My Body Image and Bipolar Disorder
by Elizabeth Drucker
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder towards the end of high school,
I spent a lot of time listening to my doctor describe everything that I would need to do to accommodate the illness in my life, like reducing my stress and getting enough sleep. None of the medication options he suggested sounded all that inviting to me, but at that moment, I would have done almost anything to stabilize my moods. I was struggling through my senior year and my bipolar diagnosis, while scary, allowed me latch onto some sort of hope that life might get better.
At that time, there was still so much that I didn’t know or understand about how these treatments would impact my mind and body. When I glanced down at my hands, I didn’t envision them trembling every time I reached over to plop a serving of rice or salad onto my plate. I didn’t see myself pausing at the whiteboard in my statistics class in graduate school, struggling to draw a normal distribution curve, because my shaky hands had a mind of their own. And, I never thought that standing in line to purchase a cart full of groceries, the woman behind me would mistake my bloated abdomen for a baby bump and inquire when I was due.
But I was intoxicated by the far-reaching effects of normalcy.
Sanity was infectious, spreading rapidly throughout my entire body, and I wanted more. I was having more of those moments when I felt “okay.” And I was able to make more long-term plans for myself without considering the fact that I might need to be in the hospital or trying a new mood stabilizing medication. After numerous medication changes and weekly psychotherapy with a psychiatrist who knew just how to save my life, I was becoming some version of normal. For the past few years, the normalcy has increased and I have found myself working my way through graduate school, taking exams, giving presentations, and also reaching out to other people who may be struggling.
As much as they help me, I still get tired of taking so many tablets and capsules before I fall asleep each night. The side effects can be difficult to manage. But then, I think about the chaos of my life before I recovered from my bipolar illness and know that shaky hands and weight gain are a small price to pay to get my life back.
So, I have concluded that it’s long overdue for me to reconfigure my thinking a little bit, including my body image. Before my bipolar meds came around, I didn’t have to worry about what my cravings for barbecue chips and Mountain Dew might do to my figure. I was the type of person who didn’t have to exercise all that much, but just stayed slim without really even trying.
But now that I’ve been working so hard to get my life back, I also need to love my body just the way it is, medication side effects or not. My classmates who watch my hands shake during presentations don’t know the underlying story: that I am doing exactly the right thing, the only thing to stay healthy from a pretty serious illness that nearly claimed my life. Everyone has a story of their own, everyone is struggling with something, and everyone is just trying to do their best each day. I hope that sharing my story will encourage others to seek help and make whatever changes they need to live the best version of their lives, each day.
Getting fully healthy, mentally and physically, will force me to consider all the efforts I have made to build a life for myself. Exercise will also help with the endorphins, whether it is walking my little corgi around the block or dancing to old 90s pop music in my bedroom. The pounds won’t just melt off, but along with a healthier diet, exercise is another dimension of getting my mind and body healthy again. When I look in the mirror, I have to look at myself lovingly and acceptingly. I might weigh a few extra pounds because my medications affect my metabolism, but they have also done something so beautiful for me, something that I never could have done on my own: they have pulled me from the brink of life-threatening mood swings.
And I will be forever grateful for that.
Elizabeth Drucker is a writer in Chicago. She has a BA in Sociology and a master's degree in Education.