Dual Recovery: Bipolar and Eating Disorders

My eating disorder started in high school, but it really got into full swing after I split from my fiancé of four years in 2009. It was a rough breakup and I was devastated. I withdrew from people around me, ignored phone calls and cried constantly. I lost the spark that makes me who I am. My body felt like a balloon with the air let out, lying limp and sad on the ground. I was in a depressive episode. Everything tasted metallic and bland at the same time. I’d sit down to eat, take a few bites and lose my appetite. “Why bother eating?” I’d think to myself, “What’s the point? I just want to die.” Yep, that’s depression alright. So of course, I lost a lot of weight. My clothes got baggier, and it seemed like every other day I was buckling my belt one notch tighter.

And something strange happened. People around me began saying things like “You’re so skinny, you look different. You look so pretty!” Friends I hadn’t seen in years were asking me what my secret was, how I lost so much weight. I’ve never been overweight, but when I went from a size 8 to a size 2 I got attention like I never had. Men were flirting with me (something I’m not used to) and women were showering me with flattery.

I’m not saying I’m all that, but my body was starting to look like the supermodels in those heavily scented fashion magazines I used to flip through. I was skinny like the women I’d longed to trade lives with, because they seemed so happy and carefree in the pages of ELLE. Instead of seeing the reality of my illness, I saw myself through other people’s eyes—or what they told me they were seeing. I felt prettier than I ever had, even though I looked like I was knocking on death’s door and felt even worse. It’s funny how society values thinness over health.

My depression started to lift, and by then I was addicted to this new feeling. My new body made me feel beautiful (even though I looked like a skeleton) and the constant compliments made me feel invincible.What started as a symptom of a depressive episode became an illness in itself: anorexia nervosa. My life became a bunch of little lies to mask the fact that I wasn’t eating. I felt isolated as I tried to hide what I knew was getting out of control, but felt unable to stop.

I started sleeping less and less every night. The less I ate and slept, the more energy I seemed to have. I was manic. My body was feeding on nothing but the endorphins that accompany mania. I was now more like an inflated balloon, my head full with too many racing thoughts, floating above a long thin string of a body. I was high on the dopamine that came from within and the flattery that came from others around me.

Because I’ve lived through an eating disorder, I now know never to tell people who’ve lost a lot of weight that they look great. Maybe they didn’t need to. Maybe they are sick. You never know. And no matter what the cause, I don’t want to perpetuate the same vicious cycle. It’s hard to stop doing something you know is bad for you when other people encourage it.

One afternoon, I was watching TV and a commercial for Olive Garden came on. As I watched salad and pasta fly through the air in slow motion, I felt pain. Actual, physical, pain. It was an ache in my stomach, running straight through me like a chill from a ghost. I heard a voice in my head say “This is ridiculous. You NEED to eat.” So I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and ate the whole thing. Then I ate a pint of ice cream. Then I ate a whole bag of chips. And then another sandwich. I was starving. As soon as I swallowed the last bite, I realized how much I’d just eaten and freaked out. I pictured myself fat, and I’ve never been fat. I ran to the bathroom and stuck my finger down my throat until I was heaving violently over the toilet.

I started eating regularly, but my anorexia nervosa morphed into bulimia nervosa. I went from not eating at all to throwing up the food I did eat. I thought to my manic self ‘Carrie, you’ve figured out the secret! You’re so brilliant! You can eat whatever you want and stay skinny!’ In my delusional mind, this was the key to life and happiness. All the while, I was throwing up behind closed doors until my eyes were bloodshot and my nose bled. The eating disorder seemed to be fueling my mania and vice versa. Then my mania ramped up into agitation and irritability. And with it, full-blown bulimia. I couldn’t eat even a small portion of food without panicking and immediately purging. I fainted several times (in public) and eventually had a grand mal seizure. And then my eating disorder was no longer a secret. Everyone around me could see something was wrong.

Although my friends and family expressed how worried they were about me, I could not see the forest for the trees. One of the curses of bipolar disorder is a lack of self-awareness and defensiveness. Because I was in a manic episode,  I combatively lashed out at anyone who said they were concerned, refusing to see that I needed help either with my mood or my weight.

I was enslaved by an eating disorder for six years. It wasn’t until I got stabilized with my bipolar that I finally went into remission with my eating disorder. For me, these two illnesses went hand-in-hand. In order to recover from my anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, I had to address my bipolar disorder. For me, the grandiosity of mania fed the delusion that I was skinny, beautiful and above all, I was right. It wasn’t until I accepted my bipolar diagnosis and received the appropriate treatment that I was able to admit that I had an eating disorder, and I needed help.

I said I’m in remission from my eating disorder, much like you might hear someone say they’re in remission from cancer or in recovery from alcoholism. It’s not like I just got over it. I still struggle with my body image. My eating disorder will always be there, lurking in the back of my mind. It could rear its ugly head at any moment. If I’m triggered (which is why I don’t follow models’ Instagrams or read fashion magazines) I could slip back into the mindset that I should be skinny and stop eating.

And the thing is, that’s also what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop with my bipolar too. The next manic or depressive episode could be right around the corner. The pendulum of my moods could swing one way or another. But if I do my best to avoid triggers and manage stress, it’s nothing I can’t handle, because I’ve got the right tools and support.

I just have to pay attention to my thoughts, my eating, and listen when someone expresses concern. I’ve learned to ignore the voice in my head that tells me I should be skinny, or I should stop my meds because it feels good to be manic. Now, I listen to my own body, and I listen to people close to me if they see that something looks wrong.

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3 years ago

I was never able to get any kind of handle on my eating until I started coming to grips with my bipolar. My first bout of anorexia came several years before my first hypomanic episode, but ever since then my eating disorder and my MP feed off each other. One of the first symptoms of the latter is total lack of appetite which of course seems like a miracle. My weight goes up and down along with my mood. Now as I am trying to stay stable, I also aim to get my weight stable too