Reprinted from "Women" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(4), pp. 28-29
I'm not picky. I'll mainline sugar, carbs and fats in any form — ideally alternating between scoops of Snow Star Neapolitan ice cream and thick chunks of cheddar cheese piled on butter - slathered bread along with huge handfuls of Old Dutch potato chips. Sound appetizing? Only to someone desperately needing to extinguish the excruciating feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem and severe depression.
At 17, as I entered university and began dating, I struggled with long, knee-buckling periods of depression. This was also when classic signs of an eating disorder began to emerge. My feelings of despair were just like anybody else's, I thought. I was depressed because my eating was out of control, right? I couldn't have been more wrong.
After graduating from grade 12 at the healthy weight of 130 lbs., I decided to lose 'some' weight. I did. Quickly. I exercised and starved myself, consuming only diet cokes, half-muffins and perhaps a 'sandwich' made of a wafer-thin slice of deli meat and lettuce. My weight plummeted to 110 lbs. in just over six weeks. I stand at 5'6" with, normally, a rather athletic build. This was not my ideal weight.
Then, in a moment of 'weakness,' I ate an alarming amount of food. My body was no doubt literally starving. From then on I struggled to stop 'pigging out' as I called it in my journal.
On 'good' food days, I consumed 500–1000 calories and played tennis or ran for at least an hour every day. And, of course, I obsessed about how much I ate, what I ate and what I would like to eat. On 'bad' food days, I 'failed.' I succumbed to my hunger, and binged on 'outlaw' foods. I ate until I felt sick, couldn't move and fell asleep.
After five years of these cycles, starving myself moved into the background as I binged and exercised to maintain my weight. I tried to eat as I thought a 'normal' person would eat, but always returned to bingeing and exercise — and the guilt and shame that came with it.
I knew my eating behaviour was different from other people's. I knew I had an eating disorder. So I enlisted the help of a counsellor at a family services clinic. Through counselling, I recognized that I used food to stuff unwanted feelings into temporary submission. I discovered how unlovable, abandoned, and utterly hopeless I felt. I discovered Overeaters Anonymous. I went to meetings, to therapy, practised assertiveness and set boundaries. I believed, as my therapist did, that if I just 'felt my feelings,' learned to love myself, found better coping tools and came to terms with family of origin issues, I would no longer need to emotionally overeat.
But insights were no match for these deep-cutting feelings of worthlessness. I became an extremely insightful depressed person. Wanting to binge never left me. Either I 'white-knuckled it' (not compulsively eating or exercising, but wanting to with every atom of my being) or I gave in.
For a further four years, I fought the compulsion to overeat. I also fought guilt, depression and anxiety. I called in sick, slept for 14–16 hours a day, didn't shower, didn't call people. The bingeing got worse, and so did my moods. I began to alternate into mania. Eventually one of the manias catapulted into psychosis and I landed in the Lions Gate Hospital psychiatric ward. And still, it took another three or four years, several suicidal depressions and destructive manias and psychoses to fully establish that what I had been enduring was actually bipolar illness.
Guilt, depression, anxiety — aren't these emotions everybody experiences when doing psychotherapy? Perhaps. But the severity and the longevity of these feelings should have been a red flag for my counsellor. My therapist never suggested I was clinically depressed. My GP didn't twig when I went for my yearly physicals and told her how I was feeling, though she should have — there is depression and bipolar disorder on both sides of my family.
If only I had known depression could be an illness and not just a set of feelings. If I had known the behaviours I exhibited were classic signs of depression, perhaps something could have been done sooner.
I continued with psychotherapy and began trials of medication. The bingeing continued throughout the search for the right kind, combination and dosage of meds. Many prescriptions later, I finally began to feel like myself. I also noticed that as my doctor and I refined my medical cocktail, my bingeing and compulsive exercising began to diminish.
A year ago, my overeating stopped being a problem. Now, as long as I continue to do therapy, take medication and manage my emotions well, my eating patterns remain healthy. And so does my mood. Though I still experience minor manias and mini depressions, they are much less severe and shorter in duration.
I feel sad that the true culprit—the mood disorder— was not targeted sooner. Once my illness was properly treated, the feelings of hopelessness and self-loathing (classic signs of depression) began to fade—and so did the compulsive overeating.
I'm not saying my time in therapy was wasted, but I was dealing with more than psychological issues. I have a psychiatric (read 'physiological') illness and I need more than therapy to stay healthy. Medication is an essential part (though only one part) of my holistic recovery plan. Taking medication is not necessarily right for everyone, but it is for me.
My psychiatrist says that for some of us with a mood disorder, not taking medication is like boxing with our hands tied behind our back. With the right meds, our hands become untied, though we still have to fight the good fight. And I'll be damned if I go down without a good fight.
About the author
Victoria is a mental health educator. Through her company, Crazy for Life Co., she provides corporate keynotes and workshops, with a specialty in depression and the workplace. Her one-person show, Crazy for Life, tells her own story of overcoming bipolar disorder and psychosis. The show has toured throughout Canada and abroad. Victoria welcomes your queries at firstname.lastname@example.org