So, what even is Bipolar Disorder?
Well, let us start with the dictionary definition:
a mental condition marked by alternating periods of elation and depression
It’s pretty simply stated and that is technically the gist, but it is more than just elation and depression. It can be confusion, anger, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, rage, elation, hyperactivity, restlessness, agitation, paranoia, insomnia, psychosis… you name it, we’ve got it.
It was once called manic-depression, but is now considered a spectrum.
I am not a doctor so I will define the categories in the spectrum to the best of my ability.
Bipolar Disorder I – Typically experiencing at least one manic episode lasting 7 days or experiencing extremely severe manic symptoms. Manic symptoms include euphoria, delusions of grandiose, abnormal excitement and hyperactivity. Depressive episodes also occur as well. Depressive symptoms include hopelessness, fatigue, feelings of failure and negative thoughts. It’s more than just feeling blue. Sometimes you “crash” after a manic episode into a depression. It is also possible to experience mixed symptoms of mania and depression concurrently. This is often referred to as a mixed-episode or dysphoric mania. In addition, severe symptoms of mania can trigger a break from reality or Psychosis.
Bipolar Disorder II – Bipolar II is very similar to Bipolar I, however instead of full-blown mania, hypomanic episodes occur – a less severe version of mania. This typically involves patterns of depression as well as mixed-states. A lot of times it can be more depressive than hypomanic.
Cyclothymic Disorder – Also referred to as Cyclothymia. This is defined as experiencing cycles of hypomania and depression for at least 2 years. Symptoms of Cyclothymia are less severe and typically do not meet the requirements for a full-blown hypomanic and a depressive episode.
Other Related Disorders – Defined by Bipolar Symptoms that do not meet the typical categories listed previously. It can be caused by certain medications, alcohol or specific medical conditions.
Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder can occur at any age but a common onset is around 25 years.
My Own Diagnosis and Management
I live with Bipolar Disorder II. It’s actually kind of hard to think back to when it all started. I believe I was about 18 or 19 years old when I first felt like something was wrong. I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I saw doctor after doctor and was treated for depression and even obsessive compulsive disorder.
The reason it’s hard to think back that far is because this illness can affect memory. My memories are patchy at best and I probably don’t remember details or my timeline as well as the people who were around me do. What I do remember is how I felt during those times. I believe that I have mostly experienced my depressive and hypomanic episodes in a mixed-state. The times when I have not managed my illness properly I am hyper but sad, angry but energized, and mostly confused. Not to mention that any little thing could trigger rage or what’s sometimes referred to as Bipolar Anger. It’s not just a bad temper. It’s screaming, fighting, hitting walls, bruising your knuckles, throwing things, slamming doors, breaking things… it’s horrible. The aftermath of an anger episode would leave me depressed, ashamed and exhausted. The crying over feelings of remorse and confusion would continue for hours.
When I was about 22 the illness began to show its ugly face in a more extreme capacity. This is when the symptoms fully set in. I was in a relationship that I ruined. He left me after 3 years for someone else and I cannot blame him. I was being treated and I was taking my medicine like I was supposed to, but at this time I was still being treated for Unipolar Depression (depression without mania). My current doctor has informed me that most antidepressants can make bipolar symptoms worse. You basically flip from depression to mania or a mixed state. There are usually only a handful of anti-depressants that are safe in a low dose for those with Bipolar, according to what my doctor says anyway.
I lived with the regret of my actions for years. I don’t know if that ex-boyfriend of mine ever forgave me, but in order to move on with my life I had to learn how to forgive myself. Whether or not I was mentally stable during the time we were together I am still responsible for my actions. I lived with embarrassment, shame and regret. Sometimes even now I still give into guilt. I pull myself out of it by reminding myself that I am not responsible for having this illness. I didn’t choose it.
Then I get mad. Why me? I don’t want this thing. Why did God choose me to be afflicted with it? Well that isn’t useful either. There is no point in asking that question and feeling sorry for myself. Again, this is not my fault.
When I found my current doctor and got the correct diagnosis my life changed. No more antidepressants. I now mange my illness with a mood stabilizer and an antipsychotic. When I first saw the word “antipsychotic” I was terrified. What? Am I actually psychotic? This medication however helps curb the rage, which is my least favorite symptom.
Once I was back to a healthy version of “up” and “down” – normal happiness or sadness – it was then that I could try to figure out who the heck I was. My 20s in general were a big mess. Undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, and mismanaged. When I finally started to get things under control my father was diagnosed with and later passed from cancer. A stressful or life changing experience can trigger a relapse, which it did. I was not on my medication at this time and when I got back on it still wasn’t working. Apparently generic versions of what I take do not work on me. This is quite common. I must take the name brand versions or I fail. About six weeks after I switched to name brand I noticed I was feeling better.
It has been almost 7 years and I have not relapsed. I utilize counseling. I’ve discovered a support group which helps me feel like I’m not alone in this and I see my doctor quarterly and take my medication the way I am supposed to. It’s not hard – except sometimes it really is.
Due to my management, my 30s have been much better. I think that also has to do with the fact that I’m older and have experienced more life. I still deal with some symptoms now and then but they are not extreme and I know myself enough to recognize what need to do to pull myself out of my “funk”.
Us Bipolars have to find what works for us. This means we have to be willing to accept our diagnoses. Some of us are lucky and do not have medication resistant illness. Yes, that’s a thing. Some of us have gone years without a relapse, but everyone manages in a different way. In my experience feeling better means my medication is working. A lot of people feel better and decide to stop taking it. The notion that I can’t be “normal” unless I take this medicine is heavy sometimes, but I’ve decided that it’s worth it. For me, anyway.
There is nothing glamorous or beautiful about this illness. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I can honestly say I am blessed to find something that works for me. I have never been hospitalized or had to go to the ER. I have a family that supports me and have learned over the years what this disease is. The people around me have educated themselves and I think (I hope) they have forgiven me for the things I have said and done over the years. I think they might have even started to trust me again. More importantly, I have started to trust me again. I am also grateful for my ex-boyfriend who helped me recognize when my symptoms got severe. If it weren’t for him I would not have started my journey to recovery when I did. So, Ex, if you ever read this – I’m so incredibly sorry and thank you.
Whether you are currently experiencing symptoms and are looking for relief or are in recovery remember not to blame yourself for your illness. It is not your fault. This is not our fault.
For more extensive and detailed information on the Bipolar Disorder Spectrum you can visit the following links: