Right now, 2.4 million people in the United Kingdom are diagnosed with having bipolar disorder. I am one of them. But, not only does it affect all of us, but it also has a huge impact on our friends and family too. It takes roughly about ten and a half years to receive the correct diagnosis of bipolar; with approximately a misdiagnosis rate of 3.5 times.
One thing that I have learned through being diagnosed is that this illness is still extremely misunderstood. I can’t even count the times I have been told ‘you don’t LOOK bipolar’ ‘I wouldn’t have guessed you had THAT wrong with you’ “…but you look SO normal?!”… Bipolar, to me, is attached to stigma and is affected by misunderstanding – which makes it difficult to discuss openly and gain access to resources.
So, let’s talk about what it’s really like…
So that we are all on the same page… bipolar is a severe mental illness, characterised by significant mood swings; notably mania and depression. It can affect both men and women, of any age, social and ethnic background. Basically, the bitch ain’t picky.
HOW TO COPE WITH BIPOLAR:
- achieve a diagnosis from a psychiatrist.
- educate yourself on the disorder.
- gaining self-acceptance of this disorder.
- adapt your lifestyle to control and manage symptoms.
I believe that this can be achieved through a combination of prescribed medications, psychological therapies, and self-management – including lifestyle changes.
Here are some of my truths about bipolar that I wish others knew…
1. WE ARE NOT CRAZY. It is a disorder, not a decision. You’re the crazy one for thinking we would choose this! Calling me crazy is a big trigger for me. Before I was diagnosed, I was called ‘crazy’ and ‘psycho’ so much by people in school and college that I carved it into my arm. So, when I say that I live with the physical and mental labels of being called this every day, I really do. But fast forward, I am far more educated on the disorder itself, and I accept that it is not my fault.
2. BIPOLAR IS NOT ANOTHER NAME FOR MOOD SWINGS. It is a real illness involving extreme shifts in mood. There are different classifications of bipolar, which all vary from one another slightly. As well, not everyone with the same diagnosis will experience bipolar in the same way. But what most agree on, is that it consumes a lot of our lives. Sufferers can experience highs and lows which are unrelated to what is going on within their lives. We can search high and low for triggers or reasons, but sometimes there simply are none.
3. BIPOLAR IS NOT RARE. It is so common. It could be anyone. Chances are you know someone with it. Greater chances you didn’t realise who it was at first because we are nothing like the tv-stereotypes. Whilst the most common age to be diagnosed is 19 years old, it can happen at any age in a person’s life. However, people still do not feel comfortable talking about it, meaning that fuller understanding and acceptance cannot be achieved.
4. WHEN WE ASK FOR HELP, WE DON’T ASK LIGHTLY. For every time I have asked someone for help, there are a hundred times I have stopped myself. I don’t need anyone to save me, I just need someone to be around whilst I save myself. It has taken me a long time to get to the point of trusting people to help me recover, but once they do it makes everything ten times easier. People shouldn’t feel guilty that they cannot fix things; company and love are the best things you can give. We don’t seek attention. If anything, we try to mask our thoughts so we don’t share the pain with those we love.
5. I AM THE SAME PERSON I WAS BEFORE YOU FOUND OUT I HAVE A MENTAL DISORDER. I will always be me, even after a bipolar diagnosis. I’m even starting to embrace mine as part of my identity. We still deserve to be treated with respect. Sometimes we can forget to love ourselves, made harder when those we love cannot accept us too. Nothing hurts more than someone’s reaction drastically changing once you tell them about your disorder.
6. I AM THE SAME PERSON EVEN WHEN MY MOODS CHANGE. I don’t always understand it either. Sometimes there are no triggers. Sometimes I am doing all the right things, getting enough sleep, taking my meds… In 2017, this hit me pretty hard. I became unwell, leading to losing two of my “best friends”. They were so accepting of my disorder to start with until they couldn’t comprehend that it fluctuates even when it is not convenient for them. Words can’t describe how much it hurts for someone you care about to drop you, making you feel difficult and unloveable, especially when they use your “flaws” against you, it hurts.
7. MOOD SWINGS CAN COME ON SUDDENLY AND WITHOUT WARNING. No matter how hard we try to work at keeping ourselves balanced, we can still get thrown off. It can be exhausting and overwhelming to be in your own skin. You feel like you’re not control of your own body.
8. WE CAN LOVE AND WANT TO BE LOVED TOO. I have heard this big misconception about bipolar individuals in relationships. We are extremely empathetic. I constantly think about others’ feelings as I know how complicated my own can be. I have a big heart. Relationships with us, are by no means easy, I’m sure my own fiancé can vouch for that, but all I want for him is to be happy. We can love, and we deserve it too.
9. IF WE FEEL BETTER, IT DOESN’T MEAN WE CAN STOP OUR MEDICATION. Almost all patients need maintenance treatment to prevent relapses, just like diabetes and heart disease patients. People often misunderstand the reduction of symptoms as an improvement in the condition, meaning they are cured. If the tablets are improving and stabilising moods, they are doing their job. It shows you needed them. KEEP WITH IT!
10. JUST BECAUSE I LOOK OKAY DOES NOT MEAN THAT I AM. Don’t forget to check up on your “strong” friends. For years I was not very good at communicating when I need help, so I forced myself to get into the habit. Having the support network I do now has saved my life more times than they know.
11. I’M NOT ME MOST OF THE TIME. I can look in the mirror and see something completely different from what I saw yesterday. I just have to keep going.
12. I KNOW I AM HARD TO BE FRIENDS WITH, BUT THE ONES WHO DECIDE TO STICK AROUND REALLY MEAN THE WORLD TO ME. I can’t blame people for leaving. But I cherish those who have stuck around like they are gold. I know I will lose more people and that’s okay, they obviously aren’t meant to stay.
13. BEING MANIC IS NOT ALL FUN AND GAMES. Mania can be intense anger instead of happiness. Whilst it may look exciting from the outside, but it can be really dangerous. Racing thoughts, rapid speech, less sleep, risky acts, reckless spending, delusions, hallucinations, irritability… It’s hard to spot sometimes, the beginning just feels like a good mood, but the repercussions are scary.
14. CHOOSING TO IGNORE US DOESN’T MAKE THE PROBLEM GO AWAY. Again, just through personal experience, when people do not know what to say to you, they ignore you. I’m not expecting everyone to have all the answers and all the questions to make me feel better – I am an understanding person. If you don’t know what to say to your loved one, tell them. Just ask them how they are, just listen if you have no words. Just sit in a room with them so they’re not alone. We don’t need a lot. But ignoring them like they do not exist, certainly isn’t fair.
15. JUST BECAUSE IM HAVING A BAD DAY DOESN’T MEAN I DIDN’T TAKE MY MEDICATION. We are capable of being pissed off, upset, excited for reasons that are not related to bipolar. I can be experiencing a bad day, not having a good nights sleep… I am still human. I try not to let bipolar run my life.
16. OUR STRUGGLE HAPPENS EVERYDAY. Every day can be hard. Every day I am not the same. I can wake up one way but change to another, and it’s all out of my control. I am trying my hardest every day to be stable because that much is within my control. Just trying. It affects more than just what goes on in our heads, there are lots of physical issues too.
17. DON’T BE JEALOUS THAT I DIDN’T GET OUT OF BED YESTERDAY. When I say I couldn’t get out of bed, I literally mean I couldn’t get out of bed. Most people don’t know the number of wee infections I have gotten from holding it because I couldn’t get up. I’m not lazy.
18. I TRY REALLY HARD TO BE A GOOD PERSON. I’m not a bitch or a bad person. When conflicts arise it is not always my fault just because I’m the one with bipolar in the situation. It doesn’t make me a bad person. There’s a stereotype that bipolar people are reckless and violent, so I go so far out of my way to avoid that, I guess another reason why it’s exhausting.
19. HOW HARD WE STRUGGLE THROUGH WHAT OTHERS CONSIDER TO BE A PART OF DAILY LIVING. I like to think we are strong. It is exhausting. Sometimes I don’t know how to feel because the illness and medications are difficult for me to understand. University was hard for me. The work itself wasn’t the issue, it was my moods, the medication changes, the psychiatrist appointments, therapy, blood tests… bipolar is more than people think. It consumes SO much of your time, when you are ill and when you are well. My grades were definitely affected because of it.
20. BIPOLAR IS NOT A PERSON. So many people ask how my bipolar is doing, sometimes more often than asking how I am doing.
21. IT CAN BE REALLY LONELY. It doesn’t make me a bad person. We don’t need pity, we just need you to understand that we are different. We are still human. We’re usually pretty fun people too.
22. JUST BECAUSE YOU CANNOT SEE IT, DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT THERE. Bipolar is real. Just because our management of symptoms may be working doesn’t mean that we have it all figured out. Medication can help the management of some individuals, but they aren’t a magic cure. We can still struggle both on and off of medication.
23. I GET SCARED OF TRUSTING MY OWN THOUGHTS OR DECISIONS BECAUSE I’M AFRAID THEY’RE RESULTS OF MY ILLNESS. We deal with an internal struggle every day. It isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels impossible, but we will try to fight it. It is not in our control. I’m more likely to hurt myself than anyone else. Our heads are often a confusing place to be.
24. JUST BECAUSE YOU THINK YOU ARE BIPOLAR, DOESN’T MEAN THAT YOU ARE. It is such an overused phrase. Go to the doctors, don’t tell me. Please educate yourself on the symptoms and the diagnostic process. Being bipolar isn’t an adjective. It isn’t like being hormonal. Changes in mood are scary and can be dangerous.
25. TALKING THERAPIES WORK. Cognitive behavioural therapy has shown to be as effective as medications. Sometimes it just helps to share. You are not whining. It’s a powerful tool, just like other treatment options for other diseases. Most of what I know about my disorder and how to manage it came from therapy – I used it to collect my own tools to take care of myself. Whilst treatments can be effective, it is to be understood that they cannot cure. It is an ongoing process of wanting to be stable that keeps you there, most of the time.
26. IM SORRY FOR MY PAST ACTIONS. It is often hard to remember what has happened after an episode. I usually have to rely on the memory of others, especially whilst manic. But I’m trying to make healthier choices now. I want to be stable. I can’t stop the next one, I live in constant expectation and worry that it will happen.
Bipolar is not being moody, being overly emotional, having multiple personalities, being a drama queen, being violent, switching between happy and sad, being a psycho. It is not a choice. It is not a character flaw. It is not a sign of weakness. Like all psychiatric illnesses, it is composed of a genetic and environmental component, but people with bipolar can and will achieve their full potential. Some of the most successful people in the world have had bipolar, if we can manage our illness, we can manage anything!