What it’s Like to Struggle with Bipolar Disorder and an Eating Disorder

By: 
Dana Land

If you were to take a look at any of my social media accounts, you would find a few common factors: cute photos of my puppy and cat snuggling, posts about the funny things that the children I nanny say and posts of gratitude toward my loving support system.

Very rarely will you find me discussing my mood disorder. Those who know my personal struggle may wonder why I don’t seem as open about my comorbid disorders. The list of comorbid disorders that I deal with is lengthy and can be exhausting to explain to anyone out of my social circle, but I often try. But in each attempt, I skip over my mood disorder. If I touch on the subject at all, it’s with cold, clinical words and terms; generalizations of the disorder and no personal accounts.

I have bipolar disorder. It is as crucial to the history of my eating disorder as the eating disorder itself. 

Through treatment, I learned how media, culture, social interactions, genetics and personal influences all factor into the development and treatment of eating disorders. The shame surrounding my experience with eating disorders decreased as I met more and more people with similar experiences. I found online communities, people fighting for legislation and people campaigning to change cultural norms. It seemed as if the devastating nature of eating disorders was moving to the forefront of social awareness; celebrities were beginning to discuss their experiences with eating disorders and depression, helping to raise awareness, and most people seemed to be on the same page about the seriousness of eating disorders. 

This isn’t the case with mood disorders. Bipolar disorder is often laughed at and invalidated. We look at Amanda Bynes’ Twitter rampages and ridicule her. We don’t know her exact diagnosis, if any, but those with personal experience know the symptoms. We grieve over the death of Robin Williams and attribute it to his depression, but we ignore that depression is a symptom of his bipolar diagnosis. In media, depression is becoming a popular topic to talk about. Bipolar disorder is not. This is because we see television shows and movies that ignore the complexities of bipolar disorder and reduce us down to one behavior: out of control, crazy. Why would anyone want to admit to something that everyone thinks is just insane?

However, bipolar disorder can include multiple components: depression at differing levels, mania at differing levels, and even a mix of the two at once. Few people with the diagnosis present the same way. 

Because of this lack of understanding and expertise within the psychological field, my recovery was clouded with relapses that “didn’t make sense.” That is because my bipolar disorder had a large influence and control over my disorder and recovery. Without addressing the comorbid disorder, large aspects of recovery were left out.

When I am manic, I eat less, sleep less, exercise more and my mood can go from ecstatic and confident to irritated and unwilling to accept support. Doctors wrote it off as ED being controlling, gave me the same coping skills to combat it and sent me on my way. Many eating disorder skills do not directly correlate to mood disorder coping skills.

When I am depressed, I eat more, sleep more, refuse to leave my bed and my mood can go from hysterically sad to completely numb. Doctors gave me the same treatment and send me on my way.

Being in recovery, there are still hard days. Sometimes these hard days line up with a bipolar episode and make the days even harder. My support system gets exhausted because they cannot understand how my recovery can fly out the window one day, and return as if it never left another day. This is because of my bipolar disorder. 

My bipolar disorder can fuel my eating disorder, giving it the excuse it needs to run rampant, such as during extreme manic episodes. My mood disorder can give me extreme confidence that shuts out my eating disorder, such as during hypomanic episodes. My mood disorder can lead me to dangerous, life-threatening behaviors that may make recovery more difficult, such as during mixed episodes. My mood disorder can mess up my meal plan and excessive intake can make returning to a healthy plan harder, such as during depressive episodes.

In the beginning, the shame from my bipolar disorder (my first-ever clinical diagnosis) informed my eating disorder; if no one understood the mood disorder, no one would understand the eating disorder. Now my eating disorder recovery is attempting to inform my bipolar self, so that the shame can be undone. It is informing my bipolar self that I can live a healthy life with the support of my clinician, who now has more experience with both disorders.

My untreated bipolar disorder fueled my untreated eating disorder. My eating disorder recovery is furthering my bipolar disorder recovery and maintenance. I have learned that living a healthy life living with one disorder is possible—and so is living a healthy life with more than one disorder.

Dana Land is a senior at DePaul University. She's an eating disorder survivor and advocate. She writes for Proud2Bme, is a support person for ANAD, gives recovery speeches and has been interviewed by Healthgrades.com.

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