People call the weather “bipolar” when the morning storms give way to afternoon sunshine and light breezes. I’ve also heard people try to excuse their irritability by saying, “Oh, I’m so bipolar.” This illustrates how the general population sees the term “bipolar” as a colloquial term for something that alternates between two extremes. Going off of this observation, then, it isn’t surprising people first called this illness “manic depression.”
“Manic depression,” however, makes it sound as if the depression itself is manic, like all of its symptoms are especially overzealous. It isn’t such a misguided notion, however; the symptoms are indeed more extreme than the mood fluctuations of the average person. Ten million American lives are punctuated with episodes of mania and depression, and the neighbors who know of their diagnoses see them through the lens of misrepresentation.
Most people recognize and readily understand depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s the leading cause of disability across the globe. This comes as no surprise, given that people living with depression can experience anhedonia (inability to enjoy normal activities), constant exhaustion, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide, just to name a few.
Depression is excessively personal. Symptoms vary from person to person, with some exhibiting all of them while others have only a few. It’s important to note that this is exceedingly different from having a few bad days; depression lasts for weeks or months and virtually incapacitates the person. Although it makes for an understandable analogy, it is not the result of getting an atrocious haircut or being stood up on a date.
Having a depressive episode is necessary to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but it isn’t so simple as that. It’s surprisingly difficult to warrant the diagnosis, as the person needs to also have experienced a manic episode. Identifying a manic episode, however, is no easy feat. The person having a manic episode may not even be aware of the situation. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines a manic episode as consisting of a decreased need for sleep, abnormally high irritability, overconfidence, engaging in impulsive and risky behaviors, and excessive talkativeness.
Most of these symptoms don’t sound so obvious, do they? They could be chalked up to the normal acting out behaviors of a teenager, or an abnormally happy mood swing that most people don’t question. Most people don’t talk to a psychiatrist about feeling overly happy for an extended period of time, but this could be a symptom of a manic episode.
Manic depression, renamed bipolar disorder in 1980, has always had a black and white image like the ones mentioned earlier. I interviewed my friends about the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the words “bipolar disorder,” and I was surprised to find that each response was the same as the next. They all thought of a person flipping from sadness to happiness like a light switch, never landing in a neutral middle ground.
I must admit, I thought the same thing before I was myself diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I didn’t consider myself the poster child of the disorder; I was an A and B student, musical theater dance captain, drum major, volunteer. I considered myself to be (mostly) well adjusted, until I found myself in the ER on Thanksgiving night last year. As it turns out, I was going through a depressive episode. I didn’t know this until months later, when I started sleeping for maybe two hours a night and engaging in risky behaviors that were wholly unlike my usual goody-two-shoes personality. When the psychiatrist finally diagnosed me, though, I was terrified.
There was nothing to fear, though. I am one of the faces of bipolar disorder, and I don’t flip back and forth between crying belligerently and bouncing around with excitement the way my friends initially thought. It doesn’t bother me anymore, though, because it often is misrepresented in the media. Episodes don’t usually occur back-to-back; there are periods of normalcy in between. Many with this disorder are functioning members of society, which, at times, feels like an impossible feat. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Demi Lovato, and Frank Sinatra have all done marvelous things with their bipolar lives.
The takeaway is that manic depression, or bipolar disorder, does not mean that emotions are always high. There are episodes of incredible ups and downs that last longer than the average mood swing, sure, but they are not impossible obstacles. Stringent self-care, therapy, education, and medication all help manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I won’t lie, it helps to have support from either friends or family to make it through an episode, but not everyone has the same opportunities.
We do not flip on and off like light switches. We do not change moods like the Texas weather, and hopefully, one day, the media will accurately portray what it means to live with bipolar disorder. For now, however, suffice it to say that a label does not a person make. Even though our emotions get a little intense sometimes, there are a great many things that may remain static, such as loyalty, dedication to education, and aspirations.
We may be manic depressive, we may be bipolar, but we are also so much more.
By: Kitty Kelly, Anxiety In Teens Contributor