Arts and Health: Bipolar Disorder

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People living with bipolar disorder are dangerous; they could snap any moment and "kill us all"!

People with bipolar disorder are no more dangerous than anyone else in this world.The media sensationalizes cases in which people who have committed horrific crimes (e.g. drowning kids in the tub) or acted impulsively or "crazy". The media's hype does not mean that these actions are typical of someone with bipolar disorder.

People with bipolar disorder need to "get over it"; it's in their head.

Bipolar Disorder is a medical disease, just like cancer, diabetes, or high cholesterol. It is not just "in your head," and you cannot "just get over it." You wouldn't tell someone with HIV or liver failure to get over it, would you? It's no different with mental illness. Pharmacotherapy (drug treatment) is necessary for controlling this disease, and psychotherapy is recommended to help people learn to live with it. Believe me, if people could just turn it on and off, they would be thrilled to do so.

You have bipolar disorder because you're not right with God and you don't go to church.

See above. You cannot "pray" away mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. Having an illness like this does not make someone a bad person, nor does it make them lazy, uncaring, forsaken, or anything else. It is a fact of their lives, and they push forward with it and make the best out of every day. By the way, that's a really horrible thing to say to someone.

So, I wanted to get some conversation going here at Arts-and-Health, and I figured I would start with bipolar disorder (also known as MDI, or manic-depressive illness). I will present it academically from a "what is it?" perspective, and then I'll talk about what it's like.

A couple of quick notes before we dive in. First, I wish they would rename the illness to be "Bipolar Disease" or "Bipolar Illness" (the latter of which many people do use) because the term "disorder" seems to indicate that there is something you can do to prevent it or make it go away. Second, you won't see me use the word "normal" to talk about people who do not have this disease, because that is a statistical term used when describing an aggregate (an entire community or population) and not one to be used to describe a human being. No one person is "normal," so let's get that out of our heads. ;)

Finally, someone who lives with bipolar disorder is not a "bipolar person"; rather, they are simply individuals who live with bipolar disorder. I cringe when I see or here "well, bipolar people do this and that. . . ." No. People living with bipolar disorder sometimes do this and that.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder impacts about 2% of the population, which, by epidemiological standards, makes it a frequently occurring disease. It is about equally present in men and in women, and it appears to be highly heritable (passed on through genes).

It is characterized by highs (manias) and lows (depressions), which usually last from weeks to months in duration. It's called "bipolar" disorder because people living with this disease fluctuate back and forth along this continuum, from one end to the other. There are two major types of bipolar disorder: Type I (which features depressions and full-blown mania) and Type II (which features "hypomania" or "little mania" and full depressions). I won't bore you with the clinical features of the disease, but you can find them here, along with a lot of other great information.

Bipolar disorder can be difficult to treat, but treatment is effective when used appropriately. The key is getting a combination of medications and psychotherapy that works for you as an individual. The "gold standard" treatment, for example, is often lithium, but not everyone can tolerate that. Other medications frequently used include anticonvulsants and atypical antipsychotics. (A note on atypicals: The word "antipsychotic" scares a lot of people, but it is not necessarily used to treat psychosis. In this case, it helps stabilize the mania and take the edge off of a manic episode.)

What's it like?

The following description is "typical" and may not pertain to you specifically. :) Remember that all conditions are very personal, and what one person may experience may be totally different from what others experience

People living with this disease often say they experience life with an unbelievable amount of passion and vibrancy. Their highs are higher than yours, though their lows are lower. They feel joy to the fullest extreme, and they tend to be extremely creative and able to get a lot of stuff done in a very little amount of time. Looking back in history, clinicians and researchers have postulated that Georg Friedrich Handel, the brilliant Baroque composer who wrote Messiah and other masterpieces in the 18th century, had bipolar disorder; he wrote the beautiful, sometimes frenetic Messiah in only 24 days!!!

But, it is not all about creativity and joy. With genius so frequently comes madness. There is such a thing as getting TOO high, TOO much joy and TOO much pleasure. You become a passive observer of your own thoughts; they fly by so quickly that you cannot even catch them. And your speech increases in a futile attempt to keep up with the thoughts; other people notice you becoming more frenetic with your speaking and the pace with which you do things. Everything speeds up, and you can't sit still because you have tons of energy that you don't know what to do with. You feel like you're crawling in your own skin. You cannot sleep, you don't need to eat, and you dwell on thoughts and obsessions. Things that should not be funny are funny-- in fact, sometimes they are hilarious. You think you have come up with some magnificent solution to your problems-- or, hell, to the Universe itself-- and you feel like you are irresistible to people. As such, you may say or do things that are completely inappropriate and lose sight of your priorities and ethics. You become impulsive and make foolish decisions.

Mania is a traumatic experience that literally harms your brain. It is often characterized by extreme irritability, where you just want to rage at everything and everyone. People associate suicidality with depression, but in truth you can be actively manic and suicidal as well. You can't stop the mania, and you just want a way out. But there is always hope. More on that in a moment.

They say what goes up must eventually come down. 

Crashing into depression is like watching your life be whisked away, leaving you with allover heaviness and despair. Everything hurts. You feel so down, so empty and worthless and horrible, that you cannot function. Any glimmer of hope seems to have vanished, and even getting out of bed in the morning becomes a struggle of monstrous proportions. There is only darkness . . . and the need for sleep or escape. Nothing matters. Absolutely nothing matters. You'd throw it all away if you could. But sleep isn't even restful; it is tortured semi-consciousness. And once again, you're irritable. You also run a risk of suicidality here (that is, suicidal thoughts, intentions, or behaviors). 

If this sounds like you and you are not already in treatment, you must get help.

Bipolar disease can be a vicious, life-draining monster . . . but it doesn't have to be. Medication is effective, though it is frequently quite expensive (one of my medicines is nearly $2,000 per month without insurance) and has significant side-effects. As just one example, lithium causes hair loss, gastrointestinal upset, and acne, and you should not get pregnant while you're on it because of the risk of birth defects in the baby. Other mood stabilizers make you dizzy and "dumb." Do you have a beautiful photographic memory? Consider it gone. And in spite of the cost and side-effects, you take the medicine for the rest of your life.

 . . . But it's better than the alternative.

But there is hope.

If you think you may have bipolar disorder, or if you are feeling like hurting yourself or someone else (I'm talking about more than just throttling your husband or that idiot who keeps causing problems in #devart :XD:), it is absolutely critical that you get help from a qualified mental health professional.

If it is an emergency, you should call the local emergency number (here in the States it is 911).

Bipolar disorder is what it is. People might say it's unfair; I don't see it that way. It just is what it is. There is no fairness when it comes to disease. People aren't being "punished." The best we can do is stay on top of it and, as a society, work to understand it better. People who stay on top of it and manage it in conjunction with a qualified mental healthcare provider can live full, healthy lives just like those without the disease.

Your turn

What would you like to hear about next? Is there anything YOU want to contribute?

Also, if you would like to contribute art about bipolar disorder or any other mental illness, please submit it to this folder:


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Astrikos's avatar
Wonderful and inspiring article. 
Thank you for bringing awareness to the community. :huggle: