There are a few types of Bipolar Disorder. They are labeled differently depending on their severity. This post is about Bipolar I, the most intense form or Bipolar Disorder.
Bipolar Disorder (previous known as manic-depression) is a serious mental illness. It is defined by the presence of a manic episode. Mania isn’t just feeling happy. Mania is a very intense, sometimes euphoric, chemical imbalance causing unusual psychological phenomena. A manic episode means a greatly reduced need for sleep (about 0-2 hours per night). It means coming up with grandiose ideas. An example of a grandiose idea would be deciding, without research, to move to Alaska and drill for oil. In some cases, mania means following through on those ideas. The follow-through is done without forethought or planning. It is done in a disorganized fashion. Mania can include extreme behavior. I once read of a man in the news who spent $50,000 at Walmart in a single afternoon; he was in the middle of a manic episode. Someone in a manic episode might engage in dangerous behavior such as trying drugs, having sex, stealing a car, etc. I’ve also sat with people in manic episodes who have flight of ideas and pressured speech (very rapid, ongoing speech with ideas that go from one to the next without a breath). Not as commonly, people suffering from a manic episode can be psychotic. Sometimes they are not sure what is real and their five senses can become confused.
The other piece of Bipolar Disorder is depressive episodes. You only need a manic episode to receive a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, but usually depression is part of the picture as well. This isn’t just your typical, ‘I feel sad because my friend is upset with me,’ kind of day. This is can’t crawl out of bed, overwhelming anxiety, self-hating depression. This is a major depressive episode. It’s feeling like you can’t eat, or can’t stop eating, wish for death, nobody cares for me depression. It’s extremely painful. This is the place where some with bipolar feel suicidal. Oftentimes their energy level is so greatly restricted by the depression that even if they are suicidal, they don’t have the energy to try it. It’s a dark, terrifying place.
People living with bipolar didn’t choose it. They aren’t just making “wrong choices.” A lot of the times we lack compassion for people with mental illness. They look fine on the outside, so we think, “Why don’t they just try harder in school?” or “Why don’t they pick better friends?” or “If they would just get organized, then they could do so much better.” We’re so quick to judge. We completely misunderstand how impairing mental illness can be. If our brain isn’t functioning at capacity, things become immediately much more difficult.
Do you remember the last time you were really sleep-deprived? Maybe you pulled an all-nighter with friends, or maybe you were a new parent with a 2-day old infant who needed to be fed every 2-3 hours. A couple days of no sleep and you were no longer at your best. Your memory became foggy, your processing speed slowed down, your energy level diminished, and your ability to be productive was gone. This is all because your brain wasn’t at capacity. While I’ve never heard someone with bipolar describe the struggles they face as being similar to sleep-deprivation, you can at least understand that mental illness isn’t something to just “get over.”
The families of people with bipolar disorder suffer greatly too. A good place to read about what it’s like is ridingthebipolarcoaster.blogspot.com. This blog is written by a mom who has watched a child go through bipolar disorder. It’s scary and it causes feelings of helplessness; It’s unpredictable.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT