Weight Gain: Bipolar Symptoms, Medication Side Effects, and Disordered Eating

I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a wildly embarrassing acute manic episode. I did it all. I claimed to be Jesus. I punched a friend, who I thought was the devil. I got arrested in the lobby of my freshman dormitory. I stripped off all my clothes and demanded the police come look at my naked body as proof of my divinity. And this was all during orientation week of my very first college semester. You would think there could be nothing worse, and that after such an episode, I would go to any lengths to stay stable and sane. But it’s more complicated than that. 

Over the course of only three months following my hospitalization, I gained about forty pounds. This might come across as vain, but there could not have been a single greater deterrent to my treatment compliance. The second my psychiatrist told me that the medication carried the side effect of weight gain, I was done. There was no way in hell I would take that stuff anymore. I devised elaborate schemes to trick my parents and my doctors into thinking I was complying with treatment. 

The risk could not have been greater. I felt embarrassed, humiliated, and confused by my new condition. I had no idea about mental illness or mania or psychosis. I was absolutely blind-sided. And yet, I was willing to risk my very sanity if it meant that I wouldn’t gain any more weight. But before I convince you that my weight gain was purely due to medication, let me give you a little history. 

I was once the fat kid. I grew up overweight and had a considerable amount of angst around my body and ideas of attractiveness. At a certain point when I was a teenager, I decided that enough was enough. I became determined to lose weight. I studied diet books and fitness magazines, and I ended up losing over fifty pounds. In my adolescent mind, I had finally arrived. I was now attractive, cool, and somehow impervious to any teasing or bullying. I was, for the first time in my life, confident in my appearance. 

But then I went too far. What started as a sincere desire to get healthier and trim down turned into an obsession with my body and food. What began as “cheat meals” turned into binge-eating. My mind quickly slid down the slippery path of body dysmorphia and disordered eating. And this is where things get complicated. 

Over the years since my bipolar diagnosis, I’ve seen my weight fluctuate along with my mood. Yo-yo dieting met yo-yo moods, and I was lost. At times, I thought my mood was to blame for my eating, and at other times, I believed my eating was responsible for my mood. It got so bad that I became convinced that the perfect diet existed, one that would make my bipolar disorder entirely disappear. 

This belief in the miracle food cure for my bipolar symptoms only put more and more pressure on my eating, and as a result, the binging got worse and worse. Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve benefitted greatly from a more nutritious and balanced eating plan. But the obsession, the shame, and the resultant weight gain, over and over again, as I would swear off foods only to have them one last time—that was not bipolar disorder. That was disordered eating. 

I don’t know how many others struggle with their weight, or more importantly, struggle with love and acceptance of their bodies. Mood irregularities seem to make any mood-altering behavior more likely to occur. I imagine that many people with bipolar disorder are especially vulnerable to disordered eating, like myself. I find that the more I share, the more I find others that are going through the same thing. In some small way—sometimes in a big way—knowing others are on the same path gives me strength and hope. 

Today, I am fortunate to have sought recovery for disordered eating as well as my bipolar disorder. It is very difficult for me to separate the two. I notice my disordered eating symptoms tend to flare up when I’m feeling anxious, overwhelmed, bored, or depressed. The most important part of recovery has been body appreciation, no matter where my weight is at the moment. I am grateful and fortunate to be here, to be alive, and to be sane. My body makes that possible, no matter how much I weigh. Medication helps too, and so I find a way to make it work. 

Chris Cole has authored a book recounting his experiences, and he’s now a life coach for folks in recovery. Read the rest of his posts for IBPF here

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