What My Husband’s Bipolar Breakdown Taught Me about Bulimia

Seeing my husband suffer from a severe psychotic episode gave me a new appreciation of the fact that when I was binging and purging, I had truly been mentally ill.

This may sound strange. After all, bulimia is classified as a mental illness in the DSM-IV, and for six years (1993-1999) I binged and purged as many as four times a day. I saw nutritionists. I saw therapists. I wasn’t stupid; I knew something was wrong.

But here’s the thing: I always understood why I was engaging in insane behavior like sticking my fingers down my throat, sitting in freezing cold baths, and trying to burn off my tastebuds.

It made sense to me to ingest fake Russian steroids, stick a weight-loss patch on my arm, and spend four hours a day at the gym. I was under the impression that when I got thin, my life would be perfect, so everything I did was designed to help me lose weight.

My actions always seemed perfectly logical to me.

*****

Here’s what I learned when John got sick. Someone who’s paranoid and delusional isn’t aware that he’s deluded. In spite of all reports to the contrary, he honestly believes that his perception of reality represents the truth.

John’s psychosis led him to believe that his colleagues had hypnotized him, that he’d swallowed a recording device, and that there were security guards posted outside our apartment door. It was very clear to everyone he interacted with that something was terribly, terribly off.

With my eating disorder, it wasn’t quite so cut and dried. My belief that thin = happy was a delusion, but it’s a delusion that our society perpetuates, so it never seemed as insane as reporting that there’s a video camera in your stomach. My belief that people were always looking at me and thinking about how fat I was was paranoid, but I had enough self-awareness to keep this belief to myself.

I reasoned that I did crazy things with food, but that lots of women struggled with similar issues, so it was easy to downplay my behavior and put in a box. I was crazy around food but **I** wasn’t crazy. Everything else about the way my mind operated was just fine, thank you very much.

John, too, tried to normalize his psychotic behavior. When the vice president of HR at his company called and told me that my husband had been making strange phone calls to his colleagues, asking them to release him from his hypnotic trance and prepare a place for him to sleep at the office, John’s response to me was, “He’s just the HR guy. He doesn’t know what’s really going on.”

My husband was convinced he wasn’t crazy; the VP was out of the loop and overreacting to the things he had said. Although the VP and I repeatedly told him that he jeopardizing his career with the phone calls, John’s conversations all seemed perfectly logical to him.

Unlike John, I had some insight into the fact that I was ill. Because of that, I was able to hide my disorder for a long time, which probably contributed to the fact that it persisted for so many years. John, on the other hand, had no insight into his illness, so keeping it secret wasn’t an option.

I’m grateful for that, because the severity of his breakdown meant we got him help right away.

*****

Although I’d been in recovery for my eating disorder for nine years before John got sick, watching him contend with the psychosis showed me that mental illness messes with our minds in a way that’s transparent to others but elusive to ourselves.

It made me see, once and for all, that I hadn’t “just” suffered from bulimia; my thinking had been warped by a serious mental illness, and that warped thinking led me to do things that, to a normal person, are incomprehensibly bizarre.

And, boy, did my husband’s breakdown make me appreciate the fact that recovery is possible, and that John and I are both living examples of this fact every single day.

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