As an adult, I’ve been retrospectively diagnosed with a history of multiple eating disorders. Most chronically bulimia, which I’ve had for so long that the specialist wasn’t able to determine whether they could also diagnose me with a personality disorder. My struggles with healthy emotional processing are so entangled with my bingeing and disordered behaviors around food that they can’t tell which symptoms caused what.
But you know what else is so intrinsically linked to how you feel about your weight and food? Your hormones.
Many menstruating women find that their weight and appetite change across an average month. But my months aren’t average. Not by a long shot, and last year when I first heard about PMDD I finally arrived at an understanding of my eating disorders that began to make sense. My binges were often caused by an inability to cope with my intense emotions. And so many of my strongest, darkest emotions were driven by my raging hormones. I don’t believe that I have a personality disorder, or rapid-cycling manic depression, or any of the other labels that have been suggested. I have PMDD.
I was 14 when my periods started and I began to have intense, debilitating mood swings for at least 2 weeks at a time. I’ve always known that I got ‘bad PMS’ and that my rollercoaster mood fluctuations seemed to be linked to my cycle. I’ve always known that I have an unusual relationship with food. And I’ve always known that my eating habits and appetite would change drastically every cycle. But I’ve always had completely unpredictable cycles (lasting anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks, with life-affecting symptoms for 1-4 weeks per cycle), and so it’s been difficult to see patterns in any of it. And it couldn’t all ‘just’ be my period, could it?
So I tried to understand the cause of it all;
I’ve had blood tests and scans; I’ve been investigated for all sorts of things that might be causing my myriad of emotional and physical symptoms. I’ve been prescribed anti-depressants, but within my crazy hormonal body, they still aren’t able to stabilize my moods. Synthetic hormones definitely don’t help. If anything, they make dealing with my cycles harder as the signals from my body and from the tablets become so muddled and confusing.
Nothing I’ve tried can suppress the effects of my own hormones. I’ve been described by a GP as “biochemically over-sensitive” (whatever that means!). I’ve spent my whole adult life desperately trying to balance my food, drink, exercise, sleep… everything to stabilize my constantly shifting mood and body chemistry.
Living with my hormones is like trying to walk through life on emotional quicksand. Uphill. In random earthquakes. No rules, nothing solid I can hold on to or rely on. No ability to ‘manage’ symptoms which are always unpredictable, and often dark, painful, and scary.
And that’s what became most clear when I finally underwent outpatient treatment for my eating disorders. No single mood management strategy or meal plan would work for me because the effect of my hormones on my emotions, appetite and dietary needs is so powerful. It always came back to “yes, that will work/is working, but only when I’m not ovulating or premenstrual.”
I needed a solution that allowed me to flow with my cycles; to adapt and change day by day.
Control is not the answer for me. If I try to stand strong; implement strict routines or diets throughout the month, then it just makes me worse. I need to be able to eat more (but not too much) when I’m ravenous; eat less (but not too little) when I’m queasy. Some weeks I need to be able to rest; some I need to expend excess energy. And I need to allow myself to live in a way that suits my body’s needs that day, not the same every day.
I still don’t know whether my hormones are the real root of my emotional struggles and my disordered eating. But it all makes so much more sense if I accept that my hormonal symptoms are out of the ordinary. If I understand that, whatever counseling or medication or routine I try, I will still need to be responsive to the inevitable needs of my body’s changing hormones. I can’t just ignore them because, for me at least, they shout so bloody loud!
I’m learning, slowly, to listen to and respect my body’s needs.
To take deep breaths and lots of rest when I’m sobbing and raging and exhausted. To not let myself do too much (however much I want to) when I’m on a ‘high’ part of my cycle. My eating is finally improving, and I’m understanding and accepting more about the effects of my hormones every month.
But hormones change as we age, and so whilst this has been part of my life for over 20 years, I suspect I’ll be continuing to learn how to adapt around my hormones for years to come. Sounds relentless, doesn’t it? It certainly feels it. But despite everything I’ve written today, I no longer resent my hormones or wish them away. They are part of who I am. To live through feeling like this, feeling so constantly unstable and unpredictable, I’ve had to grow incredibly strong. The darker times make me so much more grateful for the lighter brighter times, and for everything I’ve achieved despite my PMDD struggles.
Others may never really understand what it’s like to be me, but as my awareness improves, I can look at myself without judgment and accept myself and my body, in all it’s rollercoaster PMDD glory.