May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 4.4% of U.S. adults experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lives. Despite that, there are many misconceptions out there about what someone with a mental illness looks, sounds, and acts like, especially someone with bipolar. Bipolar disorder has been talked about more in recent years thanks to celebrities who have come out to raise awareness. But like most mental illnesses, it’s still highly misunderstood.
To get down to the very basics, bipolar disorder is a genetic brain condition that can severely affect a person’s ability to regulate emotions, which causes extended episodes of mania and depression. “Because bipolar disorder starts in the DNA of an individual, a person has bipolar from the very beginning of life but usually shows first symptoms of bipolar mood swings in adolescence or young adulthood,” Michael Pipich, a psychotherapist who specializes in bipolar disorder, tells HelloGiggles. Postpartum women may also suffer their first bipolar episodes due to hormonal shifts, he says.
Manic episodes often include a period of extreme euphoria, expanded sense of self, and great feelings of being special or super creative.
Depressive periods, on the other hand, are completely different. Individuals may experience a “painful sense of desperation, poor self-esteem, and loss of hope and pleasure in their lives.”
“In between episodes, people with bipolar can be very functional and productive in their lives, making the disorder often deceptively hard to recognize,” Pipich adds.
That’s why people with the disorder often suffer for years before their condition is accurately diagnosed and treated. In fact, he says the average person with bipolar will wait about 10 years and will have consulted with about four professionals before being correctly diagnosed.
“Most people with undiagnosed bipolar are first thought to have other mental health problems, especially major depression,” he says. “So it’s important for bipolar patients and families to know what bipolar is and how to discuss problems with professionals who treat bipolar on a regular basis.”
The good news is, once you’re properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it can be safely treated. As the following women will tell you, living a good life is very possible. So here are seven women on what it’s actually like to live with bipolar disorder.
Learning more about the disorder gives you peace
“I’ve been taking antidepressants for 15 years. I’ve gone through many brands and combinations of pills and nothing has ever helped long-term. But after seeing several therapists over the years (psychologists and psychiatrists), I was finally diagnosed correctly. Type 2 means I have weeks of deep depression then three or four days of hypomania, then the cycle repeats. During those few days of hypomania, I have high energy, very high self-confidence, and I spend lots of money.
It wasn’t until last year when I asked my therapist to help me with my compulsive spending that she realized I had these bouts of hypomania. I thought my only issue was the depression, I didn’t know there was another side I wasn’t talking to her about. Learning about bipolar type 2 has brought me some relief and a little peace.”
— Kayla, Westborough, Massachussetts
People who don’t matter will leave, and that’s okay
“I’ve been on daily meds for 15 years and I’ve been very conscientious about never missing them. I’m more on the depressive side than manic. Being on a manic high, you feel great. You are 10 feet tall and bulletproof. You can rule the world. You have the best ideas, the global knowledge, the kindest heart. But when you crash, you crash hard.
I would visualize myself as being in a deep, dark well with slimy sides. And I would be trying so hard to climb out but kept slipping back in deeper. Luckily, I was never suicidal or hospitalized, but I can easily see how many people have to be in the hospital.
The biggest misconception about the disorder is that people who have it are ‘crazy.’ That we can’t be good parents, that we are bad people to be shunned, whispered about, and ignored by society. That we are not worthy of having friends or of being a friend. That is the worst part. When your friend finds out that you are bipolar and gets scared to be around you. Always remember, the true friends stick around. The fake ones will leave. Your life will be much better for it.”
— Suzanne, Austin, Texas
It’s not a death sentence
“Many people think that individuals with bipolar look crazy, are explosive, unfit to work a job, and unable to do day-to-day activities of daily living. Yes, my moods fluctuate, but I attend school, work part-time, and I’m an entrepreneur. I have wellness tools that help me thrive in my everyday life, and unless you are in my support network, you would not be able to physically tell I have the condition.
Therapy, mediation, and mindfulness are also tools I use to cope with my condition. I really have to ‘put in work’ so that my condition does not get the best of me. The reality is that with wellness tools, medication management, and support, those of us living with the disorder can actually thrive well in life and our communities.
One thing I want women to know is that acceptance of the disorder is key to thriving with it. A diagnosis is not a death sentence, and with tools, including meditation, self-care, and therapy, it’s possible to manage your symptoms and raise a family.”
— Myisha T, Oakland, California
You don’t allow your diagnosis to make you a victim
“When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was a horrible experience. My psychiatrist told me that I would never be anything in life. He said I would never be able to handle stress, should not be a mother, and that I was unlovable. He said all of this to me just as I was coming out of the worst depression, that first depression after full-blown mania that is not treated at all. I have called him many names in life that I won’t say here. Nevertheless, the greatest gift he gave me was what I call, ‘F-You Power! I’m proving you wrong!’ And so I did!
I don’t use bipolar disorder as an excuse for why I cannot be something in life. I do not allow it to make a victim out of me. I refuse to be its victim. What I do instead is I educate the people in my life about who I am, and I remove the stigma and pathology from it. Because of all of the work I do on myself, I am just now getting to the point where I am beginning to have the capacity to have the quality of relationships (both romantic and friendships) that I desire. It’s been a long journey, but I’m closer to being the person I want to be now than ever before.”
— Robin, Los Angeles, California
The reality isn’t always pretty, but you can manage it and be happy
“I have been living with bipolar for the last 15 years and I have reached a ‘managed stability.’ Unfortunately, there are triggers around every corner that can affect my mood. I have to be really diligent when handling stressful situations as to not cause a major change in my mood. There are regular ups and downs, and that is forever.
Having bipolar requires me to take medication on a daily basis. These medications come with an array of side effects. Weight gain is a major side effect, therefore eating healthy and exercis[ing] are imperative to my health. Getting the right amount of sleep is probably the most important thing I can do for myself next to medication.
In social settings, I do not drink alcohol as to not mix it with my medication. I also don’t stay out to late hours due to the need of sleep. I have regular constipation from my medication. I have also lost my sex drive due to the side effects. I require regular blood work and EKGs to make sure the medications are not affecting my organs. There is always a concern that my medication will stop working and I will have to find another. These concerns are daily concerns.
I have to live my life around my mood disorder. If I am compliant, I am able to live a happy life with minor disruptions. I would tell other women… they can be functional and participate in their own life with happiness and love. You just have to work at it.
— Brandi, East Hartford, Connecticut
It’s a lot more complex than what you see on TV
“I was just watching Homeland, with its protagonist played by Claire Danes, who is brilliant and bipolar. Danes does an excellent job portraying the impulsive moods, especially mania. The character does lose almost everything due to an extreme mood episode, so they do acknowledge the destructiveness of the disease. There are a few bipolars who are severely ill but manage to attain high-level careers. Though it makes for a good story, the reality is that getting and maintaining a job is a struggle for those with severe cases.
It can be hard to get dressed and deal with daily activities. Mental illness is mostly tedious, which is not so dramatic as active symptoms like mania or psychosis. But I’ve had long periods of fatigue and vague confusion where I partly function. I was diagnosed with a hopeless case of schizo-bipolar disorder. So I have come a long way.
One thing I don’t often see addressed is the effect of hormones on bipolar disorder. I had a mix of disabling menstrual-cycle symptoms [and bipolar] and the combo knocked me out. I will say that menopause can be a good thing!
Depictions of mental illness have improved and we see some attempts to address women’s issues. But bipolar is more complex and uniquely individual in its presentation than what we see on film.”
— Tina, Baltimore, Maryland
It’s okay to have a mental illness
“There are so many misconceptions about living with bipolar disorder. But I think one of the most significant misconceptions is that…living with a mental illness like bipolar makes it so you can’t function in society, which is not true at all. When most people find out that I have a mental illness, they usually are shocked and say, ‘Well you must be very mild’ or something along those lines. When in reality I’ve been labeled a difficult case, severe, high-risk, and much more.
I’m just like any person in the world. I hold down a job, graduated college, have a husband, etc. You see, there are so many people that function with a mental illness like bipolar and live a relatively normal life. We are everywhere, we just don’t talk about it. Why? Because of the shame, because of the misconceptions, because of the stigma.
We are everywhere and we suffer in silence. Sometimes suffering in silence can be the worst part. Feeling like we can’t share our struggle, that we can’t share why we go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, sometimes can make us feel isolated and alone.
I think, as a society, we have to be okay about talking about mental illness and the toll it takes on families and lives. I try to be as open and honest as I can be to help break that stigma and let people know that it is okay to talk about this. It’s okay to struggle without doing it alone, and it’s for sure okay to have a mental illness.”
— Libby, Nashville, Tennesse