Bipolar is an extremely serious disorder, and one that is often overlooked and made light of.
Oftentimes for people Bipolar is a disabling condition, making it impossible to work, look after ourselves or sometimes even get out of bed. We are bombarded with people, books and websites saying that Bipolar is a ‘highly treatable condition’, that you can certainly live a ‘normal and productive life’ and that getting a job is a great idea. This is a ridiculous blanket statement.
Part of the reason we want to write this blog (from both the sufferer and the carer’s point of view) is to show how debilitating this illness can be. We are not trying to be all ‘doom and gloom’, we are writing from our experiences.
Some people with Bipolar can work and socialise, but for those of us that can’t the information telling us we should be able to is unhelpful. It’s not encouraging, it is belittling.
It usually takes ten years between the first onset of symptoms and reaching a Bipolar diagnosis. I guess Anon got off lightly, as she was diagnosed with Bipolar after just six years since her first manic episode…still not good enough, not by a long shot.
Studies show how beneficial an early diagnosis can be, and how much better the prognosis is when a diagnosis is made early; so why does it take so long to reach?!
Most people think Bipolar is ‘feeling a bit happy, then a bit sad’…Bipolar is so much more than that. If it were that simple, wouldn’t everyone qualify as being Bipolar? Bipolar mood swings tend to last months, sometimes years, at a time. They are so intense and extreme that they have a serious impact on the person’s ability to work, live normally and cope with day-to-day events.
People often imagine mania is being extremely happy or euphoric. Whilst mania can be pleasant, especially hypomania where the impact on life is significantly less and productivity increases which can benefit work, full blown mania can be hellish.
Coping with thoughts speeding so fast you can’t speak coherently, hallucinations so ‘real’ you lose touch with reality, and boredom so intense you sit staring at a blank wall whilst thoughts buzz around your head like flies on crack. Let’s not forget about the immediate rage when somebody irritates you. It’s not fun.
Treatment for Bipolar typically begins with medication. Meds include mood stabilisers, anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. Anti-depressants should be avoided wherever possible, as they can trigger manic episodes and can encourage rapid cycling to develop.
Frequent visits with a mental health professional, CBT, information about symptoms, treatments and places to get help in an emergency should all be given / offered.
Bipolar is a life-long illness that has no cure.
Places like to spout about ‘recovery’, but there is no recovery from Bipolar. If you are lucky, there is remission. Some people find they can manage their stress and symptoms and live perfectly well; for others this is not the case.
Common Bipolar symptoms
(please remember Bipolar is different for everyone)
- Feeling extremely sad and low
- Feeling ‘numb’ to the world around you
- Sleeping a lot more than you usually would, or in some people struggling to get and stay asleep
- Loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and despair
- Feeling pessimistic about everything
- Thinking that you don’t deserve to live or that the world would be better off without you
- Feeling suicidal, or constantly thinking about death and dying
- Feeling like you are constantly on the verge of tears or crying excessively
- Delusions and psychotic symptoms
- Feeling overly happy, excitable or overjoyed
- Feeling so irritable you start arguments or fights
- Feeling like you are on top of the world, and are bursting with energy or happiness
- Spending money on expensive items or things you don’t need
- Taking risks such as sex with random people, driving over the speed limit and taking drugs
- Needing a fraction of as much sleep as you usually do (eg. two hours a night from nine hours a night)
- Talking so fast people can’t understand you or ask you to slow down
- Thoughts speeding so fast your head is a whirr, and you are jumping from one thing to another
- Forgetting to eat for days and not feeling hungry
- Paranoia, delusions, or hallucinations
– Where symptoms of mania and depression occur at the same time
Bipolar mood swings tend to last a significant amount of time, usually a number of months rather than a matter of days. Bipolar 2 involves less intense manic episodes called hypomania, which is not as severe and doesn’t impact on the sufferer’s life as much.
Suicide is a real risk to Bipolar sufferers. 20% of Bipolar sufferers will kill themselves, and the suicide rate for Bipolar disorder is around 60 times higher than the international population rate. See our suicide page for more info, myths busted and help.
A significant proportion of people also have what is known as ‘rapid cycling bipolar’, where they have more than four mood episodes a year. Rapid cycling affects around 10-20% of people with bipolar. This is not linked to phases of the menstrual cycle, contrary to popular belief.
Below are some sites, books and other things that I have found useful:
Bipolar UK – a charity dedicated to supporting those with Bipolar, or people who are caring for those with Bipolar. Offers tons of information, advice and support – you can call, email, get telephone mentoring or join an online community (you do have to give them your address for this though).
NICE Guidelines – an extremely enlightening read about how people with Bipolar should be managed and things that should be offered to them. In the seven years we have been trying to get help, there are things on that list that have NEVER happened, eg. giving the carer (or even me, the patient!) written information about Bipolar disorder and treatments, writing out a risk management / crisis plan etc.
NIMH – a more detailed and informative guide to Bipolar disorder. Overall I really like this guide…there’s one small statement I have an issue with, which is the generic ‘keep taking your medication / don’t stop without talking to your Doctor’…kinda hard to do if the meds aren’t helping, have horrific side effects but nobody will listen or agree you can come off them! The other thing I don’t like is that the side effects listed for the medications are very much downplayed.
Royal College of Psychiatrists – lots of information about symptoms of Bipolar and what it feels like. Has information for family and friends, including what to do in an emergency. It does focus heavily on Lithium. There’s also a feel that people with Bipolar ‘should’ be working, and if they aren’t they should at least be volunteering or studying.
Rethink – guide about living with Bipolar; symptoms, the diagnosis process, treatment etc.
Black Dog Institute – some good information here, and a test to see if you fit the criteria for Bipolar Disorder (please note: this is NOT a diagnosis, only a psychiatrist can diagnose you with Bipolar).
Bipolar Support – quick read answering common questions about Bipolar disorder.
Crazy Meds – really useful list of medications. You can look up any meds your psychiatrist might want to prescribe (anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, mood stabilisers etc) and this site will list all the side-effects they know, how effective the medication is for each disorder (eg. Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Depression).
Bipolar Disorder – The Ultimate Guide
By Sarah Owen & Amanda Saunders
My favourite book on Bipolar Disorder. Easy to read and easily digestible information, the book is split up into question and answer format and covers SO many topics. The only bit I found lacking was the section on medications and side-effects, but them I am overly anxious and thorough when it comes to meds and their side-effects!
I will read this book again soon and do a more detailed review 🙂
Welcome To The Jungle
By Hilary Smith
This was the first book I read about Bipolar, and I enjoyed it and found it useful. I am in the process of reading it again.
This book is mainly aimed at those newly diagnosed, and especially those who have been diagnosed at a young-ish age…late teens, early 20’s. A lot of the lingo and writing style is targeted at that age group, and sometimes it feels a bit forced, or too obvious.
“Everybody else changes their mind about what to call it, so there’s no reason why you can’t too. Don’t think “bipolar” is an accurate description of your experience? How about Chronic Sleep Taxationitis or Acute Porn Star Overidentification Syndrome?”
Regardless, it is still an easy and enjoyable read and does hold some useful information.
It can sometimes be too optimistic, or too ‘you have the power to choose whether to be ill or not’, which I never appreciate. I know some people find the positivity reassuring, but for me (having the mood patterns I do) I find it irritating and unfair.
“you’re building a cabin in the woods, but a hurricane comes through, when it’s all over you have a few measly planks of wood, a saw, & some nails. Do you set the wood on fire, step on the nails, saw off your legs & cry about it, or do you chop yourself some new wood, build a new cabin, & have a great life? Everything is up to you.”
That to me is unfair, because with Bipolar disorder you can’t just ‘choose’ to be better, or to enjoy life. Being stable / happy depends on the severity of your symptoms, how you body reacts to medications, if you have rapid cycling Bipolar, the help your area offers you medically etc etc.
The definitions of mania and depression are easy to understand, and quite detailed. They also list info from the DSM-IV.
I’ll update more once I’m done reading 🙂
An Unquiet Mind: a memoir of moods and madness
By Kay Redfield Jamison
Interesting to read, but I really didn’t like how pro-Lithium this book is. Lithium is not a magical ‘cure all’ drug…it works for some, it doesn’t work for others, and some of the side-effects are nasty. I also seem to recall I didn’t like the whole ‘Bipolar is easy to live with and you can be “normal”’ message. As above, I haven’t read it in a while, so will try read it again soon.