One of the worst things about mental illness is the labels that are attached. Diagnosis comes with a name which elicits an image that often has little to do with the nature of the illness itself. I’ve heard too many people mistakenly use the term schizophrenic as an adjective to describe someone or something with a split personality, and bipolar is a person with a bad case of the mood swings, right? Hardly. Most people I’ve spoken to only really know bipolar disorder from what they’ve seen in pop culture’s exaggerations and misrepresentations. It seems the truth is rarely an eloquent plot device. Today my goal is to bust up some of the misguided clichés regarding bipolar disorder.
Being Bipolar Means Constant Mood Swings
Bipolar is a mood disorder also known as manic depression, which alludes to the two extremes of mood that characterize the illness. But that doesn’t mean we’re all moody and emotionally unstable, blowing up or breaking down at the slightest of triggers. Mania and depression are episodes that usually last at least a week, if not months. Depression is more than just being sad or upset, too. I had a depressive episode in the winter of 2010-2011 that lasted for months. I could sleep for days. Weirdly enough, I pretty much stopped talking. I just felt like I never had anything to say. On the other hand, manic episodes mean less need for sleep, heightened sociability, an influx of ideas, fast-talking charm and wit, lowered inhibitions, restlessness, irritability, and the desire to do everything all at once.
Bipolar Disorder = Round the Clock Craziness
Mania and depression exist at two opposite ends of a spectrum. What some don’t realize about those of us with bipolar is that for the most part, our mood sits in the neutral middle area of that spectrum. “You don’t seem bipolar” has been a common response when I’ve revealed the truth about my mental health. Many of us with bipolar can go years without having a manic or depressive episode, especially when properly medicated and practicing mindful self-care. To be honest, I think I’m more emotionally secure than most, possibly because I’ve had to learn to be so in tune with my inner landscape. The only ‘abnormal’ thing about my daily life is that I take three little pills before bed.
Everyone’s a Little Bit Bipolar
Oh, this one irks me so much. No, everyone is not a little bit bipolar. Bipolar disorder is more than the DSM’s embodiment of the tragicomic modes threaded through all human experience. The severity and longevity of mood are what distinguish this illness. Just because someone swears a lot, doesn’t mean they’ve got Tourette’s. If you think you may have bipolar disorder, consider whether any of these symptoms have had a major disruptive impact on your life. If the answer is yes, make an appointment with your doctor.
Bipolar Disorder Is All In Your Head
There are some strange physical symptoms that go along with bipolar. First and foremost, there are the sleep disturbances: insomnia and lethargy. Weirdly enough, if I start feeling manic or forget my meds, I get crazy itchy. When I was a girl, we thought I had invisible eczema and I had to take oatmeal baths. For a short period after I was diagnosed and not on a high enough dose of lithium, I had trouble walking down the street and doing simple tasks because I felt like my heart beating and my breathing weren’t automatic functions anymore. With hypomania (mild mania), it feels like a hummingbird inside my belly. In addition, the medications used to treat bipolar come with a whole slew of unwanted physical symptoms.
People with Bipolar Can’t Maintain Relationships
Keeping a romantic relationship can be tricky even for those with no health issues, so I think it makes sense that the advice for anyone in a relationship where one (or both!) are bipolar is just as relevant for those without. Communicate feelings, love actively and visibly, and recognize and respect the humanity in each other. Of course, the foundational relationship on which all others is based is the one we have with ourselves. When someone with bipolar has worked to achieve self-awareness, personal goals, and a dignified love for themselves, they’re already ahead of the curve.
Bipolar Disorder Is a Single Illness
There are several types of bipolar, so what you hear from one person with bipolar might differ from someone else’s experience. I have Bipolar I, which is characterized by mania to depression (this is the more manic type, which can sometimes look like schizophrenia). There’s Bipolar II, characterized by hypomania (mild mania) to severe depression (this is the more depressive type). Cyclothemia shows milder moods over briefer periods of time. Rapid cycling is used to describe alternating between hyp0/manic and depressive episodes four or more times in a year.
Bipolar Disorder Isn’t that Serious
This is a fatal disorder with a high risk of suicide, substance abuse, and related fatalities. It can be even more dangerous than unipolar depression because mania can drive you to do things that require too much effort for a depressed brain. It’s also quite a common disorder that too many of us are uncomfortable discussing because of the associated stigma. This is why it’s so important to start talking about our experiences, and for those who might be listening to be open-minded and supportive.