It’s a week today since I gave up chocolate for Lent and although I’m still avoiding the confectionary aisle in supermarkets, I’m not craving it as much as I thought I would be. In the past year I’ve put on quite a bit of weight and my chin appears to have upgraded from a single to a double with no sign of vacating. After getting that sinking feeling every time I get a Facebook notification to say one of my friends has tagged me in a photo I decided that drastic action needed to be taken in an effort to lose weight. So I gave up my biggest vice, and my biggest comfort – chocolate.
Antidepressants and weight gain
My recent weight gain ties in with my dosage of antidepressant medication being increased and although I hold my hands up and admit that over the winter my exercise regime decreased whilst my eating increased, the fact my weight increased as my dosage did is no coincidence. Antidepressants have been linked to weight gain and some people even avoid taking them at all as they fear they will ‘get fat’. For me, I didn’t really feel I had a choice in the matter. I just knew I couldn’t go on how I was feeling and that anything would be better than the unrelenting anxiety I was experiencing. The fact that I now ‘worry’ about my weight gain is actually a sign for me that I am well again as at my worst I could barely eat anything, my stomach churning so rapidly that anything I attempted to eat would instantly make me feel sick.
Anxiety and loss of appetite
I remember that when I first became ill in 2003 I had this constant state of dread and felt eternally nauseous. I found it hard to swallow food as my throat felt like it was swelling up and restricting my airwaves making it hard to breath. In the pit of my stomach I had this feeling of unease that was with me 24/7. That lump in your throat feeling you get at a sad film – well it was as if that lump had spread all the way into my stomach and even crying wouldn’t relieve it. I remember really realising I was ill when physically I could not function as I used to. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t eat – you only need to ask my friends to understand how unusual this is for me! I suspect my boyfriend won’t even be able to imagine me not wanting to eat as it is a bit of a long-running joke between us that I’m always hungry! Food is quite often on my mind nowadays, but back in the early days of my anxiety it was as if I didn’t even have time to consider eating as I was too busy worrying. I vividly remember trying to eat a tuna sandwich as I hadn’t eaten anything all day and each bite was such a struggle, my mouth watered at tasting food but also like it does just before you’re about to vomit. My body didn’t seem to know what to do. I lost over a stone in weight and remember thinking that I would give anything to gain a stone if it meant I could be released from this exhausting anxiety.
A society obsessed with weight and body image
This feeling stayed with me for a while and as I got better, when my medication began to kick in, I began to enjoy eating again. The feeling didn’t last too long, however. As I put on weight I began to feel unhappy with how this made me look and this affected my self-esteem – something that most anxiety sufferers struggle with anyway. Society is so obsessed with weight that it becomes a bit hard not to compare yourself with the ‘ideal’ image. Even the majority of conversations I have with my close friends and boyfriend end up coming back to weight issues, it’s like a constant thread that runs through most things we do. If we go out for food or drinks we often justify it to each other by saying what exercise we have done to ‘allow’ us this treat. Part of our ‘socialising’ is going spinning together, when really you don’t even get time to catch up before the instructor shouts to ‘load up’ ready for the next exhausting hill climb. When I’m trying to lose weight but not succeeding it often makes me feel like a failure. Although I know that my own eating habits have led to my weight gain I believe that all the emotions tied up with my eating, along with the fact I’m on medication, mean that trying to shift any weight can prove a lot harder than it might be if I didn’t have mental health issues and if I wasn’t taking antidepressants.
A healthy diet and exercise improve mental health
There’s no denying that eating a balanced nutritious diet with lots of fruit and veg and avoiding processed food, sugar and stimulants can aid mental well being. I remember having to stop drinking coffee when I first became ill as it could pretty much set off a panic attack. Now I’ve managed to get up two a day but if I have anymore than that I can feel shaky and on edge. Overall I eat quite healthily, making sure I get my 5 a day and having a variety of food. Chocolate has become a bit of a ‘comfort food’ for me though. If I’m down or have had a bad day the first thing I will turn to is chocolate. I’m hoping that giving it up for Lent will help me break this habit of emotional eating. Sometimes though, I just get sick of reading how celebrities have lost weight and maintain a ‘healthy’ weight by only having the occasional treat like 2 squares of dark chocolate – this is the point when I want to reach for the family size pack of chocolate buttons! Feeling inadequate is a common characteristic for people with anxiety and depression and, for me, the pressure to be a certain weight and stick to an almost unhealthily small amount of calories a day just increases my feelings of being worthless. I was happy to read an article recently that highlighted research that suggests BMI is not the be all and end all of measuring how healthy someone is.
It’s not just people with mental illnesses that struggle with their relationship with food though, as Suzanne Moore comments in her hilarious article about giving up sugar, ‘Food is everyday and special, fuel and celebration. Our skewed relationship with all of this is unhealthy.’ Titled ‘My life is basically over’, Moore highlights how giving up all treats can be dull and anti-social. It’s nice to read a more ‘down to earth’ approach to living the healthy lifestyle that recognises we all have slip-ups, quite different to a lot of the preaching about healthy eating which can make you feel useless even at eating. In giving up chocolate for Lent I’m hoping my sugary cravings will calm down so that I’m not as tempted to comfort eat but next time I feel low about my weight gain I’m going to try and remember that tuna sandwich that I could only manage half of. Back then I was living a half-life and I don’t ever want to go back there, so if living a full life means my face also looks a bit fuller I think that’s just something I’m going to have to accept.