What is “Bipolar”?

Disclaimer:  I am NOT a doctor. Nothing in this journal should be considered medical advice.  It is my opinion alone.


A man I know once described his emotions, with a smile, as being “bipolar”.  Why?  He was having a hard time making up his mind.  A young lady I know once told me she was bipolar. Some days she really likes something, like cupcakes, and other days she can’t stand them.  Thank you for trying.  But that’s not bipolar.

I was diagnosed in 2001.  I had to ask the doctor what he was talking about.  After a good bit of jargon, he finally leaned forward.  “Ever hear “Manic Depressive?”  I had.  “Well, it’s that, only we don’t call it that anymore.  Now it’s Bipolar.”

I’ve been bipolar nearly 50 years.  If I had such a hard time understanding it, I’m not surprised how often it’s misunderstood by the public.  Initially I received one of two reactions if I told someone: syrupy encouragement or defensive hostility.  The encouraging ones told me to “cheer up, it’s not really that bad!” (with a hug). Those in the hostile camp would tell me (in a stern voice) to “get over yourself, everyone has a bad day now and then.”  Thank you for trying.  But that’s not bipolar either.

We’ve come a long way in a short time.  The word “bipolar” is no longer foreign. In fact, today it’s so common it’s used in casual conversation.  For example, the Salt Lake Tribune ran this article last Wednesday:

Kirby: Deciphering America’s bipolar position on guns

Students can be suspended from school for making “pow” motions, but a guy can walk through JC Penny with a rifle because he “supports the 2nd Amendment”.  Both show extremist thinking, which is the only real relation a social contradiction has to bipolar disorder.  It’s wonderful that the public has (for the most part) accepted that it’s real, enough so that it can be used in a headline.  It would be even better if people knew what they were talking about.

According to the American Psychological Association, bipolar disorder is “a serious mental illness in which common emotions become intensely and often unpredictably magnified.  Individuals with bipolar disorder can quickly swing from extremes of happiness, energy and clarity to sadness, fatigue and confusion.  These shifts can be so devastating that individuals may choose suicide.” (Bipolar Disorder, n/d)

This is complicated.  Worse, most people think they understand what bipolar is, even though their understanding is incomplete or flat out wrong.  I’ll try to break it down so it makes sense.

Under normal circumstances human beings occasionally suffer from “depression”.  Lower-case “d”.  They’ll get the blues or mope around for no good reason.  They feel sorry for themselves.  They have a bad day now and again. A person with depression can be cheered up by things around them.  If you tell them to “look on the bright side” it makes sense, even if they’re bummed out.

Capital “D” Depression is a clinical diagnosis.  It’s the type of diagnosis a guy with an MD must make, not a therapist.  It can work in conjunction with little “d” depression, but it’s not caused by having a bad day.

Capital “D” Depression is caused by a chemical malfunction in the body.  Something isn’t firing right in the brain, which does not allow a chemical to reach its destination.  So a person literally, PHYSICALLY, can not experience happiness.  It has nothing to do with a lack of perspective and will not change, even if you say “look on the bright side” 1,000 times.  And it is physically painful.  The only thing I’ve experienced similar in feel is a car accident.  It causes the entire body to ache, even blinking hurts.  Also, I found that everything seemed heavier, and in some cases I couldn’t lift everyday objects.  Even my own limbs were sometimes too heavy to manage.  Consequences be damned, there was no reason on earth to move, except to try to end the pain.

Mania is the flip side.  When most people hear the surface description of mania, they think it’s great!  Wow, tons of energy!  Loads of enthusiasm!  Start a business!  Enroll in classes!  Clean the house!  Shop for hours!!  WHEE!

While that may be what it seems like on the outside, here’s what it seemed like, for me, on the inside.  I’d start a project I couldn’t hope to finish.  I’d take on an obligation that I could not possibly follow through on.  And don’t try to talk me out of it.  It’s likely my enthusiasm would flash into towering anger.  I’d target anything that moved until you got out of my way, often to the point of physical violence.  Begin again.  Register for classes!  Run for office! Organize a committee!  Arrange the entire kitchen alphabetically!  Run up those credit cards!

I could also start whirlwind relationships.  When I got engaged I took extreme measures to break it off, terrified he’d actually expect me to go through with it.  When I got married it lasted less than 2 years (though it seemed like a fantastic idea when I said “yes”.)

As the cycle progressed and lucidity temporarily returned, I somehow had to explain everything that just happened.  Either I couldn’t get out of bed (sometimes for days) and so I had lost my job (again) or flunked out of school (again).  Or I had promised to lead a cheerleading clinic in Chinese, but I never showed up.  Of course, as I was undiagnosed, I couldn’t explain any of it.  That was the worst part.  There was no rational explanation for my behavior at all, and it never crossed my mind that I was mentally ill.  Typically, the person suffering from the illness is the very last to know (if they ever do).  So my “lucid” phase often flashed between defensive anger and crushing guilt.  This is one of many reasons those who suffer from bipolar disorder have so few long-term friends, or have been abandoned by their family.  How much can a rational person be expected to take?

Bipolar is a cycle, and everyone is different in the duration of that cycle.  When I was diagnosed I was told Bipolar lasts 2 years, start to finish, more or less, with each phase lasting around six months.  The first phase is six months of Depression, phasing upward into lucidity and self-awareness for six months.  This phases into the Mania for six months, which then phases down into another period of lucidity.  Round this out by beginning a new phase of Depression, and repeat.  Of course, new study has suggests every cycle is individual, and can change without warning.  The only thing that remains consistent are the mood swings: violent, unpredictable, inexplicable.

For me, Bipolar is a combination of nearly lethal anger and hatred.  The difference in the two is direction.  Depression turns the hatred in.  At its worst I could easily kill myself.  Mania travels outward.  At its worst I could easily kill others.

I was 35 when I was diagnosed.  A person can do a great deal of damage in 35 years.  I’m lucky I lived through it.  If you have it, or know someone who does, I hope this helps.

Bipolar disorder (n/d) Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/bipolar/index.aspx


3 thoughts on “What is “Bipolar”?

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