The Weight of It All

By Suzanne Lea

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 8 years ago. Since then, I have gained a grand total of 80 lbs. 80 lbs is a pretty big number and it still feels a bit unreal to me. How could I have let that happen? It was actually pretty easy. The weight gain didn’t happen all at once. It crept on, a few pounds a year, eventually adding up. On good days, when I feel like my old self, I’m almost startled when I pass a mirror. I forget that this is who I’ve become. It’s no wonder I feel this way. Everything in our society is built to perpetuate a certain beauty standard. From the size of the seats on an airplane to the size of models on the runway, we’re told that thin is better. Watch television for just an hour and you’ll see that beauty is the most important commodity. Are your teeth white enough? Are you ready to jump start your summer body with a per-packaged diet meal? Do you have acne? Frizzie hair? Wrinkles around your eyes? If so, buy, buy, buy these products and then you’ll look better. And if you look better, you’ll feel better. This is the lie we are told. Eventually, this is the lie we tell ourselves.

There are so many reasons why I have gained the weight. Firstly, there are the medications. Scientific America reported that, according to a 2014 review of eight different studies, as many as 55 percent of patients who take modern anti-psychotics experience weight gain. This is believed to be a side effect caused by a disruption of the chemical signals controlling appetite. Many of us are prescribed (off-label) these same anti-psychotics to treat other conditions, like depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and post-traumatic stress disorder. There is also a pretty substantial connection between antidepressants and weight gain, although little is known about the cause. Some research say antidepressants cause weight gain. Some say that weight gain causes depression. It’s the old chicken or the egg question. Which came first? I’m not altogether certain it really matters how you got there, once you’ve gained the weight.

I would not begin to blame my weight gain solely on the medication. I know that there are so many other reasons. Firstly, since my diagnosis, I live a far more sedentary lifestyle. I stay in instead of going out. I isolate myself from friends. I live in my pajamas. I often choose taking a nap over going for a walk because the day is just too bright. If I can’t get out of bed, how in the world can I go to the gym? Secondly, I eat my feelings. Food can be an incredible source of comfort. When I feel empty, I try to fill the hollow space with food. I celebrate feeling good with a home-cooked meal. I drown my sorrows in a bowl of Fruit Loops. Did something bad happen on the news today? Well, shove it down and put a piece of pie on top of it. Afterwards, I feel really guilty and swear I’ll make better choices. I don’t make better choices, or at least not for long, and then I feel guilty again. It’s incredibly hard to admit that this is where I am: feeling un-pretty, guilty and embarrassed. This is the shame cycle that leads to more failure, not better choices.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read quite a few articles about fighting the weight gain associated with mental illness and psychiatric drugs. There are a few recurring tips and I have to admit, they make sense. (1) Don’t start a “diet!” Begin by putting smaller portions on your plate. (2) Make healthier food choices when that option is available. (3) On the days when you can, go for a walk. Those days will add up. (4) Slow down and be mindful of when and why you are eating. (5) Most importantly, keep a schedule to avoid late night binges. These are all important tools to use when I am struggling with my weight but after putting a few of them into practice, I’ve also come away with a few thoughts of my own. Here goes: (1) Set realistic goals. You’re a person, not a machine. (2) Don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Life is about balance. (3) Don’t say mean things to yourself. Negative self-talk can be a killer. (4) Finally, for the love of God, ignore those awful television commercials Try to remember that your value is not contingent on how you look and your worth is not measured on the scale. Most of us have survived some pretty horrible stuff. I think if we can live through that, we can crush this.

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