Mental Health Women's Health

Through the looking glass: Silencing the critic

Written by Elna Schütz

In her latest column on mental health, writer Jocelyn Fryer talks about what bipolar treatment meant for her body and what her new body meant for her.

"I don’t think I’m alone in that when I look at my arms, I see flabby turkey wings or that when I sit in a bikini hunched over I look down and am repulsed by the rolls my stomach make"

“I don’t think I’m alone in that when I look at my arms, I see flabby turkey wings or that when I sit in a bikini hunched over I look down and am repulsed by the rolls my stomach make”

At the time of my manic episode, I had been a tiny, energetic creature. I am rather short and small-framed to begin with. When I was admitted at Elizabeth Donkin Hospital, I could have weighed no more than about 46kg. This changed when I stabilised on my medication and left the hospital.

Anyone who has been treated for bipolar disorder will tell you that the medication’s initial side-effects are unpleasant. I became lethargic and unresponsive. I’d brush my hair and chunks of it would come out in my comb. My appetite increased and I felt the constant need to devour food, and as I did this, the pounds packed on.

Glimpsing myself in the mirror, I felt disgusted by what I saw. It didn’t help that this was compounded by the severe depression that followed my manic episode so the sense of self-loathing became even further entrenched. This proved difficult to shake.

We are bombarded constantly with images of what the supposed ‘ideal’ woman looks like. Entire empires of beauty and fashion houses rest on us desperately buying into these images and their messages: Your lashes are not long enough to hold a lover’s gaze. Your lips are not full enough for another to kiss. Your legs are not smooth enough for another to touch.

I followed the latest Dove soap campaign with interest. In it, the company gave everyday women diaries to write down their daily thoughts about themselves.

Women came up with phrases like “your face looks like a bulldog” or “you’ve just no charm – you’re just fat and ordinary.”

The exercise powerfully revealed the ways in which we, as women, constantly criticise ourselves, particularly with regards to our bodies.

I saw something of myself in this advert and felt disappointed that I too was guilty of such self-harm.

Art mimics life

I don’t think I’m alone in that when I look at my arms, I see flabby turkey wings or that when I sit in a bikini hunched over I look down and am repulsed by the rolls my stomach makes… I am nothing like the tall, skinny 20-something models who make it all look so effortless.[quote float= right]“I showed up and was presented with a table…surrounded by pairs of young, eager eyes and ready bits of charcoal”

I have decided to overcome this. I have decided to love my body uncompromisingly. It is capable. It is healthy. It speaks an intimate language all its own. What more is there to celebrate?

Recently, the local university was looking for models for art students and I volunteered. It was something that, two years ago or perhaps even months ago, I would never have imagined doing..

That morning, I showed up and was presented with a table, or “perch,” surrounded by pairs of young, eager eyes and ready bits of charcoal. As I moved from one position to another, I became less concerned with the fleshy bits of my far-from-toned arms or the bulge of my stomach.

I became more interested in creating shapes for the students, providing something for all the students in the half-moon circle to draw. I began concentrating solely on my body’s contours and what they had to offer the students.

When I looked at the student’s 10-minute renderings in between sittings, I was amazed by how much dignity and poise the human form can contain. I gave no thought to the parts of my body that were a little chubby. I saw beauty in their work, and I saw nothing but beauty in myself because of what they had drawn.

Don’t hide behind foundation, don’t feel guilty eating a slice of pizza

I can’t say I made the best model – I am not yet as comfortable as I could be when posing for a roomful of people – but I will forever be grateful to those students.

So if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, where you can, learn to silence that self-criticism when it arises. Take a yoga class or go to samba lessons, and remind yourself that your body is a living, breathing thing.

Don’t hide behind foundation. Don’t feel overburdened with guilt every time you enjoy a slice of cheesy pizza or a piece of chocolate. Dipping into your purse to support the industries who have told us otherwise will not make you happier. It will not find you someone to love.

When you look at yourself in the mirror, rejoice in that slightly crooked tooth or that freckly nose. There is art, there is magic, in these small things.

It is a cliché, but some clichés are such because they have wisdom in them. The more you celebrate life with abandon, the more you celebrate yourself with abandon, the more others will be drawn to your joie de vivre. It’s as simple as that.

Jocelyn Fryer

Port Elizabeth writer Jocelyn Fryer was diagnosed with bipolar two years ago. She spends her free time mastering the art of pasta making and advocating for the adoption of stray animals.

“Through the looking glass” is Fryer’s regular column on mental health for Health-e News.To read more from Fryer, follow her on Twitter and check out her blog, Humble Pie. 

About the author

Elna Schütz

2 Comments

  • Dear Jocelyn.
    I feel deeply empathetic with what you are going through.
    I am sure you will receive mounts of mails like mine.

    When I was a 2- 3 years old, I started sleep walking.
    I did not know what it meant of course.
    At teen age I was bigger and fatter than I am now; I was the only one to know why: i was stealing chocolate and cheese from the home cupboards at any time of the day without any one knowing (or so I think still…)
    I still did not know what it meant.

    I have strict parents, with a strict catholic french bourgeoisie family history.
    Quite a wealthy one.
    Strict catholic school for girls in the early 70’s.
    I was forced into a hard Matric where maths was super HG.
    But I could feel my mind would not match…
    I had another world… the one of my bedroom, with pictures of sea, birds and actors I admired because of their involvement in causes..
    My bedroom was also the place where I spent days of my teenage life crying, not knowing if this life would really be worth it in the end….because I would not be able to stand it the way it was for a much longer time.
    I was scared and attempted to make my mother understand my mental pain.
    She would cry in return… because of her inability to help me….

    When I started my medical studies, I was taught that sleep walking can been a symptom of depression in children….

    At the same time my sister got divorced and it affected me because she was a warrant of a certain life “normality”.
    I started sleeping 20 hours a day waking up exhausted and crying the time I was awake.
    I felt isolated and misunderstood… I was screaming for help but no one could hear me because my words were not coming out of my vocal chords… my words were swimming in my tears…

    I was prescribed short course of anti depressants; i might have tasted all the ones that were on the market in the late ’70s…. strong side effects…. sleepiness, anxiety, panic attacks filled my days…

    I was an excellent student with high marks.
    but at one stage in order to survive, I let it go and gave up
    I dropped the preparation of the exam that would have allowed me to be the first female orthopedic surgeon in France….
    No one understood my scream again….

    I started being aware that I might be living a sidelines life, that i was being a spectator of a ‘normal’ life.
    Treatments made me loose weight and gain it again and more
    My belt carried on squeezing my waste and sizes got bigger and bigger
    Playing basket ball helped me feeling my body though
    I had the feeling to be “a brain only”
    Doing sport has been a challenge for me, given my weight….
    In the end I managed to almost excel…
    Till my cruciate ligaments failed me.
    Their rupture isolated me again
    I could see friends getting married having kids
    My words were still pouring in my desperate tears, i could not approach a man who would make me feel an emotion…. I was scared… of being thrown away

    I saw psychologists, psychanalysts asking me weird questions and staying mute for minutes that sounded hours of torture, and psychiatrists.

    I left my life in France…. against my family wishes and to perhaps flee this “green hell” life i was having… or to further forget about myself.
    I said to every one I wanted to witness the limits of humanity… i did not know I was challenging mine….

    I worked with MSF in Khayelitsha and was the first doctor to give ARVs there in 2001….

    My life became whirls around the world after that; I was on the edge all the time
    I am still and like it.
    I did not want to belong any longer
    I brushed the peace of suicide twice but friends heard my scream
    i was diagnosed with severe and chronic depression and was hospitalized in a facility under a system that exists in Switzerland only. i receovered

    When my husband left me for the 3rd time in Pretoria, a south african psychiatrist finally diagnosed be with BPD
    I started the mood regulators on top of the latest anti depressant + benzodiazepin: 18 tablts a day for life.
    I moved to CPT to be with the husband who left me again.
    I was sent to a psychiatrist here who used tho change my medications every month.

    Till I said NO
    no more
    no more abuse
    no more endless repetitions of my life stories to another psy- something

    And I am a survivor…
    Of the husband abused I divorced from
    Of a mental health system that does never improved my quality of life
    Of my mental illness I am open about when the occasion requires it
    Of my mental illness that leads my life
    Of this mental illness that despite being unsaid and stigmatized, does not define me

    I am still taking my tabs, now 12 every day for life
    My stomach has become big
    i have lost muscles because I am lazy to exercise 🙁

    I have made the decision to try to live whatever happens
    To let my emotions in
    And to try to love myself…

    I am now a manager
    I am a survivor

    Dear Jocelyn people see us as weak
    but we are so strong
    Because we can show a normal life to others
    Despite the mental pain that cannot be described to the ones who never experienced it

    • Dear Francoise

      Indeed, those who deal with mental illness are strong. They are warriors fighting courageously every day. I have said before that it is a strange thing in our society that some are celebrated, like those who battle cancer, while those with mental illness are so often relegated to the margins. Do not stop fighting for agency. It is rightfully yours as a human being in this world. In my line of work, people like you are an inspiration to me, to keep writing, to keep resisting societal norms and expectations in my pursuit of a better place for us all. I am so very grateful that you took the time to read my words and to respond with your own moving account. Sade Andria Zabala writes, “I understood myself only after I destroyed myself. And only in the process of fixing myself, did I know who I really was.” I think of these words when I think of people like you and I…And because of them, I think to myself, perhaps we are the lucky ones after all… So keep sharing your truths. Keep speaking openly. You are making waves, whether you realise it or not.

      Warmest regards,
      Jocelyn