home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted July 20, 2006

Case Study: Father Joe

Taken From St. Luke's Institute
Ellen M. Griffiths, RD, MPH
Clinical Dietician at Saint Luke Institute

Fr Joe is a 42-year old parish priest who was in a residential treatment program two years ago for alcohol abuse. While in treatment he also addressed a spending addiction. He was grateful for his experience in treatment and has maintained sobriety since his discharge. He recently completed the continuing care program and now feels ready to "do it on his own." In addition to his regular duties, he has begun several new endeavors at the parish, including writing the history of the parish. He is also managing the care of an elderly aunt in a nearby assisted living facility. Within the parish he is the liaison for disseminating information about community twelve step programs.

In the past year Fr. Joe began working more and more, sometimes 14 to 16 hours a day. He has stopped exercising and his eating habits are both sporadic and excessive at times. He frequently skips lunch or grabs some chips or other snacks that he can easily eat in the car. He likes pastry and seems to rely on the sugar to give him a "lift" later in the day. He usually eats dinner alone and often later in the evening in front of the television. In the parish house little attention is given to the health dimensions of food except to ensure that there is plenty of food available. The cook is grateful to Fr. Joe for his pastoral care to her family and she shows her appreciation by preparing rich foods in large quantities. Each evening he finds it very difficult not to overeat, and he also does not want to hurt the cook's feelings.

Two years ago, immediately after treatment, Fr. Joe had semiannual physicals, exercised three times a week and was conscious of his health. In the past year he has stopped exercising and skipped his physicals. Recently he visited his primary care physician and he learned that he had gained 15 pounds since the last physical, 30 pounds since completing treatment, and his blood pressure and triglyceride lipids were elevated. High blood pressure runs in Fr. Joe's family and he knew that he should have checked it more frequently. He suspected the weight gain since his clothes fit snugly but he was shocked by how much he had gained. When he left the doctor's office, Fr. Joe was depressed and felt like a failure because of his unhealthy pattern of living. He is now concerned about the consequences of his actions and he questions if he is addicted to food.

Consequences of Weight Gain

Significant weight gain (30 pounds or more) after the age of 25 is compromising Fr. Joe's health. Being overweight puts him at high risk for three common, chronic conditions: diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal blood cholesterol and triglycerides. Fr. Joe's risk for major heart disease is increased by the presence of high blood pressure and elevated blood triglycerides. His blood triglyceride levels are influenced by the quality of his diet. Rich fatty foods and sugars are significantly impacting his weight and health.

In addition to the physical consequences, Fr. Joe's weight gain has psychological implications as well. He feels depressed and demoralized as he sees himself as a failure. He seems to be unaware of the circumstances that have led to this lack of balance in his life and unconscious of how he may be using food as a mood changing substance as he once had used alcohol and spending.

Weight Gain -- A Wake Up Call

Fr. Joe's weight gain can be used as an opportunity for learning and need not signal defeat. Learning how to handle mistakes in judgment and lapses in self-awareness are important parts of maintaining a healthy life. Fr. Joe needs to remember that he is vulnerable to anything that gives an emotional uplift (the "high") as a temporary escape ('the fix") from everyday reality. By examining how he is using food in a similar way to how he used alcohol and spending, he may come to see more fully that he can easily become habituated to the emotional experience ('the rush") of any behavior offering such experience. Fr. Joe's weight gain can help him to look at what he is trying to escape and what is missing in his life. A change in eating habits will depend on increasing awareness of what underlies his behavior.

Fr. Joe needs to remember that prioritizing physical health is not a luxury but appropriate behavior for him as a person who values life. And, time spent invested in good health practices generally means a longer, higher quality of life in later years. The twelve step model shows that Serenity (Balance) is a result of Spiritual, Emotional and Physical Health. The serenity we seek is gained when all aspects of recovery are addressed in a balanced manner.

Fr. Joe also needs to take some responsible and adaptive action. Annual check-ups with his health care professional will help ensure that preventable conditions have not festered. Investment of time educating the cook or having her talk with a dietitian about careful food selection and preparation is nominal compared to the expenditure of resources once disease is present. Finally a commitment to regular exercise can benefit Fr. Joe in countless ways. Learning to take time for his physical health is a critical aspect of self-care, another step in maintaining balance.