Life through a lens
When people ask me what they need to know about bipolar disorder I often start by stating the obvious, because it’s really important: I will seem different to you at different times. You just don’t get a diagnosis of bipolar unless you experience radical mood swings that are outside the normal experience. This means that how I behave, how I think, and even how I look can change from month to month or week to week, according to my mood state. Sometimes I am depressed and the world seems a bleak and hopeless place. More frequently, I’m hypomanic, which means I have “elevated mood” without full-on mania (thankfully, since mania is a psychiatric emergency and I’m on strong drugs to try and keep a lid on that). In its happier form, hypomania makes me feel amazing, as if I could take on the world, but it can also overwhelm me with irritation or panic. So if I am bubbly when we first meet, but seem introverted or touchy the next time, believe me, it’s not about you.
It’s fair to say that even when I’m well, I am not on great terms with my body. I have spent the last decade gaining significant amounts of weight (and weight gain and increased appetite common are side effects of many drugs for bipolar), then losing, it only to gain it back again. The last time I really liked my body was about probably about nine years ago, when I’d shed the four stones I’d accumulated since my kids. Stable, I’m pretty ambivalent about both the diet and fashion industries. I look at thin women with envy, and I am often signed up to one online diet or another, but I know the diet trade exists to make money out of women like me and I worry about the impact of my behaviour on my 13 year old daughter. I adore clothes, but at the same time I worry that fashion spreads and mainstream clothing stores peddle the idea that the body of an underweight adolescent girl should be both desirable and attainable for all women.
Depressed, I ignore my body entirely other than to feed it. Low mood is like being in hibernation mode; all I want to do is eat and sleep. The worse I feel about myself, the more likely I am to binge. I don’t have a diagnosed eating disorder, but I know my eating is disordered and that’s a part of my bipolar. Eating something delicious can alleviate despair for a few seconds but the way I eat – secretly, with a fear of being caught, swallowing my “treat” so quickly I barely taste it – and accompanying weight gain only make me feel worse about myself.
When I start to get hypomanic, it’s like I’ve put on a pair of Happy Glasses. Suddenly everything looks and feels different, better, nicer. Colours seem brighter, and people are generally more attractive (if my tube carriage holds an amazing number of eye-catching people, I’m probably hypo). When I’m high, I also see myself in a better light. No matter what my weight, I believe I am sexy. Instead of wishing my breasts, hips and thighs away I am entranced by my fantastic, curvaceous figure. In this state, I either eat whatever I want (because frankly, who cares, when you’re this gorgeous?!) or I forget to eat at all, too busy thinking, writing, socialising, exercising.
For most people, hypomania leads to an increase in libido and a greater desire to flirt. This affects the way I dress – when my skirts get shorter and my necklines get lower, or I don’t even want to pop to the Co-op without makeup and accessories, it’s time to consider that I might be going high. Many people overspend when they’re high, and I have an increased desire to shop for clothes, shoes, jewelry and handbags (oh, how I love handbags!). Just as there are more attractive people, in my Happy Glasses there are more must-have items. Things leap out at me and feel so perfectly right that I have to buy them. In this state, I couldn’t care less about ethical concerns. All that matters is how my purchases make me feel, because hypomania’s all about me, me, me.
The irony is that the only time I feel really, truly happy with my body is when I’m mentally not that well, and that seems really sad. Now that I’m in recovery and my moods are stable I would like to do something about it. Losing the weight and keeping it off may simply not be feasible on the kind of meds I have to take, so I need to learn to live with myself as I am. I can’t afford therapy right now, but I’m looking into approaches such as Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating. I hope one day to be able to be able to look at my body in the mirror and think to myself, “You know what? That’s pretty OK.” Even without my glasses on.