Friday, March 01, 2013

Stress, depression and 5 lbs of M&Ms

I'm not writing this because I need anyone to feel sorry for me.  I'm writing this to explain, for anyone who hasn't felt it, or to reaffirm for others who have felt it, what stress and depression eating are like.  And more importantly, what I'm working on in order to break my own cycle.  If you've never struggled with depression or had a depression-motivated struggle with food, God bless you and thank your lucky stars!

In June of 2009, my father died in my arms.  It wasn't a surprise that it would happen, but it was a surprise that it happened on that day.  The experimental chemo would either cure him or kill him, and it killed him, fast.  Has it really been 3 1/2 years?  It doesn't feel like it.  The nightmares are still fresh.  So is the wondering about whether he was still alive (I saw a tear leak from between closed eyes) or if the machine with its loud "eeeeeeeee" of flat-line was the truth and the tear just a reflex of an already-dead man.

So here's where the stress eating comes in.  A stay at home mom, grieving not just the loss of her father but the feeling of being orphaned, taking care of two demanding children who were not grieving.  I can remember going to costco and buying 5 pound ziplock bags of M&Ms and setting them on the kitchen counter.  Kid #1 argues with me about homework, I walk into the kitchen and pop a handful of M&Ms into my mouth.  Kid #2 pees her pants - another handful of M&Ms.  Someone calls about an estate or insurance issue - another handful of M&Ms.  I would eat a bag of M&Ms that size in about 2 days.

And then I'd hate myself for doing it.

So I'd clean out the kitchen of the kinds of treats most likely to incite poor eating choices. That's when it would get really hard.  I'd pace in the kitchen.  It's a small kitchen.  Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, with this palpable negative energy, clenching my fists, wanting to scream my head off.  Trying to think about whether there was some smidgen of chocolate that I'd forgotten to throw out.  Looking for some way to work off the nervous energy.  In graduate school when I was stressed, I'd sprint several miles out the Burke Gillman Trail (Seattle) and then when I was spent, I'd walk back.  But I couldn't take off and sprint with 2 kiddos in the house.  I couldn't scream my head off, either, not in front of the kids.  Sometimes, I'd sit on the floor of the kitchen with my back against a cabinet and just cry.  And cry.  And cry.

Time to go get more M&Ms.  Or Reeses peanut-butter cups.  Or whatever else is quick, convenient, and CHOCOLATE.

And the cycle begins again.

That's stress eating.  That's food addiction.  I've never smoked a cigarette in my life.  I drink alcohol once every two months, if that.  So maybe I'm full of baloney because I haven't been addicted to other "worse" substances.  But I'd argue that my mental craving for chocolate, or sugar, or something tasty that would take me temporarily away from my grief was just as powerful as a smoker needing a cigarette.

So if you've never felt that pull, thank your lucky stars and be proud of your self control and good health.  Really.  I'm responsible for my choices and I'm a product of my choices.  They weren't all good ones, but at the time, they served one pain although causing another one.

What does this have to do with my weight loss?  A lot.

Because I still believe that a low-calorie diet is only a tiny fraction of the answer.  Last year, I decided to lose weight and I joined Weight Watchers.  10 pounds down over about 8 weeks.  Gained it all back throughout the rest of the year.  All the tracking in the world, all the low calorie pre-packaged meal replacement stuff, it's worth nothing if I don't address the issues that made me stress-eat in the first place.

That's the key.  Looking myself in the mirror and speaking to the person who is there.

I told my health coach the other day, this can't be a competition for me.  It can't be a "I lost 16 pounds in 7 weeks!" thing.  My weight is but one symptom of what's happening in my life, how I perceive myself, the choices I make (granted, it's a symptom that causes problems of its own).  I'm measuring not just my weight, but what else I'm changing.  My sleep habits.  Meditation.  Completing tasks I'd rather not do.

More on this later.  This post is getting really long.  But if there is a point to this post, it's this.

Look not just at the weight.  Look not just at the PCMRs.  Look into the heart, the soul, make sure they're addressed on some level.  Because if they're not, all the PCMRs in the world aren't going to do a damn bit of good.


Lauretta said...


The chemicals involved in self soothing with eating are incredibly powerful. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is so human and so typical. We cannot avoid stress. We can figure out how to use our brains to elevate our chemicals in ways that aren't as damaging.
if you are interested I can share some ideas but then again people have to be ready to try other ways to elevate these chemicals... warmly, your friend and fan, Lauretta ( Young MD-- Director Integrative Medicine and Professor of Psychiatry OHSU )

Lauretta said...

see comment

Jedimom2 said...

I think I did the same stress eating when my father passed away. I am a stress/depression eater as well. The one thing I can't get past right now is when I get a migraine, because I only want to eat to get rid of the pain.
Are you reading the Habits of Health? I'm getting through it slowly.
I hope it gets better for you, friend.

Melody C. said...

I recently read a book called The Hunger Fix, about just the feeling you described. I found the theory and science behind it more interesting than the practical plan it proposes. It validates the idea of food addiction as a real and powerful issue, no less real or powerful than any other and in some ways more difficult to deal with. After all, you can quit smoking and avoid exposure to cigarettes, but you can't quit eating or avoid exposure to food. At least, you certainly shouldn't.