By Teresa Swartz Roberts
23. Copyright 2017
Food has always been my drug of choice. I have an addiction, and I have to treat my compulsive overeating as I would treat an addiction to anything else. I avoid trigger-rich environments. For example, I don’t go to buffets, which are impractical when using a cane, anyway. I ask for to-go boxes early in a giant-portion restaurant meal. I don’t have sweets available at home, not even cocoa powder because I have a really good fudge recipe. My family supports me by hiding my “bad foods.” I call them that. I have a tendency to anthropomorphize foods, to characterize them as “evil” and say that they are “calling my name.”
I hit bottom when I hit my top weight back in 2010. One morning I actually climbed back into bed, something I just didn’t do, and My Honey insisted that I see my doctor. My answer was, “What am I going to tell him? That I have non-specific pain throughout my body, that I’ve lost the ability to dance and swim, that I have no energy? He’ll probably just tell me to lose weight.”
To his credit, my doctor didn’t just tell me to lose weight, and he really did try to figure out what was wrong. A neurologist, looking at my list of complaints, would probably have figured out that it was Parkinson’s Disease. But I didn’t have tremors, the Parkinson’s calling card. My family doctor sent me to some specialists, and I was treated, but there wasn’t a large medical community in our rural Maine town, and I never made it to a neurologist.
I made a decision that I had to do something to get control of my eating. My first step was to replace meals with cereal, my favorite food. Eventually, I was able to introduce a more varied diet with portion control and keeping a thorough food journal. I didn’t do anything that I wasn’t willing to do the rest of my life. There were plateaus, but I eventually lost 100 pounds over five years. The final push came with the immense amount of energy I expended during our move from Maine to Georgia in 2014.
I kept going, logging my foods and counting calories daily. I wasn’t getting well, but I was getting thinner. People complimented me. I could find clothes that fit. I hadn’t purchased much clothing on the journey, so it was quite a kick to have gone down five to seven sizes.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, medicated, and taught through physical therapy how to persuade my body to do what I wanted. I started seeing PD everywhere, and a new friend told me his wife had Parkinson’s and that weight loss was a symptom. I just about cried. I wanted credit for my weight loss, for my deprivation, for my work. I hadn’t seen weight loss as a symptom in my reading about PD. I looked it up. Weight loss is a symptom. Weight gain is a symptom. Huh? Apparently, the course of Parkinson’s is as individual as the people who have it. I started eating what I wanted. I gained weight. Dammit.
I should admit that Parkinson’s might be partly to blame for the weight loss. I might have lost some of my senses of smell and taste. My smeller has never been that great, possibly because I grew up in the Chemical Valley in Kanawha County, West Virginia. My husband and son were always amazed that I couldn’t smell the paper mill odor wafting over from the next Maine town when we were expecting snow. It’s probably easier to avoid binging on good-tasting food if you can’t taste it.
I do enjoy eating. I appreciate the little rituals associated with some foods: putting together the layers that go on my tortilla chip when we have taco salad or running my plate so that I run out of potatoes and vegetables at the same time. I love the textures and tastes from chocolate-covered cherries at Christmastime to ice cream sundaes in July–or December. I had a banana split yesterday. As my disease progresses, what I will be able to eat may change. I have to be careful now about what I eat in public. My teeth don’t go together the way they used to, so taking a big bite of a sandwich or slice of pizza can be difficult. I choose dishes that I can eat with a fork. A speech therapist helped me learn to improve my swallowing technique and provided exercises that I do daily to keep my mouth and throat working properly.
I have once again lost control of my appetite. My husband understands my reasons. He recently gave me a box of chocolate-covered cherries because I was stressed, and he didn’t want me to have to wait until Christmas. I ate them all in one sitting. On Christmas morning, another box showed up under the tree, and I ate them all in one sitting, too.
While I want to eat with health in mind, there’s another school of thought. A friend who has an incurable degenerative disease told me about being criticized by a dinner companion for eating dessert. “I almost told her,” my friend said, “that I’m going to die, anyway, so what difference does a piece of cheesecake make? I think I deserve to eat what I want.” I agree.
Then there’s reality. My clothes are telling me I’ve gained weight. I don’t have all those in-between sizes. I gave away my fatter clothes. There’s also the fact that the bigger I am, the more weight I have to drag around. Or somebody else has to drag around when I’m no longer able to do it for myself.
In the new year, I’m going to work on the balance between enjoying my food and abusing my food–my drug. And I’ll return to these lines of the Serenity Prayer (by Reinhold Niebuhr):
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.