But you don’t seem bipolar.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say this to me. I also can’t tell you how many times people have been dismissive or incredulous about my mental illness, simply because I don’t fulfill many of their preconceived notions about bipolar individuals.
Here is a truth about me: I have a mood disorder. I was first diagnosed when I was 17 years old, and a senior in high school. I have been hospitalized, I have been medicated, and I have spent years in therapy. I am also—I would like to note—a happy and (mostly) productive member of society, with a full and fulfilling life. These things are not mutually exclusive.
Being “out” about my bipolar disorder is tricky, partially because society as a whole still demonizes mental illness, and partially because—unlike being female or a person of color—bipolar disorder is not a visible aspect of my existence. Do I wear the physical signs of a “crazy person” the way I am identifiably female and not white? No. Because of this, a lot of people tend to write off or trivialize my mental disorder as being invalid.
Here are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual:
- I suffer from mood swings, or more properly, “states”. I have manic states and depressive states, and cycle through them a few times a year.
- I am no longer medicated for my disorder.
- My family has a history of mental illness: my maternal grandfather and my maternal uncle most likely suffered from bipolar disorder (although it was undiagnosed in both). My grandfather led a rich and artistic life until he passed away from lung cancer when I was two. My uncle was an alcoholic and committed suicide.
- The severity and intensity of my mood episodes have lessened as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps I’ve become more equipped to deal with them through therapy and with the support of my family and friends. It does not, however, mean I am “cured” or that I no longer suffer (and suffer in very real and tangible ways).
- It is a very private disorder. I keep my feelings to myself. This is in part because I don’t want to contribute to the very stereotypes that plague other individuals with the disorder, but also due to the fact that those who do not suffer from mental illness simply do not understand how my manic and depressive states differ from more moderate feelings of happiness and frustration. My friends and family can provide support, but otherwise, I prefer to be left alone.
- How do I tell the difference between a manic episode and happiness, a depressive episode and sadness? In between my moods, I have a “normal” state of being. I get annoyed by little things or excited by big ones. I get sad when my feelings are hurt or pleasantly surprised by small acts of kindness. In the 11 years I’ve lived with this disorder, I’ve come to recognize JJ vs. Manic/Depressive JJ. When I am manic, I am Too Much Me. When I am depressive, I am Not Enough Me. But this revelation comes after years and years of trial and error.
These are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual. But not all bipolar individuals exhibit symptoms of their disorder in the same way, just as my experience as a woman and my experience as a person of color is not identical to every other woman of color. I do not speak for everyone with mental illness, but I can tell you about the stereotypes about bipolar disorder that are harmful to those us who live with it:
- Bipolar people are a ticking time bomb.
There is no enormous sign that says HANDLE WITH CARE. Bipolar states are not necessarily triggered by small, external factors like a work disappointment or a bad day. More often, these small external factors are like the straw that broke the camel’s back; chances are you were already approaching a state of mania or depression, and this small, external factor exacerbated a mood you were already in.
- Bipolar people are moody and sensitive.
I suppose by definition bipolar individuals are moody, but not all of us are habitually so. When I am Me (as opposed when I am either Too Much or Not Enough Me), I’m generally sanguine and easygoing. A minor frustration or setback doesn’t usually make me irritable or put me in a funk; I tend to laugh it off and move on. There are plenty of moody individuals who are not bipolar; therefore, moodiness and bipolar disorder are not one and the same.
- Bipolar people are self-destructive and lack impulse control.
I don’t deny that there is a high incidence of suicide and substance abuse comorbid with bipolar disorder. I also don’t deny that in the early stages of my disorder, I engaged in a lot of self-destructive and suicidal behavior, and felt as though I couldn’t control myself. Many undiagnosed and untreated cases of mental illness devolve into suicide and substance abuse, but correlation does not necessarily imply causation. A lot of times, people with mental illness turn to self-destructive behaviors as a way of coping with their disorder, either consciously or subconsciously, and in many of those instances, these self-destructive behaviors can be treated with medication and therapy.The thing about impulse control though—I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but as someone who considers herself a person with a large amount of willpower, Sitzfleisch*, and self-discipline, sometimes I feel as though certain behaviors are beyond my control. Sometimes, in either my manic or depressive states, I find myself doing things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and can’t for the love of God figure out why I can’t stop. Or why I can’t start. Most of these behaviors are small: I can’t make my bed (and my make my bed every day, thank you very much), I can’t respond to an email, I’m smoking cigarettes again, I can’t bear to face people I know and love, I can’t do anything but sit in front of my computer and obsessively read 70 million articles about the history of pantaloons. Sometimes I honestly can’t get up out of bed and face the prospect of eating. Or working. Or existing. I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles. With some things, I can wrest back control. With others, I can’t. But again, this is something I’ve learned to live with over time.
I have to note too, that when I am Me, I know the difference between “I just don’t feel like it” and “I cannot”. Sometimes I feel like a lazy slob. But then I usually kick myself in the butt and get it done. Sometimes I feel like a gross person and eat an entire can of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Pringles in one sitting. But then I shrug it off and go back to my normal routine. That’s “I don’t feel like it”, or the occasional indulgence. These things are normal, and even good from time to time. And then there is “I cannot”. I am not hungry, but I cannot stop eating. I am hungry but I cannot bring myself to eat. I am desperately lonely but I cannot bear human contact. These are the “I cannots”. They are very different from the “I don’t feel like its” and that’s where the issue of “impulse control” can become very fuzzy with people with mental illness.
- Bipolar people are artists, magical, tortured, misunderstood, etc.
As with suicidal tendencies and substance abuse, there is also a strong correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity. There is a strong artistic streak in my own family; my grandfather was a painter, my uncle was a poet. I dabble in art and writing and music. But that in itself doesn’t indicate bipolar disorder; there are plenty of artists, musicians, and writers who do not have mental illness.But what I loathe in portrayals of bipolar people is this tendency to turn them into Manic Pixie Dream Creatures. Certainly manic episodes can come with increased creative output or productivity, as well as impulsive and reckless behaviors. In my own manic states, I have been described as being mercurial, tricksy, coy, a “free spirit”, eccentric, etc. As with some depressive states, in my manic ones, there are a lot of instances of “I cannot”, but sometimes, it comes with “I can and I WILL”. I can do this extreme thing because I can, so I WILL. It’s not to impress anyone, and it’s absolutely not to make anyone think I’m this otherworldly fairy put on this earth to change your life. In this case, it is compulsion rather than lack of impulse control that I feel is beyond me. For me, a manic state feels like there’s an external force pulling at me, pushing me, and I’m just swept along in the current. Swimming upstream is hard.
- Bipolar people are “crazy”.This one is a little harder to unpack. “Crazy” is a loaded word, and it’s also a word that is so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless. But in everyday parlance, “crazy” is often a word lobbed at young women who act in ways that go against the grain of society. I hate that word. I hate how unspecific it is. I hate how dismissive it can be of the complex and varied existence of those living with mental illness. I also hate how it seems to be almost exclusively applied to young women, whereas young men are “troubled” or “tortured” or “misunderstood.”
What is “crazy”? In nearly every context I’ve heard that word applied to someone, the person saying it usually means “she’s acting in ways that are contrary to my interests”. I don’t deny that manic or mixed states often cause me to act in ways that are irrational and unreasonable, and that I’m not exactly the easiest person to be around. And certainly many people who have mental illness can suffer delusions. (I have.) But “crazy” is thrown around so lightly these days that it’s become a dismissive slur.
People living with mental illness can be unreasonable, irrational, and delusional. They can also make poor or selfish decisions. But that is not exclusive to people with mental illness; everyone can be “crazy”. Bipolar people are not this way ALL THE TIME, nor are they always this way when not on meds.
The other day I was out with a new-ish friend of mine and I casually mentioned my bipolar disorder.
“You’re not bipolar,” he said.
“How would you know?” I asked.
“You don’t seem bipolar. You’re not nuts.”
“And I suppose you would know.”
The truth was, he didn’t know. He made assumptions based on the stereotypes that exist. He assumed that because I wasn’t a “constant emotional wreck” and that I didn’t have a mental illness.
“How do you function without meds?” he asked. “I know bipolar people, and when they’re off, they go off the deep end.”
“You’ve never seen me on meds,” I replied.
“That’s true,” he said. And he got thoughtful. “Funny. Would never have thought that about you. But you don’t always know everything about people.”
Medication is something of a tricky subject for me. Many people need medication. And when I was first diagnosed, I was placed on a pill regimen. (Diagnosis is tricky—I was initially diagnosed as clinically depressed, then they thought I also had an anxiety disorder, or perhaps OCD, and even potentially ADHD. It was only after two psychiatrists and four different therapists that I got a proper diagnosis.) I disliked it. Later I would describe it to my therapist as feeling like I was never myself. I felt like a robot or an automaton, or another thing that went about its business and routine with no passion or intensity. I disliked it. I would have hated it, if I could feel.
Fortunately for me, I had a therapist who worked with me. We worked on a lot of different exercises, including writing down what I felt in a journal, and then reading back to recognize the patterns in my manic, normal, and depressed states. Then I learned to recognize when I was in those states. And then I learned how to live with them.
This approach doesn’t work for everyone. It works for me. For me, there is power in naming something and recognizing it for what it is. And just like everything else in this complicated world we live in, there isn’t a unilateral treatment for mental illness. I was lucky; my parents were incredibly supportive and helped me find the treatment that worked for me. Each bipolar individual is different. I’m just one.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you include a bipolar character in your work: the disorder often manifests itself in late teenage years. I was 17 when I was diagnosed. This is possibly THE WORST TIME in life to be diagnosed—in addition to the trainwreck that is puberty (or maybe that’s just me) and hormones going wild, you have mental illness fucking up your shit.
BUT. It doesn’t define your life. Or at least it didn’t define mine. I had to learn how to modify my life to accommodate it. I had to miss 2 months of school, and I eventually had to drop physics. (Boo hoo.) This was a huge blow to my pride; I was always a good student, and moreover, I was always at the top of the academic pyramid. But I couldn’t continue living the way I had with my disorder, so I made compromises. In between manic and depressive episodes I was still me. I was still silly, fangirlish, serious, and thoughtful; I still participated in activities that were important to me: visual arts, creative writing, and piano. Sometimes I couldn’t manage the things I loved. Sometimes I could. Being bipolar didn’t overtake my life. And it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines your character either.
*Sitzfleisch: German, noun. The ability to sit through something boring. Lit. “sitting-flesh”. This is one of my favorite German compound nouns.