I was a skinny kid who grew a lot less skinny.
Do my bipolar meds have something to do with that?
Do I care?
I’ve noticed a lot of people with bipolar disorder panicking over the topic of weight gain. “I know I need meds, but I’m afraid of weight gain.” “What meds can I take that don’t cause weight gain?” “I tried X med but I quit because of the weight gain.”
It’s true that mental health and physical health are linked – what affects one may affect the other. And it’s true that medications have side effects, among which may be weight gain.
What I don’t get is why some people are so afraid of weight gain that they would sacrifice their mental health to avoid it.
Actually, I do sort of get it. There are ads everywhere that promote thinness – even to the point of illness – as the ideal for both feminine and masculine. There is a “War on Obesity” and plenty of people who will tell you that your body mass index is the most important number that identifies you. There are fat people jokes and gags that could not be told about any other group, be it race, sex, ethnicity, or religion. Plenty of comedians have made a good living making fun of fat – even their own. On TV, the fat character is never the hero.
Now back to the skinny, scrawny, bony kid I was. Undiagnosed and untreated. Aware that there was something wrong with me, but no idea what.
I had mini-meltdowns and major meltdowns. I had anxious twitches. I burst into tears when certain songs came on the radio – and not necessarily sad ones. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” tore me up. “I Am a Rock” could leave me sobbing. I took walks in the rain till I was soaked to the skin. I would laugh out loud for no reason that anyone else could see.
I was a mess. But a thin one.
It’s relatively recently that doctors and scientists have explored the connection between psychotropic medications and weight gain. Some have speculated that people who are depressed don’t eat much. Then, when their meds kick in and they feel better, their appetites return. In my case, I ate more when depressed and less when anxious. By the end of my undergraduate years, I was drinking banana milkshakes so my parents wouldn’t worry about how thin I was when they saw me at graduation.
Slowly, I got better with therapy and meds. Slowly, I gained weight. At first I didn’t notice. Then I did. I tried prescription diet pills and Lean Cuisine, which worked – for a while. But eventually, as is true of most dieters, I started piling the pounds back on. If one of my psychotropics was to blame, I couldn’t pinpoint which one, what with going on and off so many different ones and the cocktail of several I ended up with.
But as I got better and gained weight, I also started making friends, going on dates, finding lovers, and eventually meeting the man I would marry. Some of them were overweight, too. But that wasn’t what mattered most to them – or to me. Oh, I suppose there were people who were turned off by my well-padded physique. Maybe some of them were marvelous people, and maybe I would have enjoyed their company if they could have seen past the weight.
But the fact is, I now have plenty of close friends who just don’t give a damn about weight. Sometimes one of us will need to lose weight for a specific health reason like diabetes, and the rest of us will offer encouragement. But for the most part, we are who we are and love each other that way.
Given the choice – and I do have the choice – I will take the psychotropics that keep me reasonably stable and happy and productive. And yes, overweight. I remember the misery, the despair and pain, and no matter how I look, I don’t ever want to go back there. Self-esteem, for me at least, is better if it comes from the inside out, not the other way around.
The bottom line?
I’ve been skinny. I’ve been fat. Either way, I’m still me.