Stimulants, My Health, and My 2015 Exploration

[In which I discuss how stimulants damaged my health, how health and weight are different, how our culture kinda sucks, and how I plan to fight it.]

This last year, a lot of projects got put on hold when I made the decision to quit my ADD medications. The reasons I did this are manifold, and I’d been planning to quit for quite some time. Knowing that I would run into a massive stage of withdrawal, I carefully planned out how I would quit, who I would turn to for social support during that time, and how I would wean myself off my medication. Then I threw all those plans out the window.

How Stimulants Damaged My Health

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I did this because of an interesting conversation I had with myself back in early July. I was feeling fairly miserable, and thinking about all of my upcoming projects and unclear priorities. And I wanted to reclaim my health, which had gone out the window in a number of ways. So I asked myself a simple question. “If health was really my priority, what was the first thing I would do?” And instantly, I knew that the answer was quitting my medication.

Why? First, the dextroamphetamine (close cousin to Adderall) was a stimulant that charged my body up without me taking care of myself, so I was freed from many consequences of treating my body poorly. Second, the stimulant prevented me from feeling really in touch with my body: I didn’t know when I was hungry, full, or tired. Third, when the medication wore off each night, I entered a state of ravenous appetite and extreme irritability. Fourth, the anxiety I frequently experienced while on the medication led me to eat to excess, trying to quell the feelings of being jittery and on-edge. And fifth, that the medication made my heart forget how to calm down.

The doctor had described it as “tachycardic” after I went to talk to him. He’d had me wear a heart monitor for a few days after I raised concerns about my resting heart rate—or, more accurately, the way my heart didn’t seem to rest. Even hours after I finished exercising, my heart rate was uncomfortably high. “No wonder you’re uncomfortable,” said the doctor as he looked at my charts. “You’re flying.”

I tried heart medication to counteract this side effect, but those medications made me feel sluggish, tired, and persistently hungry. When I moved, my muscles felt hollow. So I stopped taking the heart meds—and I stopped exercising. On the rare occasions when I went for a workout, my heart rate would spike up but only come down by increments. I remember a day hiking up to Stewart Falls, and even after resting on the trail, my heart rate would hover at over 140. Even going just a few meters further would jump it back up to 160, 170, 180.

No connection to my body’s actual health, no sense of my appetite, a daily crash filled with ravenous hunger, anxiety that led to emotional eating, and a tachycardic heart that made physical activity frightening. Over the course of my three years on the medication, I became unhealthy in a number of ways.

Health Is Not About Weight

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We live in a cultural paradigm where we think of “weight” and “health” as being synonymous. Someone who is heavier is automatically assumed to be lazier, less healthy, and of weaker will. Someone who is thinner is automatically assumed to be more active, healthy, and strong-willed. Neither of these statements are necessarily true. And coming to terms with that—with the fact that health and weight were different, and health was the one that mattered—was crucial for me in choosing to quit my medication.

Why? Because withdrawal from stimulants means constant hunger. Because almost everyone who quits a stimulant also gains weight, and not just a little. Because I knew that quitting would mean walking that path, and I knew there was a social stigma that would automatically be attached to me as a result. But I also knew that if I wanted to be healthy, that was the road I would need to walk down.

It took four months to really be free of the withdrawal symptoms. The fatigue, the endless appetite, the depression. And yes, I gained plenty of weight. I have no idea how much; when I chose to discard weight and focus on health, I got rid of my scale.

And I’ve felt lots of body shame over these last few months. This has been a longtime struggle for me, and there have been plenty of times where I’ve faced the social stigma for being overweight. What bothers me most is that I know people are making these assumptions about me—that I’m not taking care of myself, that I’m lazy or weak-willed—without knowing me. Without knowing how hard it was to walk the path I did—how much will-power that took, and how important it was for taking care of myself.

You can’t judge someone’s health by looking at their weight. You can’t know the path someone is on until you know their story.

No, Really: Health Is Not About Weight

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The more I’ve looked at it, the more I see this implicit connection between health and weight as being absurd. Studies on cardiovascular activity show that a person gains far more from becoming active than they do from losing weight. An heavier person who is regularly active has far fewer health risks—including for diabetes, heart disease, and other problems typically associated with obesity–than a person who is inactive but at the “right weight.” And hell, people who are overweight live longer, on average. (Here’s some info on all that.)

I’m not trying to argue that weight has no correlation to health concerns. Simply that weight isn’t the core problem. The problem is health, and being so focused on weight puts us at war with our bodies. Those who lose weight often do so in an ineffective, unsustainable, and incredibly damaging way. We don’t have to look far for examples: Crash diets where dieters quickly rebound to an even greater weight, the eating disorders that run so rampant through our culture, the constant attempt to look like people on magazines or TV shows.

It’s not healthy.

I study motivational psychology, so the angle I take isn’t “what are the mechanics of losing weight.” I look for what will get people to actually take and sustain action for the long-haul. And almost every approach we use—trying to control our eating despite our appetite, fighting ourselves, and making ourselves do things we despise for the sake of some arbitrary goal—will almost inevitably lead to failure. The way we try to control our bodies requires that we constantly spend willpower to do so, and while willpower is an amazing thing, it eventually runs out. Even if weight was the issue, the methods we use are doomed to fail from the start.

Yet our media system teaches us to be skinny rather than healthy. It teaches us to sacrifice our relationship with our bodies rather than cultivating that relationship. It shames us if we don’t look right, even if our bodies were never meant to look that way. When we try to escape this shame, we are taught only one path: To wage war on our bodies.

I am done waging war.

I am ready for peace.

My 2015 Explorations

2015 year

I wish I was coming to you with a viable alternative right now. A way to become healthy and happy and have a positive relationship with your body, and to escape the entire shame-based system. There’s a limited value to tearing something down if you have nothing to raise in its place.

Here is what I know:

  • I want to connect with my appetite. I want to stop eating based only on habit and the availability of foods. I want to eat when I’m hungry and stop eating when I’m not hungry anymore. I want to enjoy my food. I don’t want to “diet”: I want to nourish my body.
  • I want to learn to combat shame. Shame is pervasive in this culture, and study after study has found that in inhibits people rather than motivating them. Body shaming makes people want to use their body less, not more. It often triggers the sort of negative self-identity and difficult emotions that so easily lead to unhealthy eating habits.
  • I want to learn more effective ways to cope with stress and anxiety. So often, I view overcoming that anxiety and being productive as being more important than my health, and historically that’s meant emotional eating. This priority system needs to stop, and that’s the first move. But I also want to learn effective ways to move past that anxiety without sacrificing my health.
  • I want to play. My God, I want to play! I used to love movement so much, but I lost that somewhere along this path. I want to play racquetball and dance and do yoga and tai chi. I want to hike and swim and use my body in any way that I love. I want to play.
  • I want to love this body. This body is not an apology. It is not my enemy. It is not a burden. It is not an object to be criticized and controlled. It is my body, and the only thing it requires is love. And that question, more than anything, is the one I want running through my head as I choose how to act, how to eat, how to speak, how to be: Is this an act of love?

This year will be about exploring these topics. It is not a trackable goal with specific outcomes and benchmarks. It is an attempt to discover an alternative path to a better place fueled by a positive relationship with my body, my desires, and all that I am. It is not an attempt to change into what I’m “supposed to be” but allow myself to become whatever feels right and healthy. I will try to share my findings on this blog as I move forward.

I am not going to take before and after pictures for you. I am not here to put my body on display. I am not here as an example of “right” or “wrong” shapes. I am not trying to lose weight. If I lose weight as a result of being healthier, so be it! And if I gain weight as a result of being healthier: So be it!

So this is what I want. Not a New Year’s Resolution a but path real and sustainable health; not a chance to control my body better but to love it better; not a war worth winning but a relationship worth cultivating. A paradigm shift. A small but vital revolution.

Happy New Year.

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