What you might not know about bipolar disorder
A few years ago, I was watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians with my sister and a friend. In a typical scene, Scott Disick was drinking heavily and being ill mannered when he suddenly exploded into a rage. My friend proclaimed out loud, “Oh my god, he is so bipolar”. My sister looked at me and countered almost immediately, “Honestly, I just don’t really know enough about it”. For what she knew and what my friend didn’t, was that several months earlier I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II.
I’ve never forgotten this moment, as I was pretty saddened by it. Several thoughts immediately came to mind: I was disappointed with my friend in being wrong in what she had said, I was angry with myself that I hadn’t felt comfortable enough to share my diagnosis with my friend of almost 10 years, and lastly, I thought that my sister’s response was perfect, because unless speaking to someone in a medical or psychological field, it seems as though no one knows what bipolar disorder really is.
I am far from the only person struggling with mental illness, and due to lack of mental health knowledge and high stigma, comments similar to this one are being made every day.
It is a common misconception that bipolar disorder consists of rapid mood swings, however it is much more complex than that. The first thing to know is that there are different kinds of Bipolar disorder (manic depression); bipolar 1, bipolar 2 and cyclothymia. These disorders all involve major depressive episodes that alternate with manic or hypomanic episodes, or with mixed episodes that feature symptoms of both mood states.
- Bipolar I Disorder: At least one manic episode (of at least 7 days) is necessary in order for diagnosis.
- Bipolar II Disorder: One or more hypomanic episodes, along with one or more major depressive episodes. Hypomanic episodes do not go to the full extremes of mania.
- Cyclothymia: A history of hypomanic episodes, with periods of depression that do not meet criteria for major depressive episodes.
Examples of mania: inflated self-esteem, grandiosity, euphoria, manic speech, decreased need for sleep, symptoms of psychosis (hallucinations, delusions, paranoia), suicidal ideation, excessive indulgence in high-risk behaviours. Most often needs hospitalization.
Examples of hypomania: elevated mood, racing thoughts, hypersexuality, frivolous spending, unusual irritability or excitement, decreased need for sleep.
The main line of treatment for bipolar disorder is medication, and usually once diagnosed with the disorder it is necessary to take medication for the rest of your life.
Furthermore, many people with BP tend to seek therapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), though there are several other effective types of therapy as well.
The truth is that unless you suffer from bipolar disorder, you have no idea what it’s really like, and it’s pretty awful. I tried 13 medications before I found the ones that worked for me. I experienced nausea, vomiting, weight gain, hair loss, memory loss, fatigue, piercing migraines, akinesia, shaking, dizziness, diarrhea, stomach pain, loss of appetite, insomnia, blurred vision, and agitation. This was on top of major depressive episodes I was dealing with, which much to my chagrin were far more frequent than the hypomania.
I tried different kinds of therapy, most notably cognitive behavioural therapy, but I found it very hard to communicate with my psychologist. I was at war with my mind.
At first I was dealing with this all on my own. I felt embarrassed, hopeless and frustrated. What took me far too long to realize was that I didn’t have to go through it on my own.
Due to the large amounts of stigma surrounding bipolar disorder, some people are refraining from seeking the help that they desperately need. In order to eventually break down the stigma, the best thing we can do is educate ourselves as much as we possibly can.
Lexie lives in Toronto and has a BA in Psychology from Queen's University. She also recently completed her MSc in Sport and Performance Psychology in Northern Ireland where her studies focused on barriers athletes face when seeking help for mental health issues. She lives with bipolar and is an advocate for reducing mental health stigma.