What do successful people like musician Demi Lovato, comedian Russell Brand, news anchor Jane Pauley, and actress Catherine Zeta-Jones have in common? They, like millions of others, are living with bipolar disorder. When I received my diagnosis in 2012, I knew very little about the condition. I didn’t even know it ran in my family. So, I researched and researched, reading book after book on the subject, talking to my doctors, and educating myself until I understood what was going on.
Although we are learning more about bipolar disorder, there remain many misconceptions. Here are a few myths and facts, so you can arm yourself with knowledge and help end the stigma.
Fact: The highs and lows of bipolar disorder are very different from common mood swings. People with bipolar disorder experience extreme changes in energy, activity, and sleep that are not typical for them.
The psychiatry research manager at one U.S. university, who wishes to stay anonymous, writes, “Just because you wake up happy, get grumpy in the middle of the day, and then end up happy again, it doesn’t mean you have bipolar disorder — no matter how often it happens to you! Even a diagnosis of rapid-cycling bipolar disorder requires several days in a row of (hypo)manic symptoms, not just several hours. Clinicians look for groups of symptoms more than just emotions.”
Fact: There are four basic types of bipolar disorder, and the experience is different per individual.
- Bipolar I is diagnosed when a person has one or more depressive episodes and one or more manic episodes, sometimes with psychotic features such as hallucinations or delusions.
- Bipolar II has depressive episodes as its major feature and at least one
hypomanic episode. Hypomania is a less severe type of mania. A person with
bipolar II disorder may experience either mood-congruent or
mood-incongruent psychotic symptoms.
- Cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia) is defined by numerous periods of hypomanic symptoms as well numerous periods of depressive symptoms lasting for at least two years (1 year in children and adolescents) without meeting the severity requirements for a hypomanic episode and a depressive episode.
- Bipolar disorder otherwise not specified does not follow a particular pattern and is defined by bipolar disorder symptoms that do not match the three categories listed above.
Fact: Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness and there currently is no cure. However, it can be well-managed with medication and talk therapy, by avoiding stress, and maintaining regular patterns of sleeping, eating, and exercise.
Fact: In some instances, a manic person may feel good at first, but without treatment things can become detrimental and even terrifying. They may go on a big shopping spree, spending beyond their means. Some people become overly anxious or highly irritable, getting upset over small things and snapping at loved ones. A manic person may lose control of their thoughts and actions and even lose touch with reality.
Fact: Treatment often allows you to think more clearly, which will likely improve your work. Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Marya Hornbacher discovered this firsthand.
“I was very persuaded I would never write again when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But before, I wrote one book; and now I’m on my seventh.”
She has found that her work is even better with treatment.
“When I was working on my second book, I was not yet treated for bipolar disorder, and I wrote about 3,000 pages of the worst book that you have ever seen in your life. And then, in the middle of writing that book, which I just somehow couldn’t finish because I kept writing and writing and writing, I got diagnosed and I got treated. And the book itself, the book that was ultimately published, I wrote in 10 months or so. Once I got treated for my bipolar disorder, I was able to channel the creativity effectively and focus. Nowadays I deal with some symptoms, but by and large I just go about my day,” she said. “Once you get a handle on it, it’s certainly livable. It’s treatable. You can work with it. It doesn’t have to define your life.” She discusses her experience in her book “Madness: A Bipolar Life,” and she is currently working on a follow-up book about her road to recovery.
Fact: People with bipolar disorder can experience long periods of even, balanced mood called euthymia. Conversely, they may sometimes experience what’s referred to as a “mixed episode,” which has features of both mania and depression at the same time.
Fact: It might take some trial and error to find the medication that works for you. “There are several mood stabilizers/antipsychotic medications available to treat bipolar disorder. Something that works for one person might not work for another. If someone tries one and it doesn’t work or has side effects, it’s very important that they communicate this to their provider. The provider should be there to work as a team with the patient to find the right fit,” writes the psychiatry research manager.
One in five people is diagnosed with a mental illness, including bipolar disorder. I, like so many others, have responded extremely well to treatment. My daily life is normal, and my relationships are stronger than ever. I haven’t had an episode for several years. My career is strong, and my marriage to an extremely supportive husband is a solid as a rock.
I urge you to learn about the common signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder, and talk to your doctor if you meet any of the criteria for diagnosis. If you or someone you know is in crisis, get help immediately. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). It’s time to end the stigma that prevents people from getting the help that can improve or save their lives.
Mara Robinson is a freelance marketing communications specialist with more than 15 years of experience. She has created many forms of communication for a wide variety of clients, including feature articles, product descriptions, ad copy, sales materials, packaging, press kits, newsletters, and more. She also is an avid photographer and music lover who can frequently be found photographing rock concerts at MaraRobinson.com.