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I think a lot of people are very aware of the fact that having a mental illness and taking medications lead down the path to compulsive behaviour such as addiction and compulsive eating habits. What is perhaps the most odd is that those of us who suffer can either gain or lost a lot of weight. Whenever I think of illnesses like anorexia, I am first reminded of how depression and self-worth plays a major role, and that the illness sadly often ends in suicide or other deaths, then I think about a young woman I knew in school who was an extremely nice person and very attractive who died of a heart attack as a result of starving herself to nothing, then I also think of a young woman I met on a hospital ward who was attractive and intelligent and really wanted to live the life of a normal University student who had to forget about all normalcy because of her affliction. She was a friend and a romantic prospect to me and I haven’t been in touch with her in almost 30 years but it still saddens me that she had such a difficult illness.
The other way that medication and illness affects people is with gaining weight, and both the up and down sides of food compulsion can come with a poor diet that causes other health risks. Just to talk about some of my own lived experience, I feel that my ideal weight is around 185, provided I am exercising and eating healthy to maintain that weight and fuel my long walks, swimming, or weight training. For a long time, I had gone up all the way to 260 pounds. There were a number of reasons for this happening, of course I was eating more than I was exercising, though I was putting in a lot of heavy duty work at my job of setting up major concert stages. Where the problem came in was that in my thinner, healthier days I was restricted financially from eating too much, certainly from eating out, and now that I got a well-paid job I really liked eating out a lot. I loved to take my dad out for fish and chips or pizza and the $20 or $30 it cost me was nothing compared to what I was earning. On top of that, for some time then I had been living in a group home where I wasn’t restricted at all in how much I could eat. The problem multiplied upon itself. There more I ate, the less I wanted to do. One day, I stopped working for the stage people and started the more sedentary life of a writer, public speaker and teacher. I was by this time living on my own and I just saw no problem with eating all junk food all the time. Though I didn’t gain a lot of weight, it was an odd situation because I lost the muscle I had built up as a stage hand and gained more fat. Then came the most startling event of my life: I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
At first I didn’t believe it. I thought I was swimming away all my extra calories, I drank sugar free drinks and I was, as far as endurance went, in fairly good shape. Diabetes was a real wake-up call for me. It meant more medication (metformin) less food and careful choices of foods like no potatoes or rice or white bread. For someone brought up on French fries and potato chips I didn’t think I could do it.
Some years back, I had been able to fast and lose weight whenever I needed to. When I was diagnosed with diabetes though, I could barely even fast long enough to take the test to see if I had the illness or how bad it was. I remember having horrible food cravings through the night and only being able to drink water. After I got through that night though, added to the scare that diabetes will knock years off my life and kill me overnight if I let my eating get out of hand, I was able to start dieting.
I did so much to try and bring my weight down and it seemed to take forever. A couple of times I walked home from work-over ten miles and I did everything to change my diet. It seemed impossible, but I managed to get all the way down to 220 pounds. People said it was a huge change and that I looked great, and I felt really good but the same life situation that all of us with mental illnesses have to be ready for happened… I went back into the hospital with a severe psychosis.
One thing that was really good was all I had to do was tell the hospital I was diabetic and the nutrition/cooking staff did the rest. They got me some things that I really wish I could access, like sugar-free pancake syrup (man do I miss pancakes!). But I allowed myself to get complacent, I started buying snacks and making peanut butter sandwiches in the hospital. I went back up to 240 and it seemed like it would never relent.
I am now just a few pounds lighter than that 240, but I feel I have hope. I would really like to take more classes at this point in eating with type 2 diabetes because I have been on a limited diet. The Covid-19 situation has also caused me to switch to some inferior foods like salami sandwiches and other such foods. Another thing I find it really hard to do is to go without my snacks. There are times when I break down and buy sour cream, mix in some onion soup, and dip potato chips into the mixture. It tastes absolutely divine, but there is way too much sugar and salt and calories in this lethal concoction.
Another caution I should mention is that those of us who take psychiatric medications often end up with a dry mouth, and our saliva is our first line of defence against tooth decay. Today I thought I would have some popcorn with just a little salt and some non-hydrogenated margarine, and one of the few teeth I have left cracked in half on a hard piece of popcorn seed.
It is interesting to note that a friend recently pointed out that I have a tendency towards symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive disorder. As far as this goes, I don’t have much to say, but if you find yourself displaying any kind of compulsion, be it gambling or stealing or smoking and on and on right down to overeating, I always recommend two things: meditation to help you to learn self-discipline, and support groups and counselling. It is important to remember that there are many types of psychologists, counsellors and support groups. I found myself that while I was early in the stages of quitting drinking, a 12-step approach helped me the most possibly because there are simply a great deal of meetings all over where I live and I was able to remind myself daily, sometimes even three times a day that I really needed to change my ways, and as I got better I saw myself in a different light and started to understand how alcohol made my parents unable to deal with me and ruined relationships and such, and once the momentum had occurred to get me to quit, (it took about a year) I was able to continue without the meetings. As far as different counsellors go, there are non 12 step ones, there are 12-step counsellors, and Christian, Catholic, and so on. Don’t settle for a counsellor or support group that doesn’t help or doesn’t fit your unique individuality. And don’t allow yourself to become so emotionally attached to one way of doing things that you can’t back out when you feel it isn’t helping or move on to another counsellor or support group.
Compulsion comes in many forms, I have just tried to cover a little of what I know about eating compulsion. I don’t wish in any way for this to replace the advice of a professional. If you are having problems of any kind with your mental health, your best bet is to consult your family doctor who can refer you to other resources. If there is an emergency, call 911 or get yourself or your loved one to the hospital. It is so much better though if a person can be honest and open with a professional before their life starts to fall apart. I suffered with self-loathing and depression for a lot of years before I was able to be honest with professionals about my thoughts and when I did, medication was found and support and counselling was found that changed my life. I wish everyone the best, and as always, feel free to write to me for any reason, or if you have a topic related to mental health you would like to see covered in this blog.
-Leif Gregersen, email@example.com