“I went from crying to laughing in, like, two minutes- I’m so bipolar!”
“My girlfriend gets crazy mad out of nowhere, I swear she’s bipolar or something.”
“Yesterday felt like fall and today it’s snowing… what is with this bipolar weather?”
It’s because of seemingly innocuous interactions like these that a lot of people don’t know much about what bipolar really means. Calling someone or something “bipolar” has become synonymous with being fickle, moody, or even just perceived as overly emotional. The term is tossed around, sometimes all in good fun, but sometimes as an insult, to diminish another person’s feelings, or to make them seem like the villain.
In reality, bipolar is a serious mental illness that is often all-consuming. While many people are able to live normal lives and cope well with their bipolar, it is nevertheless an obstacle that can be very hard to overcome. It hurts loved ones, damages relationships, and even decreases average life expectancy (the key word here being “average”- this does not apply to every individual). In many cases it drives people into the arms of addiction, or prevents them from being independent and holding down a job. It’s a lifelong disease that is extremely difficult to navigate, and some people are never able to truly find peace with it.
The “bi-” in bipolar refers to the two distinct mood states that characterize the illness: depression and mania. This is why it used to be more commonly referred to as “manic-depressive disorder”, which is honestly the term I prefer. Personally, I feel as though “bipolar” has become so overused and misunderstood that it gives people the wrong idea of what I deal with. People hear that word and often jump to inaccurate conclusions about my personality. In my eyes, the term manic-depressive more accurately reflects the true nature of the disease: the presence of both mania and depression. The majority, however, obviously disagrees, and so bipolar is what I refer to my illness as.
Depression is defined as an extreme state of low mood and low energy, a loss of interest in life and even suicidal thoughts and actions. It’s a giant, heavy, wet blanket laying on top of you, making it difficult to move, to participate- even sometimes just to speak. It can cause serious increase in anxiety and terrible feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and shame. It hinders everything you try to do, and often paralyzes people into complete and utter immobility. I have spent entire weeks in one spot on the couch while depressed, rewatching the same movie over and over again because I couldn’t bring myself to get up and put a new one in the player. In the worst cases, people become desperate in their search for a way out, and too many have lost their lives.
A surprising number of people experience depression at some point in their lives, so this is generally the part of bipolar that others have an easier time sympathizing with. The other side of bipolar, mania, is not so easily understood by the average layperson, and so it is that term that I will do my best to describe here.
Mania is quite literally the opposite of depression: a state of extremely elevated mood, heightened senses, and an intense level of energy. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Almost like being a superhero even. In it’s milder state, called hypomania, that’s not always an entirely unfair description. Low levels of mania in some people can lead to very productive and social periods, generally a huge relief from the grueling depressive episodes.
For many, however, mania is just as destructive, if not much more so, as even the worst depressive episode. Mania drives people to wild extremes, causing an abandon of all inhibition, scrambled thoughts, and, in the worst cases, a total break from reality. Mania often comes with hypersexuality, causing unsafe interactions with strangers or making otherwise loyal partners cheat. It gives you a dangerously exaggerated sense of confidence- as if you are the most desirable and important person on the planet- which can utterly destroy otherwise strong relationships with your inability to see past your own needs and wants.
The unprecedented levels of energy caused by mania can be very problematic. The electricity in your veins drives you forward at a constant, accelerating speed. Sleep is one of the first things to go. Speech becomes faster and more pressured, until it becomes a nearly incomprehensible gargle. You may engage in dramatic levels of physical exertion in an effort to curb some of that unrelenting energy. Once while manic I became so overwhelmed that I sprinted out of my friend’s apartment, completely barefoot, into the snowy parking lot to sprint back and forth, stopping only to do push-ups in the spaces between cars.
Mania is often not solely an experience of exaggerated positives however. A great number of manic episodes are mixed, to some degree, with depressive symptoms, or may otherwise have undesirable aspects. It can cause awful bouts of irritability, hypersensitivity, and anger. It can also blend with the suicidal ideations of depression, leading to increasingly reckless disregard for your safety or even self-harm and suicide attempts.
When mania is left unchecked it can develop to such a degree that you start to lose your grip on reality. Sometimes this is manifested when one’s inflated sense of self-esteem becomes delusional: they may believe themselves to be the next messiah, or simply that they are invincible and immortal. I have surfed on top of moving cars while manic, the possibility of injury or death entirely unconsidered.
Even more unsettling, mania can devolve into pure psychosis. It can cause hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia, not unlike those found in schizophrenia. During my first major manic episode, I became convinced that my roommates were stealing my stuff and purposefully damaging it, just to spite me and to laugh at me for being poorer than they were. I once even berated an innocent chinese food delivery man, thinking he was sent by my roommates to embarrass me for not being able to afford the food on the spot. The food had already been paid for, but my suspicion of them didn’t dissolve until I was being medicated in the hospital. Looking back, I still have a hard time parsing out what really happened and what was simply paranoia.
Both depression and mania are extremely damaging to one’s sense of self and their overall well-being. Too many loves and lives have been lost to the depths of depression, and to the dangerous heights of mania. Bipolar is more than mood swings; it’s continuous life-altering episodes of stress, instability, and even danger.
I may paint a grim picture here, but that is only to impress upon the otherwise unaware a better sense of the gravity of the illness. Bipolar is not untreatable, and many people learn to live their lives in a way that insulates them from the worst of the damage and affords them pure normalcy in the interim. I do not in any way mean for my descriptions of this experience to lead to any sort of preconceived ideas or judgments of others with bipolar. Everyone is different, some struggle differently, and some more noticeably than others.
A diagnosis of bipolar is a life sentence, true, but it is not a death sentence. There is always, always hope- your future lies in your own hands, and there is nothing any disease can do to prevent you from making the best of your situation.