Does obesity cause mental illness or is it the other way around? For Sarah, it’s a chicken-or-egg question. Severe depression and weight issues have plagued her since childhood. Despite her struggles with two of the most stigmatized medical conditions in our society, though, she refuses to give up.
How To Tell Sarah’s Story?
At first, I didn’t know which angle to take in introducing you to Sarah, an intelligent millennial-aged woman who grew up in Illinois. So much has happened to her.
She lived with a manipulative, emotionally distant mother.
For years, she thought her father wanted nothing to do with her because her mother had misrepresented the truth.
And then she attempted to find healing from a cult-like, highly judgmental church that dictated the clothes she wore and the people she befriended. The legalism and brainwashing only broke her further.
Any of these experiences could mess with your head.
In the end, though, a throw-away comment she made during our initial conversation brought Sarah into clearer focus and forced me to consider the difficulties overweight people navigate daily. I started seeing the world through her eyes, moved to tell that part of her story.
Sarah, who admits she has an unhealthy relationship with food, also suffers from a significant mental health issue that landed her in the hospital twice. “I spent years fighting off suicidal thoughts,” and now takes medication to keep her bipolar disorder in check.
While studies show a connection between obesity and bipolar disorder, researchers don’t know if one condition causes the other.
One thing is certain.
When the two coexist, one “will continually aggravate the other, which in turn only creates a vicious cycle,” reported the Obesity Action Coalition. “This makes it difficult to determine which condition was present first, which also makes the overall situation worse.”
The Five-Pound Bag
Sarah was unaware of the connection but understands the cycles.
“I don’t recall a time in childhood where I was not dealing with depression,” Sarah said. “The thick, heavy, consuming kind. Surviving the day became my primary focus.”
She also doesn’t recall a time when she wasn’t overweight. But then, she doesn’t remember much about her childhood. “Few things stick out,” and those that do come from photos or stories others have told her, she said during our initial conversation.
And then—within seconds—she mentioned a bag of fat.
“I don’t remember having any specific feelings one way or another about the actual five-pound fat blob. I just still see it in my mind. I don’t recall how old I was, but I was young…Anyhow, my mother took me to a nutritionist because I was overweight.”
The nutritionist had used the bag as a visual, a cruel and ineffective one at that. I knew then how I’d tell Sarah’s story.
She spent her childhood and teen years doing every diet plan imaginable. Slim Fast. Adkins. Low-Calorie. She joined Weight Watchers, the TOPS Club, and a fitness club. “All I know I was the only child there and being routinely measured and weighed was embarrassing.”
She continued, “Mom was and is still obsessed with weight. To this day, the first thing she tells me about people she hasn’t seen in a while is how much weight they’ve lost or gained.”
While her mother may not intend to hurt Sarah, her constant chatter about weight does wound. The veiled body-shaming also illustrates a pervasive attitude today. The stigma surrounding mental health issues has abated some, but it has grown worse for those battling weight issues.
Bias is everywhere and perpetuates the belief that overweight people are lazy, lack will power, and are less intelligent than their thinner brethren. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Obesity is complicated. Genetics, medications, social issues, and physical and mental illness, as mentioned earlier, all contribute.
Sarah herself wonders if potential employers discriminated against her. Despite a master’s degree, no one has ever offered a job that equals her education or innate abilities.
“Something is stopping me from getting these jobs,” she said, “or am I preventing it? I’ve always purposely flown under the radar and limited myself because I needed to feel safe. But I wonder, what could I have accomplished?”
On the Road to Healing
A question without an answer, but she plows on. She refuses to give up.
“In the head space I am in now, yes, I want to grow and heal and learn and re-learn and be better and be normal…I guess feel normal would be more accurate. After all, normal is just a setting on the washing machine.”
Since quitting the cult-like church that advised against counseling and medication for her severe depression, she regularly sees a therapist and now believes her experiences will “work together for good.”
Earlier this year, she joined another church and is now involved in the launch of a recovery ministry there. “I belong to the most amazing small group,” she said, referring to her weekly Bible study. “I’ve grown in the midst of these folks and because of these folks.”
So much so, in fact, that she started another small group.
“God has brought some amazing people my way and He has also worked in my heart and mind to be willing to let them in…” Though she still struggles with feelings of inadequacy, Sarah keeps “working it… Balled up fists, dug in heels, set jaw, head down, and I take another step.”
She refuses to give up.