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"When Bipolar leads to disordered eating" - Alice's story

Content warning: This blog contains references to suicide

Eating disorders are complex, and there is so much misinformation around them.

I never would have thought I’d develop an eating disorder. I didn’t have the ingredients. Wasn’t a gymnast or a ballerina. Our family didn’t diet, there was no scale on the bathroom floor or rules around snacks. As a teen my body image was fine, I mostly thought of school, friends, hobbies, and academic aspirations. But as I climbed out of depression, I developed what I would have never guessed… an eating disorder. I have been hesitant about sharing my story, but it feels like the right time.

So many people struggle with their eating and bipolar, but it’s often not discussed.

It’s estimated that up to 14% of those with Bipolar also meet the criteria for an eating disorder, and many more likely have issues around food like binging or yoyo dieting.

In 2015 I was 16 and sitting my GCSE exams. With future hopes of medical school, I knew I had to work hard. I kept pushing, writing till the early hours, getting very little sleep. I was going faster and faster and while others warned me to slow down, I didn’t stop. As school ended and still sleepless nights continued, it seemed I would never need to stop, until I did, falling through the summer into a deep depression.

During this depression I attempted suicide, I dropped out of college and became isolated. But as my mood lifted, I didn’t want to focus on my situation, instead drawing my attention to how my clothes were tight. It seemed a distraction I could get behind and maybe see improvements in my life. It was my first attempt at calorie counting and a step down the eating disorder rabbit hole.

It started with bulimia and then anorexia, then OSFED. The less I ate, the more I binged and as a result purged. Each time I tried to eat even less. I felt trapped in a spiral unable to break free and fearful of weight gain. You would think I would have been happy fitting into smaller clothes, but now I was scared I would gain it back.

Alongside this, each year my bipolar episodes became more extreme, leading to months of hospital-grade mania and periods of debilitating depression. I could also be stable for long periods, but due to weight gain from medication, I was easily pulled into trying to lose weight again.

Like my bipolar, my eating disorder is episodic. When manic, I was euphoric and confident, I would not feel the pull to lose weight. When depressed I was consumed by self-hatred and unhappiness but was not motivated to restrict. The most at-risk periods were during mixed episodes where my mania tipped into depression (aka dysphoric mania). This looked like severe insomnia, lots of energy, racing thoughts/speech, recklessness combined with feelings of depression and agitation. During these times I could go a long time without eating and then binge and purge intensely.

When stable my self-esteem was good but my body image wasn’t. The media is very negative towards those in bigger bodies, ads are everywhere; from getting rid of stomach fat, to workouts you must try. I saw weight loss as a good focus for me, a misguided attempt of self-care. I joined a dieting group at one point and tried everything. I had the motivation but no matter how ‘healthy’ the diet was it always took me down the rabbit hole. It’s hard to accept your body when you gain weight and look nothing like what is idealised online.

As time went on it became clear to me that I couldn’t live like this. It wasn’t worth it.

It took time to recover, and I have had to recover many times. I’ve had to change the media I’ve been consuming and learn that dieting is not good for me. But overall, it has been worth it.

I have been solid in my recovery for over 2 years. During this time, I have learnt 3 things…

  1. First, I know for myself I can never diet. By eating intuitively, I have eliminated binging as I feel fulfilled.
  2. Second, managing my Bipolar has been crucial in my recovery. This has meant taking medication despite the weight gain alongside it.
  3. Third, is that eating disorders affect people differently, not everyone looks the same or has the same story. This means your recovery will look different too. If you are reading these stories and don’t relate that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you don’t have an eating disorder or it’s not valid. If you feel like you are not represented, maybe you could share your story too.

-Contributed by Alice

If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website.

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