Healing, Health, Mental Health

Side effects — my Nutella nightmare

Some medications make life bearable. Others have side effects that make it worse.

Welcome to my Nutella nightmare…

In 2007, a few months after my wedding, my psychiatrist at the time prescribed a drug that turned me into a walking zombie. I couldn’t drive safely; I couldn’t even walk safely.

During a solo walk home from the grocery store, I fell flat on my face without even tripping. Luckily, my sunglasses took most of the blow, though they were so scratched up I never wore them again.

When I ventured out in public, I was so dopey my friends thought I was drunk. I’d fall asleep with my face on my desk or computer keyboard — and once on the toilet. (My new husband found this amusing; I cringe just thinking about it.)

My doctor wisely decided I should take the drug only at night. And for the first time since early childhood, I slept. I’d been an insomniac since the move at age 7. As a child, I’d stand silently beside my parent’s bed, not wanting to bother them, but hoping desperately that one of them would wake. As an adult, I wandered the house at night, relocating to the couch or floor in hopes that a different environment would help me drift to dreamland.

But with this new medication, once I was out, I was out, sleeping straight through the night. And the vivid, horrible dreams I’d had all my life — in which I’d wake up feeling as if they’d actually happened — disappeared.

But the medication had a hidden dark side, side effects no one had warned me about. And because my psychiatrist had moved away, I didn’t think to connect my strange new behavior with a drug; instead, I blamed it on myself.

It began with an insatiable urge for Nutella, a food I’d eaten only several times before. I’d always craved chocolate, but this craving was specific: only Nutella would satisfy my need.

I’d start my morning with Nutella on toast; Nutella on bread; Nutella on rye crackers; then move on to spooning the creamy, sickeningly sweet treat straight from the jar, until I’d licked it completely clean. I had no desire to eat a full jar each day, but I couldn’t stop, no matter how sick it made me feel.

I was ashamed, and soon began sticking my finger down my throat, forcing myself to throw up after a day of binging. I went to great lengths to hide my habit from my husband, stashing jars in strange places and sneaking forbidden spoonfuls when he left the room.

I hated myself, and finally confessed to my husband and a few close friends that I had an eating disorder. My husband didn’t understand at all; instead, he was sickened by my behavior and blamed it all on me. I’ll never forget the day he found me eating spoonfuls of Nutella from the jar.

“You’re so disgusting I can’t even look at you,” he said, walking away just when I needed his support the most.

It took four months for me to connect my Nutella binge eating to medication side effects. 

I’d worked hard to lose 20 pounds before our wedding, and we’d used a large white board to keep track of our weights. Post-wedding, I’d weighed myself sporadically. One day I glanced at the board and had an epiphany:

In the past four months, I’d gained 10 pounds each month, for a total of 40 pounds — expected, I suppose, for a person who ate little else than a jar of Nutella daily.

But the four months got me thinking. Before my psychiatrist left, he’d prescribed two new medications. What if one was related to my weight gain? What if I’d started them around the same time I’d begun my Nutella binge eating?

I went to the pharmacy and asked, and sure enough, I’d started the drugs around the same time that my Nutella cravings began. But I wasn’t sure at first.

“Has your appetite increased since you started the medication?” the pharmacist asked.

I said “no,” of course. After my daily jar of Nutella, I was completely uninterested in eating anything else. As I thanked her and turned away, she said,

“Have you been craving chocolate?”

I turned back. “Yes! Nutella. I’ve been eating an entire jar every day.”

“That’ll do it!” she said.

The drug that helped me sleep was to blame, the pharmacist told me. I was part of the lucky 1% of people who gained weight on that particular medication.

For four months I’d blamed myself for something completely beyond my control. I’d hidden my behavior and forced myself to throw up. The side effects of the medication and my total willingness to place all the blame on myself sowed seeds of disrespect in my new husband’s view of me, contributing to his decision to divorce me just three years later.

I tried my best to go off the drug, but couldn’t hack it. I finally knew what sleep was like, and couldn’t handle life without it. So I tried halving my dose. Amazingly, I still slept. My weight gain halted, but I didn’t lose a pound. Over the next few years, I gained 30 more from stress and more binge eating (thankfully, not Nutella). At 5’6″ and 227 pounds, I stopped looking in mirrors.

Eight years have passed, and I’ve only recently been able to wean myself off the medication that caused me so much pain.

I know now to watch out for side effects of medication, no matter how rare they might be.

But more importantly, I’ve learned to be notice unusual behavior without shame — to realize that it isn’t all my fault.

How about you? What do you hide because you’re too ashamed to notice it? How, in your life, have you been taking all the blame?

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