In my last post, I wrote about my bipolar diagnosis. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who commented and gave such positive feedback. I was a little nervous about laying myself bare, but the response was unexpected and lovely. I will continue with this series on mental health by talking a little more about myself, then go on to comment on mental health issues in a wider context.
I mentioned that I have been in therapy since I was 18. To carry on where I left off, it might be useful to talk about my pre-existing conditions that exhibited before I knew I had bipolar. My hope is that sharing my story may be useful to others, particularly as people who suffer from these disorders usually do so in silence. I certainly did, for many years.
When I was a teenager I developed trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder that compels the sufferer to pull out their hair. Trich reared its ugly head in early adolescence. I found myself tearing out my eyelashes and hair from the crown of my head. I had no idea why I was harming myself, and I seemed powerless to stop. It was worse at times of stress and during my exams, I would sometimes wake up with my hair wound around my fingers. I became very good at applying false eyelashes and parting my hair so the bald spots were covered. Added to this delightful condition, I also developed bulimia, which can co-occur with trich.
My eating disorder developed and mutated over time. Initially, I would eat something I felt was forbidden and then purge, a small packet of m+ms or a bar of chocolate was too much. But my bulimia did not manifest itself in the typical binge/purge cycle. In my early twenties I dieted vigorously, if I felt I had violated my caloric allowance I would purge. A single grape or a mouthful of cottage cheese was enough to tip me over the edge. I kept it a secret for a long time, but eventually the eating disorder got out of control. With the support of my partner and parents I sought treatment. Luckily, I did not need residential care but I came pretty close.
Trich grumbled along in tandem with the eating disorder, sometimes flaring up and getting very bad indeed, and other times quieting down. But it never went away. Self-harm is a never-ending cannibalistic snake, constantly feeding on its own tail. The more one self-harms, the more it incites loathing and disgust, which prompts more self-harm. Ironically, I was cast in a few shampoo commercials in my early 20s, when I was at my most dysfunctional. This illustrates how good I was at disguising my issues. However, there would always be an awkward moment on set where the hairdresser and makeup artist would discover my sparse eyelashes, patchy bald spots and shorter bits of hair on my scalp.
‘What happened here?’ they’d ask, looking at me askance in the mirror. I made up a bunch of feeble excuses but it was always mortifying.
When a person suffers with addiction, they often referred to themselves as a ‘recovering alcoholic’ or a ‘recovering drug addict’. Their sobriety is a life long endeavour that requires maintenance and diligence. I believe the same is true of eating disorders. The self-sabotaging thought patterns that persuaded me that I deserve to be punished still prowl around the back of my mind. Having recently become a parent, I know that I am particularly vulnerable right now. Trichotillomania and eating disorders are primarily about control, and for the past 11 months, my body has not exclusively belonged to me. I have to be dedicated to staying well, because I could slip up at any time. I’m determined that I won’t relapse, as I don’t want to pass this stuff on to my son. With time and many hours of therapy, I am more able to manage my condition. It all falls under the umbrella of bi-polar and the meds help.
In recent years, when I land an acting job, I don’t fib to hair and makeup when they discover the shorter bits around my crown. I’ve recovered enough that I don’t have bald spots and I have a full set of eyelashes, but my hair is still much thinner at the back and sticks up a bit. When they ask about it I say:
‘I pick at it when I’m anxious.’
They’ll nod sagely and say something along the lines of:
‘Oh my cousin does the same thing.’
And that is, usually, the end of that.
These disorders are laden with shame, but when they are brought out into the open, the burning shame evaporates. However, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is suffering in silence to necessarily tell the world, but do tell the people you are closest to because their support can facilitate you seeking the correct help. You’re not alone, don’t despair and know that recovery is always possible.