There used to be no place I hated more than the dressing room of a department store. Everything about it — the unflattering lighting, the mirror that accentuated every figure flaw, the depressing heaps of tried-on-and-discarded clothes puddled on the floor — made me sad. I’d glance at my short hair, trying to ignore the multiple gray hairs that sprouted daily. No makeup except for a swipe of blush, no jewelry beyond a wedding ring. Simplicity was my watchword.
And so I hit my 40s padded with the lingering remnants of five pregnancies. Photos from that time reflect a parade of unfortunate clothing choices: high-rise mom jeans, ugly mud-colored shoes, sweaters and sweatshirts with cavorting animals on them, or Santas, depending on the season. I had settled into a sensible but ho-hum middle age, any sense of style I’d ever had sinking without a trace.
Then, one day, everything changed.
When does a change of habit signal a mental illness? For a person with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, a sudden and intense interest in their physical appearance (and major shopping sprees) can be a sign that all is not well. It was like that for me, although I didn’t know it at the time.
I suddenly found myself buying Vogue, Glamour, and InStyle. My car, which for so many years had traveled a boring, familiar path from school to supermarket to playground, now sped regularly toward King of Prussia Mall. Saks, H&M and Bloomingdale’s beckoned me, and I was helpless to resist. I scoured the stores for outfits — and what was more, I was drawn to clothes suitable for a younger woman: short leather skirts, plunging necklines, vivid colors. My drab brown flats were replaced by the highest stiletto heels sold, and I didn’t give a damn how uncomfortable they were. I discovered Sephora, and soon my little blusher was buried in the bathroom drawer under a huge pile of eyeshadows, liners, and lipsticks. The gray was banished, and I began to grow out my dyed brown hair, taming my curls with a flatiron.
Our family budget may have been as tight as that leather skirt of mine, but my Amex card got an almost-daily workout. I bought a rack that held 30 pairs of shoes. It soon ran out of room. I shed the remains of the baby weight and began to work out compulsively. I adored the sight of myself in the formerly dreaded dressing room mirror as my low-rise skinny jeans (it was 2006, after all) shrunk to size 00.
What could possibly be wrong with this picture? I was getting more compliments about my looks than I ever had, which fed the shopping monster within me. While my husband questioned the astronomical charges sometimes, I was sure that his pride in me far outweighed the costs. The fact that I was acting like a completely different person did not bother me in the slightest. I was finally coming into my own, attracting a level of attention I had never realized I yearned for. When I looked at the old photos, I laughed that the sight of those hideous baggy tops and matronly corduroy pants: Who was that frump?
Without warning, in a matter of weeks, my life came crashing down. My extended manic episodes gave way to rivers of tears and bottomless depression. My forays through Nordstrom no longer thrilled me; in fact, the sight of my bulging closets and drawers was making me nauseous. One afternoon, leafing through yet another fashion magazine, I saw a full-page ad for the medication Abilify, featuring a long list of symptoms that indicate bipolar disorder. To my horror, I had every single symptom. It was long past time to get some psychiatric help.
My bipolar diagnosis adventure began: weekly doctor appointments, trial runs of several strong medications. One med in particular (Seroquel) made me gain weight, though the next (Wellbutrin) sent the bathroom scale plunging to lows not seen since age 16. I was so focused on getting well that I forgot to care how I looked, and traces of the old Elise, along with some gray hair, began to emerge. I gave most of my extensive wardrobe away. My subscription to Elle lapsed. My mirror and I called off our strange love affair.
That was 10 years ago. I no longer lurch from mania to depression and back again. My meds still work, a reality for which I give thanks daily. Today, I am no longer super fashionable, but I’m also not a prematurely old woman. I’ve given up my obsession with wrinkle removers that cost as much as a mortgage payment and have made my peace with the “laugh” lines on my face. But while my credit card balance has gone (way) down, I will never return to the days when I hated shopping and hid myself in the disguise of Dowdy Mom. I have a really nice wardrobe now, age-appropriate and stylish. I enjoy getting packages from Modcloth and Loft and wear my fashion finds proudly (but without the hyped-up hysteria of my bad years). My weight has stabilized, as has my life.
I am not afraid of new clothes and makeup because now I have my spending impulses, and my symptoms, under control. As I look in the once-dreaded, once-adored mirror these days, I see the best version of myself I know how to be, and that is the greatest feeling in the world.
To learn more about bipolar disorder or find resources if you’re struggling, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. And no one person’s prescribed course of action works for everyone, so always consult a doctor.