Weight Gain Is A Side Effect Of My Medication, And I Take It Anyway
“I can prescribe you Quetiapine, but you’ll gain a lot of weight. Is that okay?”
It took me a moment to respond to my psychiatrist. She was giving me medication for my insomnia, which had only grown worse throughout the pandemic. Over-the-counter sleeping medication wasn’t working anymore. Neither was the previous pill she prescribed, Temazepam. I was only a few nights of poor sleeping away from another manic episode. That’s what happens with bipolar disorder. One symptom feeds into another until you’re a sobbing mess and no longer in control of your thoughts, feelings, or actions.
I had to do something about my sleep. But I was worried about doing it at the expense of my body image. I had already gained weight over the course of the pandemic. This was different, though. Would I sacrifice my already shaky mental health just because I didn’t want to gain more weight?
There’s nothing wrong with being fat. I know this in theory, yet applying that logic to myself has been a different story. I’ve struggled with body image for most of my life, from having an unspecified eating disorder in university to fluctuating weight gain because of PCOS. And I’ve often worried that others think I’m not taking care of myself.
Logically, I know that gaining weight doesn’t mean a person is slacking on self-care, but the idea haunts me anyway. There’s more than enough rhetoric in the media that equates weight gain to “letting oneself go.” And while I know I’m mentally and physically healthier than I’ve ever been, I’m also much, much heavier. So, I brace myself for rude comments from family members about my body. I’m always ready to defend myself from their judgment about how I look.
My therapist reminds me that “thinness doesn’t equal happiness.” And I know she’s right.
When I was thinner, I was thoroughly depressed and unable to take care of myself. I was going days without sleep, hardly eating, having crying spells, and even hallucinating. More often than not, I was a danger to myself. And honestly? I only know I was having these symptoms because I told friends, and I journaled about it. I don’t have much memory of that time. Memory lapses are common with depression. Sure, I was around 50 pounds lighter, but I was also 50 times as unhinged. And I still wasn’t happy with my body.
I had two options: I could come off my medication—thus running the risks that come with bipolar disorder, just to become skinny again. Or I could accept my new body, work through my shame, and stay on life-saving meds.
At its core, I realize I’ve been feeling ashamed of myself. Deep down, I’m ashamed of both my rapid weight gain and tenuous mental health. I spend a lot of time making excuses for both. But I’m also ashamed of what all this guilt says about me.
How can I call myself a body-positive feminist when I look in the mirror and only think negatively about my own body? Who am I to share messages of self-love if I can hardly apply them to myself?
I’ve since fulfilled my prescription. Slowly, and only as I take it one day at a time, I’m learning to be less ashamed of my reality. Though I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, I’m also the most stable—and that’s because of my medications. I was placed on a lower dose initially, but we’ve now doubled it. I gained a little weight in the beginning, and I know I’m going to gain more.
But taking my medication is a form of self-care. It allows me to get adequate sleep. Admonishing myself for gaining weight while attempting self-care is, well, not self-care.
And I owe it to myself to do mundane self-care like taking my medication, cooking my own meals, and buying clothes that make me feel good. I’m also caring for myself by filtering my social media feeds to regularly see people who look like me—and fewer people on unhealthy diets. I’m getting rid of clothes that no longer fit, instead of getting on my own case about it. I look forward to finding a new wardrobe for this new body.
Because it’s not the weight that needs to be shed, but my shame around it. Just like taking my medication, I have to work on it every day. But I’ll fill up on self-love the same way I’ll refill my meds.
Ashleigh-Rae Thomas is an Afro-Caribbean writer, facilitator, and avid community organizer from Toronto, by way of Jamaican roots. She has contributed to Huffington Post, Vice, and Byblacks.com, her words resonating amongst millennial readers as a voice of reason and clarity in often challenging times. Her honest and insightful takes on social justice, feminism, politics, and culture help continue to cultivate a community that celebrates Afro-Caribbeans of all walks of life.