Lifestyle 06 June 2018
For this author, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at once clarified and disorganized her life. Below she writes of the struggles and intricacies of dealing with her diagnosis, and how she emerged from the desolation...
For as long as I can remember, thoughts while alone were a strange phenomenon to me. As a youngster, I was barely ever alone. I loved being with my older sister. I studied and copied her every move, as most younger siblings do. I loved and appreciated my time with my family. I always wanted to be with them as their affection, attention and company felt good to me.
But then, there was the small alone time I had as a child. My sister was my play-date on a daily basis, and my cousins of similar age as well. I was certainly well-liked by my peers and had wonderful times playing sports and ordinary child-like fantasy games. Alone time was not routine, but on the rare occasions I was alone, I’m knew I did not like it.
" I was alone in this. All I had in my alone time was to reflect how alone I was in my depression."
I distinctly and vividly remember the ants. Every Sunday, my family was up very early for mass. My mother would wake me up and I would begrudgingly walk to the bathroom. Our duplex in Elizabeth, New Jersey was charming in its own right, but there were adorable little ants that lived in the cracks of our bathroom floor. I remember always thinking about their little ant lives, who ran everything and made the rules? Are they happy little ants? Are we cool now since they watch me pee sometimes? Much like the Tootsie Pop slogan, the world will never know.
Our church was huge, had a concert-like appeal, red carpet and tacky wine fabric covered chairs.
The music was far too loud for my young, sensitive ears. My sister and I played hangman a lot. Similarly with the ants in my childhood bathroom my mind wondered in that church too- why was a lady speaking “in tongues?", and why did some people just fall asleep at the altar when Pastor touched them? However, I never dared to ask. I just thought about it on my alone time.
As I started to grow and mature I was still very curious. Alone time was a good enough time to reflect on many things, but my thought patterns seemingly were a bit different. My thoughts were much darker, and the questions were no longer about curious existentialism in ants. My thoughts became more distraught, like why am I alive if I am suffering so much? I was a very happy person when surrounded by friends or family. Which is why I wanted to constantly be surrounded by people. I smiled more, I was a part of a team, I was eating and laughing regularly and got exercise like every other kid my age.
I know it began earlier, but the memory that stands out the most is when I woke up one morning and I just couldn’t do it that day. ‘It’ meaning being a sixth grader. I wasn’t sure why- but I lied to my mother and said I felt sick. I named every symptom in the book. So I stayed home that day. And I laid in bed pretty much all day, feeling this feeling I could not explain. I just know it wasn’t sadness anymore. It was my body rejecting me.
"Women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They're twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men."
It was telling me that I could not do this any longer. This meaning life. I started to hate this alone time, as it did not feel good. But pretending to not feel this way in public was a bigger hurdle to overcome. This is when I discovered what facades and hiding behind them were. I did it often and I did it well, but I could not hide my truth when I was alone. My thoughts and feelings of depression would overcome and take over me much like red ants when you step on their property.
This went on for years. Along with my fear of my depression being discovered. I hid in my depression closet for so long, but you would never know it. I attributed my mood swings and bouts of depression to being a teenager at times. I was a popular teen, attractive, well dressed, confidently changed my hair style twice a year, and was very social amongst my peers. In middle school, I was Class President and involved in many groups and organizations. That followed me in high school as well, I was in student government, nominated for homecoming queen, won Prom Princess and Prom Queen, and won many superlatives in the year book. I participated in school plays, musicals, talent shows, and always had genuinely great experiences. I truly loved High School and was very interested in making friends with everyone, not just the well known popular students in all grades.
But again, when I was alone, my thoughts were all around self depreciation and came from such a deep place of true depression. I attempted suicide in 9th grade after lying to my mother yet again. It was all too much for me and I did not feel as I was worthy of this life. Describing depression is truly one of the hardest things for me, because you cannot see it. Its so difficult to put into words how it feels to experience true joy, the anthesis is even more difficult. After failing that attempt, I decided I would continue to try my best. I honestly did not know anyone who felt like me, there were no assemblies in school that informed us about depression or mental illness. There were no books in the library. I was alone in this. All I had in my alone time was to reflect how alone I was in my depression. That was the worst part, feeling completely alone while surrounded by people who love you. How was that even possible in my life? I had it all.
"Women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They're twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men."
I lost interest in finding a University for me by Senior year of high school. I knew we couldn’t afford a theatre conservatory or university, and just like that, I gave up. So I decided to go to the closest university by our house which was Kean University. My depression went on a whole new level there. There were layers, colors, and songs of desperation I never thought were possible to hear feel and see while attending this university. I gave up to the point where I wouldn’t shower for days and would sleep in my car instead of going to class. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. But again, I hid it well. I wasn’t living, I was surviving.
My manic episode began at age 19 when I decided I had enough and needed to take a semester off. A manic episode is a mood state characterized by period of at least one week where an elevated, expansive, or unusually irritable mood exists. A person experiencing a manic episode is usually engaged in significant goal-directed activity beyond their normal activities. My thoughts were so grandiose I went from thinking I would be on Oprah, to I AM Oprah. Mania is the strangest thing because while you are manic it is the most exhilarating feeling in the world. I wrote extensively long and wordy poems and performed them at open mic. People were in awe of them, and my highs just kept getting more and more euphoric.
Fast forward to Newark Beth Israel Hospital, 2011, about 2 months later when my episode finally reached psychosis. I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder. I went home, did not shower or speak for three days. I was submerged into such a bad depression, worse than ever before. There was so much I remembered but there was no way I could have done those things. And what's worse, people were telling me things I said or did that I wasn’t aware I had done. It was terrifying and I couldn’t believe this was my current state. I knew I was never to pick up a pencil to paper and my days as an actor were over.
I did not write for seven years. I did not share my story or my illness to anyone who did not see me when I was manic. My illness was my constant elephant in the room, and it consumed me and became such a huge part of my identity. I let it become my crutch and I let it speak for me before I could utter a word. I gave my illness a worst stigma than society bestowed upon those who suffer from mental illness.
All the while, I knew that somehow there had to be some reason for me being on this planet. I didn’t know what it was, but I always felt like there had to be someone else, someone my age who had suffered and went through mania, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, someone to relate to. Then something happened.
One day I was searching through quotes on Google just for inspiration to make it through the day. I stumbled upon a quote that literally saved my life: “You were assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.” I started sobbing the most effortless and liberating tears. It was in that moment where I realized what my purpose was. I knew that the only way to find the people like me, was to write about the people like me. I had to come out of my bipolar closet. But, I had to save my life before changing anyone else’s life.
Social media is the best platform we have today. I decided to use Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube to come out as a person living with mental illness through my poetry.
One in three Americans struggles with a mental illness, but the rate is much higher in women. Women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They're twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men. Yet most people do not know this. So many people affected (women, men, teens, families) that need to be educated.
Mental illness does not discriminate against age, gender, or race. My journey is never-ending for me. I hope my story and way of coping and how I still live a fulfilling life will inspire many girls and women and I can be the person that I so desperately wished for back in middle school. It is so incredible to say that the weight I carried for so long is now lifted and I can be free to be me, unapologetically. I want everyone with a mental illness to feel this way. But we all must take the first step, we must bravely come forward in our truth. Thats where the magic lies.
8 Min Read
Disclaimer: I am writing this piece as someone who has thin privilege. I do not experience weight-based discrimination like those who live in larger bodies. In naming my privilege, I hope to highlight the fact that my experience of this topic is limited to what I have learned from the courageous work of body positivity and fat activists, colleagues, and clients of mine who live in larger bodies.
A note on "fat": Many fat activists and people in larger bodies have made the decision to reclaim the word "fat" as a neutral descriptor. The decision to do so is highly personal for individuals living in larger bodies, as many have experienced the word "fat" being weaponized against them. For the purposes of this article, I stick to the wording of "people in larger bodies" or "people in higher-weight bodies" to respect the journeys of those trying to decide what descriptor best matches their lived experience.
Michelle was a three-sport athlete in high school. While there was a part of her that enjoyed the camaraderie with her teammates, the sense of accomplishment she felt when setting new records — there was another part of her that participated in the hopes of shrinking her body. Michelle, who is now studying to be a therapist, didn't know about eating disorders when she was younger. She reflects, "I had this idea that I wanted to become a professional swimmer so that I would be able to exercise even more. I would get many compliments on my body during swim season, even though that was when I hated my body the most."
The comments Michelle received on her weight and body when she was restricting and compensating fueled her eating disorder. "There was an underlying message" she adds, "that my body wasn't good enough before I lost the weight."
"There was an underlying message" she adds, "that my body wasn't good enough before I lost the weight."
As an eating disorders treatment professional, I, unfortunately, hear accounts like Michelle's on a daily basis — a person loses weight due to an increasingly problematic relationship food — that weight loss is complimented, and the person continues engaging in behaviors that are extremely harmful. I've also heard countless stories from friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers sharing that they have received weight-loss compliments when they were experiencing immense pain and suffering — dying from cancer, grieving the loss of a spouse, or suffering from another debilitating illness.
With at least 20 million women and 10 million women in America alone suffering from an eating disorder at some point in their lives and countless others suffering from any number of physical or mental illnesses that might contribute to weight fluctuations, one would think that it would be common sense not to comment on a person's weight. Why are weight loss compliments such a common social gesture, despite their glaringly inappropriate and problematic connotations?
Why are weight loss compliments such a common social gesture, despite their glaringly inappropriate and problematic connotations?
It's a complex issue — while some people equate weight loss to desirability, others associate it with health and longevity (and many believe the two go hand-in-hand). But why? Why are these beliefs so deeply ingrained? One answer is fatphobia.
What is fatphobia?
Fatphobia is the fear of being fat or becoming fat, which results in the stigmatization of individuals that live in fat bodies. Fatphobia, which has both racist and classist origins, is at the root of our cultural obsession with thinness and diet culture.
Author of Fearing the Black Body, Sabrina Strings explains in her interview with NPR that 19th-century magazines, such as Harper's Bazaar, warned their white, middle and upper-class women audience that they must start to "watch what they ate" as a mechanism for differentiating themselves from slaves, creating a new aspect of racial identity (if you're interested in learning more about the racial origins and history of fatphobia check out the resources I've outlined at the end of this piece).
Fast forward 100 or so years, and our culture's fear of fatness shows up regularly on an individual, institutional, and systemic level (much like racism).
From a young age, we receive messages that being smaller is better — from thin barbie dolls with tight skin, thigh gaps, and virtually zero body fat to Disney princesses that are all more or less the same (thin) size. We see fatphobia on TV shows and movies both in casting (most people who land major roles live in thin bodies) and in the actual scripts (fat jokes). Not to mention that airlines don't make seats suitable for people in larger bodies, or that the fashion industry is particularly exclusive in its sizing and clothing lines.
From a young age, we receive messages that being smaller is better — from thin barbie dolls with tight skin, thigh gaps, and virtually zero body fat to Disney princesses that are all more or less the same (thin) size.
Weight stigma also impacts a person's chances of getting hired and the quality of health care they receive. Research shows that individuals who fall into higher weight categories are less likely to be hired than their thin counterparts. Additionally, weight-stigma in the health care system runs so rampantly that many individuals in higher weight bodies avoid the doctor's office for fear of being shamed or embarrassed. It's not uncommon, for instance, for someone who is "overweight" or "obese" to go to the doctor's office for a sinus infection and leave with a recommendation for weight loss.
Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking aspects of fatphobia is that individuals in larger bodies often internalize these attitudes, which leads to greater body image concern, anti-fat attitudes, depressive symptoms, stress, and reduced self-esteem.
Our collective fear of fatness is directly linked to the fact that it's extremely burdensome for people in higher-weight bodies to exist in this world.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Our collective fear of fatness is directly linked to the fact that it's extremely burdensome for people in higher-weight bodies to exist in this world. Instead of identifying this as a social justice issue, the majority of us have bought into the narrative that fat is bad and weight is always a matter of personal responsibility (spoiler: it's not).
Do individual choices impact a person's weight and health? Of course.
However, it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge that there are a number of factors that impact a person's weight even more so, than certain individual elements. These influences include but are not limited to: family history and genetics, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, sex, dieting history, exposure to trauma, chronic stress, racism, and/or discrimination, food insecurity, family habits and culture, sleeping habits, medical conditions, medications, and eating disorders.
Simply put, weight is far more complicated than most of us are willing to admit.
But what about health? What if a person has or desires to lose weight for "health reasons"?
Good question, to which I would say this:
- This question assumes that in order for a person to "be healthy" they have to pursue weight loss (they don't). In fact, putting weight loss on the back burner and focusing on healthy behaviors, rather than weight has been shown to improve clinically relevant in various health and physiological markers, including blood pressure, blood lipids, eating and activity habits, self-esteem, and body image.
- Assuming that everyone should be able to fit into our culture's irrational thin ideal and obtain a perfect picture of health while doing so is ill-informed.
- If diets actually did what they promised they would do, the $70 billion dollar diet industry would be null and void. What most people don't know is that the diet industry — fueled by fatphobia — actually sets its consumers up to fail (and keep coming back for more). There is a large body of research that actually shows that dieting usually results in initial weight loss followed by weight gain. While there's nothing wrong with weight gain, most people don't set out to diet thinking they will gain weight. The human body is incredibly adaptive, and often, weight gain after dieting is a result of a person's body trying to protect them from starvation.
- The people who lose weight and keep it off generally fall into a few camps:
1) They follow meticulous diet and exercise regimens in order to maintain the weight loss (one might call this disordered eating).
2) They are suffering from a serious mental or medical illness that results in suppressed weight.
3) Their survival genetics aren't quite as strong as the majority of the population, and for whatever reason, their body was okay with losing the weight and keeping it off (while there are some individuals who do fall into this camp, this certainly isn't the majority).
This brings me back to my main point: Weight loss compliments do more harm than good because we don't ever really know how the person lost the weight and there is a high likelihood that they will gain at least some of it back. Although they may be well-intended in the moment, weight loss compliments say nothing more than "Congrats, you're closer to matching our society's incredibly narrow beauty standards…"
View this post on InstagramA post shared by Emily Murray, RD, LDN (@murraynutrition) on Jul 6, 2020 at 5:38am PDT
So what do we do with this information? How do we move forward? Here are a few practical tips:
1. Continue to educate yourself about fatphobia, diet culture, and weight-inclusive principles. At the end of this article I, with the help of my colleagues, have provided a list of resources to help you get you started. Once you learn more, speak out about these issues, and seek out initiatives and policies that are more inclusive for all bodies.
2. Make an unapologetic commitment to refrain from weight loss compliments. Just. don't. do it. As I previously mentioned in an Instagram post above, it can feel pretty uncomfortable to not offer praise to someone who is subtly or not-so-subtly asking for it, especially if you love them. And yet, how powerful is it to say to someone "I love you for who you are, not what you look like."
3. Consider these alternatives to weight loss compliments:
4. Say nothing. Literally. Close your Mouth. Don't comment.
- "I'm so happy to see you"
- "I love you so much"
- "How are you doing?"
- "What's new?"
- "I so enjoy spending time with you!"
- "I'm glad you're feeling good" — only use this one when you know, for a fact, that the person is actually feeling good.
In summary, there just really isn't an appropriate reason to comment on another person's weight. Weight loss compliments do more harm than good by upholding oppressive systems, perpetuating excluding beauty ideals, and often inaccurately equating thinness to health. On an individual level, you never really know how or why a person loses weight or if they will gain any of it back. So, in the spirit of being kind, sensitive, and decent human beings, let's lay off the weight loss "compliments" for good.
- Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings
- When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies by Jane R. Hirschmann
- The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
- Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison
- Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls by Jes Baker
- Land Whale by Jes Baker
- Body Respect by Lindo Bacon, PhD
- The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
- Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe
- You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar