Depression in Midlife Women: Facing Our Addictions
It can be challenging to know which came first when it comes to depression and addictions. While there’s no argument that chronic depression increases the likelihood of one or more addictions, professionals have varying opinions about whether the depression caused the addiction or the addiction caused the depression.
I believe that either situation can be true, but in my case, the depression came first. I recognized true clinical depression as a teenager when I was still at a normal weight. One of the ways I coped with my chronic and sometimes severe depression was to overeat and consume highly unhealthy foods. This helped to take the focus off the intense sadness and anxiety, at least for a little while.
How Early and Chronic Depression Can Lead to Addictions
According to a May 2019 article published on the website Psycom, the unconscious desire to avoid emotions leads millions of people down the path of addiction every year. While depression can make it feel like some emotions, such as sadness and hopelessness, are on overdrive, it severely dulls emotions in other cases to the point of feeling completely apathetic. I wrote about this phenomenon in my second article in this series Who Cares? The Problem of Apathy.
People who experienced early trauma are especially vulnerable to developing clinical depression along with drug or alcohol addiction, food addiction, workaholism, and other types of addictions. They call this dual diagnosis in the mental health field. The problem with burying emotions through various addictions is that they do not go away. The inner turmoil only intensifies while also leaving the person with a dual diagnosis, diagnosed or otherwise, reeling from the consequences of addiction. It’s often those consequences that finally make the suffering person understand at a deep level that something must change in his or her life.
The Psycom article also provides statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that states nine million American adults have both a substance abuse disorder and a mental health disorder. Of this number, only seven percent connect to the help they need each year. Substance abuse and depression is an especially problematic combination as each issue multiples the problems associated with the other issue. Fortunately, I only dabbled in alcohol and substance abuse at a very early age. Although I moved on from that, I quickly replaced it with food addiction that has wreaked havoc on my body and self-esteem.
The Impact of Food Addiction on My Life
I did not grow up with access to fast food at all, and my weight was normal until about the time I got out of high school. I would estimate that I put on at least 15 pounds every year throughout young adulthood. In 2001, I weighed 243 pounds the first time I lost a significant amount of weight on Weight Watchers. Unfortunately, I gave up with less than one pound to go to my 50-pound milestone. That still makes me sad to this day. I regained all that weight by 2003 and was at 275 pounds the second time I joined Weight Watchers in 2009. That time, I lost 45 pounds before quitting.
Over the past 10 years, I have lost and gained weight multiple times. The lowest I reached was 230 and the highest 278, the number I was at when I accepted that depression had caused my life to spiral out of control. I rejoined Weight Watchers for the third time on November 30, 2019 and am doing very well in the new and improved program so far.
I am not proud of these numbers – and in fact am admitting them publicly for the first time – but feel they are important because the change in outer appearance is usually the first thing people notice. Although my own recovery from chronic and occasionally severe depression is about so much more than weight, I appreciate that some people like to have a visual marker of progress.
More important than how much I weigh is the reason I got to be morbidly obese in the first place. Horrible eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle are to blame, of course, but scratching the surface a bit deeper reveals that I used food as a drug. Bored? A candy bar or trip through the drive-through window should take care of that. Sad? Pass me something with lots of sugar. Angry? Time to chomp those jaws! Excited? Time to celebrate with food, of course! Then there was the deep pain of feeling unworthy, but food was always there for me.
Far from providing comfort and an escape from difficult emotions, food addiction has severely damaged my health. The biggest way this has manifested was my diagnosis of Type II diabetes and peripheral neuropathy in 2013 at age 45. Although my diabetes numbers were right at the cut-off upon diagnosis and I have managed it well with medication, having neuropathy has greatly limited my comfort, mobility, and sleep. The tingling and freezing in my feet is so severe most nights that I rarely get more than five to six hours of sleep. My balance will also never be the same, a result of both neuropathy and brain injury.
Just as devastating as the physical consequences of treating my body like a human garbage disposal is that my excess weight made me feel worse about myself than I already did. I was utterly disgusted with my appearance and could not even look in a mirror. Although still very heavy at 265 pounds, I no longer think like that. I see my excess weight as a temporary burden to carry as my outside body catches up with the internal changes.
Sleep: A Secondary Addiction
I became hooked on sleeping pills in 2002 when my former husband took me to the emergency room after I expressed suicidal thoughts and a doctor prescribed them to me without me requesting them. Although our relationship later turned ugly and the marriage ended in 2008, I will always be impressed with how he stepped in and took control of that situation when I could not.
Over the years, I not only used pills to get to sleep at night but to escape my unrelenting inner torment during the day. As someone who works from home, I had the liberty to take two to three hours naps in the afternoon whenever the urge struck me. During the worst of it this past year, I would often pray that I wouldn’t wake up. I was convinced I had outlived my usefulness and it was time for my life to be over. I now believe with all my heart that my life is just beginning and look forward to the future with great anticipation.
A Dual Diagnosis May Need Professional Intervention
I am fortunate in that my obsession with food and desire to stuff myself into oblivion simply went away once I began to pursue wholeness and healing. Others aren’t so lucky. If you have a drug addiction, for example, you will need treatment for that before you can start to peel back the layers of what caused you to seek numbing and comfort through drugs. It will be a long and difficult process but think of how you feel today and whether that is how you want to feel a year from now. My answer is a resounding no, and I hope that yours will be too.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2019 Lisa Kroulik