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A Handful of Pills for this Body

A close-up shot of an open palm with different kinds of pills, both tablets and capsules, on it.

Around the age of 22, I made up my mind to make my body smaller. I worked out, imposed food restrictions, and lost weight. In that one year when I was able to shed belly-breast-thigh fat, bare my collarbones, wear easily available lingerie and short dresses, I was excited about being thin (read: looking attractive) because I’d always been big. Before I turned 23, my body went back to growing again. I fell headlong into depression, and with it came the medication. Along with that arrived anxiety, hunger, disorientation, lethargy, and more hunger. Within a year-and-a-half’s time, I was diagnosed with a personality disorder, and the pills were pouring in. The doctors played trial-and-error to figure out which pill would work better. They introduced frequent changes and increased dosages. My body responded with drowsiness and restless leg syndrome when they put me on lithium in the first year of treatment. These have stayed with me till today – I am accustomed to waking up in the middle of the night to dip my legs in hot water to soothe them because they refuse to rest.

The short-lived thinness had left me before I knew it. I became fat, and thereby undesirable, once again. A chasm appeared in my relationship with my body. Its ways of responding had become strange. My form became unfamiliar to me, and to those around me. My body lost its shape and gained volume. My face was pock-marked and covered in acne. I became incapable of tolerating extreme temperatures. I no longer wanted to have sex.

Heteronormative society conditions women to measure their desirability based on how much the opposite gender “wants” their body. My boyfriend of the time no longer wanted me. He was caring and affectionate out of habit, but he was not attracted to me. I was not attracted to me. I changed my hair style, tried expensive clothing from different “plus size” brands, bought more and more lingerie – much as I wanted otherwise, my lover felt repulsed by this new body. My body grew relentlessly and quickly. The deeper I retreated into a place of charcoal grey darkness, the bigger my body became. I was more numb, nervous, unfocused, and hungry than I had ever been before. My body was heavy – I was heavy – and I did not know what to do with this weight, or where I could put it down.

A repulsion for that self pushed me to self-destruction. I had read somewhere that low blood sugar can make you feel ‘low’ – I fit this information with my regular levels of marginally low blood sugar. I found a ‘legitimate’ reason to eat hot brownies and red velvet pastries at a confectionery near my rented place every time I felt depressed. I felt guilt too, and the increasing welts on my skin from underwear that refused to hold me in anymore. The lines between depression, hunger, and consumption began to blur. I could no longer tell if I was hungry, which is a state of lack of food and energy in the body, or if I wanted to feed the unnameable appetites of my body. I began to hate food and I was afraid of feeling hungry.

The usual remedial methods were tried – diets, gyms, yoga. I did not realise that it was like trying to swim against the current with stones tied to your ankles. These methods did not work. I was unable to understand what my body needed, and everybody else was clueless. I ended up with sports bras, nylon and polyester t-shirts that felt like I was being suffocated, gym memberships that I did not use, sore, painful muscles, and a broken foot.

Psychiatric medication comes with a host of side effects – weight gain, skin eruptions, low libido, mind fog, and so on. Prolonged use of certain antidepressants and antipsychotics can lead to insulin resistance in the body resulting in type 2 diabetes. High blood sugar levels lead to worsening vision, vaginal infections, and pus-filled eruptions on the body – when a general practitioner sees these symptoms, they write them off as “lifestyle diseases”. The doctor tells the psychiatric patient to lose some weight.

It took me a few years to understand that new medication worsens symptoms before it begins to help a person feel better. Before I was able to make this connection between change in medication and response time, I was unable to understand why I felt even worse after introducing the changes. I fell asleep at work and ended up quitting multiple jobs because I was always drowsy and fatigued. Now I have a separate joke list about when and where I have fallen asleep in the past. I have dozed off at meetings, therapy, and even during sex (the sex had nothing to do with it) because I have felt sore and tired to my bones.

Seven years of continuing psychiatric medication has created an “Amazonian” body. I am 30 years old now, but everything I am learning about what my body needs and the ways in which it responds is new. I learned to deal with a rapidly changing body as I travelled along on this journey of managing my illness. The medical community does not take it upon itself to explain any of these side effects beforehand. One explanation could be that people would not allow themselves to be ‘treated’ if they are aware of these almost-uncontrollable effects, but opting for treatment means losing bodily autonomy. Mentally ill folks do not get the choice to decide for themselves. Psychiatric care facilities across the country disregard the humanity of the people that depend on them for the right medical and clinical guidance to lead better lives. The focus of such care is functionality, and not the human aspects – the ways in which we feel pleasure, pain, whole spectrums of emotions that connect the body and mind, and all that human beings are capable of experiencing which enriches our being. It is taken for granted that the loss of ownership over the self is an insignificant trade-off for some semblance of sanity. It can often be exhausting to resist this drowning effect. The body wants to give up and skip medicines, sleep in for hours, eat junk – most of all, it becomes difficult to accept love. My partner finds it difficult to sleep beside me at times because I toss, turn, and twitch through the night. Days go by when I do not want to be touched and the slightest graze on my skin makes me flinch. I try to go easy on myself, and not betray my body by forcing it to accept physical and sexual touch that it finds unfamiliar, intimidating or uncomfortable in any other way.

I wish someone had told me what was likely to happen – it might have been less damaging.

Cover Images: Photo by Ksenia Yakovleva on Unsplash