by Rebecca Potts
March 30 is World Bipolar Day. The date was chosen for the artist Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday, after psychiatrists determined that he very likely had Bipolar Disorder when he was alive. It can be nearly impossible for people who do not experience Bipolar Disorder to understand the challenges for those who live with it, so to help increase awareness and end the stigma associated with the condition, World Bipolar Day was born.
There are three specific types of Bipolar disorder: Bipolar I, Bipolar II, and Cyclothymia. Each one has its own unique attributes but are underlined by one common factor: significant changes in mood with manic and depressive episodes. There are several statistics and estimates about how many people are actually living with Bipolar, ranging between 1-7%, but it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people are affected with Bipolar Disorder because of the stigma associated with it. More often than not, people with Bipolar are viewed as a liability, and in many cases, their symptoms are dismissed. “I honestly had more problems getting diagnosed than anything else,” says Rachel, who struggled with Bipolar Disorder for fourteen years before she was correctly diagnosed. “My parents put it down to me being rebellious and lazy. After I started self-harming in high school, my mom took me to a medical doctor who blamed it on boys and wanting more freedom.”
In addition to being overlooked, Bipolar is often misdiagnosed as Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, or other related disorders. The misinformation and misunderstanding of the disorder, especially in the media, have led to inaccurate and damaging presumptions of what Bipolar truly is.
So what does it mean to live with Bipolar? “I suppose it’s like living with a stranger inside your brain,” says Iris, who was diagnosed with Bipolar II when she was in college. “Sometimes I do stuff and don’t even know why. I’ll start the day crying, be happy or irritable one minute, then cry again at night. Roller coaster doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
Having Bipolar disorder means constantly volleying between mania and depression and everything in between. It means consecutive sleepless nights, feeling nothing one minute, and everything the next. “You feel…that you’re broken in all the ways that humans are supposed to work,” says Brendon, who found out he had Bipolar Disorder at the age of twenty-four. “You know even when things are going well that they’re just going to get bad again. You figure that since you can’t feel good that you don’t deserve to feel good.”
Stigma comes in different forms, and self-stigma can be one of the most difficult to overcome, particularly because Bipolar can be so difficult to explain to friends and family members who haven’t experienced it in their lifetime. “It’s alienating,” says TaNayiah, who has lived with Bipolar Disorder for twenty-two years, “even when I think I’ve managed to explain to people the different expectations I need them to have of me, even when I think I have a friend who really understands—I end up doing something a little bit more mentally ill than they expected and it’s back to square one.” Living with Bipolar can be confusing, exhausting, and isolating. Individuals with Bipolar Disorder are more likely to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, and it’s estimated that at up to 50% will attempt suicide in their lifetime.
There are several treatment options for people with Bipolar Disorder, but treatment starts with an accurate diagnosis, which starts with your psychiatrist. There are several licensed psychiatrists right here in Fresno, so don’t be afraid to reach out. For a list of options that may help, visit NAMI’s website for explanations of treatments that may help. There are also several smartphone apps you can download to help track your mood or remind you to take medication, or you can join this support group in Fresno County to meet others who understand your experiences. Adequate treatment and support can make all the difference in the life of someone with Bipolar Disorder, and with or without it, each day is a small triumph. TaNayiah explains, “[every] day is feeling for the edges of a future I didn’t expect and defying my disorder in finding it. I live with something difficult, but, I guess, the most important part is that I live with it.”
If you have never experienced Bipolar Disorder, but would like to help, the best thing that you can do is be kind. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 individuals will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 individuals are currently living with those conditions today. You are almost inevitably certain to have someone in your life, whether family or friend, who has lived with a mental health condition if you have not experienced one yourself, so remember to be good to each other. Help stop the stigma of mental illness by reaching out and speaking out. Change will start with you, no matter what your experience.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.