**TW: contains references to weight, dieting, eating issues**
There are many things that come and go with the ebb and flow of bipolar. Energy levels, creativity, ability to work, self-esteem, amount of sleep, and so on. But across the mood changes there is a pervasive lack of control, which I have sometimes described as feeling like a piece of flotsam. I can try to manage early symptoms and tackle them before they grow, but despite trying very hard I can’t really control what my mood will do, whether I will have psychotic features this time, whether my anxiety will lie dormant or spike from the moment of waking.
Viewed through a long telescope stretching back to my childhood, there is a clear pattern of the gaining or loss of control being intertwined with food, overeating and feeling out of control or trying to regain control through restricting my food consumption. This game of dietary ping-pong is written on my body for all to see – in fact others probably see the changes better than I do. At 19 I was an evangelical vegan and yoga bunny. I was very, very uptight about what I ate and felt a sense of moral superiority about my food choices. My weight and BMI dropped to an unhealthy point, my periods stopped and people started asking if I was anorexic. This enraged me as I felt that my restriction was all about ethicals. I had zero insight into the fact that I was very depressed and lonely and that I was attempting to exercise control in any way I could.
Over recent years of being unwell I have been almost unaware of my body, dragging it around with only the odd moment of horror as I catch myself in a mirror. I have not let Tom see me naked for a very long time. I have just been doing whatever I needed to survive each day, overeating and binging, binging and overeating. I would promise myself I wouldn’t make sugar the focal point of my day, that I wouldn’t build it around going out to the Co-op to buy a Coke at lunchtime, that I wouldn’t go there again later for my “afternoon treat”, that one treat would not become three and that I would not hide in the stairwell, pushing the chocolate into my mouth without even tasting it. I promised myself I would not have to hide wrappers I‘d torn off with my teeth in a frenzy of desire for what is inside. Unlike may who binge, I experience no desire to purge because for me the payoff is the comforting feeling of the food heavy in my stomach. And so slowly, slowly I haven gained a stone, two stones, then three, the overeating combining with the quetiapine and the sedation to create a “perfect storm” for weight gain.
And now as I am unexpectedly, and probably tenuously, well I am suddenly able to address it. I have thrown myself into the use of my FitBit, which has lain forlorn and dust covered on the chest of drawers for many months. I am using it as encouragement to take more exercise and have used it to develop an eating plan, which requires a fairly slender intake of calories a day. I am doing more and more exercise, and have begun to get very agitated and irritated if I am prevented from working out. I have form for this; when I used the WeightWatchers system about 10 years ago I consistently exercised more and took in fewer points that recommended.
Presenting the Mental Health First Aid slide on eating disorders makes me squirm. Services aren’t interested in my subclinical eating issues but terms like “compensatory behaviour” make me wince. I see the potential for me to take things too far. Just as I once concealed suicidal feelings from Tom, I am already fudging how little I eat, how much exercise I take, scared he will want to take it all away.
Because for the first time in ages I feel in control. I have found a coping mechanism in the face of all the uncertainty in my life. Part of me feels like a rubbish feminist for wanting to more closely resemble an “acceptable” body shape and I tried to like the shape I was, I really did, but I could not do fat acceptance. I just can’t help the delight at the reappearance of my waist, the looser trousers, the somewhat (OK, not very) more muscular abdomen. And in a way I feel that I have to lose weight right now, in this moment while I am well, because who knows what tomorrow may bring? I want to exercise control while I still have it.