Just like my bipolar disorder, my eating disorder started in bits and pieces and later formed a cycle. Did you know that as many as 14% of people with bipolar disorder have a co-occurring eating disorder? And its not just women! There are male anorexics, bulimics and men with Bigorexia, lifting and taking steroids to achieve the perfect male form.
As a depressed and lonely 11-year-old, I snuck Dads secret ice cream from the freezer to sooth my despair. I began shoplifting and sharing cookies from the store with others, hoping they would like me, only to find their friendship lasted as long as the cookies.
High school was brutal. Its not a place of social charity. Kids form exclusive cliques and I didnt belong. And it wasnt for lack of trying. Teenagers I had known in middle school ignored me in the halls. Meanwhile, I scrutinized my physical profile in the mirror constantly, certain that my exclusion was due to me being heavy. No one wants a fat friend, right? I reasoned that if I was slender enough I would have friends. I pinned everything that was wrong in my life to my weight.
Then came the gym teacher who made us run all hour, every class, all year long. I found euphoria. I discovered runners high and that feeling of purity afterwards. My moods began to lift. After an intense run, I would lose that feeling of being overweight. I thought that if I was thin, Id have friends. I ran all the time, even after school and a grueling hour of running in PE. Running made me feel even better than food, but I still ate like crazy. The vicious cycle. In recent years, this eating disorder is classified as exercise bulimia instead of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS).
I weighed myself constantly. After weighing, Id either be plotting my next binge or exercise purge. Because the binging was secretive and the exercise seen as a healthy habit, nobody saw a problem. And since I maintained a 3.6 GPA in high school, my depression wasnt recognized. My parents had four kids and were very busy. My father referred to my big boned younger sister as Tubby. I shuddered to think if that was me.
Meanwhile, my mood disorder blossomed. The more manic I was, the more I ran. When depressed, all I could do was binge. Then Id be consumed with punitive self-talk. Then the mood would sink again. I couldnt win for losing.
By the time I was 26, I had the first of what would be many orthopedic surgeries. My feet had warped into a severe hammertoe and I could not wear a regular shoe. The doctor said that this was due to all the exercise. Once I recovered, I was off to the races. Then, both my knees needed arthroscopic surgery. Ten years later, my feet rebounded back into hammertoe shape and this surgery was far more serious. It involved removing the joint of both big toes and fusing them so they would be straight. There were complications and I didnt heal for five years. I was in LA, doing commercials and voice overs. My acting teachers and agents all told me I needed to lose weight. Then they freaked when I got too thin from starving myself.
Off I went to a womens recovery center for psychiatric/eating disorders. There are varying approaches to treating eating disorders. None of them are perfect. This center served all food groups, even cake and candy, in appropriate portions. Our first therapist was very young, and in recovery from bulimia. During my stay there, she had a relapse and was allowed to continue working. That kept things real, as it was a reminder that with eating disorders, one cant entirely abstain from food. We have to eat. Life happens and so do occasional eating disorder slips.
Eating disorders are extremely persistent. They are the only source of power for a person with painful and uncontrollable mood states, like people who have bipolar disorder.
There was an ownership change at the center while I was there and they brought a new therapist in. She was a big 12-stepper, drilling AA into our grueling eating disorder sessions. Boy, did that make me mad. As a former drug addict, I had done the steps numerous times and resisted this. After all, how many times can you accept that you are powerless over everything in your life?
Luckily, I had a great psychiatrist, worldly, highly educated and clinically experienced. She reassured me that the 12 steps were not the only way to recover. She said the program was highly paternal and triggering to some women. She knew I had approval issues with my father.
Most importantly, she educated me on the importance of compliance with bipolar disorder treatment to prevent the highs getting higher and the lows getting lower. That would make it even more difficult and complicated to treat.
I moved back home to Del Mar, next to the racetrack and across from the ocean. It was a dark, damp winter. I was in my first mixed mood. I ran on the beach for miles. Then I slipped into my wetsuit and swam way out past the waves. I saw small and medium sharks on a regular basis. The danger thrilled me.
I put two and two together. A big part of my obsession with body image came from my upbringing. My mom was as thin as Audrey Hepburn and my Dad often praised her for this. His second wife? The same. In his own way, Dad has always seen us as racehorses: silent, sleek, swift and sure. I was prohibited from spending any time with the younger half sisters. He thought Id influence them and theyd end up sick. As if choice had anything to do with it. Stumbling along, needing approval and still not getting it, I felt unworthy.
To escape the pressure to be perfect, I took a vacation in Florida and never returned. I was put on an antipsychotic, which helped a lot. I was hungry like never before. I was losing control. So I took a so called healthy diet supplement with a dangerous stimulant called Ma Huang in it to control my appetite. Ma Huang was the first Phen in the wildly popular Phen Phen diet pill and is now banned by the FDA. I was lucky to stay out of the hospital.
My injuries grew more serious and I enrolled in an outpatient eating disorder program that Medicare covered. Indoctrinated with the idea of balance in our food, pursuits, self talk and life, I thought it was all baby talk and hated it. I felt so much anger toward the therapist. She was a former beauty queen and television anchorwoman.
Shes not on these psych meds, I thought, she has no clue. She sure didnt. She discharged me for being five pounds overweight. Weight wasnt supposed to be the main issue, but you can see why eating disorders prevail in our society. Everyone gives lip service to healthy body image, and continues to promote stick thin women in magazines, movies, social media and television. The same thing was true of that last eating disorder program.
I now realize balance can be as exciting as I make it. I have other things I like to do. I absolutely dont want to spend my entire life compensating for binges! I dug up my notes on the balance wheel. I started blogging about my eating disorder on Tumblr and found a community of people like me. Im on a food plan that requires some discipline, but its doable.
Recently I found out that I have a medication side effect of high blood sugar, a pit stop towards diabetes type two. I cant blame it all on the medicine. Forty years binging on sugar has worn out my pancreas. Now the food plan is more important than ever.
I will always have an eating disorder. It is hardwired inside me. But I dont allow it to run my life anymore. Its up to me. And I threw away the scale.
Read the rest of Allison’s posts for IBPF here. Allison has also written for NAMI Not Alone and has personal blogs at www.bipolarbrainiac.wordpress.com and www.astrongradio.tumblr.com