5 Misconceptions of Bipolar Disorder

Recently I was officially diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar, commonly referred as part of Bipolar NOS (not otherwise specified) because my symptoms fall out of the criteria for classic bipolar one and two.

What that means is that my brain responds to stress and other stimuli in a way that’s usually over the top, or unhealthy. When good things happen my confidence soars like a rocket to Saturn, but when the gravity of reality hits I go down just as fast, and hard too.

The whole thing is amazingly complicated and nuanced, and everyone is different who has it. I’d like to dispel some common misconceptions on the whole thing.

1) Those who are Bipolar go from one extreme to another in seconds, you never know what mood they will be in, and are dramatic about it.

Not true. There are those who have ultra rapid cycling, meaning moods switching within hours or days, but no. Full blown mania (which I’ve never experienced, just the milder form hypomania) is very noticeable if you know the person, or to everyone if psychosis is happening. During full blown depression, you won’t see the person at all, for they won’t have energy to do anything. But the in between stuff? My cowokers have no idea that my thoughts are moving at light speed or not at all. And as for family and friends, well, it explains certain things (depression is the most obvious), but even to them I look normal, and minus a few isolated incidents, I seem fine. And most people are pretty good with blaming outside forces for the occasional outburst.

2) Bipolar is strictly episodic.

Sure, with some people–going from depression, to normal (it happens), to mania. Sometimes there is a rhyme and reason to it, sometimes not. But to me the whole episodic notion of the disease sort of misses the point.

There are shades between depression and mania/hypomania–a more coherent, rarely-losing-touch-with reality kind of mania that looks like a “really good mood” but there are also shades of energy levels, just like everyone else. And the two aren’t necessarily related. There are a few names for these mixed kinds of states, but basically, it’s possible to have energetic depressions to low energy manias–thoughts racing, anxiety creeping, the intense desire to move but being unable to, not being able to find a reason.

There are more than that though, but I know when I self harmed or tried to win a fistfight with a wooden wall, it because I was in a mixed state–all the anguish of depression, but now with the energy to DO something about it, but in highly panicked, irrational ways.

3) Meds change who you are, or make you into a zombie, or something.

Here’s the thing. Bipolar is a disease because it makes the basic stressors of life immobilizing and makes you unable to cope with the daily bullshit everyone else goes through. Sometimes there’s a reason you can blame your moods on, but most times, there is no reason, or, the feelings you have that were caused by an outside event are far, far out of proportion. If medications are making you still not be able to cope with everyday life in healthy ways, or it makes it worse, it’s simply not the right kind of medicine. The proper meds, once you go through the arduous task of finding the right one, should bring you closer to your normal, rational self.

That said, you have to go through a metric shit ton of them to find what works. My first meds, for lack of better phrase, made one of my nipples tear up–as in, daintedly ooze a little. That is not a phrase you want to ever say to yourself. “Oh, I’m not too worried, just one of my nipples cried a bit, but only a little!”. Yeah. The other one, which I’m on, made me sleep like 13 or more hours for the first week before I got used to it. Getting used to meds and finding the right one is a long process, but its in the hope of fixing the most important thing you have–your mind and your life.

4) Meds solve your problems instantly.

I don’t think anyone actually things this, but meds are a small part of getting better. I like to compare bipolar to a sport car–when its maintained well, there’s no stopping you–you switch lanes and haul ass because you are driving an incredibly powerful machine–but requires a great deal more maintenance and upkeep. Go too fast and you’ll lose control and possibly wreck and affect others as well–fail to take care of it and you will be stuck in traffic, you won’t be able to move. And then, there’s the whole challenge of driving the damn thing–you better learn how to shift gears, work the clutch, and get by without power steering–otherwise you will wreck fucking hard, and the damage can be felt by whoever is with you.

Human maintenance is simple on paper. Everyone needs a good support system, good sleeping habits, exercise, and good diets. These things are paramount to those who have bipolar. My girlfriend can get by with four hours of sleep on a busy night–four hours of sleep, for me, can send me into a depressive or manic state. Getting enough sleep greatly regulates your emotions. Being open with people you trust is also a huge thing–everyone suffers from bad relationships, but a bad relationship can make your emotions fucking haywire, and soon you’re tempted to steal all their clothes and burn them by the beach, something normal you would never even think of wanting to do.

As far as eating well, well, I can’t say anything because I eat poorly. But eating in general is great! Kinda crazy, but while depressed or manic, it’s hard to care to even eat at all. Or maybe you over eat and its hard to stop because the cravings are so bad. Alcohol is bad, and depending on your meds, totally off limits (I like my wine…and everything else, but don’t tell my psychiatrist that) and pot is completely off limits, due to the psychoactive effects.

Because of those things, maintaining a steady schedule is important. If I wake up a few hours earlier or later and my whole day is in ruins. If I can’t get to sleep at a decent time, ditto.

5) Bipolar is separate than you, just like cancer is not part of the person who has it.

This is controversial, but my opinion is that it is very much who I am, and I can use this diagnoses as a model to explain past behavior and predict future ones. It’s a mental illness that is beyond just depression–it’s my happiness, my anger, my love. All of those things are a part of me, but bipolar effects it. I have to be careful, and actually take care of myself. It’s okay if you want to separate yourself from the notion–everyone is different–but, when not destructive, it can be nice. Like driving a nice sport car, to use that metaphor again. It means that I have to be extra aware and knowledgeable of myself, it means I can direct those feelings in positive ways, and it makes me appreciative of the most complicated organ in the currently known universe. When I hate a person, I feel it intensely, like it will never end. But when I love a person, I feel it intensely too, and I am driven to always fix the things I damage. It’s an extraordinarily complicated illness that is so deep it affects the way I perceive the world, affects my wild emotions and makes mastering skepticism and logic of upmost importance as those strong moods constantly changes the way I see the world–it even affects my logic, as certain things become easier to rationalize.

Someone else used the metaphor of the sport car (http://lightwayofthinking.com/bipolar/) and explains things a bit better than I did. But I hope this thing illuminates certain aspects of bipolar.