It’s World Bipolar Day 2023

Bipolar disorder affects nearly 1% of the US population. It is more than just mood swings: it includes a dizzying array of symptoms that are reasonably disproportionate. A lot of folks go misdiagnosed for years — typically for depression or anxiety — because they seek help during those lows. In the highs, it appears like everything is fine again but then it inevitably swings back in the other direction. It can take years to get the right diagnosis because it requires following (and remembering) behavioral trends. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to keep a clear mind and to recognize that you need help. Not everyone has the capability to self-reflect on their behaviors as they are happening. Similarly, not everyone has access to insurance or technology that can get them on a path to treatment.

I saw 7 doctors in 10 years before I finally got the right diagnosis and treatment for it. Relief came fast and I was surprised that there was another way of living that did not have those incredible highs and deafening lows.

There are two main types of bipolar disorder: bipolar 1 and bipolar 2. With medication, behavioral therapy, and a strong support network, I have been able to keep my symptoms at bay. However, bipolar is insidious and the pendulum swings at a different level of intensity for bipolar 1 versus bipolar 2.

Here is an oversimplification: with the more severe form of bipolar 1, it’s like you’re going from 25mph in a school zone to 125mph. You crash the car but then decide to start destroying it by breaking its windows and smashing the exterior with a hammer.

With bipolar 2, it’s like going from 25mph to 65mph and then circling the block multiple times. Maybe turning up some annoying music while you’re at it. You have periods where you slow down a bit but then get worked up again.

All of this happens in the blink of an eye. Coming off of an episode is scary because a lot of times, the person is not quite aware of what is happening.

Being moody is not the same thing as being bipolar.

Bipolar is often demonized because of this unpredictability. The longer you live with bipolar, the more you can learn to recognize the signs and stop the train in motion before it derails. It’s tough for people who don’t have access to support and medications though, because sometimes it just happens and there are tragic consequences. People with bipolar disorder are not inherently dangerous if there is treatment or behavioral management in place. It is when bipolar goes completely unchecked that it can become dangerous, but you can say that about anything…cancer, glaucoma, diabetes, etc.

While hyperactivity can certainly lead to periods of productivity and creativity, they can also spiral into destructive behaviors. For the person living with bipolar, it is about recognizing the signs of that upward trajectory and slowing it down a bit. Sometimes it takes a very patient and kind friend to point it out. For me, my upward swings are no longer detrimentally destructive. I don’t impulsively shop as much anymore (and if I do go on a bit of a spending spree, I make sure to do it somewhere with a generous return policy). When I get angry, I try to separate my feelings from the situation and look at it from a rational lens.

What works for me won’t work for everyone, but I do try to use running and exercises to disrupt those cycles. When I’ve got that energy and I can’t channel it in any other positive way, I go for a run. I get to work out that energy and usually feel pretty even-keeled afterwards. Again, runs don’t fix everything. It certainly doesn’t make the problem go away, but it does redirect something potentially destructive and gives it an avenue to run its course.

With my medication — lamitrogine, a mood stabilizer (also a seizure medication!) — I have experienced mostly stability for years at this point. Again, what works for me might not work for you. Mental disorders have an unpredictable way of manifesting and resurfacing. Sometimes the disorder dodges what used to be a tried-and-true medication. That is why it is imperative to continually meet with a healthcare provider that can assess your symptoms and adjust it accordingly.

Despite the mood stabilizer medication, I’m not stoic all of the time. I still have my ups and downs but they are attributed to things and events that would reasonably make someone sad and happy. There’s a rhyme and reason to it. It is no longer random and it does not overrule my life.

However, there are times when my bipolar disorder manifests itself — like when I see a pregnancy announcement. I can be ecstatic for a friend going through a wonderful time in their lives, and simultaneously I can be devastated for myself and my incredibly taxing fertility journey. Bipolar disorder has helped me learn to deal with those completely opposite but simultaneous emotions.

Some symptoms of bipolar 1 I’ve witnessed first-hand included: a psychotic break (completely disconnected from reality, consequences, and logic); pressurized speech (talking faster than humanly possible about any topic, jumping from topic-to-topic); emotion cycling (going through bouts of anger and sadness within seconds); grandeur delusions; and others.

Some symptoms of bipolar 2 I’ve experienced first-hand included: stretches of depression followed by bursts of superhuman energy; being quick to get angry and taking deconstructive action (like when I rage-quit my job); decreased need for sleep; quickly jumping from one idea to the next; periods of hyperactivity followed by energy crashes. I go from high to low but for shorter periods of time, and my “up” times are not quite as destructive as a full-blown manic episode that would require hospitalization and emergency pharmaceutical intervention.

I have enjoyed a long stretch of stability in the face of bipolar 2, thanks to behavioral therapy, medications, a strong support network, running, and very accommodating employers. Not everyone with bipolar is scary or chronically unstable. If you are struggling, there are lots of resources available for you.

Call or text the suicide and crisis lifeline at 988 to be connected to immediate help and to get connected to doctors and counselors that can work with you long term.

You can also contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-800-950-6264.

Confide in a trusted friend or loved one. You don’t have to go through this alone!

Graphics by Feminism in India and Verywell

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