Can You Eat Your Way to Happiness? Part 1

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I had a thought the other day that maybe the modern convenience diet is partly to blame for the rising prevalence of depression, anxiety and similar mood disorders. Then I thought I should share my journey, my battle and hopefully provide some hope for those struggling with mood disorders and some insight for those who may have a friend or loved one living with depression.

I was first diagnosed with depression after my second heart surgery. It is now recognised that around 50% of people who suffer a significant cardiac event, such as a heart attack or heart surgery, soon find themselves suffering from depression. Add in a strong familial link and I was pretty much a diagnosis waiting to happen. But looking back, I can see that I had symptoms on and off for years, even in my teens.

Anxiety, depression, stress and PTSD have some symptoms in common and some that distinguish them from the others. To this day, seven and a half years since my last heart surgery, I still have PTSD symptoms. Some of this is related to events that have occurred more recently that have sort of piggybacked on my original PTSD. At the time of my original diagnosis I was having regular panic attacks. I was terribly afraid all of the time and felt that I could die at any moment. A series of appointments with a psychologist helped me greatly.

Contrast this heightened anxiety and fear with the dark depths of major depression. The negative thoughts that seem to make so much sense at the time. The self-loathing and certainty that everyone you know would be much better off if you weren’t there. The thought that dying would save you the bother of getting up in the morning and spare you the pain of another day.

I have been medicated for depression twice. The second time I believed that I would be on the medication forever, I was afraid to go off it. But then I did some reading.

After losing all that weight last year and feeling great for it, I had started to gain. Within six months of starting on antidepressant medication I had gained eight kilograms. My clothes didn’t fit and I did not like how I looked. The thing was, no matter how I tried, I could not stop the weight from creeping up. Most weeks I gained around 500g. I counted calories, I exercised, I gave up sugar. I had my food intake by the throat, and nothing made a difference.

 So I got online and did some research on antidepressant-related weight gain. The anecdotal evidence was overwhelming, although officially the drug companies deny any link. Other side effects like constant drowsiness caught my attention also. I could sleep nine hours and still spend the whole day at work yawning my head off and propping myself up on caffeine.

I decided that since I was trying so hard to eat well and not put anything nasty into my body, I might as well see what would happen if I went off the medication. But before I did, I read some more. I looked up the foods and supplements that would help me in the transition and give me a chance at long term recovery. I consulted my doctor, who gave me a tapering-off schedule.

They say it can take up to eight weeks for the drug to leave your system completely and that the tapering-off process can cause your symptoms to flare up very badly, along with some fun withdrawal symptoms like neurological disturbances. I will stress this very strongly – do not go off your meds without support.

When I first started tapering off I noticed immediately that I slept better and I was less drowsy during the day. I started taking fish oil capsules and B complex tablets, as recommended, to support brain function. I gave up sugar, caffeine and alcohol. I thought; I am going to nail this.

What followed was eight weeks of pure hell. My moods were erratic and scary. Some days all I could do was cry. It didn’t help that during this time my work became incredibly stressful. I snapped at my family. I felt stupid and vain for putting everyone through my moods just so I could lose a few kilos. I felt weak for not being able to control my moods. I wondered if I was in fact mentally fit to function within society. I would have a few good days then crash badly. There were times when I honestly felt that I would not survive the process.

But bit by bit, the worst of it subsided. I use a mood tracker app on my phone to get some perspective of the ups and downs I experience. I am beginning to sense that in order to really beat this affliction, I first have to get to know it. To understand which thoughts are mine and which ones are it. To recognise the first signs that I am on the way down. To know that I will not always feel like this. Each experience arms me against the next one. I hope one day to have my mind and body balanced so that I can shut it down before it gets a hold.

I know that I absolutely could not have got through it without the unwavering support of my partner Matt. There were many times when I was certain that nobody could possibly want anything to do with someone as broken as I was, when I felt completely unworthy of anything from anyone, let alone the love of my wonderful family. Often I was terrified that it would drive him away. But he could always tell it from me and would reassure me that I was on the right track.

That is my story. Next, I will tell you what I did and what I continue to do in the battle against this illness. This includes diet changes. And I will give you some inside info on how you can support sufferers.

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