My Eating Disorder Saved My Life
I have struggled with identity all my life. One word to describe me, one concept or community that I could cling on to and immerse myself in. Kind, intelligent, giving. Bipolar, female, gay. Of course nothing encapsulated me, described me wholly, no matter how hard I tried to identify. I needed definitions, definitions of me.
This need, I think, came from years of undiagnosed Bipolar I Disorder, along with years of trying to fit in the “straight” mold of traditional femininity. All my formative years I was trying to be normal, normal mentally, normal in my sexuality and gender presentation, and all those years I was failing. I could not find a word that signified something I could fit into. And so I started to starve myself.
It happened slowly at first. I had always been a very thin child and adolescent, verging on emaciated, simply because of my activity level and already-light eating habits. But when I was eighteen that changed. I joined my university’s swim team and quickly gained around 20 lbs. I went from 95 lbs. to 118 lbs. in a matter of months. And suddenly the last clearly identifying feature I had left disappeared. I wasn’t like other straight girls but I didn’t know I was gay; I certainly wasn’t like “normal”, “sane”, people, but I didn’t know I could be helped. I didn’t know who I was or where I fit in. The one thing I could control about my identity was my weight. The one thing I had always been was thin, and suddenly (in my opinion at the time, although 118 for a girl 5’6” is a very healthy weight, and even a little low) I had lost even that.
That, if I’m being very honest, is the moment I would point to as the exact time my eating disorder began. And though it began very consciously it quickly spiraled out of control. At first I was limiting portions of food, and then I was skipping days of eating altogether, and at last I was binge-eating and starving myself on alternate days. I would go two or three days without eating, relishing the high of starvation and the lightness of being thin, feeling the power of control buzzing in my ears and darkening my vision. I dropped the 20 lbs. in no time, and then more.
Over the course of about a year and a half I managed to drop the weight and keep it off, hovering between 98 lbs. and 100 lbs. I did not warrant hospitalization because of my weight but it was still extremely low. I was physically weak yet filled with a hyper, manic buzz at all times, broken only by deep, unbearable periods of depression. It was this depression that caused my mother to encourage me to get help. She suggested I get checked for thyroid problems before seeing a therapist just to eliminate that possibility. I was in the middle of a depressive episode when I saw my general practitioner, and when she gave me the depression / mania test I answered negatively to any suggestion that I had ever experienced mania, simply because happiness and energy seemed so foreign to me in my depression I couldn’t imagine having too much of them. I was diagnosed with unipolar depression, which was as much as the doctor could diagnose, and immediately given an anti-depressant: Lexapro.
Lexapro, to me even now, is the devil. Within two, maybe one and a half weeks on only Lexapro, my disorder had become ultra rapid-cycling, full of previously sporadic psychotic features, and had added mixed moods to the hellish mix. I was crazier than I had ever been. In fact I can barely remember much of my 20th year, and little of the beginning of my 21st. For about two months I raged in a constant, sleepless insanity, beating my exhausted body any way I could. And one of those ways, the best of those ways, was to purge.
I would eat, stuff my face with anything I could find, simply to have something that I could violently vomit back up. It hurts to purge, it brings tears to your eyes, kneeling so profoundly alone in the dark over a toilet: it feels like the end of life. And yet it is the perfect way to exercise the demons of madness.
My eating disorder and my affective disorder got to the point where I forgot to eat for days at a time, purging anyway, and then binged and purged several times a day for weeks. In my state of total insanity, I told everyone I knew that I thought I had an eating disorder, unaware of what that would even mean to them. I soon found out. It meant therapy, immediately. The day after I told my parents, my father drove me to a therapist and waited while I answered dozens of questions. At the end of that first session I was informally diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, a diagnosis that stood the test of several later, eventually incorrect, diagnoses, and anorexia/bulimia.
It took me six months to return to healthy eating habits and most-of-the-time healthy thoughts about food and weight, and two years until I even had stable periods of mental health amid the episodes of Bipolar Disorder. I am positive, looking back at how sick I was with undiagnosed Bipolar, that I would not—could not—have lived much longer without getting help. My eating disorder, yes, would have seriously hurt me had it been allowed to go any further, but Bipolar would have killed me. In a way, they both saved my life from the other.
I’m still fighting for recovery (in attitude and lifestyle if not genetically) from Bipolar, and unhealthy thoughts about my weight and food are at least a monthly occurrence. But thanks to getting help soon enough, for both these disorders, I survived them both and am still learning more about who I am apart from them, or any other labels. Knowing where I fit, knowing that I DO fit somewhere, has given me the courage to abandon the unhealthy and strive for the healthy, because I’ve realized that who I really am is simply me.
Thank you for writing this, Kaity. I continue to struggle with a lifelong eating disorder, and I’m now 35. I notice that this was written in 2012, and it is my hope that you have continued to thrive since the time this was posted.