April 09, 2015

OCD and Obesity: Willpower vs. Won’t Power

photo: cheezburger

By Jan Bono

By this time, contributor Jan Bono needs no introduction! (Although if you haven't yet, you may still want to consider buying her book “Back from Obesity: My 252-pound Weight-Loss Journey” either in print or on Jan's smashwords page). At the moment I'm off traveling--and most likely, not exercising any willpower whatsoever. So it's nice to have have someone put in a good word for it!--Crabby  

I’d love to blame my father’s side of the family for my “Obesity Gene.” Dad was one of eight siblings, five boys and three girls, and I’m fairly certain that none of them spent any of their adult lives under 220 pounds.

But I’m also fairly certain that both hereditary and environmental factors gang up on a person to create a bona fide Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, and in my personal definition of OCD, overeating definitely qualifies.

So what do you think? Is OCD found more in the genes or is it a learned behavior? Is it something that lives deep within our DNA, or did I pick mine up by watching my mother fanatically try to keep an immaculate house with four small children underfoot?

Although I never succumbed to excessive hand-washing, or refused to step on any sidewalk cracks (both exhibited by Jack Nicholson in the movie “As Good As It Gets”), there is no doubt I suffer from occasional uncontrollable obsessive thoughts and actions.

Perhaps it’s the result of being slightly superstitious as a kid. Don’t walk under ladders. Watch out for black cats crossing your path. Lift your feet when the car goes over the railroad tracks. If a bird flies in the window, someone’s going to die. If you set your shoes on the table, someone’s going to die. If you don’t hold your breath and walk fast enough to get to the next corner before the car coming up behind you does, someone’s going to die.

Fixations like these are childhood fodder for the adult OCD victim. It’s an all or nothing mentality. Black or white. Yes or no. On or off. There’s no middle ground whatsoever. He loves me; he loves me not.

For years I replayed entire days while lying awake at night. I planned my next encounter with certain people I felt had wronged me, or with those whom I wanted to keep from wronging me. I wrote voluminous letters in my mind, championing my newest crusade, or defending some alleged sleight.

I lost so much sleep dwelling on things I had no control over I joked about my epitaph reading: “The wheel’s still turning, but the hamster’s dead.”

A few years prior to beginning my 252-pound weight-loss journey, I’d sought medical help for my disturbing and relentless thought patterns. The doctor confirmed what I had known all along: Serious clinical depression, and borderline OCD. He prescribed several medications to help short-circuit and re-program my brain waves.

But some of us aren’t destined to get relief from chemical remedies. The pills made me sicker than I had been without them. The doctor switched medications. I got still sicker. He gave me another and another and yet another prescription.

I began to suspect he chose my meds by throwing darts at a dartboard. I had pills lined up across the bathroom counter with post-it notes telling me what time to take each one. The top of my dresser resembled a pharmaceutical display. I took pills for depression, pills for OCD, and pills to combat the inability to keep the first pills down. I was so ill that nausea was my constant companion. I carried an assortment of saltine crackers with me like a pregnant woman during her first trimester.

I could barely go to work each day, yet work was the only place I felt safe. I was needed there, and I knew I was still doing a reasonably good job doing what I was trained to do.

I also knew that away from work I was just going through the motions of living. I came home each day and collapsed on the couch. Telling myself I was eating to keep the nausea under control had resulted in rapidly gaining more weight. I seriously considered suicide. I doubted I would ever get better, and I didn’t think I could go on living from pill-to-pill much longer.

As a last-ditch effort at understanding what was happening to me, I went back to my Physician’s Assistant. She suggested that perhaps I had a “serotonin sensitivity” and too much of the “feel good chemical” dumped into my system all at once was more than my body could handle. She suggested weaning me onto the medications more slowly.

Instead, I metaphorically stomped my foot and arched my back. And then I abruptly flushed all the meds down the toilet. I decided I would rather be depressed and dealing with OCD than be stoned all the time, sick to my stomach, and wandering around in a semi-self-destructive haze. It was an irresponsible and drastic action. It could easily have killed me. I am grateful it did not.

A few years after my sojourn with anti-depressants, as I began the oh-so-slow journey back from morbid obesity, my squirrel-cage thoughts revolved constantly around food. How much had I already eaten today? What more could I eat and still stay on my plan? How many calories did I have left and still available to consume? How could I eat enough at dinner to feel satisfied and yet stick with the program? Would I be able to abstain from compulsive eating until I could find sanctuary in my bed for the night?

I kept a running calorie tabulation in my day planner. I wondered what “normal” people thought about all day if they weren’t obsessing about food. Did they actually not worry about what they were going to eat at their next meal? Did they really “forget to eat” when they were caught up in other activities?

I recited the Serenity Prayer 60 or 70 times a night: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Only the thing was, I honestly didn’t know if I could change this behavior. I didn’t know if I could keep from overeating. I didn’t know if I could stop the runaway train of thoughts from derailing my whole program. Was I doomed to being obese the rest of my life? Should I “accept” that idea with serenity? Where was I supposed to get this elusive “Wisdom to know the difference”?

I attended support group meetings and listened to others who felt as I did. It was a comfort to know I was not alone. I read books on the subject, and I called support group friends who, like me, were valiantly striving to walk the walk. I wrote in my journal. I reached out through email.

It was one meal, one moment, one mouthful, one MORSEL at a time. I lived in constant fear I would be too mentally weak to stay the course, no matter how generous the latitude I’d given myself when I developed my food plan.

By the barest of threads, by sheer will power—or maybe that’s “won’t” power—and with determination and guts and lots and lots of outside support along with my tears, the days in the success column slowly added up.

And now, over a decade later, it still boils down to this: Just live one day at a time.


  1. You had tenacity. The difference between tenacity and stubbornness is that tenacity comes from a strong will, stubbornness from a strong won't. You tenaciously decided you would succeed, and you did!

  2. "Normal' people. My allergies probably put me in the "not normal" category, because even now that my food allergies have improved to where I can occasionally eat out, if I remember to think of all the things that I don't put in recipes (like mushrooms, and vinegar, and various vegetable oils) that might be in other people's cooking, I still want to know where my next meal is coming from. This is why, when I'm going somewhere that's not part of my daily routine, I tend to get hungry just before I leave the house. Who knows when I'll be able to eat again?

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  3. Loved your view on this - "the days in the success column slowly added up."

    It is awesome to have this kind of attitude, and get as many winning days as you can! That is ultimately how you make changes and stick to them I think.

  4. I meant to read this when it was first posted… the title got me. I obsess over a ton of stuff, especially food. I’m pretty sure if I talked to a doctor about my mental well being they would say I have anxiety with maybe some OCD mixed in. But I don’t bother with doctors. I tried meds years ago they didn’t work for me either. I think diet and exercise work better for me. But I still struggle with my weight. So needless to say this post is helpful. Thanks!


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