Physical Recovery from Mental Illness

Emily Christie writes about her personal experience with the physical side effects of her mental illness, and describes the ways that she took back some control of her body, despite the many challenges that her medication and mental health presented.

Trigger warnings: Food and weight gain/loss

I was sitting on the floor of my living room laughing with my friends when someone first pointed out the bald patch that covered the back of my head. I laughed it off and then went to my room and cried, feeling like I’d had a huge and terrible secret revealed. Looking in the mirror, I noticed my swollen face and acne, and tugging at my hair so that I could see the bald spot, I realised how much my appearance had changed without me even noticing.

I felt like my body wasn’t my own, I constantly rearranged and brushed my hair, worried about strangers judging me, losing even more self-confidence. I blamed being lazy and berated myself for not following a strict skincare regime or using expensive shampoo; I became obsessed with trying to preserve my physical appearance.

I never thought that medication and stress were to blame. I always thought of my mental and physical health as somehow disconnected, my mental illness hidden away safely in my mind, but in many cases, particularly when medication is involved, that isn’t the case. Learning to accept and control the physical symptoms caused by my mental illness was a huge step in reclaiming my life, as well as realising that mental health problems are actual illnesses, with real symptoms and effects that should be taken seriously as part of the fight with it. 

Weight gain is one of the main physical symptoms attributed to mental illness and medication, particularly antidepressants or mood stabilisers. I was warned by my GP and psychiatrist about the weight gain effects of Lithium, but I was more concerned about my mental wellbeing and pushed aside my worries as vain and unimportant.

However, I found that the weight gain began to negatively affect me. I decided getting bigger was a necessary part of getting back on track with my mental illness until I noticed how sluggish and slow I felt all the time, how I’d choose to go to bed instead of out with friends. I decided that I had to take control of my own body. I have no history of disordered eating so, with the help and advice of my psychiatrist I decided to track and monitor my food intake. I discovered how I’d treat my depression with unhealthy snacks and binge on sugar during manic episodes and was shocked at how idly I’d eat, simply out of boredom or just because I had the food there. 

 I’d always laughed at advice concerning diet and exercise when it came to mental health, passing it off as unimportant compared to medication and therapy, but I knew I needed to change something, so I made myself do a little each day. Even if it was just walking a longer way home so I got at least 30 minutes’ exercise and stopping myself from buying excessive amounts of chocolate and crisps, I noticed a change. For me, the order and routine really helped, and even though I wasn’t doing yoga or climbing mountains I was doing something to help. The power and self-control I felt I’d lost in my struggle with bipolar disorder I was gaining through being a little healthier and more conscious of my actions. 

I know now that if I’m feeling lost and listless, curling up in bed isn’t the best thing for me. I haven’t lost a significant amount of weight, and I still enjoy takeaway and junk food in moderation, but I don’t use food to fix my feelings, and the swelling and puffiness in my face is now under control. I don’t feel as lost and helpless as I once did, and as my diet improved and I became more active, I found my hair growing back and my skin problems also slowly getting better.

Coming to terms with living with mental illness is a process. A long, slow, hard process of learning to accept some things and fighting others, and I’m proud to say I managed to fight the negative effects of medication on my body. I have now regained my self-confidence, and can honestly say that I am happy with my appearance. Even if I gain weight or have blemishes on my skin, I know that I am doing what I can, and my mental wellbeing and health are being taken care of, and that’s what’s really important to me.

I’ll never tell anyone to eat a handful of almonds and go for a jog when they’re struggling with mental health, but some of the physical effects of mental illness and recovery can be controlled and beaten. The best piece of advice I could give is to talk to your GP, counsellor or psychiatrist if you have any concerns, doubts or questions about weight gain or any other physical symptoms related to mental health, especially if you’re on medication, as sometimes medication changes can really help, and having a medical professional’s guidance is always good when attempting to make a lifestyle change.

As I said, it’s a process and a fight, but even as I stumble and slip back, I’m proud of myself for continuing to battle, and treating myself along the way.