Before becoming a teacher, I worked in marketing for an insane asylum. Ok, we don’t call them insane asylums anymore. Nowadays we use the more politically correct term “behavioral health facilities”. You wouldn’t think a hospital for the mentally ill would even need a marketing department. It’s not like those kinds of patients are browsing brochures and reading Yelp reviews before committing themselves, not most of them anyway. But the mentally ill were not my target audience. My job was to meet with the doctors and hospitals who sent us their patients.
In Houston there are only a handful of hospitals that specialize in treating mental illness. The more fortunate patients are funneled to one of these facilities. The less fortunate are sent to Ben Taub Hospital, locally known as Been Shot Hospital because it serves mainly poor people and gunshot victims.
Most of my work involved building relationships with local psychiatrists and their staff. I would bring lunch for the whole office, talk about our services, and educate them on what constitutes an “appropriate” patient for our facility. An “appropriate” patient is one that has insurance or some way to pay their hospital bill. If you did not meet that criteria, you were (behind closed doors of course) deemed “inappropriate” for our facility. That’s how fucked you are if you’re a poor person suffering from mental illness. There are actually people who get paid to keep you from the care you need and send you to an already overburdened system at Been Shot.
The intake office of a behavioral health facility is an even stronger deterrent for the uninsured. Pretend you’re a doctor. I always picture myself as George Clooney from ER but realistically I’m more like Zach Braff’s character on Scrubs. Anyway, you have a patient who thinks aliens are controlling him. Normally this isn’t that big of a deal except this guy thinks the aliens are controlling him through a microchip in his abdomen and he keeps trying to cut it out of himself with a hacksaw. Prime candidate for hospitalization. So you call the intake office of the hospital you want to send him to. Most likely the person working in intake is going to tell you that they currently don’t have a bed for that patient, but if you give them the patient’s information (including insurance info) they will call you back as soon as something opens up. Whether or not something opens up is going to depend on what the intake office hears from the insurance company.
Sounds evil but it’s also necessary. There are a limited number of hospital beds for the mentally ill at any given time. I can recall multiple times when there weren’t any available mental health beds in the whole city. This happens pretty often, especially around Christmas. Also, a hospital is a business and subject to failing just like any other business. If the hospital takes on too many patients without the means to pay, then it bankrupts the hospital and suddenly there are even less beds to help the sick. I wish things were different, but that’s the broken system we have.
My favorite part of the job was getting to know the psychiatrists. Most psychiatrists are just a shade less crazy than their patients. I don’t know why, but it’s a medical fact. Many of them were so narcissistic they could go on about themselves for hours, repeating the same stories about their accomplishments every time I saw them. I called upon one very old doctor, obviously in the throes of dementia and still seeing patients. His waiting room was full! I assume his patients were all on Medicaid because who are they going to complain to? Another doc I worked with was quite clearly bipolar based on the random threatening messages he was prone to leaving on my voicemail. Of the dozens of Doctors I worked with, there were few I would feel comfortable recommending to friends and family. The system is dangerously broken.
Working on the marketing side of behavioral health was like having a secret television channel that only shows you things other people don’t want to see. I learned a great deal from it. One of my greatest teachers was a guy named Dr. Fowler (name changed). Dr. Fowler was the medical director of a major drug rehabilitation center. He’s also a recovering alcoholic. His medical experience combined with his direct knowledge of alcoholism makes him one the best addiction specialists in the country. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I struggle with sugar addiction which I refer to as my “Sugar Demons”. It was Dr Fowler who taught me where my Sugar Demons came from.
As it turns out, all addiction, including sugar addiction has everything to do with the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter our brain releases when it perceives we have done something good. It’s an evolutionary mechanism that makes you feel good for doing the thing that is going to help you survive and produce offspring. This is what’s known as a “reward pathway”. For instance, a nourishing meal translates to a 30% increase in dopamine to let us know we have done a good thing by feeding our body a healthy meal. A glass of red wine translates to a 40-60% increase, unless you’re an alcoholic, then it translates to a 300% increase in dopamine. Cocaine reliably translates to a 300% increase in all people and Crystal meth hits you with an 800% increase in dopamine.
So you see how alcohol and other drugs can eventually rewire your brain into perceiving them as more important than food, sleep, or even the love of your family. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time around a junkie, the one thought constantly running through your head is “Why can’t you just stop?” Eventually you realize they can’t. Their subconscious brain is too convinced the drug is intrinsic to survival, even if they’re consciously aware that it’s not. That’s all addiction really is.
Sugar works on your brain the same way narcotics do. In fact, there are multiple studies showing sugar to be equally as addictive as cocaine. Why? Imagine you live in a forest. The forest provides everything you need. You hunt for animals and gather fruits and veggies everyday for food. Life is mostly good until winter comes. In winter, the plants you’re used to eating disappear and much of the game goes into hibernation. Everyday becomes a struggle to get in enough calories for survival. This is how most humans actually lived until the advent of farming. Now imagine that it’s spring again. You’re super skinny from experiencing near starvation over the winter. All of a sudden food is growing on trees again. Most of it is sugar in the form of fruit. It’s sweet and delicious. You gorge yourself on it for as long as you can. It replaces the fat you lost over the winter so you might survive the next winter. Sugar used to be crucial to our survival, that’s why your brain releases dopamine every time you eat it. Pharmacologically cocaine and sugar are different, but they both cause a similar dopamine increase in the brain. Repetitive use of sugar is how you create your very own Sugar Demons.
But if we can create Sugar Demons why can’t we create Broccoli Angels to help us fight them? Well you can… sort of. As with all addiction, the key is finding a new habit to replace the bad habit with. Most people start with exercise. It’s a great place to start but you can only exercise so many times per day, and you’re going to get sugar cravings ALL THE TIME, even on days when you exercise. You have to find something you can use to fight the Sugar Demons every time they attack. By trial and error, I came up with a list of foods that I can eat instead of sugary foods whenever I get cravings.
One of my Broccoli Angels is… broccoli. I know it doesn’t sound great but it actually is. My coworker showed me how she drizzles coconut oil over her steamed broccoli. I tried it and fell in love. Coconut oil gives broccoli a subtle delicious sweetness. Because broccoli and coconut oil are so nutrient dense, it tends to squash cravings for a good while. Think of Broccoli Angels as one more weapon in your arsenal to fight the Sugar Demons. Salted dry roasted nuts are another one for me. Bacon can be an absolute lifesaver when the cravings hit. Lately I’ve gotten really into sardines on Simple Mills (grain free) crackers. I know some of my choices sound really weird, but the point is you need to find your own Broccoli Angels so you can turn to them whenever the Sugar Demons attack, or better yet, before they even get the chance.
Broccoli Angels don’t always have to be food either. Reading an article about nutrition or the dangers of excessive sugar consumption can be a deterrent as well. I try to read at least one such article per day. Engaging in online groups and message boards with other people who struggle with sugar addiction can also help sometimes. This blog is my own version of a secret channel showing you things other people don’t want to see. It’s a window into my sugar addiction, but maybe also a mirror to your own. Look at what I face. Learn from my failures. Engage with me so we can learn from one another.
Whether it’s out of boredom, or stress, or any of the routine tactics the Sugar Demons use against you, at some point you will be tempted to eat something you shouldn’t. Having some Broccoli Angels on hand will help you make a better decision. Just make sure it’s something sugar free and nutrient rich. Trust me, it’ll make the cravings go away. What are your Broccoli Angels? Please share them in the comments.