As a person living with bipolar disorder, every day I hear a lot of people say things about my disease that are wrong and sometimes hurtful. Sometimes the hurt is personal, like when people don’t know that I have bipolar and they say something insensitive. Sometimes the hurt is universal, like I feel bad that all people living with bipolar have to experience certain kinds of discrimination and misunderstanding. So for all of you who know people who have bipolar, or who just want to be well-informed human beings, here is a list of things everyone should know about living with bipolar disorder.
- Bipolar is a physiological disease – It can’t be argued that bipolar is a condition that affects mood, as changes in mood and behavior are typically what indicates the disease. Bipolar manifests in the brain, and there are visible differences in the brains of people with bipolar and those who don’t suffer from the disease. This means that bipolar can be treated with medication just like any other physical ailment, like diabetes. Bipolar brains handle neurotransmitters differently, just like diabetic pancreases handle insulin differently. Both bipolar and diabetes are handled with medication and lifestyle changes, and both are caused by organs in the body. So it’s not that those of us living with bipolar are “crazy” or that we can’t handle life. Our brains are just different. And different isn’t necessarily always bad.
- Bipolar is hereditary – According to psychiatric researcher Dr. S. Nassir Ghaemi, people with a sibling or a parent with bipolar have a 10%-15% likelihood of developing the disease. Though it is unknown which genes determine bipolar disorder, it is clear that it runs in families. Though I can’t identify a parent who had bipolar, I can look at some mood discrepancies in aunts and uncles and think that maybe one of them had a mild case. But my relatives never really believed in psychology or psychiatry. Nevertheless, people with a family history should probably watch themselves pretty closely for signs of bipolar.
- Bipolar disorder affects each person differently – There are three phases which characterize bipolar disorder: mania, with is an elevated and/or agitated mood or behavior; hypomania, which is less “manic” than full-blown mania; and depression, which is a low mood or behavior. Some people experience all three in the course of their disease while others only experience one facet throughout their whole lives. That’s why there are so many commercials for so many psychotropic drugs. Everyone has to get the right combination of mood stabilizers, antidepressants and other drugs to get them to function. It’s like finding the right pair of jeans.
- People with bipolar can live successful lives – If the disease can be treated with pharmaceuticals, then it stands to reason that people living with bipolar can take drugs and live regular lives. After all, many actors — from Catherine Zeta-Jones to Jenifer Lewis to Maurice Benard — have bipolar disorder along with long, successful careers. You wouldn’t necessarily call any of them erratic or irresponsible, as I’ve heard people called who have my disease. They probably get up every day, down their meds and then go to work like the rest of us. As with any chronic disease, when you comply with treatment and monitor yourself, you can maintain work and family and healthy life.
- You shouldn’t use bipolar as an adjective – The worst thing you can do around someone with bipolar is to describe anyone with a mood swing as bipolar. I was once told by a coworker that he was really “bipolar” with his cleaning, being very neat at some points and then very sloppy at others. I almost kicked him in the nuts. He wasn’t “bipolar” about anything, and using bipolar as an adjective minimizes the reality of people living with bipolar. Find some other words, people, and understand the difference between clever and offensive language.
Tracey Lloyd lives in Harlem, where she fights her cat for access to the keyboard. You can find more of her experiences living with bipolar disorder on her personal blog, My Polar Opposite.