Approximately 3% (a little over 2.3 million people) of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Despite the massive number of individuals living with Bipolar Disorder, it continues to be one of the most misunderstood mental health disorders. While depictions from T.V. series, movies, and the like have somewhat improved, the disorder remains unduly misunderstood. Living with Bipolar Disorder is far more than manic/hypomanic, depressive, and at times mixed episodes. There are times of stability (euthymia) and an array of daily challenges people may face that are not discussed. Below discusses some of these daily struggles, but it is critical to keep in mind that no two people experience Bipolar Disorder in the same way or to the same degree.
Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, can be categorized into several types: Bipolar I Disorder, Bipolar II Disorder, Cyclothymic Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS). No matter the type of Bipolar Disorder someone is diagnosed with, it is not curable. This may feel like a jail sentence for some, but through appropriate treatment by professionals, such as those at Mindful Living Group, a fulfilling, joyful, happy life is attainable.
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is complex, and might even be confusing – not only for those viewing it from the outside but for those who have it, too. The fundamental element of the disorder is the presence of mania, or hypomania, which is generally followed by periods of depression. Both ends of this spectrum are felt differently by everyone.
The manic episodes are often described as periods of creativity, euphoria, high energy, and fearlessness. While true, the ugly side of it is frequently overlooked. It also consists of impulsivity, racing thoughts, jumbled speech, irritability/anger, self-harm, excessive spending, hypersexuality, feeling overwhelmed, claustrophobic in your own body, and is at times terrifying. While this isn’t the case for everyone, these are often prevailing experiences. Manic, or hypomanic, episodes wreak havoc on your body, relationships, job/career stability, and life in general.
While many savor the energy and fearlessness mania brings, they are habitually wary of its onset. Mania is deceptive, to put it simply. It feels as though nothing is impossible; there are no limitations to what you can accomplish. Every rushing thought you must achieve, every craft or house project must be completed, and you believe it can all be done in an unrealistic amount of time. “Write a novel? Sure, I can do that today.” Reality can become blurred as the severity of a manic episode increases, causing some to lose touch with reality altogether, known as psychosis. Mania is dangerous. It’s not something to be envied or triggered. Impulsive behaviors, or comments, may lead to risky or fatal situations, often landing people in the hospital.
Bipolar Disorder – any mental health disorder – does not come with an “on-off” switch. Individuals cannot choose whether or not to be manic or depressive when they wake up in the morning. A looming sense of anxiety may sit in your stomach and the back of your mind, anticipating when – not if – your mood will shift.
“For years, I avoided get-togethers, events, family or friend’s birthdays or celebrations, anything I wasn’t required to be at because I didn’t know if something would trigger a shift in my mood while I was out of the house. If depression cycled in, it would not only affect my mental state but physically, too. I would suddenly need to lay down and sleep, no matter where I was or what was going on. The apocalypse could have started, and I would only care about going to bed. If It were mania, I would likely make a fool of myself or put myself and others in danger. I would become over-friendly, invite strangers over to my home, stay out all night, and, if the opportunity arose, take any drug or drink offered to me. I believed I was invincible.”
The distinguishing feature between Bipolar I and Bipolar II disorder is the severity of manic episodes; however, individuals with Bipolar II generally experience a higher frequency of depressive episodes. Keep in mind that everyone is different, their disorder is unique to them, and Bipolar Disorder exists on a spectrum. When depression cycles around, it often gives rise to a crushing weight of hopelessness and worthlessness. In many cases, depression joins forces with guilt and shame from behaviors that occurred during the prior manic/hypomanic episode. It’s a cycle that fuels itself into a seemingly never-ending downward spiral. Just as with mania, it’s not exclusive to your mental state. It affects your entire body. Depression creates, for the majority of people, physical symptoms, too.
“I feel it mentally and physically. My skin hurts, and the ache spreads to my muscles and bones. My body feels heavy, as if I’m made of stone. I go days without walking more than five feet from my bed to the bathroom and back. I will sleep 12-18 hours a day. The rest of the time is spent lying in bed staring blankly at whatever is in front of me. The room stays dark, blinds and curtains closed tight, light hurts my eyes, and I have a permanent headache that no medication can ease; the pressure in my head seems to stem from all the self-hatred and dreadful sorrow that I can’t put into words, so it just builds and builds. Despite the body aches and discomfort, I’m paradoxically just numb; I want it all to stop. I feel too deeply, yet not at all. As the days melt together, it doesn’t seem to ease up gradually; instead, it gets heavier. Inevitably, the suicidal thoughts roll in like a high tide. I can be in this state for weeks to months and, at one point, several years.”
The topic of suicide makes people uncomfortable, but it is something that needs to be talked about. Suicide is the leading cause of death in those with Bipolar Disorder. Individuals with Bipolar Disorder are 10-30 times more likely to die by suicide than those among the general population, with approximately 20 percent of people diagnosed ending their lives. If that’s not painful enough, it’s estimated that anywhere between 20-60 percent attempt suicide AT LEAST once. While depressive episodes usher in suicidal thoughts, the mania provides the energy to act on the notion. Episodes with mixed features or mixed episodes are the less familiar yet dominant state of mind – not all – people with Bipolar Disorder can experience. While in a relatively “pure” form of depression, the risk of suicide exists, individuals report being too exhausted or unable to move out of bed, not to mention accomplishing something that requires so much energy. This is where the heightened risk of mixed episodes quickly becomes fatal. As the depressive element ushers in pervasive dread and suicidal thoughts, moments of energy fueled by mania enable the person to act.
Treating Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness without a cure and one of the most severe and life-threatening mental health disorders; it is NOT a jail sentence. There are highly effective and individualized treatment options available. The ability to live a healthy, profoundly fulfilling, joy-filled, and happy life is conceivable.
“Growing up, I watched my grandmother taking countless medications in an attempt to manage her Bipolar Disorder, only to turn her into someone I didn’t know. Unfortunately, at the time, doctors did not understand the disorder as they do now. When I was first diagnosed, I refused all forms of treatment, believing I could find my own way to treat myself – this did not, and does not, work. It took nearly ten years of cycling between highs and lows, destroying relationships, and wreaking havoc on my life to come to terms with the power and benefits appropriate treatment from my mental health team can provide. Once finding the right medications, dosages, routines, and proper diet, stability finally exists. Outside of my medical team, I have a remarkable support system in place that consists of my partner, aunt, and parents, who hold me accountable when necessary.”
Receiving appropriate treatment is vital for individuals who have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or are experiencing symptoms. As doctors continue to gain a greater understanding, diagnosis and appropriate, individualized treatment can begin earlier than in the past.
Many individuals with Bipolar Disorder have avoided receiving professional help and treatment because of past experiences with misdiagnosis – most commonly a misdiagnosis of depression with coexisting anxiety. Unfortunately, widely prescribed antidepressants are (for some people) a significant trigger for manic episodes. Countless people have told stories of antidepressant-induced mania and a fear of taking medication again because of the side effects that are frequently experienced. There’s no denying that the pursuit of finding the correct medication(s) and dosage is generally a several-year and daunting process. Nevertheless, it is without question worth it in the end.
Finding a psychiatrist who thoroughly understands Bipolar Disorder is the first essential factor in seeking treatment. Equally critical is seeing a psychiatrist – and psychologist/psychotherapist – with whom you feel safe and can (or have already) established a solid therapeutic alliance. The initial treatment approach focuses on stabilizing mood shifts and ensuring the individual’s safety and health, sometimes requiring hospitalization.
Because this process may seem intimidating to some, or they do not wish to repeat past negative experiences, they turn to self-medicating with substances such as alcohol and drugs. It’s estimated over 60 percent of people who have been diagnosed struggle with substance abuse. Left untreated, Bipolar Disorder can cause significant collateral damage to most people’s lives. It hurts the person with the disorder and those closest to them. Some individuals may not need medication, but the majority do. Drugs and dosages may have to be adjusted over time for various reasons such as stressful life events, age-related biological changes, pregnancy, etc. This is one of the reasons having a trusting, honest relationship with your medical team is paramount to managing the disorder.
Accepting & Prioritizing Your Diagnosis & Needs
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” — Buddha.
The journey toward accepting a Bipolar Disorder diagnosis – really, any diagnosis – is distinctive to everyone; some people can with ease, and others take more time. Accepting a diagnosis does not mean choosing it, liking it, or wanting it. It’s a process of making peace with what is handed to you and understanding you can still work to improve your health and life. Accepting Bipolar Disorder does not mean giving in to it or letting it consume you. Acceptance and prioritizing your needs and health often fall hand-in-hand with each other. It’s learning, setting, and keeping limits and boundaries – not staying out past certain times to ensure you get enough sleep or saying “no” to another round of drinks. It’s being responsible and accountable to yourself, in turn, to the people in your life you are close to (or liable for, like children) – taking your medication as prescribed, following a routine, committing to therapy appointments, and reaching out to your support system when you need help.
“When I began coming to terms with my diagnosis – all of them actually (bipolar, ADHD, OCD, and Mitochondrial Dysfunction) – there was something I experienced each time that no one warned me about. Grief. Immense grief. It was not self-pity like it may have seemed to some. I was deeply sorrowed for the little girl I once was, for the childhood that felt stolen from her. I felt as if I was experiencing an identity crisis. I didn’t recognize who I was when looking in old photos or even in the mirror. I was angry and hurt. It’s no one’s fault. Initially, this anger was followed by denial, resisting treatment, and caring for myself and my needs. Until I hit rock bottom, again and again, eventually, it dawned on me that my future self needed to take care of the “young” me I am now. This was where acceptance and prioritization of my physical and mental health honestly began.”
Pure Joy Is Possible With Bipolar Disorder
Recovery does not mean symptom-free or immunity from episodes. Accepting that you have Bipolar Disorder is not synonymous with recovery; it is a companion. Recovery looks different for everyone.
“My treatment plan likely will not work for the next person, and it has – and will again – needed adjustments as I’ve gotten older, faced different hurdles and curveballs, and experienced new situations. I accept that I am NOT my mental and physical health disorders but a human being who loves, finds happiness in being alive, and feels emotions intensely. My unique self, passions, purpose, and support system anchor me when things become turbulent.”
If you have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, or suspect it may be the cause of your symptoms, contact Mindful Living Group today. The therapists are compassionate and expertly trained in helping everyone discover and create a life they love and a life full of joy.
For a more detailed explanation of the varying types, read our blog here. While a diagnosis may be the same for two people, it is not experienced identically.