On Being Bipolar: A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative

Legs

Seth is a PhD candidate and lecturer at a large public university. His work tackles issues of affect, psychiatry, and sexuality in the post WWII American novel. He has taught courses on gendered violence, feminism, and American sexuality. Seth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 7 years ago. He has been sober for over 19 months. In this guest post, Seth reflects on one aspect of managing bipolar disorder that no one talks about — weight gain — and his struggle to adjust to his new body. 

You can see Seth’s previous guests posts here.

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A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative

I’ve read a lot of recovery stories on a lot of different popular websites. I’m sure you know the ones I’m referencing. They all kind of say the same thing, give or take a few elements: life is much better, colors dance in the warm sunlight when before everything was black and white, the author wants to live, love and marriage are possible. I’m not going to say that that narrative is a lie, or wrong, because for some people (who are lucky) it is truly like that. For them, mental illness is a one-time occurrence; the meds or therapy work well, and the only reminder of the horrible times (for them or those around them) is the daily dosage or faint memories.

However, what I will say is that for a large number of us, recovery is not an invisible process; there are a variety of visible signs that we have been (or are) sick. Sometimes navigating these signs is harder than the actual illness because we as a culture do not celebrate ongoing progress or struggle. For example, we praise new mothers who lose pregnancy weight quickly by telling them that they look like they never had a baby in the first place. In other words, we tell women whose bodies just completed an extraordinary physical and psychological act that their ideal state should be where there is no marker of this occurrence at all, except a well behaved, non crying, visibly “healthy” baby. Struggle should be hidden or washed away.

Rehabbing Gender, Managing Bipolar

Managing bipolar and medication side effects is hard because you never know what your recovery will feel like – whether a certain medication will send you back into the hospital or into sanity or simply into a larger clothing size. This has all been intensified by the fact that my gender identity as a man largely was tied to my sexuality and ability to be sexually attractive to women and, to me, fat was not sexually attractive when I was the one wearing it. The models of masculinity I grew up with demonstrated to me consistently that being a man meant women and lots of them. As I came into my various identities, I was able to date easily and readily, always having beautiful women on my arm whom I treated poorly because I was sick and manic, looking for affect in anything I could touch. I used with them, drank with them, and moved on. I emulated the successful men I saw in my own life and in film. My own father was a mix of Tony Soprano and Don Draper, so I thought I had to be like that, too.

For a while, it worked. I was at the height of my dating game when everything crashed. I almost ended up in the hospital multiple times. There were more than a few instances with drugs and alcohol where friends nearly called 911. I was teaching gender studies and living out all the worst stereotypes of what it could mean to be a man. I have since separated myself from this behavior and people who encourage it, but large parts of my management from bipolar has been rehabbing my own ideas about masculinity and how to be a man in public and private. They are always linked for me – my disability and how my masculinity comes out in times of stress or calm. I’m still not the nicest or best person in a relationship, but I try harder than I did before and that matters to me. I don’t cheat.

Lithium

Even though I was first diagnosed seven years ago, it was not until a year ago that I was put on the drug that would save my life and stop lots of the behaviors I discussed above: lithium. My psychiatrists had tried nearly every other medication and type of therapy, always avoiding lithium because it’s serious. But when a particularly suicidal episode sent me to the doctor yet again, I no longer had a choice. That day, it was lithium or the hospital. I chose lithium because I was embarrassed by the thought of the hospital (I still am; this is a cultural thing for me). I knew the drug could eat my kidneys and thyroid, resulting in weight gain and epic thirst, among other things. There’s the general feeling of fogginess and being constantly tired, plus the tremors I have every day, especially in the morning.

It wasn’t until I reached therapeutic levels of the drug (which for me is a very high dose) that the weight gain started. Before I started, I was not a thin person by any means. My natural frame is athletic and stocky. I ran triathlons and took spin classes, but celebrated muscle bulk, not being “tiny,” even when I still identified as a woman. Testosterone has only made my frame stockier, my muscles larger. Those in the queer community would call me a bear cub if my beard was thicker. I’m not long, lean, and androgynous at all, but I was in good shape and was in a healthy weight range according to my doctor, albeit at the heavier end of that range. I wore men’s skinny jeans from stores that favored slender bodies even if they were in the 30 sizes, not 20s.

On lithium, I am definitely chubby and I hate it because between the testosterone and the lithium it’s an uphill battle to lose weight; even my endocrinologist acknowledges that it might never really happen like we want it to. Most of the time, I try to stick to a low-sugar high-protein diet because I physically feel better and sugar makes me depressed. But, there are times in which I get overwhelmed with restricting so much when I’m already sober, trans, and taking these meds. I feel as though I don’t deserve to worry about my weight and hate the way I look after all that I’ve been through. I know that doesn’t sound very good, but it’s an honest sentence. And recovery should be about honesty.

There is nothing that highlights this reality better than standing in front of your closet after six months of lifesaving lithium treatment and finding that none of your clothes fit. I had spent months manically not wanting to leave the house or get dressed, but when the time had come for me to actually do it, it was almost logistically impossible. No one tells you recovery looks like this. You are alive, but so what? Socially you have lost lots of power and comfort. The person you saved from the black hole of mania, depression, and suicide looks nothing like the one crying in front of the closet. So many days I ask myself why I bothered to try all those months in therapy when the end result hasn’t been super great. It was mediocre at best. Therapists tell you that life is amazing, but I have not gotten there yet. I’ve gotten to mediocre. Is my life the exciting, passionate death pit it used to be? No, but the doctors tell me that’s a good thing. So I’m fat and mediocre. I used to be manic and exceptional.

Recovery, and Transformation, In The Classroom

Teaching with this type of shift in gender and body shape has been very difficult. Clothes that I wore for years and spent lots of money on no longer fit me and may never again. I may never be thin (by my standards) because lithium actively works against this by making me retain fluid and slowing my metabolism. By now, I’ve basically stabilized, so I am starting the massive endeavor of remaking my wardrobe and personal style for teaching and life. My weight has gone down a little bit with a lot of work – that’s for my health, not solely for aesthetics. But, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I liked the way it felt to get weighed and see a smaller number.

I used to say that the classroom was my personal runway. I loved dressing for class and I wore a tie everyday. I wore lots of color. I wanted to be a cool queer teacher who was stylish and who my students could look up to. In this past year, I can count the number of times when I’ve worn a tie on two hands. I wear mostly black as if I’m in mourning for my previous not-fat self. And, I guess I am. I miss feeling confident and put together. It angers me that “confident and put together” equals thin. It shouldn’t. Fat Seth deserves to feel professional and good just like thin Seth. No one ever told me that days of recovery would feel worse than days of sickness. I survived bipolar, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll survive my meds.

Getting fat has taught me a lot, especially about the amounts of privilege that I still have in terms of my size. I’m not big enough to get comments from strangers. I can still shop at straight size (not plus size or big and tall) stores. I can go into mainstream retailers and leave with a suit, as I just did for my sister’s wedding, not to mention shopping without being followed or hassled because I am an educated white person in a racist city. Until this past year I would have told you that I believed thinness and fitness to be about “discipline,” not a carefully socially constructed set of images combined with winning the genetic lottery. I would have told you that overweight people were lazy; medication was an excuse. I used to tell my female students in class they could be beautiful at any size but tell friends in private that I didn’t eat carbs. I was a jerk and a hypocrite because I wanted to be what dominant queer culture viewed as attractive, which was masculine, lean, and dapper.

This is where I think queer culture has a lot of work to do. It needs to call out the celebrated androgynous aesthetic and displace masculine individuals from the top of the food chain because it just reproduces heteronormative notions of power and control. Women and femmes keep coming in last. It cannot be like that anymore. I was a person who championed that culture and saw the damage I did on a personal level to others and myself. What if we all took a look at our actions and feelings, working to fix them? If any of the women (or men) whom I ever dated are reading this, I’m sorry for everything I did.

Lithium changed the way I looked at fatness and weight, both mine and others. It also changed the way I thought of myself as a man because I no longer can fulfill my own twisted fantasies about what an “ideal attractive” man should look like. It taught me to be a nicer person and someone who was more patient with students and myself. It taught me to learn that recovery was not a black and white experience in which one was guaranteed to look like they had never suffered. However, I think the most important thing it has taught me is that being present for the students – in either workout pants, jeans, or dress pants – we we are all bodies in the classroom who struggle. It is okay to show, honor, and give space to that. I’m no longer hiding. Lithium made me fat, and I refuse to lower my voice or wear clothes that I do not like just because they help me “pass” more or make me look “thinner” in ways that are culturally constructed.

This semester, I’ve been making an effort to honor the struggles present both in myself and in my students. It has been working. We approach the material as individual people with wounds, large or small, and talk through these feelings and identities as they are reflected in our course material. I’ve started to slowly wear ties again and catch myself looking in reflective surfaces more, despite pretty much looking the same (this isn’t a weight loss before and after story, sorry). My students speak more openly and generously during class. No one is perfect and everybody hurts, but, it seems, when we hurt together we shatter the facade of perfection and find beauty in the shards of glass we pick up along the way.