The Drug is Control
Tamika Bickham has always loved stories. She used to be a TV news reporter, and now has her own media company to tell other people’s stories. But what is the real story that drives Tamika to jump between extremes in nearly every aspect of her life? This week, tune in to an intimate conversation with Nzinga and Tamika as they get to the root of Tamika’s behavior, then answer listener questions about compulsive dieting, extreme exercise, and restrictive eating.
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[00:30] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Hello. This is Nzinga, and you are listening to another episode of In Recovery for those of you who are new, let’s see. I’m your host because I’m a doctor, physician, psychiatrist, addiction expert, co-founder and chief medical officer of Eleanor Health, and just dramatically passionate about changing the way we treat addiction in this country, and the way we treat people who have addiction in this country. So this is a question and answer show. So every topic that you hear each week is because someone has called us in with a comment or a question about that topic.
[01:27] Claire Jones: Speaking of getting questions from listeners, we also love feedback. So I actually want to bring up some feedback that we got from a listener named Jennifer. And she said, “my first suggestion is with the use of the word America to describe the United States. The first point is geographical. The U.S. is only part of America, because there’s also Central and South America. That’s where it disregards other countries in America, if we just call the U.S. America.”
[02:07] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: And I am not about disregarding.
[02:10] Claire Jones: “The other part of it is that in using the United States more consistently instead of America, we are in fact reminding people that we should be united, which is not necessarily something that’s happening in the country right now.”
[02:22] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: As soon as Claire said feedback about the word America, I felt like I anticipated that geographic one because absolutely. And that is, you know, I’ve been trying to train myself out of that for a little while. But we really get trained into thinking like the United States is not only just all of America, but like even all of the world. So I take that 100 percent. I will begin working on that.
[02:46] Claire Jones: The next one is what they use euphemism “to pass away” in referring to death. I want to read the last sentence that she said, because I think it’s so strong. “If calling a spade a spade in regards to addiction is warranted, so should it be with regards to death.”
[03:00] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So, Jennifer, I love this feedback. I agree. If we’re calling a spade a spade, when an illness steals one of our loved ones and they die, I think we can say that illness killed that person, or that person died of that illness. I will take this just one step further, which is another euphemism that I hope we can get away from, which is this phrase “committed suicide.” Which pours a lot of judgment and accusation on suicide as if it is committing a crime. And so I would like to say died by suicide.
[03:40] Claire Jones: Yeah, that’s definitely a new one for me. So that’s really great feedback and is something I’ll definitely work on.
[03:48] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah, definitely. So to the rest of our listeners, you know, me and Claire are both works in progress, and we’re committed to getting this right, especially around the language. So be like Jennifer, if you hear something, be like not only number one, but also number two. OK. I love it, seriously. Seriously. I love the feedback.
[04:14] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So the reason I’m such a language militant, there are many, but a huge one is because the way we talk about addiction and the stories we tell about addiction has a huge impact, consciously and subconsciously, on how we think about addiction, how we feel about addiction, and therefore how we treat people around things that have to do with addiction. So this week on the show, I am so stoked to have an award-winning TV journalist, TV producer, entrepreneur, Tamika Bickham, on this show with us. I wanted to bring you on, Tamika, because you have focused your career on storytelling, and how stories can help us help ourselves as well as help others. So can we just start with what a career in storytelling is, what your career path has been?
[05:11] Tamika Bickham: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always even just growing up had an interest in stories. And visual stories, to be specific. I was the kid definitely not watching cartoons, but watching like the latest 20/20, Dateline. My inspiration was Lisa Ling when I used to see her as a special correspondent on Oprah, and just the way that she told stories, I could learn, I could connect, I could just be exposed to different cultures and ways of life. And it really opened my eyes. And I was like, I want to do this. I didn’t necessarily love being on camera. I wanted to go more the producer route. But, you know, mentors of mine and professors were like, you look good on camera, you know, go this route. So that’s ultimately what I did. Being from New Jersey, went to school in Miami, and then got my first on-air job in Montgomery, Alabama. So, you know, I definitely cried for the first six months that I was there because I was lonely. And I started at that point to kind of realize, you know, I don’t know if on-air reporting is really for me. You know, I still love storytelling, but I said, you know what, I have to give this another shot in another market.
[06:28] Tamika Bickham: So I had the opportunity to come back to South Florida and work at the ABC affiliate here. And the pace is all of a sudden like ramped up times 10. And it’s so much more about performance and being on in live breaking news. And I had to get a lot more comfortable with just that on-air performance. It became for me a lot less about storytelling than being someone who could shine on camera. I found myself literally driving to work crying. I was like, how am I going to get through another day? Like, it was like that, like forcing myself. And I knew I had to make a change. I did start a business on the side, and that was just full-service video storytelling for nonprofit and government clients. But I wasn’t actively pushing that. That would be a client here and there when I would have time, it was my side hustle. I continued to look for other jobs, but then I had actually my clients, who are like, you know what, you’re really good at this. You should do this full-time. And I talked to a colleague that I trusted and he said, don’t talk yourself out of the potential that somebody else sees you.
[07:46] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: I feel like I need a T-shirt that says that. That took me to church! The reason I love that so much is because I’ve been practicing addiction medicine, addiction psychiatry for way longer than you were like 26. A long time. And part of what is so important when people come in at their most desperate, most vulnerable state is that I’m able to see them. I’m able to see their value. I’m able to see they’re just inherent worth and beauty despite all of the pain and suffering that they’re currently in the middle of. Even sometimes when they can’t see that themselves. And so that’s my responsibility as a person on your team that’s gonna walk this journey with you to help you not lose sight of the potential that we see.
[08:38] Tamika Bickham: And I think that applies to obviously what you’re talking about, but so many people in so many different areas, it’s like it’s always like those negative voices that I think we — those stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that hold us back from our true potential. And so many times it’s somebody else seeing that in us and pushing us into the direction we should be going.
[09:03] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah. And so help us understand where you are today and how you even got connected to In Recovery.
[09:13] Tamika Bickham: Right now, I am the founder, chief storyteller of TB Media Group. So we really focus on connections and telling stories that make an impact. And we got to talking. And, you know, it seems that I have a story that we can talk about here as well.
[09:33] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So come on, what is this story? Aren’t I being so gentle? I’m just, like, gently pulling you into it.
[09:45] Tamika Bickham: You are.
[09:56] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: I know you came with a couple of questions, because this is a question and answer show.
[10:01] Tamika Bickham: I was interested in being on this show with you, and I’m hoping, obviously, that you can help me break it down because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is being addicted to these extremes. I don’t know how much of this has impacted — and I’m sure it has. But, you know, I grew up with a single mom who is my best friend and my support system in every way. But, you know, my dad was in my life until I was about nine, 10 years old. You know, he’s still around. We talk periodically. But that wasn’t until maybe like the last 10 years, I probably didn’t reconnect with him until I was 20, 21 years old.
[10:48] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So a decade gap.
[10:49] Tamika Bickham: A decade gap. What I know, you know, is just he wasn’t there, you know, in and out of jobs problems with his own addictions, from alcohol to cocaine. Things that I’ve actually never really talked about. So that’s why, you know, I’m slowly kind of sharing because, yeah, they’re not necessarily comfortable things to talk about. And I try not to think about it too much. I think the story I tell myself is that it didn’t impact me that much, you know, so if I don’t talk about it so much, it’s not necessarily real. Or, you know, I’m very self-aware, I’m good at facing things and talking about things, but, you know, I feel like people always throw around the term “daddy issues,” you know, and I hate that. So, like, I feel like if I share this or, you know, I’m talking to friends about, ugh, you know, another date gone wrong or another failed relationship, it’s like always the term daddy issues comes up. And like, I just I don’t want to put things on that. Or why certain things haven’t worked out or have gone wrong because of my childhood and upbringing, because I do feel like my mom was enough for me and there for me in all the ways that I needed.
[12:15] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So, you know both can be true. You know, your mom can have been enough and everything you needed and you could also be affected by that decade of missing dad. And even if you have issues today that people would uncompassionately label daddy issues — because there’s a pejorative tone that comes with that — that doesn’t have to be what it is. What we definitely do here in the United States is push those things back because we want to have control over our today. When that actually removes our control, because unconscious things are happening from the stinking past, affecting our thinking, our feeling, our decisions, the stories we’re telling ourselves today. So that story you were telling yourself was I can’t validate the impact that that had on me because that will invalidate the impact that my mom had on me. That’s the story you were telling.
[13:19] Tamika Bickham: Right. I like that because both can be true.
[13:28] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Both can be true. Your mom’s impact can never be invalidated, but also your dad’s impact cannot be invalidated. You can grab it and then you can determine how that impacts on you, helps you impact people moving forward as a storyteller.
[13:50] Tamika Bickham: And, you know, you just said something that I think is a common theme in my life, and that’s control. And wanting to feel that. And I think that’s maybe where the extremes come into play. So this is a recent realization I’ve come to, but I’ve been trying to figure out myself, you know, this lack of consistency in just all areas of life, but one that I’ll specifically touch on is, you know, weight loss. And if I go back to my time working the overnight shift at the ABC affiliate here in Miami, I probably gained 30 pounds over, you know, six months to a year of working that shift. So I woke up one day and then, you know, got some comments at work because, you know, this is a visible position. People are seeing me. So I was kind of hearing that feedback and I said, you know what? I’m going to lose this weight, and I’m not going to just lose this weight. I’m going to do a bodybuilding show and I’m going to get on stage and win a trophy. And I did all of that. When I started doing it, I was like, this is one thing that is totally within my control. When I felt like the rest of my life was out of control, I was miserable in my job. Even a relationship I was in at that time was just not going well, and just not knowing how I was going to get out of this contract where I felt so miserable and I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. That was like the one thing I could control was how I looked. And I competed, placed fifth in my class. And it was a great feeling. I felt on top of the world, like, there is not anything that I can’t do if I set my mind to it. And I just felt like that level of discipline can translate to any area of life.
[16:04] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: And so you started this question with am I addicted to extremes? I think you actually got to your answer before I got to your answer, which is if we had to choose what the drug is here for you, the drug may be control. What do you think?
[16:26] Tamika Bickham: I mean, it could be that, but then I guess my question would be — I don’t know. I’m having a hard time. So I will say after that, maybe it took another year, year and a half, but I gained the weight back. And I’m thinking of after I did that first show, great success, I did a second show. Great success. And then I got a new job, that job with the city of Miramar. And it was a new challenge for me. And I was at work every night until nine or ten o’clock. So I start doing that and I take my focus away from anything else. Like, I just don’t have a balance. And so that might mean eating one time a day and not exercising at all. And when I eat, I’m eating this massive meal. But why is it that I cannot just, like, dial back on that a little bit?
[17:29] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: One of the things I always look for is like a pattern. So it’s easy to grab on to the bodybuilding and the weight loss. Where are the other places in your life do you see this swing to extremes? Where it’s either all or nothing. And then what we look for is the root cause. Because what you’re chasing is a dopamine signal. Tamika’s drug is all. And so you’re literally using it exactly like a drug, which is like something dangerous is here that I can’t tolerate. Some story that you’re telling yourself about yourself that is painful, that these other things refute. Dopamine makes that feel better. And so all or nothing. So your drug is all. This is how we function as humans. Once the brain identifies something that is emotionally dangerous, the brain is going to come up with a solution that gives you dopamine and serotonin to protect you from that danger. And when that solution — for most of us, it shows up in many different ways. So it’s not just this one thing. That’s why we’re gonna call yours all. Because it’s all work, it’s all entrepreneur, it’s all bodybuilding.
[18:56] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Try to find that root cause, that root danger that your brain is trying to protect you from. And once you grab onto that, and now you have control over how that root danger is affecting your thinking, your feeling, your decisions, then that’s when with the support of your support system, you get to build that magic formula that has a balance. So you won’t need all because you’ll be getting some from all of these other things that are part of your magic formula. And that’s how we walk away from the drug, whatever it is. So on this show, we conceptualize all kinds of things as drugs. That’s how you start to get in remission from that drug and in recovery with a balanced life.
[19:53] Tamika Bickham: Yeah. Just kind of realizing that this isn’t something that I can just, OK, I want to lose 30 pounds right now. Like, I’m even telling myself right now, go do that and just maintain and be balanced, and you’re going to be balanced. But I’m hearing from you there’s other work that has to be done first because you’re going to continue.
[20:29] Claire Jones: There are two questions that we got from listeners that both sort of talk about a similar thing. So from the time that they were young, both of them have really heavily focused on food restriction and exercise and thinking about food all the time. What they’re putting into their bodies, how it affects them. What other people are putting into their bodies, how that affects them. So for Laurie, who is from Seattle, she wrote an email. She is really curious about not feeling like she can trust her body with food. So there’s sort of like a lack of control there. And then we got a voicemail from an anonymous caller.
[21:10] Caller: “So when I was about 13 years old, I started to kind of get in this habit of severely restricting food and exercising a lot. My parents were definitely concerned, but I was willing to go to my primary doctor. So that kind of subsided with her assistance, I think, just telling me what was happening to my body with these actions and stuff like that.
[21:33] Claire Jones: From when she was a nurse in school to now being in COVID, she sees this pattern come back of her being really restrictive about her food and really intense about her exercise. And she is wondering and curious about how that fits in to control. Considering everything that we’ve talked about, both from storytelling and also from obviously like the addiction and recovery lens, what are some things that you would say to both of these questions?
[22:03] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yes, I want to throw this to you first Tamika. And if you can think about, like where your podcast sits, which is like the intersection of storytelling and health, kind of both of these listeners have shared with us a little bit of the stories they’re telling themselves. So just interested from your perspective what you hear in these and what you think.
[22:25] Tamika Bickham: I mean, I definitely relate to the person talking about control. And it seems like we actually have a lot in common in in our stories. You know, it’s interesting because, you know, I’ll be honest, I really don’t know, because this whole conversation is making me really, like, step back and look at this as an addiction. Hearing this, hearing these two listeners reach out, hearing what you’ve said, I’m even just sitting here like, wow, this is — I’ve even just getting to the point of accepting that this is an addiction. It’s not an easy thing for me at least to accept it.
But also, at the same time, hearing other people’s stories is very comforting. And I love that they are so willing to share, because at the end of the day, stories connect us. And just knowing that there’s somebody else out there with a story that’s similar to you is so helpful.
[23:32] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yes. I always talk about bio, psycho, social, cultural. A lot of this definitely is cultural in the United States and depending on other “subcultures” — dancer, athlete, TV news reporter in front of the camera. All of those kind of can compound it. But the underlying story here is something deeper. So other people don’t struggle the way I do, has a subtext to it, like somehow those people are better than me. Or somehow I’m disordered and those people are not disordered. Like the underlying tone that I hear there is there something wrong with me. Laurie in Seattle, she doesn’t trust her body to regulate her food intake is the same kind of subtext, which is like there’s something wrong with me. What could the root cause be of not recognizing your own inherent goodness, like you are enough. Or what could the root cause problem be to not trusting your body? Did you have some early life experience where that story was told to you, and now that that has become your own narrative. And so what I hope for both of these listeners is if they can get to the root cause, addiction is a strategy our brains use to protect us from something that feels dangerous. What is it that feels dangerous? Because the eating and the dieting are symptoms. And this is the last thing I’ll say. COVID — when we are in greatest danger. So that is under stress, emotions are high. I always talk about these two parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, where our thinking and decision making, our executive skills are, like your CEO. And then the deep brain, which is just like stay safe and survive, period. I don’t care about long-term consequences in this moment. Stay safe and survive. That’s my job. When we’re in times like COVID, this is a stay safe and survive time period for that part of your brain.
[25:57] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: And it actually decreases your prefrontal cortex’s ability because it takes active energy to stay in balance. And when COVID comes and it turns up that part of the brain that is like, I don’t care about long-term consequences, I need to stay safe and survive in this moment, then that’s when we become most vulnerable to whatever our drug is.
[26:21] Claire Jones: I have a very fast question that is one of Laurie’s follow up questions where she says, “is food addiction a symptom of a larger problem as it relates to diet culture?” And I think if you’re thinking about the root cause, in every single one of these cases, from Tamika to our anonymous caller to Laurie, that root cause could be diet culture, right? That could be the root cause telling Laurie the way that you look is not enough. Could that be the dangerous signal?
[26:51] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: I’m gonna say yes and no. So the root cause could purely be that Laurie was raised with people telling her your body is terrible. And now that has become your own narrative — because we have to get to the root cause, because a lot of our illnesses, no matter when we’re talking biological, psychological, social, cultural. I say those are like doors to a house. So it doesn’t matter whether I walk in the cultural door. So you saw on TV all skinny people and you were not born skinny. I can walk in that cultural door, I’m still in the house of your brain. So then psychological, biological, social. They’re all coming. Actually, a lot of times we recreate the dynamics in our relationships as children in our adult relationships. So she may even unconsciously be surrounding herself with people that reinforce that for her. And so, yes, while it could be that “simple message” that is the root cause, once you walk in that door, we have to look at how has it affected you biologically? How has it affected you psychologically? How has it affected you socially? What is your stress level? Because we’re in the house. We’re in the brain house.
[28:20] Claire Jones: OK, resources, what are some resources we have?
[28:24] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So if I look at the whole spectrum of food and dieting, it’s kind of going to go from the left, which is restricting, so restricting calories. This is where you think about your anorexia nervosa type of illnesses. All the way to the right, which is going to go over to kind of binge eating and dieting itself, which is kind of like this starvation, binge, starvation, binge type of thing. We can start on Overeaters Anonymous. That’s a fantastic resource. They definitely have online meetings, but also a lot of resources. There’s also FAA, which is Food Addicts Anonymous.
[29:09] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: And then I’m going to specifically drop Eating Disorders Anonymous, because that’s going to cover kind of like the whole spectrum. And then, of course, I want to drop — if you listened to a couple of episodes ago, you heard Dr. Kameika Gabriel give Therapy 101 and how to find a therapist. And so I just want us to kind of always be dropping Psychology Today and American Psychological Association. Or search for your state psychological association, because I’m the poster child for therapy. Therapy, therapy, therapy.
[29:46] Claire Jones: I’m going to add one more, which is Beauty Redefined, which talks more about body image and body image resiliency, but has a lot to do with different ways we think about food and our bodies’ relationship to food.
[29:58] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah. Because you had a good experience with Beauty Redefined, right?
[30:03] Claire Jones: Yeah, I did a group therapy session with them that was super helpful.
[30:28] Claire Jones: Tamika, I usually force Nzinga to go through words of wisdom, but this time I’m actually going to have you be the one to give some words of wisdom. What you said a couple times like this is something that you’ve just started to first think about and question. So maybe what would you say to people who are unsure of whether or not a behavior of theirs is an addiction or not? Like, what are some thoughts that you were thinking and what do you think would maybe be helpful for people who are asking some more questions?
[30:52] Tamika Bickham: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really great question. I’m not sure I can offer words of wisdom because I feel like I’ve been doing this for seven, 10 years now and I’m just now starting to notice a pattern. But I guess I would just say part of it for me is not identifying it as an addiction or maybe a problem, because it’s not something, you know, drug use, let’s say. Like, you don’t necessarily classify eating or over-exercising, you know, those things that are socially acceptable. Too much of that can be a bad thing. So I think, you know, keeping an eye out for anything that seems like a pattern that is not healthy. Like if you were to see a friend or a family member doing something like what you’re doing, would you think that that’s OK?
[31:49] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: I love it. My words of wisdom are what Tamika said.
[31:55] Tamika Bickham: This has been great.
[32:08] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: That, my friends, was Tamika Bickham sharing so openly with us. If you want to check out her work, you can go to TBmedia.com. She also has a fantastic podcast called Lift You Up, Inspiring Health Stories. You can listen to her podcast wherever you listen to me.
[32:28] Claire Jones: Also, if you’re interested in this topic about food addictions and eating disorders, we did a show earlier in the season about overeating as an addiction, which has a ton of great resources and of course, has great advice from Nzinga. So you can check that out.
[32:42] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Thanks, Claire. And I think that is it for today’s show. Thank you all for listening and hope to talk to you next week.
[32:53] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: In Recovery is a Lemonada Media original. The show is produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Dan Molad. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs are our executive producers. Rate and review us and say nice things. And follow us @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me on Twitter @naharrisonmd. If you’ve learned from us, share the show with your others. Let’s help destigmatize addiction together.