by Christine F. Anderson
This column is from Christine’s own personal experience as someone who has bipolar disorder. I realize, as does she, that not everyone’s condition is the same. But her hope here is to help those who deal with the same issues, and the family and friends of those that do. Please feel to share your own experiences in the comments whether the same or different.
Christine shares with KRL mental health/mental illness articles now and then in her column-Forever Different. Christine has started a Facebook support group for those with Bipolar Disorder: www.facebook.com/groups/foreverdifferent.
Why is it that bipolar individuals seem to alienate nearly everyone who cares for them?
I’m going to tell you why. Bipolar people tend to be known for a few things. We are artists when it comes to lying, we are suspicious (or most commonly referred to as paranoid, because we think that everyone lies to us the same way we lie to them), and we are moody. So it’s not so much that we are in a good mood or a bad mood; it’s more like a manic mood versus a depressed mood. That makes each person wonder on a day-to-day basis, just how you are going to be—and how they’re going to connect with whatever person they’re getting today.
So let’s break down these components and see how each of these three symptoms causes alienation:
1. Lying. Bipolars and lying seem to go hand and hand. Lying comes mostly from mania, and we lie for several reasons, but almost every lie is rooted in fear, the fear of some type of punishment. So denying one’s role when caught is natural, but bipolars are more prone to add mistakes like reckless behavior, promiscuity, extravagance, and trying lies for apology.
2. Attention gathering. Bipolar individuals have a craving for maintaining control over situations because their lives are so out of control. They also want to control their family and their friends. The bipolar assumes they are the center of people’s attention and in control of the situation, since they dictate what people know: that’s the key.
3. Loss of self-control. During episodes of mania or depression, but particularly mania, the nervous system often loses control: a bipolar person’s brain swirls out of rational control during episodes. Whatever pops into the mind is said (and, therefore, the lies I mentioned before come out). Bipolar individuals often experience hallucinations. Most of these are auditory (that is, voices or sound that no one but the bipolar experiences and then tells others about). To the bipolar individual, the hallucinations that are occurring seem fairly real.
So a bipolar individual might be complaining that some family member locked them in a closet when they acted out—this certainly did not happen. It’s important to understand that in such cases reality is different for the bipolar sufferer: and they are simply telling you what they believe they experience.
Now let’s talk about brain chemistry: obviously that’s a main component of the disorder. Some chemical substances in the brain are known to induce mood swings. An important one is the neurotransmitter serotonin, whose low production can induce depressive episodes. Ice cream lovers might recognize their favorite flavor as a mood stabilizer, because of the serotonin in the ice cream. Low serotonin in the brain of a bipolar is another reason for the connection between lying and bipolar disorders, as it triggers impulsivity in the bipolar patient—and lies frequently result.
Whatever the reason, the lies can put a lot of strain on a relationship, which is why divorce is not uncommon among bipolars. The average person in a bipolar relationship lasts three years. I guess most bipolar people come with an expiration date.
When I’m manic, I always think someone is talking about me. So let’s talk about paranoia. I think they’re all laughing behind my back, everyone’s having a good time talking about me, and everyone has elaborate schemes and are out to get me. Paranoia is a term common in everyday language used to mean anything from feeling nervous about a person or situation to being convinced that someone is out to get you. People may call that type of experience paranoia, but medically the definition of paranoia is more precise.
Psychiatrists use the term paranoia to describe a distorted way of thinking or an anxious state that seems to lead up to delusion. For example, a person who believes the FBI is tracking their every move is exhibiting paranoid behavior. But on the other hand, a criminal who believes the FBI is listening in on his telephone calls are not likely to be paranoid—because it may very well be true. The key to true paranoia is that the person exhibits an unreasonable or exaggerated mistrust and suspicion of others. This suspicion is not based on fact and often goes into delusions.
Finally, the most important part of being bipolar is the mood swings. The mood swings of bipolar disorder can be profoundly destructive. Depression can make you isolate yourself from your friends and loved ones.
You may find it impossible to get out of bed, let alone keep your job. During manic periods you make reckless and volatile decisions. Picking up the pieces after your mood swings can be very hard. The people you need most, especially your friends and family, may be angry with you and reluctant to help: I mean, how many times can you go to the well? So ongoing treatment such as psychotherapy and medications is essential to controlling the mood swings.
Family members can help by learning as much as they can about the disease. Kay Redfield Jamieson, a professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University and the author of A Quiet Mind, said read, read, and read some more. Join support groups, get emotional support and the information that you need. So information is key.
The best way to avoid mood swings is to get treatment for your bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, periods of mania, hypomania, and depression are not completely preventable. Even people who always take their medication, if not careful with their health, can still have mood swings from time to time. That’s why it’s important to catch the changes in your moods, your energy level, your sleeping patterns, before they develop into something serious.
At first, mood swings may take you by surprise if you have a bipolar disorder, but over time you might start to see patterns or signs that you are entering a period of mania or depression aside from a shift in your mood. You have to look for changes in your sleep patterns, your energy level, your alcohol and drug use, your sex drive, your self-esteem, your concentration… and these are just things that I know I go through!
New episodes often occur spontaneously for no particular reason. Sometimes you may discover particular triggers (such as sleep deprivation or crossing multiple time zones when traveling). Some people find they are more likely to become depressed or manic during stressful times at work or during holidays. Many people see seasonal patterns to their mood changes.
Of course, not everyone can identify triggers. But some triggers can be anticipated or avoided—like serious illness or traumatic events. One good way to see patterns or triggers in your bipolar disorder is to keep a journal; there are also apps now, mood reading apps, that you can use to note major stresses, medications, dosages, the amount of sleep you’re getting, etc. Over time you might see some patterns emerge. If you know what your triggers are, you can prepare for the times you can be most vulnerable, ask for more help from coworkers, and have your family and friends check on you more often so you get added support. If you see the signs of potential trouble, get help.
Don’t wait for the mood swing to pass on its own; it may not. With quick intervention, you might be able to stop a very mild mood swing from becoming a serious problem. When people with bipolar disorder are depressed they almost always know that something is wrong. Nobody likes feeling that way, but it’s different for people who are manic or hypomanic: often they don’t think anything is wrong. If they notice a difference in their mood and personality, they think it’s an improvement. So mania and hypomania can feel seductive—very seductive. You might feel more energized, more creative, more interesting. You might be able to get extraordinary amounts of work done. Right, so what’s the problem? But manic phases often turn destructive.
Sometimes the consequences of the manic episode cannot be undone. You can wipe out your savings account; you can have affairs that ruin your marriage. You can lose your job. Most importantly, mania can make you do things that risk your life or the lives of others and all throughout, the mania or hypomania can feel good at the moment. In the long run you are going to be happier, healthier, and more productive and more successful if you can maintain a stable mood and not alienate everyone around you. You may already have seen your friends, your family, your significant other want to run for the hills. Do you blame them?
If this was a reality check for you, please get help.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles, and watch for more from Christine.