I Was Addicted to Phentermine for 15 Years

Hooked on this prescription weight loss drug, writer Harmony Hobbs describes her emotional struggle with addiction and alcoholism—and her decision to get sober.

Every time I walked into a medical weight-loss clinic, the experience was the same: Dog-eared tabloids—subtle reminders of what an "ideal" body should look like—were scattered next to dated table lamps with pleated shades. Dingy mini blinds (were they beige or white and just dusty?) remained closed, allowing me to hide in plain sight, praying that no one would see me for what I really was—an alcoholic addicted to prescription diet pills.

I did not grow up around alcohol or drugs. My upbringing was a conservative one, in a stable, loving environment in South Louisiana. It wasn't until I went through a painful breakup during my freshman year of college that I began searching for something to numb the constant buzz of fear and anxiety coursing through my body. I found that something in food, sex, drugs, and finally, at the bottom of a bottle.

Struggling silently through trauma looked a lot like a quarter-life crisis to everyone on the outside, and my already low self-esteem hit rock bottom. My weight ballooned; I dropped out of college one semester shy of graduation. Alcohol made me forget all of my troubles, but I didn't want to continue packing on weight. So when a friend recommended diet pills, I immediately took an interest.

Take a Pill, Lose Weight

How easy would it be, I thought, to just take a pill and not be hungry? For an emotional eater like me, it seemed like the perfect solution. I looked up the nearest medical weight-loss clinic and took the first appointment. The year was 2001, and I picked the clinic with the nicest ad in the phone book. Little did I know, I would eventually visit them all.

When I stepped on the scale at the clinic, it read 170. I was informed that my BMI was firmly in the overweight category for my height. I am 5 feet, 6 inches, so according to the BMI chart, a healthy weight for someone my height can be anywhere between 118 to 148 pounds. The doctor talked to me briefly about healthy habits, and prescribed phentermine, a commonly prescribed amphetamine-like medication used to suppress appetite. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), phentermine is one of four FDA-approved weight-loss drugs intended for short-term use only—up to 12 weeks. Five other drugs, including one that's combined with phentermine, are approved for long-term use (plus a sixth drug that's only for people with specific genetic conditions).

Potential side effects of phentermine include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, insomnia, constipation, and nervousness, according to the NIDDK. On more than one occasion, I woke up with my heart beating out of my chest—super scary, but not scary enough to make me stop.

The paperwork accompanying the drug explained that it isn't intended to be taken for more than three months at a time; it's meant to shore up or support a medically overweight person's diet and exercise plan. Once my weight dipped below a number considered overweight, then they would no longer be able to prescribe the medication. I was excited to lose 22 pounds and drop into the normal range for my height.

I had no idea what was about to happen to me.

The Dark Side of Phentermine

There is something about phentermine that made me feel invincible. Not everyone has that reaction, just like not everyone has the same reaction to alcohol or opioids. But for me, from the very first time I took it, I was hooked. The way my extremities tingled, my face and gums felt numb, and the weight fell off because I wasn't eating or sleeping—I don't talk about it much, because the very thought of one of those blue and white pills makes my mouth water. Thirty days later, I went back for more.

The medication can also be obtained from a primary healthcare provider or an OB-GYN, according to my girlfriends who were fans of the drug. I personally never had the guts to ask a healthcare provider who knew me to prescribe phentermine; the potential for questions was too high, and why risk it when I knew I could waltz in and out of a weight-loss clinic and skip the interrogation?

I continued using phentermine on and off for the next 15 years.

Those pills are what I used to snap myself out of a hangover every morning to parent my three small children. The sick part of my brain told me that phentermine made me more desirable to my husband, more fun and interesting at parties, and a better employee. On the outside, I was winning at life. Amphetamines helped camouflage my alcoholism for many years. They're what I used to fuel my creativity and my livelihood as a freelance writer.

Even though I've been sober for over two years, I miss that high—especially during the summer months, when the sensation of my thighs sticking together fuels my already rampant self-loathing.

There will always be a small part of me that wants to try just one more time. That is the devastating power of addiction.

The Other Side of Addiction

For many years in a variety of cities across the South, I sat staring at mauve or tan waiting-room carpets, wishing I was a naturally thin person who didn't have to resort to such nonsense to get just one more bottle, one more month of feeling on top of the world. Of course, now that I'm sober, I know that even if I were naturally thin, I would still be an addict.

No one in the waiting room made eye contact. Our shame was palpable. The people in larger bodies, it seemed to me, were embarrassed to have let themselves go this far—far enough to be in a clinic dedicated to helping people in larger bodies become smaller. The people in smaller bodies seemed ashamed, too, because they either struggled with body dysmorphia or addiction. Either way, no one wanted to be there.

Throughout my prescription pill-popping career, I had experienced both sides of weight loss and gain. There was a time when I was in my 20s, just before my husband and I got married, that my weight almost dropped below the line of allowing the healthcare provider to write me the prescription. Fear of living without phentermine ensured from that point on that I made certain to eat a big meal and wear my heaviest shoes before going back for a refill.

The problem was, as it always is with addiction of any kind, that after years and years of taking a drug expressly made for short-term use only, it stopped working. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the more you consume a drug, the less effective it becomes. I began pairing a pill with a Red Bull or adding in other types of uppers in an attempt to reach the same effect. I had to take it just to function—to feel normal.

Sometimes I'd take a few months off. "I'll give my body a break," I told myself because that would make me feel like I wasn't addicted to anything. People who are really addicted don't give themselves breaks, right?

I didn't look like I was addicted to anything. And from what other people could tell, I didn't act like I was addicted to anything. I was fine.

The Internal Battle

"Your blood pressure is perfect!" The nurse ripped back the Velcro to pull the blood pressure cuff from my arm. "The doctor will be in shortly."

The doctor was usually someone who looked like they had seen much better days. I don't know what the rules are to be a weight loss clinic provider, but all of them seemed to carry a deep sort of sadness. On the days I sat across from them, I was grateful. I smiled and tried to look like the type of person who was attempting to be healthy but kept falling short. Genetics, I'd say, or motherhood was preventing me from reaching my true potential. And after all, the scales didn't lie; I was overweight (most of the time). I kept myself within a certain range on purpose because I'd rather be a little fat on speed than thin without access to it.

Every summer since I have been in recovery, an internal battle rages on.

No one would know.

I could go get them anytime.

It's legal.

I'm 20 pounds overweightit would be so easy.

And it would be easy—just as easy as picking up a bottle of vodka or whiskey at the grocery store and stowing it away somewhere in my house. Just as easy as taking a drink when no one is looking, except that I'd have to sneak money out of the bank account I share with my husband, figure out a place to put my children, make an appointment, get the pills, and then hide them.

I would have to lie over and over and over again.

By the end, when I was perpetually bloated from drinking too much the night before and gaining weight rather than losing, no matter how many pills I was taking, I started worrying about my health. The healthcare providers—all of them—began looking at me curiously because my weight never went down; it always stayed the same. I'd go in, get 30 pills, and leave. When I ran out, I'd go to a different clinic, perhaps on the other side of town. I rotated my appointments so that I rarely saw the same doctor two months in a row.

"What are you doing here?" a medical assistant asked me once after taking my blood pressure. "You don't belong here." I suspect they may have meant that I didn't look like I belonged on that side of town, which was questionable, or maybe they were making a general comment that I didn't appear overweight. Either way, they were right on all accounts. I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere, including in my own skin.

Getting Sober

My last visit to a medical weight loss clinic was in December 2016. When I finally decided to get sober in 2017, it was out of desperation. I'd spiraled to a dark place of profound unhappiness and depression, and no matter what I poured down my throat to combat those feelings, I was never okay. That is the essence of addiction.

Now, many years later, as a recovering addict and alcoholic, I can say that I'm more comfortable with myself than I've ever been before due to the intense, life-altering work that sustained sobriety requires. I can't place blame on anyone but myself for my struggles, and I'm still looking for balance in every part of my life. I am still not happy with my weight, but I know the answer to that cannot be found inside a medical weight-loss clinic.

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