-genic society: The way our culture is set up is really condusive to developing addiction.
GO: You make a lot of great points in your book about how corporations, or “peddlers,” as you call them, need to be “pushed” to do the right think and act in socially responsible ways. But you also say that so many individuals, no matter how much they’re pushed, can’t see the writing on the wall and continue to behave in self-destructive ways. As an addict, how did you mentally make that switch and what advice would you give to those who are just trying to?
Basically, addiction is when you can’t say no to a particular substance or behavior that gives you a short-term fix in return for long-term pain and negative consequences—and that’s enslavement. You’re just as enslaved as if you were behind a wall or had a gun pointed at you when you know something is bad for you and you can’t stop yourself from doing it. But there is a way out. Since the 1930s we’ve had something called The 12 Steps, and in the book I apply the 12 Steps to all these cultural addictions that are not generally considered “addictions,” like overconsumption. So one of the things that I say is, do an inventory of your consumption. Write down every single thing that you consume, you use, you buy, you eat for three or four days, and you’ll see how much unnecessary consumption overtakes your life.
GO: Your book is organized into 12 chapters, all but the last focused on specific types of addictions. I’m assuming that’s not coincidental?
Right, it was absolutely a metaphor for The 12 Steps.
GO: So what factors led you to single out the specific addictions you did and the types of people afflicted by them?
Overconsumption is the biggest problem that we face in this country, the overconsumption of everything. I mean, five percent of the world’s population uses something like 30 percent of the world’s resources, if not more. We keep taking more for ourselves when others don’t have enough. Every five seconds a child dies of hunger, and yet, we’re so inundated by ads that tell us, “We need this, we need that, our life won’t complete unless we buy this, we eat this,” and consequently, we are drowning in our own debris. Just look at the streets of New York because there was a storm and the garbage is piling up: It puts in sharp relief our addiction to crap and junk. Piling up on the streets and staring us in the face, and yet we can’t see that there’s an addictive nature to that. This is something we’ve really got to take care of as a culture because our planet cannot sustain the way we’re living right now.
GO: You talk about The 12 Steps program as a guide for people trying to overcome pretty much any addiction. But do you think it’s possible to become addicted to the idea of being addicted? In other words, if you have an addictive personality, do you think the focus needs to shift to becoming consumed by a perpetual state of recovery?
No, I think what happens is that addictions jump from one thing to another. When I gave up alcohol, suddenly I discovered food and sugar. And so in the course of my sobriety, I’ve given up alcohol, drugs, smoking, meat, dairy, sugar, and I still grapple with things like diet soda and white flour, which I struggle with a lot. The problem is, it doesn’t matter what car you’re driving…an addict is always headed to the same destination: oblivion. So what’s important is to sit through the feeling and find out what it is you’re trying to escape. That’s the key. So, no, I don’t think we’re addicted to addiction, but if everything was perfect and everybody was behaving in a functional manner, I wouldn’t have written this book.
GO: You also discuss Gandhi’s famous principle of “being the change you want to see in the world.” Who do you most admire professionally who you think achieves this?
I dedicated my book to Ingrid Newkirk, who is the founder and president of PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] because she walks the walk. I think how we treat the most helpless creatures in our culture is a metaphor for how civilized our culture is. In factory farming we kill ten billion, with a “b,” animals for food every year and it’s done in a horrifically cruel fashion. Food addiction is a very complicated issue and I really outline a way to narrow the playing field and give people hope because there is a way to become free of these self-destructive compulsions.
GO: Some statistics suggest that there are higher rates of obesity and substance abuse within the lesbian community. What might the root of that be?
Well, two thirds of America is obese. And there are a lot of alcoholism and drug problems in the general population. I think within the LGBT community we have a tendency to be very open about our problems and our issues and put them right out there. Because we’ve had the courage to come out, it kind of leads to a chain reaction of honesty. So if we’re struggling with drugs we might talk about that, whereas in certain demographics maybe it’s just more hidden. I would say that certainly, every segment of our population needs to deal with addiction, and that includes the LGBT community, but I wouldn’t go far as to stigmatize us with problems we actually share with the rest of the country.
GO: As a woman of Puerto Rican heritage and a one of the only openly gay hosts on primetime, you must have overcome a lot of obstacles to achieve such success. What would you like to say to other women who want to make it as out voices in the media?
I would say own your story, whatever it is, and reach for the stars, because a lot of our limitations are self-imposed. And I think we’re more afraid in this world of success than we are of failure. And success does involve taking risks and putting yourself out there and saying, “I have the right to express my opinion just as much as anybody else.” We don’t have to only consider the opinions of bearded intellectuals who went to Ivy League schools. If that were the case and they were doing such a good job then our world wouldn’t be falling apart in so many ways. So I think it’s time for us to take the power back as women, as women of color, as women who are gay, and say, “Our opinions count and we’ve got solutions. We’ve got solutions that are fresh and new and deserve to be heard.” Own it and be assertive about it and say, “You listen to what I have to say because what I have to say is important.”